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.

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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