Bloomberg Busisnessweek wrote this feature on Mannequin Madness on Dec 29, 2021. It was a wonderful way for us to end the year.
This entrepreneur made a purchase out of liquidation and found her niche reselling castoffs from major fashion brands.
Judi Townsend was searching for Tina Turner concert tickets on Craigslist one day in 2000 when she spotted an advertisement for a mannequin for sale from a shop in Oakland, Calif. “I’d always wanted a mannequin to mosaic and put in my garden,” she says. When she ventured to the mannequin rental store, she discovered that the owner was liquidating. On a whim, she bought his inventory of 50 mannequins for $2,500, kicking off her entrepreneurial journey.
“There was nothing that made logical sense about doing that,” she says. “I was trusting my gut.” Twenty years later, her email signature is “We work with a bunch of stiffs and we love it!” Here’s how Townsend parlayed her gutsy move into Mannequin Madness, a thriving business that rents and sells figures in a diverse array of sizes and skin tones:
Old Job: Sales and marketing for an advertising dotcom, during the internet boom. “I was surrounded by young men who were serial entrepreneurs, and I realized that these guys weren’t any smarter than me—they just had a whole lot more experience and exposure.”
Ah-ha Moment: She read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, a book on personal finance that encourages people to develop multiple revenue streams. That got her looking for a side hustle. Then came 9/11, an event that shifted her mindset, she says. “I decided I wanted to live more fearlessly.”
Transition Time: Nine months. She continued in her sales role. She was in a dual-income marriage, which helped support the shift into working at the mannequin business full time. When her employer folded, she didn’t look for a new job.
Financial Trajectory: Steady, boot-strapped growth. Business loans weren’t on the table for an inexperienced Black woman in a region favoring White men with tech companies, Townsend says, so she worked out of her house. “My backyard and basement were full of mannequins.” After four years, she was able to support herself; in her fifth year, she moved the business into a warehouse across from a busy restaurant, gaining foot traffic. Forty percent of her sales come from non-retailers, such as artists, knitters, people building dress-form Christmas trees, and bondage enthusiasts, who use the mannequins to practice and display their rope designs. She also makes available a studio space and mannequins for rent, for product shoots.
Turning Points: Four years in, Prada SpA in Milan placed an order for second-hand mannequins. “I realized, ‘Wow, they don’t care that these are mannequins in my backyard in Oakland—even customers with deep pockets like a bargain.” She also gained an expanded sense of purpose by offering free recycling services to companies including Nike Inc. and Gap Inc., reselling mannequins that would otherwise go to landfills. Her inventory grew by more than 500 in a few months. “I wasn’t just playing with life-size Barbie dolls. I saw the positive environmental impact of my business,” she says. In 2003, Townsend earned an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for recycling 100,000 pounds of mannequins in a year.
The Challenge: Finances. “I’m a creative person. There wasn’t a big plan.” Initially, she underpriced her recycled mannequins, not accounting for costs to transport, house, and market them. “I was just continually doing what we now call ‘Black girl magic’—just hustling and reaching out and finding new partnerships. I didn’t know that that was being an entrepreneur.”
New Job vs. Old Job: “For Black women, corporate America can be a toxic place, and at my age—64—they would have put me out to pasture by now.” As a business owner, she gets to learn and hone dozens of skills, from social media to shipping and receiving, vs. her dotcom job, which left her in her own lane doing sales. Apart from Townsend, the company has one full-time employee, four part-timers, and four contractors. it reached $800,000 in annual revenues before the pandemic—with the store open for orders 2.5 days a week, in addition to the 24/7 website.
Pro Tip: Do it as a side hustle first, which lets you trust your gut over data. “It would’ve been too big a leap to depend on this business from the start.”