Jason Weisenthal had just renovated and opened a new location for his children’s shoe store in Elizabeth, New Jersey when his right-hand-man Tom Sarno, 41, passed away suddenly, after an artery to his heart ruptured. Funny and hard-working, Sarno had been an amazing salesman, and the pair had become best friends. After his death, “I couldn’t go to work every day without thinking about him or people asking me about it,” says Weisenthal.
The passing of his “consigliore” in August 2008 was a turning point. “That was the moment I knew I was getting out of the shoe business,” Weisenthal recalls. Sales had been slowing because of the recession, and although Weisenthal’s store had done well, he had never loved selling shoes. “I had just lost the guy who made my job enjoyable and easy.” Weisenthal had no idea he'd become the owner of a $1,000,000 one-person business.
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Having just spent more than $100,000 to revamp the shop, Weisenthal didn’t close it immediately. But, haunted by thoughts of his friend, he decided to pursue another idea he’d been researching.
Reinterpreting a Successful Idea
Noticing that online store Fathead had built a thriving business selling giant wall-decals of sports and entertainment figures, the father of two had come up with his own spin on the concept: Parents would upload pictures of their children playing sports to create decals for the walls of their kids’ rooms.
Weisenthal took a giant leap, investing savings in two $25,000 printers to make the decals in his basement and putting up an internet store, Wallmonkeys. While some might see his move into a new industry as risky, he was not worried. “I’m afraid of heights, but not much else,” says Weisenthal. “I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid in business.” In May 2010, he liquidated his inventory and closed the shoe store.
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But the business floundered. “Parents didn’t have the right images,” Weisenthal says. “They didn’t know how to upload them.” Looking for a fresh start, Weisenthal and his family moved to Olney, Maryland and Wallmonkeys relocated to a warehouse space in nearby Kensington.
Refusing to give up on his idea, Weisenthal thought relentlessly about how to make the business work. “I knew this would be a success,” he recalls. “I had to find the angle.” He finally realized that instead of relying on customers to supply images of their kids, he needed to supply them with photos they could use. It was an “aha!” moment.
Confident that he was on the right track, he cold-called the stock-photo supplier Fotolia and made an arrangement to offer his customers decals of that firm’s images. He pays to use an image only if a customer makes it into a decal. That deal, signed in 2011, enabled him to offer 13 million images. “Sales started to jump,” he says. He has since negotiated access to pictures from Corbis Images, Getty Images and National Geographic for his customers. A bigger inventory of photos has helped him expand his market beyond parents. “Schools will buy maps,” he says. “Yoga studios will buy beautiful women in yoga poses.”
The Big Time, At Last
The business started to grow quickly, and this year, Wallmonkeys—which also sells its decals on Amazon—is on track to bring in $2 million in sales. To make it easier for customers to find the images they want from the 20 million offered, Weisenthal recently invested about $70,000 to create a new, customized site on the ecommerce platform Magento. He still runs the business without any full-time employees, relying on a couple of part-timers to help in the warehouse.
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His advice for people who dream of owning their own business? Don’t just talk about it. “There’s a lot of people who say, `I have an idea for a business,’” says Weisenthal. “I always think: `Ready, aim, fire.’ So many people aim, aim, aim and never fire. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable. You’re not going to be right 100% of the time. You’re never going to succeed if you don’t give it a shot.”
What I did right “We never borrowed. I refused to take on an investor. If you do, you have to run things by them. You don’t want to give anyone else control. You start a business so you’re boss.”
What I did wrong “I would have networked sooner. In May 2013, I attended an event for entrepreneurs called MastermindTalks. You have to apply to attend. I had access to brilliant people who are the best of the best. MastermindTalks has a private Facebook group. When I posted that I was looking for a search engine marketing firm, a CEO in the group told me about Elite SEM, which I’m using now. Being able to ask a question of 50 brilliant people, you’re going to come back with the right answers.”
Photo: Simon Bruty/AnyChance Productions