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Read this before you toss your nutty business idea aside.
While visiting Las Vegas in 2004, auto-dealership fleet manager Rico Elmore decided he needed some stylish sunglasses for his honeymoon. Elmore is six-foot-three, weighs 300-pounds and has a head to match, so finding shades that fit proved a struggle.
I must have tried on 300 pairs and literally found nothing that fit,” recalls Elmore, 36. “I walked out and said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I decided to make sunglasses for people like me with fat heads.” Elmore’s company, Fatheadz, now sells “full-figure” glasses, for $28 to $54 a pair, and is on track to hit $2 million in sales this year–up from $700,000 in 2009.
Have a nutty business idea and need some inspiration to pull it off? We went looking for small companies that generate at least $1 million in annual revenue in unexpected ways. Look hard enough and they are legion.
Like many entrepreneurs, Elmore had a good idea but needed a little luck, too. Back in Brownsburg, Ind., after his honeymoon, he worked up a basic design for his super-wide specs. He hired a product-engineering company to make the molds and a contract manufacturer to crank out the frames and temple arms; he assembled the glasses at home during the evenings after work. Elmore tried patenting his discovery, but lawyers told him he could only patent the design of the glasses, not their size. Sales were a trickle.
Luck struck about a year later when an Indianapolis Star reporter called to interview Elmore about his friend, Rupert Boneham, the gentle-giant star of CBS’ Survivor series. She mentioned Fatheadz in the article.
The ripples eventually reached a top Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMTNews) executive, who ordered 300 pairs in three styles as a trial run. By 2008 Elmore’s glasses were in 3,000 Wal-Marts and Sam’s Club stores. Elmore also happened to know an equipment manager with the Indianapolis Colts; soon the players were sporting Fatheadz rims. (Elmore has no promotional deal with the NFL, but he says it’s on his to-do list.) Now with a full-time staff of 10, Elmore plans to launch a new line for women–under a different name, of course.
Here are a few more highlights from our search for million-dollar businesses you’ve never heard of:
Geese Police
dc.jpg Courtesy of Geese Police
Howell, N.J.
Entrepreneur: Dave Marcks
Product/Service: Geese abatement using collies
Start Date: 1987
Startup Costs: About $3,000
Revenue: Estimated $2.5 million in 2010
Every Roadrunner has his Wile E. Coyote, and for golf-course superintendent Marcks, geese were the mortal enemy. Their incessant droppings vexed golfers and “fowled” water hazards, and he couldn’t get rid of them. Then he discovered that border collies–an intelligent and persistent dog breed–are great at banishing the big birds for good. His elite force now includes 33 animals.
Texas Driving Experience
dc.jpg Courtesy of Texas Driving Experience
Ft. Worth, Texas
Entrepreneur: Dawn Stokes
Product/Service: High-performance driving lessons and retreats
Start Date: 2004
Startup Costs: About $500,000
Revenue: Estimated $1.8 million in 2010
Stokes never outgrew the driving thrills she got from her first car–a ’63 Chevrolet Monza Corvair convertible–and she knew she had plenty of suppressed company. So the medical-products saleswoman cashed in her 401(k) to buy 10 Corvettes and start a racing school, hosted at local tracks. Stokes found a mother lode in the corporate-team-building market. “It fits well with sales vernacular,” she says–as in, “racing toward the end of the year.”
Mabel’s Labels
dc.jpg Courtesy of Mabel’s Labels
Hamilton, Ontario
Entrepreneur: Julie Cole
Product/Service: Personalized, permanent labels for kids’ stuff.
Start Date: 2002
Startup Costs: About $10,000
Revenue: $4 million in 2009
Moms hate it when their kids lose jackets at school or mix up sippy cups at play dates. Four Canadian career Moms hit upon a solution: durable, kid-proof labels. It took years to certify that their products were dishwasher- and microwave-safe. Now the line includes shoe labels, metal bag tags, ID wristbands and Allergy Alerts labels.
Stave Puzzles
dc.jpg Courtesy of Stave Puzzles
Norwich, Vt.
Entrepreneur: Steve Richardson
Product/Service: Hand-made wooden jigsaw puzzles.
Start Date: 1974
Startup Costs: About $5,000.
Revenue: $2.5 million in 2009
Ranging in price from $125 to $5,000, these puzzles are made of cherry wood, covered with a dry-mounted image drawn by one of 100 licensed artists, and individually hand-cut into as many as 2,500 pieces. Bill Gates has one, and Barbara Bush gave another as a gift to Queen Elizabeth. “We try to make them hard to put together,” said Richardson, 71, who calls himself the company’s chief tormentor.
PetRelocation.com
dc.jpg Courtesy of PetRelocation.com
Austin, Texas
Entrepreneur: Kevin O’Brien and Angie O’Brien
Product/Service: Pet travel
Start Date: 2004
Startup Costs: $97,000
Revenue: Estimated $4 million in 2010
This husband-and-wife team sold a doggy day-care business to get into the pet-moving game. Initial investments included a new van, Google ads, a website and a $300 membership to IPATA, an international trade association of animal handlers. The couple claims it can move any live animal, anywhere around the world–say, a dog from Seattle to Shanghai, mole rats from South Africa to San Antonio and dart frogs from Switzerland to the U.S. It’s a turn-key service, covering airline bookings, blood tests, vet check-ups, logistics, customs and quarantine.
BlackSocks
dc.jpg Courtesy of BlackSocks
Zürich, Switzerland
Entrepreneur: Samuel Liechti
Product/Service: Sock subscriptions
Start Date: 1999
Startup Costs: $30,000
Revenue: $5 million in 2009
BlackSocks will ship you a batch of Italian-made, knee-high or calf-length cotton or cashmere/silk dress socks, automatically, several times a year, starting at $89 for nine pairs. Each new “sockscriber” receives a calculation of how much time he will save by not making sock purchases: about 12 hours every year, or three weeks in the lifetime of an average Swiss male, expected to reach age 82. Liechti brought his “sock-scription” service to the U.S. in 2005. Two years later, BlackSocks began selling subscriptions for underwear. Liechti now boasts 60,000 active customers in 74 countries. BlackSocks opened a New York office last year.
Sky Zone
dc.jpg Courtesy of Sky Zone
Las Vegas
Entrepreneur: Rick Platt
Product/Service: Arenas covered with trampolines
Start Date: 2009
Startup Costs: About $2 million
Revenue: $3 million-plus in 2009
Cover five of the six sides of a gymnasium-size room with seamless trampolines and what do you get? People bouncing off the walls with excitement. Platt’s three Sky Zones are hives of birthday parties, corporate events, three-dimensional dodge ball tournaments and rabid trampoliners willing to pay up to $12 an hour. He aims to begin franchising in 2011. “It was a wild bet,” admits Platt, 60, a former scrap-metal broker. “Some people thought the idea was ridiculous. I thought if I could pull it off, I would have something unique.”
DNA 11
dc.jpg Courtesy of DNA 11
Ottawa, Ontario
Entrepreneurs: Adrian Salamunovic and Nazim Ahmed
Product/Service: DNA artwork
Start Date: 2005
Start-up Costs: $2,000
Revenue: $1.4 million in 2009
Best friends Salamunovic and Ahmed blend science and medicine with modern art. With a simple cheek swab, they collect enough organic matter to create an image of human DNA using equipment similar to the machines Ahmed used to sell for a Canadian biotech firm. After selling a few prints to family and friends, the twosome was invited to showcase their work at an Absolut Vodka-sponsored party in Ottawa’s SOHO neighborhood. An 8″x10″ mini-DNA portrait goes for $200, while a 36″x54″ wall canvas garners $1,300. The Museum of Modern Art features DNA 11 art in its museum stores in New York and Tokyo.
Murray Associates
dc.jpg Courtesy of Murray Associates
Oldwick, N.J.
Entrepreneur: Kevin D. Murray
Product/Service: Eavesdropping detection and counterespionage
Start Date: 1978
Startup Costs: $5,000
Revenue in 2009: $760,000
Ever since taking a part-time job manning surveillance equipment for the Dennis Port, Mass., police department, Kevin Murray has been a spy buster. Businesses and governments hire him to find hidden bugs and such, which he does using sensitive thermal-imaging equipment (which picks up the heat given off by hidden sensors) to lots of plain old looking around. Murray handles about 125 cases per year, typically charging between $7,000 and $8,000 per day of inspection. Revenue dipped below $1 million in 2009 as Wall Street cut back on its anti-snooping efforts, but things are looking up this year.
The Fiero Store
dc.jpg Courtesy of The Fiero Store
Stafford Springs, Conn.
Entrepreneur: Matthew Hartzog.
Product/Service: Parts and accessories for the Pontiac Fiero
Start Date: 1991
Start-up Costs: $5,000
Revenue: $2 million in 2009
Hartzog spent his teenage summers and school breaks working for his stepfather selling parts and accessories for GM Opels. But the long-defunct, two-seat, mid-engine Fiero was where his heart lay. Approximately 370,000 Fieros rolled off the lines between 1984 and 1988 before Pontiac stopped producing the car; less than 75,000 are currently registered in the U.S. Fanatics make great customers.

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