We've been inspired by individuals who've succeeded against all odds, underdogs who've fought their way to the top. Little wonder, for example, that there's a bronze statue of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At Compass, we're always on the lookout for entrepreneurs who have turned their creative ideas into thriving businesses – because their insight can be especially valuable. Here's what four successful business owners and UPS customers have to say:
This Old Toilet
- What: Internet marketing of components and parts for rare, obsolete or discontinued toilets.
- The beginning: In the late 1990s, Gary Tjader volunteered to answer plumbing questions on a consumer website. "I need a toilet tank lid. Where can I get one?" was a recurring question. "I found one for a guy at a salvage yard and offered to sell it for $100 plus shipping," Tjader says. "That was the beginning."
- Today: Steady growth allowed Tjader to flush his day job two years ago. The company shipped 887 heavy, fragile and expensive porcelain tank lids and 55 toilet tanks in 2011 and even more toilet seats than that (in colors/styles) dating back to the mid-1950s.
- Advice: "Listen for opportunity when it knocks," Tjader says. "People saying ‘I need a tank lid' showed a demand I could supply." He also took some UPS advice: "UPS recommended a double-box packing system that's nearly eliminated damages, and simplified the process."
Above and Beyond Balloons
- What: Makes and sells giant advertising balloons, inflatables and radio-controlled blimps that draw crowds at grand openings, trade shows and sporting events.
- The beginning: In 1991, Mike Chaklos started the business in his mom's garage, sewing inflatables made to look like giant hot-air shaped balloons and renting them to car dealerships in Southern California. Mike's brother Paul built a website to showcase the products and the phone started ringing off the hook.
- Today: The company has 40 employees focused on custom designs for clients ranging from NASA to the NFL. "We're donating part of the proceeds to a foundation we set up to find homes for orphan children," Mike Chaklos says.
- Advice: "Steve Jobs said whatever you are looking at, someone developed [it] who isn't any smarter than you," Chaklos says. "It's important to have confidence in yourself."
National Seafood Educators (NSE)
- What: Publishes seafood cookbooks, consults with manufacturers and retailers and introduces new seafood into the country.
- The beginning: NSE began in 1977 with a single seafood cookbook. Founder Evie Hansen later introduced orange roughy to the United States market. Other product introductions include imitation crab, mussels and sashimi.
- Today: Cookbook sales are brisk, along with cedar grilling planks and smoker bags. "We're introducing pickled seafood to the United States for a company in Kodiak, Alaska," she says.
- Advice: "Don't quit your day job until you can support yourself, but follow your passion and listen carefully," Hansen says. "There are messages all around us."
American Permalight, Inc.
- What: Manufactures photoluminescent safety products such as glow-in-the-dark exit signs, and also stair, handrail and floor markings used in buildings, vehicle tunnels, trains and ships.
- The beginning: Launched in 1988 when glow products were considered gimmicky in the United States. "We focused on the safety value," says Marina Batzke, general manager of this subsidiary of a worldwide German company. "In 1994, our glow paint was installed in the World Trade Center staircases and, seven years later, helped survivors evacuate on 9/11."
- Today: Photoluminescent markings are the law in New York City high-rises and incorporated in building and fire codes for high-rise staircases nationwide. "One reason we have been successful is our involvement in standards and code work," Batzke says. "In 1992 there were no standards or codes and we helped write them."
- Advice: "Get involved in your industry trade association, even though you have to volunteer, because it has a high payoff in exposure and reputation," she says.
Attention entrepreneurs: Do you have advice to give other business owners? Share your own tips by commenting below.