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Fall 2007 Unique Concepts Fall 2007

Fresh Faces

Lix by Misha, a new cart in Dadeland Mall, is giving Misha’s Cupcakes access to new buyers hungry for sweet treats.



The crowds are no illusion at Magic Hut’s cart and in-line near its Miami headquarters.



Born of one iPod lover’s need for stylish and functional iPod skins, Gizmobies prove to be music to the ears of iPod users coast to coast.


A teacher and his students sell the work of artisans in the developing world at International Market, a cart in Port Charles Town Center, FL.


New Hampshire-based Etchex opens a new in-line in Newington’s Fox Run Mall to boost brand awareness and generate revenue.

Life is Sweet at Lix by Misha

After obtaining her graduate degree from Florida International University, Misha Kuryla Gomez became pregnant with her first child, and had no desire to spend long days away from her daughter in the corporate world. When she heard a report on National Public Radio about the successes of a California cupcake company, she realized that not only did she have the skills to bake cupcakes, but she could run a wholesale cupcake business from her home.

>After doing some research and finding no cupcake companies in her area she would have to compete with, Kuryla Gomez dug up her mother’s chocolate cake recipe, developed a vanilla recipe of her own, and turned on the oven. In the fall of 2005, Misha’s Cupcakes was born.

imageShe promoted her new company by giving away cupcakes to everyone she knew and donating 300 to a breast cancer charity event. Wholesale and retail orders starting coming in and soon she needed a commercial oven and an assistant. After more than a year of baking everything from home, with 10 restaurants and cafés as clients and scores of individuals dropping by to pick up their orders, she moved her operation to a warehouse.

The warehouse has a retail showcase up front where sales are made, but eventually Kuryla Gomez started thinking about establishing a more traditional retail presence. “I thought opening a mall cart would be a great way to get our name out there,” she says.

This past July, she opened her first cart in the Dadeland Mall in Miami, selling cupcakes in two sizes, regular ($2.50 each) and mini ($1.25 each), in eight flavors, the most popular being vanilla, followed by chocolate, then Oreo.

As luck would have it, a neighbor’s marketing company, the Image Factory, helped with the marketing and branding. The Miami-based marketer suggested a new name for the retail venture, Lix by Misha, to distinguish the retail cart from the wholesale side of the business. imageIn addition, the Image Factory developed the Lix logo, the tag line “Life is Sweet,” and designed banners, brochures and the look of the cart.

“The Image Factory did an incredible job,” says Kuryla Gomez, whose MBA came in handy when it came time to crunch the company’s numbers. Though she did not write a formal business plan, “we have our projections,” she says. “So we can compare how we think it’s going to go, with how it’s actually going.”

If sales at the cart continue to gain strength going into the fall, “We may open carts in two other local malls for the fourth quarter,” she says. Franchising might be in the future, but for the time being, she’ll stay focused on baking and selling—and watching her business rise.

Engraved Images Shine at Etchex

While strolling the floor at a building trade show in 2005, looking for ideas for a house he was planning, entrepreneur Brian Haberstroh spotted an exhibitor showing off the latest laser-engraving equipment. Impressed by the quality of the products, he purchased the engraving machine, then he and his business partner, Jim Rascoe, spent countless hours learning the skills necessary to create highly detailed engravings on a variety of surfaces.

imageWhen they’d mastered the process, the two men—both veterans of several start-ups—dubbed their company Etchex and put out their shingle in Portsmouth, NH. They quickly developed a solid customer base, but they wanted more publicity to propel their young venture forward.

“We went to the mall to create awareness and gain exposure,” says director of marketing Laurie Mantegari. The company created a common-area custom display made of granite, featuring a photo engraving of basketball player Yao Ming and other images that illustrated the company’s engraving abilities.

The Fox Run Mall location gave Etchex additional publicity—but no chance to ring up sales right there in the mall. In June, Etchex expanded to an in-line, where they could generate revenue and showcase a much larger selection of engraved products, which now included custom engraved wall murals and floors. In fact, the in-line’s granite floor features a rendition of the Empire State Building that took three days to complete.

Most of the company’s products, however, can fit on a shelf. A very popular wedding item is the signature frame, featuring the bride and groom’s photo engraved in the center, surrounded by the engraved signatures of their wedding guests. For grandparents “we have everything,” Mantegari says, including a grandparent favorite, the Circle of Life showing all of the kids’ photos etched in stone (or another material). A selection of memorials—including urns, tombstones and other keepsakes—can be easily engraved to “allow loved ones to create a permanent tribute,” Mantegari says. Pet memorials are also very popular, she adds.

imageBut not all of Etchex’s products are geared toward the consumer; some are focused on B-to-B sales. For example, as a promotional gift, a real estate agent can present buyers with a set of engraved coasters showing a photo of the new house, along with the agent’s name, logo and contact information. Business awards and mementos such as diplomas can be engraved in marble or glass, which last forever and look professional on, say, a doctor’s office wall.

To generate additional sales, Etchex exhibits at home shows and bridal shows, and still has a growing B-to-B business. “Laser engraving has been around for a little while, and many people have seen it on memorials,” says Mantegari. “What we’ve done is taken the concept and broadened it.”

By offering a variety of products large and small for both consumer and business buyers, Etchex has successfully developed multiple revenue streams. When it comes to creating unique engraved products, Mantegari says, “The possibilities for the home and business are endless.”

Magic Turns into Money-at Magic Hut

Alan Chamo has the magic touch. He’s been performing magic since the age of seven, and he’s so good at the art of illusion that he’s been featured regularly on Univision, the leading Latin TV network in the US.

Six years ago, he turned his extraordinary skills into a business, Magic Hut Inc., which sells magic supplies wholesale and retail. In addition to a busy online retail site (www.magichutonline.com), Magic Hut has two brick-and-mortar locations near its Miami headquarters: a cart in the Aventura Mall and an in-line store in the Bayside Marketplace. The locations draw big crowds, thanks to the magic trick demonstrations that garner “oohs” and “ahhs” day in and day out.

Chamo also shares his magic know-how with numerous independent specialty retailers, many who operate seasonally during the winter holidays. The typical independent cart owner might stock about 20 top-selling items; the website offers about 1,000. They can gain additional revenues from online sales, Chamo says. Each independent retailer receives a promotional code they pass on to their customers to use online, which gives the retailer a percentage of each completed online sale.

imageMagic Hut’s Aventura Mall cart stocks a rotating selection of about 100 products. “We have so many repeat customers that we can’t continue offering the same merchandise,” says Chamo. He’s constantly changing the inventory to reflect the latest magic goods available and keep his customers looking for what’s new.

Magic Hut’s most popular product at the moment is the Magic Spinbee, an octagon-shaped disk that twists and floats through the air. “You can control where it goes and create your own moves,” he says, adding that the Magic Spinbee can be used to make other objects float, such as a dollar bill or credit card. The Magic Spinbee retails for $29.99 (including an instructional DVD), and a new version with miniature lights on it has just been introduced. Of all the products that Magic Hut demonstrates at its retail locations, the Magic Spinbee “attracts the biggest crowds,” says Chamo.

During the holiday season, magic kits for kids and adults sell particularly well as gift purchases, ranging in price from $20 to $160. Other popular items are decks of trick cards (which are easy to demonstrate, says Chamo), coin tricks and instructional DVDs that demonstrate how to perform magic with everyday objects.

Magic Hut products range from about $2 retail, for the simplest pranks and novelties, up to about $300 for professional-level tricks. Markups range from 300 percent to between 500 and 600 percent for the Magic Spinbee.

Although many of Magic Hut’s retail customers include professional magicians, most are amateurs, including kids and “adults who like to learn tricks to impress their friends, their girlfriend or their business associates,” he says. “We were very surprised to find that sometimes the CEOs of important companies use our tricks to break the ice in meetings.”

But there’s no illusion behind Magic Hut’s success—the only trick is bringing magic to the mall marketplace.

Art with a Cause at International Market

An inspiring teacher and his students created their own business to sell the work of talented artisans in the developing world.

Bob Johnson, a social studies teacher at Port Charlotte High School in Florida, believes real-world experience should be an integral part of education. Consequently, over the years he’s taken his students to 50 countries on five continents to learn about world cultures.

During a trip to Russia in the mid-’90s, Johnson and his students were in a public market and saw tourists haggling with local artists for intricately carved artwork. “The artists, because they had virtually nothing, were forced to sell their work at ridiculously low prices,” he recalls. “The kids thought it was unfair. They wanted to do something about it.” And they did.

imageThey came up with the idea for International Market, a US-based retail store that sells arts and crafts purchased at a fair price from artisans in the developing world. “When kids get pumped up to do something, you don’t want to turn them off,” he says, so he encouraged them to develop their idea further and guided their research.

His students soon developed a contact at the Fair Trade Federation, an association of wholesalers, retailers and producers who focus on providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to disadvantaged artisans worldwide. They also secured a $1,500 grant from a local arts group to purchase initial inventory. Johnson and the kids ordered merchandise from overseas artisans and set up shop in a storefront within their school in 1998. Their entire inventory sold out in less than an hour.

imageSince then International Market has grown on its own financial momentum—without additional grants. Four years ago, the venture made its move to the specialty retail marketplace with a year-end holiday cart in the Port Charlotte Town Center. The cart is staffed by students who volunteer their time, and the group decides on a daily basis how to stock the cart, based on what’s been selling. “The kids who assume the role of buyers sit down together and make decisions about what to order,” Johnson says. “We do some research on trends but teenagers are pretty astute. I can count of one hand the buying mistakes they have made.”

By paying close attention to shopper likes and dislikes, International Market has built up a healthy repeat-customer base over the years, Johnson says. Customers return year after year “because they know they’ll find something unique.” Some shoppers are “so enamored with the project that they find something to buy.

“One day, the kids called me because a woman spent $3,300 and nearly bought out the whole cart, and we had to restock it,” Johnson recalls. Fortunately, the mall is across the street from the school—where a large supply closet holds backstock for easy access.

Since its inception, the International Market has raised $160,000 for indigenous artists. Johnson says the ultimate goal is “to get the money into the hands of the artisans—to keep their work alive.”

International Market not only teaches students about the world of business, but also about the larger world we inhabit—and how we choose to give to or take from that world. “The Federal Trade Federation told us that for every $1,000 we sell, we keep a family of four solvent for a year,” he says. “So every time we sell that amount, we say, ‘That’s another family we helped.’ The kids are motivated by that.”

Gizmobies Combine iPod Style, Function

Jon Phillips confesses to being “kind of a geek.” In 2002, when Apple released the iPod, he ran out to buy one. “Apple is a master of packaging—the ergonomics were great, it fit in my pocket and it was fun to use,” he says.

But it was also expensive, so Phillips bought the nicest leather case he could find to protect his new tech toy. But his feelings for his iPod changed once he slid it into the case. “This fun thing became ugly,” he says. “It was hard to use, and it didn’t fit in my pocket. No one had figured out how to protect it while retaining all its great qualities.”

Fast-forward to 2006, when Phillips, together with a “seasoned and creative management team of executives” he had assembled, introduced Gizmobies, fashionable covers that protect iPods without adding bulk and don’t make the iPods’ inherent features difficult to use. imageThe material, a patented product by 3M, sticks to iPods securely, giving them a non-skid surface, yet is easily removable without leaving behind a sticky residue. Phillips named his company Gizmobis, Inc. (which unlike the product has no “e” in its name), and thought specialty retail would be an effective venue for test marketing the product. He opened his first cart last summer in the Miracle Mile Shops in Las Vegas.

“It was midweek, and we didn’t get up-and-running until mid-afternoon, but we sold more than 150 units the first day,” Phillips recalls. “People were quite literally buying them out of our hands as we were hanging them on the display.”

imageDeeming the day “a real eye-opener,” Phillips says the biggest challenge since then has been growing the company to meet demand. Turning to independent owner-operators to open additional locations, four carts quickly opened within the Las Vegas area. “Our carts would have customers two, three or four deep, which was much busier than neighboring carts,” Phillips says. “It was really obvious that this was a strong specialty retail concept.”

Last October, Gizmobis launched a wholesale program, allowing independent operators to open Gizmobies carts or kiosks. By summer 2007, a year after Gizmobis opened its first location, the company had close to 70 carts and kiosks, including 14 owner-operated locations in North America, plus a number of locations in other countries. Gizmobis now has distributors on every continent except Antarctica.

There are 100 Gizmobies styles that fit the five most popular iPod models, bringing the total SKUs to 500. The company is rolling out an iPhone cover this fall. Gizmobies retail for $20, and carts and kiosks typically offer volume pricing (2 for $30, for instance).

“We roll out about 10 new designs every month to keep it fresh and serve the repeat customer,” says Phillips, who says more than two-thirds of customers buy more than one. The Fleur-de-lis and Tea Garden designs are the most popular.

Phillips says he’s been a part of many startups in his previous career as a software executive, some quite successful, but none that has taken off quite like Gizmobies: “We’re amazed at how quickly the market has embraced the product.”


Bernadette Starzee

Starzee, a Long Island, NY writer who covers business, sports and lifestyle topics, is a senior writer for SRR. She can be reached at .

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