Judith Kaplan wanted a business she could run out of her basement, a way "to make a few bucks vacation money." Instead, five years later, she found herself CEO of a $1.5-million business. "Absolutely simple," Kaplan, 45, insists. "Just listen to the customers and give them what they want."
In retrospect, the development of the company seems completely natural. Prior to starting Action Packets Inc. (#92) in 1976, Kaplan, a co-founder of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, was a stamp collector, owner of the largest private collection of women's suffrage collectibles in the country. She and her husband had been selling first-day-of-issue covers to fellow collectors. But business was slow. She got bored. A mother of two, Kaplan had spent many of her weekends shepherding her brood to the cultural sights. She had become a familiar figure walking through the dinosaur exhibits, the old-car collections, and the gift shops, in particular, where she heard a litany of complaints about how few new mementos there were to buy. The idea came to her during a visit to the planetarium: Why not sell packets of space stamps for volume in groups, unlike the single-unit first-day sales?
Stamps for planetariums led to stamps for natural-history museums, transportation museums, and zoos, as Kaplan's reputation and word of her money-back guarantee spread. She kept broadening her product line as well, now grown to 2,300 different items -- wind chimes and key rings, wall plaques and jewelry, model airplanes and custom-processed T-shirts, hats, and patches. "I'd just talk to buyers and say, 'What do you need?' "
In 1978 she crossed the $100,000 mark and moved the business from the basement to the garage, and eventually to Ocala, Fla. In 1980, she published Action Packet's first, eight-page catalog; today the catalog is 150 pages thick and still growing. With the launch of the Columbia space shuttle in 1981, Kaplan launched her hottest product line, and she now distributes the largest selection of space shuttle-related consumer products in the United States including "Ready to Eat Astronaut Freeze Dried Ice Cream." Today, Kaplan distributes to National Aeronautics & Space Administration centers across the country, as well as to such aerospace contractors as TRW Inc. and Rockwell International Corp. "It was just a matter of listening," Kaplan demurs. "From the NASA gift shops we'd hear they'd have a lot of employees from, say, General Dynamics who wanted a product related to whatever they were working on. And today we probably sell more F-16s than General Dynamics."