Keys to Success

In this edition of Keys to Success, we find entrepreneurs bringing Italian red sauce, affordable mattresses and even recycled mannequins to the marketplace.

Female Entrepreneur Builds Business with Used Mannequins

The New York Times brings us the story of Judi Henderson-Townsend of Oakland Calif., who found herself in the rather unusual business of refurbishing and renting mannequins.

It all started when she wanted to buy a mannequin to put in her garden. She found a Craigslist ad from a man selling 50 of them.

“And he says, ‘Now that I’m leaving the state, there won’t be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay Area,” she said. “I had one of those Oprah ‘aha’ moments.”

For $2,500, she got his collection. And she talked big-name stores — including Sears and Kohl’s — into selling or unloading used ones, which she recycles to rent to smaller stores, or anyone who just needs a mannequin. The EPA even gave her an award for recycling the nonbiodegradable figures, more than 100,000 pounds in a year.

Henderson-Townsend expanded the business to a warehouse, hired a controller to help with the revenue numbers and aimed to build a network of mannequin suppliers — the “F.T.D. of mannequins.” She’s also looking to develop a protective cover for mannequins for storage or transport.

Her yearly revenue has topped $500,000 in her 15 years of Mannequin Madness, but she hasn’t yet reached $800,000. She has her eyes set on the $1 million mark.

“Most women businesses, and particularly most minority women business owners, don’t ever get to that target,” she said. “I want to show that it’s possible.”

College Students Find Inspiration in a Bad Shopping Experience

CNN Money features an up-and-coming mattress company called Tuft & Needle, based in Phoenix.

Two college friends, John-Thomas Marino and Daehee Park, got the company off the ground. The idea came after Marino had a “terrible experience” buying a memory foam mattress.

The duo dug into the industry, and say that they found many mattress prices to be bloated for overhead, advertising and sales commissions. Prices, they say, reach 1,000 percent of the production cost.

So they make it plain on their chic company website: “Sleep on a good mattress without unfair markups or gimmicks.” Mattress prices start at $199 for a twin-size mattress, and go up to $499 for a king-size.

Another product difference — according to Marino, mattress thickness doesn’t equal comfort. Tuft & Needle’s 5-inch mattress is more comfortable than most, he says.

The company began selling the product in 2012, and on Amazon last year, where the mattresses reached a top ranking for customer reviews.

Sales have grown to more than $1 million after just a year in the business, CNN Money says. And the company, with 10 employees in customer service scattered across the country, had a modern, startup-style champagne celebration when they earned the top-review honor on Amazon.

“We all got on a Skype call and tapped our glasses to the screen,” Marino says.

Husband and Wife Grow Pizzeria Into Lucrative Business

The New York Times recently featured a New Jersey pizzeria owner, Carlos Vega, who debated continuing in the restaurant business or getting out and selling his red sauce instead. He chose the latter, but took a full-time job with Whole Foods while getting his new endeavor, called Jersey Italian Gravy, off the ground.

Among the challenges Vega faced: getting the name approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and expanding from a 40-quart pot to a 500-gallon kettle to cook the sauce. Vega says he worked with Cornell University “on a process for scaling our recipe,” with four test batches that cost $2,500 each.

Vega and his wife Constance fit the “hands-on” bill. He describes a day at the packing plant in Port Jervis, N.Y., this way: “My wife and I get there at 6 o’clock in the morning. We supervise everything, from the chopping of the vegetables to labeling the jars. We’ll stay the whole day. We don’t leave until everything is in the jar, sealed and on the pallet. We’ve done that every single run, and we will continue to do that no matter how big we get.”

The sauce is available in about 150 stores, Vega says, including an exclusive sauce made for Whole Foods in Brooklyn. Vega is also aiming to get a reality TV show off the ground.

So how does he do all this in addition to having a full-time job?

“I come home, have dinner with the family, put the kids to bed, and then work on the sauce business answering emails, fulfilling orders and trying to get new sales,” he says. “While I’m at Whole Foods, my wife Constance is running the business — contacting customers, doing demos at stores. She’s a very big part of this venture.”