Quirky One-Product Companies How cocktail sugar and unicycles make for lucrative businesses
John Drummond and Edmundo Macias have never met, but they have alot in common. They live across the country from each other andhave different professional backgrounds, but they both quit theircomfortable corporate jobs at 40 to start quirky, one-productbusinesses.
Drummond, who lives near Atlanta, sells unicycles over theInternet at Unicycle.com. Macias' Los Angeles-based company,Planet Sugar, sells Cocktail Candy, colorful, flavored sugars usedto decorate the rim of a cocktail glass. Both entrepreneurs arehaving fun and making money, with no regrets. "I worked forAnheuser-Busch for 16 years," said Macias. "When I quitmy job last September, my co-workers all thought I wasnuts."
While Drummond's job at IBM had nothing to do withrecreational cycling, Macias' experience as a brand managerprepared him for developing and launching a unique product. He knewthe beer industry and was comfortable promoting adult beverages. Hesaid the idea for Cocktail Candy hit him during a visit to a SanAntonio company that was developing a lime-flavored salt to enhancethe flavor of Tequiza, a new beer spiked with tequila that Maciaswas promoting for Anheuser-Busch. "I asked if they were makingflavored sugars, and they weren't," he recalled. "Iasked them to make samples for all the flavors I wanted. They keptmaking and sending samples until it was right."
Macias, who quit his job in September, cashed in stocks andsavings to invest about $80,000 in launching Cocktail Candy. Hesells four ounces of the flavored sugars in flat, round tins thatretail for $13 each. Each tin comes with a thin sponge to dampenthe rim of the glass, and the lids feature a quirky, 1950s-stylebar scene based on each flavor.
Macias said he found the perfect illustrator for the tins'labels when he was flipping through an art book featuring the workof Josh Agle, a Southern California artist known as"Shag." Macias said Agle was reluctant to design thelabels, but Macias sold him on the product. "I did the labelsbecause I thought it was both a unique product, one that wouldinterest me even if I hadn't worked with the company, andbecause it fit so nicely into the little world I'm trying todepict with my art," said Shag. "Almost all my paintingsare set in lounges, bachelor pads or jet-set destinations, and theyfeature a lot of drinking and late-night entertaining.
Shag said the product appealed to him because "mostalcohols and mixers have been experimented with endlessly, but thisadds another element-almost any existing cocktail can be alteredand enhanced with the flavored sugars."
Shag and Macias are now discussing ways to license his designsfor Cocktail Candy-related merchandise. "I have licensed muchof my art for use on merchandise-everything from handbags andT-shirts to custom Tiki Mugs," said Shag. "Most of themerchandise is released in signed/limited-edition form and soldthrough galleries and museum gift shops." Shag's favoriteflavor? "My favorite Cocktail Candy flavor is apple--I thinkit does wonders to apple martinis."
Macias said his cocktail sugars fit right in with the trendtoward flavored martinis and trendy, flavored alcoholic drinks."The flavors I have go well with flavored martinis," saidMacias. "You can use the peach-flavored sugar for Bellinis(champagne and peach juice), raspberry goes well with aCosmopolitan, and the apple is perfect for a Sour Applemartini."
Leaving a big company means Macias now wears every hat: He worksout of his home with one part-time office assistant. He relies onhis manufacturer to ship orders directly from San Antonio. Aftertwo months, he has already found a few independent distributors tosell Cocktail Candy. His goal is to find a few commercial food andliquor distributors to sell his novelty sugars to bars, nightclubsand restaurants. He's also pitching the product to upscaleretailers like Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel and workingwith a woman who develops recipes for smoothies.
Macias, 41, also has waged a one-man grassroots marketingcampaign. Here's his strategy: He goes into a trendy bar,orders a Lemon Drop and asks the bartender to put some of hislemon-flavored sugar on the rim of the glass. Soon, patrons andwaiters are gathered around him and his cocktail, asking questionsabout the bright yellow sugar. Of course, he leaves the tin behindwith a brochure for Cocktail Candy. "It's such a funproduct," he said. "It's like Pixie Stix for bigkids."
Likewise, more than 4,000 big and small kids bought unicycleslast year from Unicycle.com, a Marietta, Georgia-based businessthat was inspired by a midlife crisis. "I hit 40 and realizedI had gained a pound a year since high school," said founderJohn Drummond. "I felt like cycling was a good way to loseweight since I was not good about sticking to a diet."
Because he had delivered newspapers on his unicycle as a kid, itdidn't take long for Drummond to get back in the saddle. Oncehe was riding again, he began visiting online chat rooms forunicyclists to get a feel for where the market was headed. "Istarted a business but hadn't intended to," said Drummond,who started selling unicycles out of his garage in 1998. Heinvested $700 in the business and relied on a small-businessprogram offered by IBM to help him create a simple Web site."I was scared to be out on my own because I'd been [atIBM] so long," said Drummond who worked for the computer giantfor 23 years. But he was encouraged when sales grew from $1,000 inApril 1999 to $9,000 the following month. Last year, sales were$455,000; Drummond predicts sales will reach $600,000 in 2001.
With help from his wife, Amy, Drummond is now supporting hisfamily and employees. The business has also brought him and histhree sons closer together: His son Casey, 12, is a championunicyclist, and Drummond has collected two gold medals in the"old-timers" class.
His advice for learning how to ride a unicycle? "Hold on toa railing so you don't fall down."
Here are some marketing tips for anyone promoting a singleproduct from Nancy Michaels, president of Concord,Massachusetts-based Impression Impact and co-author of Off-the-Wall Marketing Ideas: "Whenyou only sell one product, it's wise to hope and pray that yourproduct will always be in demand, or you'll continue to improveand reinvent it for a changing marketplace," saidMichaels.
Michaels said one-product companies actually have an easier timetargeting a niche market. "It's more cost-effective totarget a niche market than a broad market," she said."You should participate in industry trade shows and use directmail to promote your product to a specific market." Publicityremains the most cost-effective method, said Michaels, but if youcan't afford a publicist be prepared to invest a tremendousamount of time.
Michaels suggests making list of publications and radio and TVshows that would appeal to your target audience. Figure out howyour product ties in to a current trend.
Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the authorof 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. Fora free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," sendyour name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 ore-mail it to email@example.com.Sarah Prior contributed to this report.