Reinventing the cardboard box? Breaking into the multibillion-dollar toy industry? It couldn’t be done. That’s what people told Paul Isbell and Sean Turnan of Capital Financial Investment Partners LLC.
But they couldn’t let their "big idea" go. With financial backing from fellow financial services professional Bill Pock, they launched Crafty Kids Playhouses in March.
“We were downsizing our financial investment office and moving to a smaller space,” Isbell said, explaining the origins of their idea. “We had tons of boxes. One weekend, we had our kids with us, and they just couldn’t leave those boxes alone. It was, ‘Dad, tape this or cut that. ...’ When they were still playing with the boxes a couple of weeks later, the light bulb went off.”
The two set out to create a better box for children to play in -- one designed with windows and doors -- where children’s imagination could soar.
“We thought it would be a side venture to make some money and raise funds for children’s charities,” said Isbell, the president of Crafty Kids. “We researched similar products on the Internet, ordered them and then proceeded to shoot holes in them so that we could make something better.”
In talking to toy store owners, they learned that "going green" was an important trend.
“We decided from the beginning that our product would be made in the USA from 100 percent recycled materials,” said Sean Turnan, the vice president of Crafty Kids. “People told us to compromise, in order to keep the cost down, but we believed in being eco-friendly, and it helped set us apart.”
It took awhile to find the right U.S. manufacturer who would help them design and redesign the first cottage and space shuttle products. Child-development research convinced them that white was the best color for the boxes because children could color or paint their own designs. With eight children between them, product-testing was no problem. They understood the financial aspects of starting a business, but they sought professional help with marketing and distribution.
Today, the company has playhouses in more than 60 stores across the U.S., including Neiman Marcus, and has garnered prestigious parenting and teacher association awards. A portion of the profits go to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other nonprofit organizations.
The journey of taking the idea from start to finish has been most satisfying for Turnan.
“Seeing stores pop up on the map in our office is fun," he said. "We just added a toy store in Alaska.”
The side venture has almost become a full-time job, Isbell said. His advice for other entrepreneurs is to “be persistent” and “to keep refining your big idea through market research.”
Market research led to the founding of VocationVacations in 2004. The Oregon-based company lets people test-drive their dream jobs through short-term, one-on-one mentoring and coaching experiences.
“About half of our clients want to own their own business, and about half of our mentors are sole proprietors,” said Brian Kurth, VocationVacations' founder.
A rainy, bumper-to-bumper commute to his job at Ameritech Corp. led to Kurth's career-changing idea.
“I didn’t hate my job, but I didn’t have a passion for it," Kurth said. "What I really wanted to be was a tour director, a marketer for fine wine or the owner of a doggie day care business.”
He did an Internet search for adult internships but found no short-term opportunities.
“So I started creating my own by finding mentors who were doing my dream jobs," he said. "A friend asked if I could put him in a brewery to learn the business. I did, so a company was born. I love helping people change their lives.”
His clients come to him with their dream job ideas. He puts them with a mentor for one to three days to learn the realities (The cost ranges from $649 to $1,800.); he then counsels them afterward on their next steps.
“Many clients fold a vocational test-drive into their vacations so their boss doesn’t have to know,” he said.
He’s seen former “vocationers” start organic bakeries or become travel writers, for instance.
“It doesn’t happen over night. Sometimes the first step is to go back to school to learn technical skills," Kurth said. "One client has an engineering degree, but he’s taking classes to become an animator.”
For business startups, he recommends fleshing out a business plan with the help of professionals. SCORE is a nonprofit organization that offers free mentoring/coaching to small businesses from offices all over the country and online at http://www.score.org. (For Georgia’s Small Business Development Center Network, see www.georgiasbdc.org.)
“You can find short-term workshops or classes at entrepreneurship centers at many colleges and universities," Kurth said. "Run, don’t walk to get help with your business plan.”
He also advises career-changers to seek out additional mentors close to home and people who believe in their business or career idea.
“Surround yourself with cheerleaders -- not ‘yes men,' but ‘nudgers’ who will offer constructive criticism and hold you accountable to moving forward,” he said.
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