Business ideas can come from some pretty unlikely places. In the case of Peter Smathers Carter and Austin Branson, it was a gift from their girlfriends.
In 2004, during their senior years at Bowdoin College, Carter and Branson both coincidentally received hand-stitched needlepoint belts from their significant others. They began sporting them around campus, and immediately received compliments.
So they pitched a dual-independent study in art and economics, to investigate launching a belt company of their own. Two professors advised them, one on how to construct attractive yet pragmatic designs, the other on how to create a business model and follow it. As they began their research, the two friends and soon-to-be business partners researched and discovered that it took 40 to 50 hours to hand-stitch a single belt, making them expensive to produce because of labor and materials costs.
"We were both getting ready to go into finance, because that was an easy road coming from where we grew up and where we went to school," Branson says. "But then we kept having random brainstorming sessions, and thought of ideas of good patterns to add."
As Carter and Branson put together a business plan and learned how to design, their company began coming together. They wanted to find a way to mass-produce needlepoint belts, refusing to sacrifice the hand-stitching their own belts possessed but knowing they needed to lower the price point.
In fall 2004, after graduation, Carter and Branson traveled to Vietnam, where they eventually joined forces with a manufacturer and one-on-one taught 50 workers throughout several villages how to needlepoint. Upon returning to the United States and their basement room in Branson's parents' house, Branson took out a $10,000 loan from his father to get the company going. Soon after, the duo received samples from Vietnam and realized they a good product on their hands.
Today, Branson and Carter own and operate Smathers & Branson, which manufactures and sells preppy needlepoint belts, key fobs, and wallets, among other products. That first group of 50 stitchers has blossomed into a group of 1,500 to 2,000. In 2008, they hit $2.5 million in revenue, and added a collegiate contract with nearly 40 schools nationwide. Their signature belts feature martini glasses, lobsters, and sailboats, and go for about $165.
"We always thought [the belts] were fun and unique and different," Branson says. "They make a statement more than anything else."