Artful Adventure

Judi Henderson-Townsend had never worked in retail. She had done no market research on the demand for mannequins. In fact, she had never actually touched a mannequin prior to getting into the business ten years ago. All she wanted was a creative art project ? to mosaic a mannequin for her garden. But instead of buying a single mannequin, she impulsively bought 50 mannequins from a vendor closing his rental business and leaving the state. Cost of startup? $2,500.

Leg Work

Though it didn’t cost an arm and a leg for Henderson-Townsend to get into business, she then had to figure out the rest of the equation. After explaining to her husband Jay, that they would have 50 unusual guests in their basement, she went about creating the market. Using what she did know – online marketing – she attracted customers including trade-show vendors, small retailers, artists, Ebayers, event planners, and even to Industrial Light and Magic ? the visual effects behind Lucas Films. To meet demand, she acquired 500 mannequins from a retail chain that was remodeling.

Faces and Wallets

Her hard work has taken on a life of its own. Henderson-Townsend started running her firm, Mannequin Madness (www.mannequinmadness.com) full time, at the end of 2001 after being let go from a failing dot-com. Today, she gets between $100 – $350 for a used mannequin based on its condition and style, and handles roughly 5,000 mannequins in a year. She sources most of her inventory from retailers that close or remodel and discard existing mannequins to bring in the latest styles. Mannequin Madness also repairs mannequins, maintains a mannequin blog and last year became a distributor for new mannequins.

Alter Eco

Creating a firm from an initial investment of $2,500, Henderson-Townsend clearly has a head for business. But she has another persona ? one that’s remarkably green. Because while she is making money, she is also keeping used mannequins out of landfills. Mannequins are bulky and typically made of materials that do not biodegrade easily. Her business recycles more than 100,000 pounds of heads, limbs and torsos every year that would otherwise be waste. So in addition to a good living, she has earned a special achievement award from the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency.

Success on Her Terms

Henderson-Townsend has earned something else. Something less tangible, but perhaps more important. She has earned the right to do what she wants. She has much more contact with the creative people she enjoys. She works with her husband, who joined the business as it has grown. While Henderson-Townsend has not mastered the “4 hour work week”ù, she has a flexible work schedule. And expanding the business with partners in New York and London, she works where she wants to work.

Firm Character

In addition to the nature of the hard work and the freedom of the entrepreneur, Henderson-Townsend also teaches us where valuable novelty originates in the business world. It comes from the actions of the individual. Had a seasoned retailer, a technology engineer or a performance artist gotten ahold of 50 used mannequins, Mannequin Madness might be Mannequin Marketing, Mannequin Machines, or Mannequin Monuments. Any of these could be viable ventures ? perhaps even making more money than Henderson-Townsend does today. But Mannequin Madness is a reflection of the unique character of its founder, and that’s what makes it successful.

Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and also available at Business Life.  Art is credited to beer, through stock.exchng.

Publication: British Airways Business Life
Author(s):
Stuart Read

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