Riding a One-Trick Pony

Yes, quirky single-product companies can flourish -- while their owners have fun. Here are two money-making examples

John Drummond and Edmundo Macias have different professional backgrounds, live across the country from each other, and have never met, but they have at least one thing in common: Both quit their comfortable corporate jobs at 40 to start quirky, one-product businesses.

Drummond, who lives near Atlanta, sells unicycles over the Internet at Unicycle.com. Macias' Los Angeles-based company, Planet Sugar, sells "Cocktail Candy" -- colorful flavored sugars used to decorate the rim of a cocktail glass. Both entrepreneurs are having fun and making money, with no regrets.

"I worked for Anheuser-Busch for 16 years," says Macias. "When I quit my job last September, my coworkers all thought I was nuts."


  Macias' experience as a brand manager prepared him for developing and launching a unique product. He knew the beer industry and was comfortable promoting adult beverages. He says the idea for Cocktail Candy hit him during a visit to a San Antonio company that was developing a lime-flavored salt to enhance the flavor of "Tequiza," a new beer spiked with tequila that Macias was promoting for Anheuser-Busch.

"I asked if they were making flavored sugars, and they weren't," he recalls. "I asked them to make samples for all the flavors I wanted. They kept making and sending samples until it was right."

Macias, who quit his job in September, cashed in stocks and savings to invest about $80,000 in launching Cocktail Candy. He sells four ounces of the flavored sugars in a flat, round tin that retails for $13. Each tin comes with a thin sponge to dampen the rim of the glass. The lids feature a quirky, 1950s-style bar scene based on each flavor. Macias said he found the perfect illustrator when he was flipping through an art book featuring the work of Josh Agle, a Southern California artist known as "Shag."


  Macias says Shag was reluctant to design labels for the tins, but Macias sold him on the product. "I did the labels because I thought it was both a unique product, one which would interest me even if I hadn't worked with the company, and because it fit so nicely into the little world I'm trying to depict with my art," says Shag. "Almost all of my paintings are set in lounges, bachelor pads, or jet-set destinations, and they feature a lot of drinking and late-night entertaining."

Shag says the product appealed to him because "most alcohols and mixers have been experimented with endlessly, but this adds another element -- almost any existing cocktail can be altered and enhanced with the flavored sugars." He and Macias are discussing ways to license his designs for Cocktail Candy-related merchandise.


  Running a small company means Macias now wears every hat. He works out of his home with one part-time office assistant. He relies on his manufacturer to ship orders directly from San Antonio. After two months, he has already found a few independent distributors to sell Cocktail Candy. His goal is to find a few commercial food and liquor distributors to sell his novelty sugars to bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. He's also pitching the product to upscale retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel, and working with a woman who develops recipes for smoothies.

Macias, 41, also wages a one-man grassroots marketing campaign. Here's his strategy: He goes into a trendy bar, orders a Lemon Drop, and asks the bartender to put some of his lemon-flavored sugar on the rim of the glass. Soon, patrons and waiters are gathered around him and his cocktail, asking questions about the bright yellow sugar. Of course, he leaves the tin behind with a brochure for Cocktail Candy.

Macias says his cocktail sugars fit right in with the trend toward flavored alcoholic drinks. "The flavors I have go well with flavored martinis," he says. "You can use the peach-flavored sugar for Bellinis (Champagne and peach juice), raspberry goes well with a Cosmopolitan, and the apple is perfect for a sour apple martini. The appeal for Macias: "It's such a fun product. It's like Pixie Stix for big kids."


  More than 4,000 big and small kids bought unicycles last year from Unicycle.com, a Marietta (Ga.) business that was inspired by a midlife crisis. "I hit 40 and realized I had gained a pound a year since high school," says founder John Drummond. "I felt like cycling was a good way to lose weight since I was not good about sticking to a diet."

Because he had delivered newspapers on his unicycle as a kid, it didn't take long for Drummond to get back in the saddle. Once he was riding again, he began visiting online chat rooms for unicyclists to get a feel for where the market was headed. "I started a business but hadn't intended to," says Drummond, who started selling unicycles out of his garage in 1998. He invested $700 in the business and relied on a small-business program offered by IBM to help him create a simple Web site.

"I was scared to be out on my own because I'd been [at IBM] so long," says Drummond who worked for the computer giant for 23 years. But he was encouraged when sales grew from $1,000, in April, 1999, to $9,000 the following month. Last year, sales were $455,000. Drummond predicts they'll reach $600,000 in 2001.

With help from his wife, Amy, he's now supporting his family and one and a half employees. The business has also brought him and his three sons closer together. Twelve-year-old Casey is a champion unicyclist, and Drummond has collected two gold medals in the "old timers" class. His advice for learning how to ride a unicycle? "Hold onto a railing so you don't fall down."


  Here are some marketing tips for anyone promoting a single product from Nancy Michaels, president of Impression Impact in Concord, Mass., and co-author of Off-the-Wall Marketing Ideas (Adams Media, $10.95).

"When you only sell one product, it's wise to hope and pray that your product will always be in demand, or you'll continue to improve and reinvent it for a changing marketplace," said Michaels, who can be reached via her Web site at www.impressionimpact.com.

Michaels feels one-product companies have an easier time of marketing. "It's actually more cost-effective to target a niche market than a broad market," she says. "You should participate in industry trade shows and use direct mail to promote your product to a specific market."

She says publicity remains the most cost-effective method, but if you can't afford a publicist, be prepared to invest "a tremendous amount of time." Michaels also suggests making a list of publications, radio shows, and TV programs that would appeal to your target audience -- and, whenever possible, figuring out how your product ties in to a current trend.

Succeeding in Small Business(©) is a syndicated column by Jane Applegate, author and founder of sbtv.com, a Web site offering free multimedia resources for business owners. For a free copy of her new workbook, The Business Owner's Check Up, e-mail your address to: info@sbtv.com, or mail it to: Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, N.Y. 10803.