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Follow Your Fun Looking for the next big business idea? Look no further than your own amusement.
By Adam Hunter
They work in a fantasyland. An endless carnival, with popcorn lunches and slushies for dessert. They spend hours playing make-believe in cardboard boxes and gather their friends for games all day and night. They are the fun followers, the kids of Neverland, where trivial pursuits and childhood treats never get old—and they happen to be making some grown-up money.
If you’re struggling to figure out the next killer app or world-changing invention, maybe it’s because you’re thinking like an adult. Learn from these four young entrepreneurs, and you may find inspiration from a far less complicated time: your youth.
Kernel of an Idea
Darien, Connecticut, circa 1988. Two 7-year-old girls in pajamas and pigtails push a chair against the kitchen counter, climb up, and swing open the cabinets until they find the treat they’ve been seeking—a microwavable bag of butter-flavored Jiffy Pop.
“My friend used to even lick the dud kernels at the bottom of the bowl,” Kristy Lewis, now 33, says.
In college, however, Lewis realized that her favorite snack hadn’t changed since she was a kid, even though attitudes about food had. Why didn’t anyone make organic microwave popcorn, in say, a compostable bag, free of potentially harmful chemicals? In the fall of 2010, three months of maternity leave from her job as an executive assistant gave Lewis the time to test out her idea.
Her son Quinn was born—and soon Quinn Popcorn was, too.
Between feedings and diaper changes, Lewis experimented in her kitchen with different flavorings, like sage, rosemary, and maple syrup; researched suppliers; and contacted manufacturers to commission a bag made from chemical-free paper. Her husband, Coulter, an engineer, came up with the idea of placing the flavorings and oil in separate packets, in part to prevent them from seeping through the bag. The couple posted their product on Kickstarter with a goal of raising $10,000. They raised $3,000 overnight. Eventually, 755 backers pledged nearly $30,000.
The month after returning to work, Lewis gave notice.
It was time to get her business baby on its feet, so she badgered the Whole Foods near her home in Arlington, Massachusetts, until they agreed to stock the product. “They ordered $30,000 worth in our second month, and we had to turn it down because we didn’t have enough inventory,” she says. Today, Quinn Popcorn is available in hundreds of stores nationwide and online through Amazon and Abe’s Market.
“Childhood is such a really fun time—at least mine was,” Lewis says. “I drew on those childhood sleepovers for inspiration.” She even made a butter and sea salt flavor at her pajama party friend’s request. “She’s obsessed with it.”
Lewis’ advice for following your fun? Talk to people in the industry. She and her husband reached out to Justin’s Nut Butter, Taza Chocolate, and Bear Naked, all organic food companies that had success selling to Whole Foods. “Now we get emails all the time from people asking how to pursue their ideas,” she says.
The Slushie Kings
Vancouver, British Columbia, circa 1993. Richmond High School quarterback Zack Silverman, parched from a long afternoon of football practice, has a craving that only a product from the local 7-Eleven can satisfy: a Slurpee.
“There was nothing more refreshing,” Silverman, now 35, recalls. “It was kind of like a tradition for me and my football buddies. I must have had thousands of slushies in my life.”
Years later, while billing long hours for a large corporate law firm in New York City, Silverman quickly bonded with fellow first-year attorney Alex Rein. Chained to their desks, the two began dreaming up business ideas to help them escape. Inspiration struck when Silverman mentioned his post-practice ritual. “You don’t see many lawyers bring a neon cup with a purple straw into the office,” Silverman says. “But people drink other frozen drinks. It seemed obvious: There should be a better, healthier slushie. No one else agreed with us. My wife certainly didn’t.”
In 2008, Rein was laid off from the firm, and he dedicated himself to building a slushie truck business. He and Silverman tried various recipes until they got the flavors and consistency just right.
Kelvin Natural Slush Co. officially launched in 2010, with Rein running the day-to-day operations. By the time Silverman quit the law firm two years later, the truck had won the 2010 New York’s Vendy Awards for Best Dessert, and long lines swamped their stall in Brooklyn. Now, Kelvin Slush machines can be found in 23 Whole Foods stores around the country, and the company supplies all of the frozen drinks at Madison Square Garden. His wife no longer thinks he’s so crazy.
Silverman’s advice to fellow fun followers? Go slow. “We started with a food truck before we invested tons of money. We could have tested it even cheaper,” he says. “Go someplace like your local flea market, and try to sell your product. If people don’t buy it, all you lost was a couple of weekends and the money you invested in your trial. Start small, and reevaluate until you find the right formula.”
Inside the Box
Stockholm, Sweden, the late ’70s. Little Måns Swanberg is mesmerized by the happy, colorful illustrations of his favorite books, Claymation cartoons, and his favorite toy, Lego blocks. But it’s a simple cardboard box that allows his imagination to run wild. Is it a rocket ship? A race car? He sits inside and wonders.
Swanberg, now a creative director in New York City, had a conversation two years ago that brought those fond memories rushing back. His friend suggested using cardboard to make a children’s toy. “I just thought it was a fantastic idea; cardboard is such an abundant material,” he says. The food trucks near his Brooklyn home gave the idea a shape. “It’s a shop and a car, so two toys in one,” he says. “There are so many inspiring food trucks on the streets, with fantastic artwork. There’s just loads of headroom to play around with color and typography.”
Swanberg spent 18 months developing his “Famous OTO,” a food truck playset for kids. “Normally I just draw pictures, so I had to learn about engineering, manufacturing, distribution, corporate regulations, toy-safety regulations, and so on, all in a foreign language,” he says. After hearing the founder of Indiegogo speak at a conference, he put his project on that crowdfunding site and raised $15,000 in seed money. Swanberg’s creation quickly drew favorable press, and his first print run, an uncannily real-looking ice cream truck, sold out this past Christmas through his website, oto-toy.com. He has more trucks planned for 2014.
Swanberg’s wisdom for aspiring funtrepreneurs? Study your audience. “I don’t have kids yet, but I have nieces and lots of friends with kids. There were exhaustive test runs. I was impressed—these things really take a beating. We revised the construction, simplifying mostly, and worked out how to best make it come together and disassemble easily, many times over.”
Westchester, New York, circa 1999. On TV, Alex Trebek reads the $500 Jeopardy answer aloud. “One of two DiMaggio brothers to play baseball at the same time as Joe.” From his living room couch, Ryan West shouts a correct response: “Who is Dom?!”
That useless knowledge came in handy a half dozen years later when the bar that West worked at while attending university needed a host for its Tuesday trivia night. Soon he was hosting trivia at four bars in the area.
After moving to New York City in 2008, West, now 29, got a call from a bar manager who’d attended one of those trivia nights. He wanted West to host a similar geekfest at his watering hole. There, West met Cullen Shaw, organizer of a citywide sports league. “We saw that every week there were regulars coming, and some grew rivalries, to the point where people made T-shirts with their team names,” West says. “We were like, ‘This is like a sports league.’ Why not create that sort of dynamic?”
The business model for their NYC Trivia League was simple: bars looking to goose sales on slow nights pay West and Shaw’s company to host the trivia matchups. But the partners aren’t looking to just pack out a bar for a single night. “We give people a reason to come back,” West says.
From that first bar, the NYC Trivia League has grown to fill 13 city bars with 45 registered teams. The league turned a profit quickly and West and Shaw plan to double their bar clients by the end of 2014.
West’s best advice for fun creators? Don’t worry about taking the direct route. “I was a business major my freshman year, but I didn’t enjoy the classes,” he says. So he switched to a double major in communications and classical theology. “My parents asked, ‘Well, how is learning about Greek history going to get you anywhere in life?’”
Note to would-be trivia champs everwhere: Whenever Ryan West hosts, study up on Aristotle.
Adam Hunter is a New York-based editor and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @adamhuntr.
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