She Got Rich Doing What?

Custom-sewn backdrops for megawatt rock shows. Sleek, fashion-friendly fanny packs for fitness enthusiasts. Skin creams cooked up in the family basement. Here, women who turned their interests into big-money businesses. Where will your passions take you? Read, learn and earn

by Amanda Robb
megan duckett image
Megan Duckett stitched together her love of rock and roll and her talent with a sewing machine to launch what is now a dream business.
Photograph: Chris Buck

What she does: Makes theater backdrop and props
What her business brought in: $6.9 million

Megan Duckett always loved the stage. Growing up in Australia, she performed as a dancer, cellist and singer. When she got to high school and had to do a “work-experience program” for two weeks, she applied to theaters and was accepted by Melbourne’s Victorian Arts Centre. But not to perform—to take care of the lighting. “In those 10 days, I became absolutely hooked on the technical side of theater,” she says.

After graduating from high school, Duckett decided against college and started working as a freelance lighting technician. “I worked very hard: a day shift here, a night shift there, loading out at 3 in the morning,” she says. She picked up occasional jobs for bands on tour and loved it, so at age 19 she moved to the U.S. to specialize in rock and roll. Through contacts she’d made with bands visiting Australia, she got work right away. She lived on cigarettes and peanut butter, and once even made her home on a band bus. Then, in 1992, when she was 21, she got a request from a company that provided Halloween-type supplies to the entertainment industry: dress up 10 coffins to look like Dracula beds for a haunted house.

The only problem? Duckett didn’t know how to sew. “I wasn’t even interested,” she says. “But there was $100 per coffin on the table if I did it, and there were 10 coffins! So I rented a sewing machine for $75. I got myself a staple gun and a glue gun. Then I bought these silks and satins, and I created glamorous coffins and netted about $500.”

The coffins were a huge hit, which started Duckett on what she first called her kitchen business and then, as it grew, her living-room-floor business: doing odd crafts projects for friends and clients who just seemed to find her. By then, Duckett had given up rock shows and was working in event planning. But she spent her weekends making costumes for children, crib sets for infants, window draperies, textile stage props for local theaters and even Christmas table linens. One night in 1997, the year after she married Adam Duckett, a roadie for Van Halen and Depeche Mode, the couple were doing their taxes. “Adam said, ‘Well, this is nuts!’ ” she remembers. “ ‘You made more money with your weekender than you did at your day job.’ ” Sure enough, Duckett’s records showed that she’d earned about $40,000 at her day job and slightly more on her crafts.

Duckett quit the events company. A month later, she incorporated Sew What? (sewwhatinc.com) and started working out of the cheapest space she could rent—a $1,000-per-month warehouse at the Torrance Airport, about 12 miles from her home in Redondo Beach, California. On big projects she hired friends as temporary assistants. “We made a little profit off every job, and I used that money to invest in the business and live,” Duckett says. “I didn’t know that most people get bank loans, investors or equity partners. It’s been self-funded, organic growth, which gave me a lot of freedom.”

In 2002 her husband became the CFO of Sew What?, and the company’s projects have steadily grown bigger and more complex; they include fabric chandeliers for a New Year’s Eve party at the Las Vegas Mirage Hotel/Casino, the world’s largest beach towel (at the time) for a Nabisco promotion and an enormous backdrop of the Stewart family tartan for a Rod Stewart concert. In 2012 her revenue was about $5.4 million.

But she says her business has changed over the past few years. “We don’t talk about a bad economy, but we do talk about new buyer behavior,” she says. “A lot of buyers now wait until the last minute. They shop around more. They are more price conscious.” So Duckett opened a business called Rent What?, which she now co-owns with her husband. “We keep an inventory of commonly used items, such as black stage drapes, to rent out,” she says. In 2012, Rent What? brought in $1.5 million.

Today, Sew What? and Rent What? together employ about 35 people. But Duckett does not spend all her time supervising and sewing. In 2010, shortly after she turned 40, she decided to return to her first love, performing. She is now the lead singer for a rock band, Without Warning. “I never really even considered owning a business,” she says. “Then I came here, and suddenly I started doing it. What is best is that I’m doing it in an industry I love.”

What she does: Makes beauty creams and hair products
What her business brought in: $35 million

While other young people in the ’80s were skateboarding and playing Atari, Lisa Price was making fragrances. “I had heard that Prince would custom blend his own scents,” she says. “That became my inspiration.” By the time she was in her early twenties, Price was mixing oils and scents into lotions and creams and puzzling out how to keep her compounds stable. In 1991, the year she got married, she was working on body butters. Just as other women might make presents of cookies, Price would give her products to friends and family. One day her mom, Carol, suggested that Price try to sell the products at the weekend flea market held at a church near their home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

“I really looked at that first flea market in 1993 as a day out with my family,” Price says now. “At the time, my uncle was making and selling T-shirts. A cousin was on strike from her job with the phone company, and she was selling silk floral arrangements.” But then Price, who worked as a freelance television production assistant, sold all her butters. She’d made about $20 more than her initial investment of $100, so she decided to mix another batch for an upcoming crafts fair.

Through the summer, Price kept selling her products, rolling the money she made back into the business. When the weather turned colder, she invited people into her home to buy her quickly expanding line, which she named Carol’s Daughter (carolsdaughter.com). Her customers were enthusiastic about her body products, but they were begging for help with their hair. “In the early 1990s, some African-American women decided to stop relaxing their hair and go natural,” Price says. “And they needed products to deal with this new hair.” Price experimented with different recipes, then did her own form of testing. “I’d send samples to hairdressers I knew, to try out on themselves and their friends,” she remembers. “They’d say, ‘Oh, could be a little bit more moisturizing.’ Or ‘Less oil.’”

The business grew steadily for three years. When Price gave birth to her first child, in 1996, her line was making enough money that she could afford to leave her job to stay home with her son (her husband also works in television). Then, in 1997, when Price was in the hospital giving birth to her second son, an article about her products appeared in Essence. “My husband told me, ‘The phone has really been ringing a lot,’” she says. “I checked the messages. There were 67 new ones! It got to the point where we had to tag team each other every two hours to check the machine.” In two weeks, the company’s mailing list went from about 1,500 customers to 6,000. The next year, Price began to pay herself a salary and hire her first employees, and by the end of 1999, the company was bringing in about $1 million in sales.

It sounds magical, but Price says the rapid growth was a nightmare. “We were producing more than 1,000 products, which is insane,” she says. “We were operating without sales data, and I was afraid to take away something a customer might want. And we were making everything ourselves in our own basement. Seriously.” In 1999, Price and her husband emptied their savings account to finance a $3,500-a-month lease on a storefront in Brooklyn. Price didn’t move production to a warehouse facility until 2002, shortly after she appeared on Oprah.

Though Carol’s Daughter had become bigger than Price ever dreamed, by industry standards it was still a small, indie beauty brand. She wanted to make it major, and just when she thought she’d never figure out how, Price got a call from Steve Stoute, best known for producing albums by U2, Eve and Eminem. Stoute had a lot of friends who used Carol’s Daughter products, and many of them traveled to the Brooklyn store to purchase them. Price remembers that Stoute was incredulous. “He said to his friends, ‘You go all the way to Brooklyn to buy that stuff?’ ” she says.

In 2004, Stoute and Price became partners. The next year, they put together a group of celebrity investors, including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z. Today the line, pared down to 75 products, is carried in the company’s seven retail stores around the country, as well as at Sephora, Dillard’s and Macy’s; it’s also sold on HSN and on military bases. This spring the company opened its first salons, called Mirror—The Hair Salon at Carol’s Daughter, in Harlem and Atlanta. In 2012, revenue was $35 million.

Price, who has just turned 51, thinks there are many keys to being a successful entrepreneur. First are traits you always hear about, like passion, tenacity and hard work. But there is another that has been essential to her success: openness to change. “You’re always growing,” she says. “It’s not that you’re not satisfied and that you’re not proud of what you accomplish. You take that moment to say, ‘That was great.’ But then it is, ‘What’s next?’ Because if you stand still too long, you get run over.”

What She Does: Makes “Personal Item” Exercise Belts
What Her Business Brought In: $4.8 Million

In her twenties, Kim Overton was living in New York, tending bar while she studied jazz vocal performance, when a friend at one of the joints where she worked got her into website development. Very quickly, Overton started earning more than twice as much as she had mixing drinks. In 1998 she cofounded her own tech/Web company, and about a year later, a huge advertising company recruited her, with an annual salary of about $90,000. But then came the terrorist attacks of September 11. “I was riding my bike over the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center,” Overton says. “It was a big, life-­changing experience. All of a sudden, there was nothing in my heart that ­really loved developing websites.”

Laid off a few months later as New York’s economy struggled, Overton found that only one thing lifted her spirits: exercise. “Staying in shape was a passion of mine,” she says. “But when my roommate suggested I become a personal trainer, I dismissed it as a joke.” As Overton’s unemployment benefits ran out, however, she had no choice. “I gave it a shot,” she says. “It was humbling. I made $8 an hour when I was first hired at a gym. But I would chat with people, and I was a natural. I very quickly started making around $75 a session.”

A few years later—after an adventure abroad and a broken engagement—Overton returned to her home state of Texas. There she got another lesson in humility. “I was 35, had only $5,000 in savings, was living with my grandparents in Austin and was starting at the bottom at another gym,” she says. But again she quickly built a large customer base. She launched a website and produced a DVD called Love Your Legs.

One Sunday, Overton was out on a run, dreaming up ways to promote her DVD, when her car key, which she’d stuck in her bra top, began irritating her skin. “I thought, Gosh, I need a little belt to hold my keys,” she says. “From the trail I went to the hobby store. I spent about $30 and got materials. I handsewed a few belts and wore one to the gym that Monday. My clients were like, ‘That’s cool! What is that?’”

Overton hadn’t named her product yet. It was like a fanny pack but narrower, slender enough to fit through belt loops but expandable enough to hold a cell phone, keys and money. Overton polled her clients for ideas on what to call it and how much to charge and settled on SPIbelt, short for Small Personal Item belt, and $20. After creating 10 prototypes by hand, she spent $100 on a sewing machine, which she set up on a table in her grandmother’s house. Just a few months later, in January 2007, a client introduced her to the owner of a running store, who asked if she could make 500 SPIbelts before the Austin marathon.

“Of course!” Overton answered.

The store owner sold 150 belts at the race—pulling in $1,500 for Overton. She quit her job and started attending trade shows, steadily accumulating orders and, with the profit, hiring sales reps. Today, SPIbelts are staples at America’s biggest sporting-goods retailers, including REI and Eastern Mountain Sports. In 2007, SPIbelt’s first year of operations, Overton grossed $150,000. In 2012 that number was $4.8 million, putting SPIbelt on Inc.’s list of America’s 500 fastest-growing companies. “I did not bring on outside investors, and I did not take on debt,” she says. “I moved the work out of my home to a 3,100-square-foot office space, and I have about 15 employees, depending on the season. But I still help design the products.”

Three years ago, when Overton was 39, she became a single parent when she gave birth to her son, Dylan. “This business has been a blessing,” she says. “I am grateful on a daily basis. It has allowed me to do the one thing I always wanted: be a mom.”

What she does: Runs a chain of swim schools
What her business brought in: $1 million

As a girl in England, Rita Goldberg was a nationally ranked swimmer, but back then it didn’t occur to her that she could turn that passion into a business. At 32, she agreed to teach a swim class at a Manchester pool only because it wouldn’t interfere with her responsibilities as a wife and mother. “But I got back in shape, and I loved it,” Goldberg says. After earning her teaching certificate, Goldberg was tapped for a position with the Manchester Education ­Department—a job she found satisfying until she visited an acquaintance at the house he’d bought in the country. “He’d installed a pool in his home’s garage and started giving lessons,” Goldberg remembers. She peered at the chlorinated water and had an epiphany. “I knew just what I wanted: to open a real swim school.”

She went home and told her husband, who worked selling window shades and draperies. “He was having a terrible time of it because England was in a horrible recession,” she says. “Still, he said OK.” A year-round swim school in England required an indoor pool, and the only way Goldberg could afford to build one was by selling her family’s home. So she did. “I found the perfect spot for the school: a derelict three-story Victorian big enough for my family to live and with a basement big enough for a pool,” she says. That place cost every penny she’d made from the sale of her house—and she still needed a loan for renovations. Every local bank turned her down.

Then Goldberg heard about a TV show called Enterprise 80. “You had to submit business plans and explain why you should be given money,” she says. “I made the top 20—and for that I got a loan guarantee of £10,000,” which would be roughly $70,000 today. The school opened on a snowy March day with 120 children. Goldberg taught what was then a new and surprising concept: that toddlers could be trained to float on their backs if they got into trouble in the water. “We grossed about $60,000 that first year,” she says. “The next year we doubled that, and for the next decade we earned about $250,000 a year. I’m still extremely proud of that business. It changed me. I had never been without confidence, but after making that business work, I had a lot more of it. I could make decisions, then deal with their consequences.”

In 1991, Goldberg filed for divorce. “We’d been together many years, and our time was over,” she says. She walked away from the business, which she co-owned with her husband, and moved in with her sister in Miami. “I put an ocean between me and my entire past,” Goldberg says. “I had less than $3,000. You know . . . women, guilt. I don’t know why we do these things to ourselves. But I did.” With no means of buying or building a pool, Goldberg knocked on doors at fitness centers in southern Florida, offering to teach her technique in their pools. A club in Coral Springs said yes, charging her 10 percent of her gross for the use of their facility, and in February 1992 she opened the British Swim School (britishswimschool.com) with 17 pupils.

Then, through friends of friends, Goldberg met two investors, and in 1995 they put down $200,000 to build a pool in a shopping center. In its first year, the school grossed $250,000, and the group decided to open a second site. But as they were about to break ground, disagreements exploded, and the investors pulled out. “I had contractors and builders on their way,” Goldberg recalls. “So I paid for everything with some savings and credit cards—$60,000.”

She paid off her debt within 12 months. And exactly 20 years after she opened her first British Swim School in the U.S., she began franchising her business. Today she owns four indoor schools in Florida and 13 franchises in four states. The four schools that Goldberg owns outright earned about $1 million in 2012. “Young people who love to teach don’t know that there is a way to own a swim school in which you can make a very nice living,” Goldberg says. “I’m very glad I worked so hard to get from a swimsuit to a business suit!”

Amanda Robb's most recent story for More was "Illness Changes Everything” in April.

Next: How to Bust Your Rut

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First Published Mon, 2013-06-10 10:23

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