David Altuna claims his company can turn anything—or anyone—into a stuffed animal. Customers send a photo and $69 to I Am A Stuffed Animal.com, based in Greenvale, New York. After one of the company's artists creates a caricature, a 14-inch-tall doll is assembled and shipped to the client, a process that takes four to six weeks. Altuna, 28, and two friends came up with the concept while drinking beer and watching football together. "One of us said that it would be cool to make stuffed animals of the coaches," he says. Since the company launched in 2009, it has made more than 2,100 plush toys, including one for a woman who wanted to see her cat dressed like Sherlock Holmes and one for a man who wanted himself depicted as a robot. How can this start-up get more people to order stuffed versions of themselves? We asked four entrepreneurs to weigh in.
NO. 1: Focus on gifts
Marc Katz, co-founder and president of CustomInk.com, a McLean,Virginia, company that makes customized T-shirts
This product seems like an exceptional gift. The company should try partnering with gift companies. Reach out to gift catalogs, corporate gift companies, and retailers like Things Remembered that specialize in personalized gifts. I also think this would be a more viable gift if the company could find a way to get its lead times down.
NO. 2: Make it a game
Nolan Bushnell, founder of video-game maker Atari and the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant chain
It would be so much fun to let the customers be the artists and design their stuffed animals themselves. Maybe the company could create a game and offer different kinds of faces, hairstyles, outfits, and other features. Let customers mix and match. Put the game on the company's website and on Facebook. I would even try to make an application for the iPhone and BlackBerry. The number of people playing simple games like this right now is astonishing. If the company can create something addictive, it will attract new customers and keep them coming back to the company's website.
NO. 3: Tell the stories
Jake Nickell, co-founder of Threadless, a Chicago company that makes and sells T-shirts based on user-submitted designs
The stories of the people who buy these stuffed animals are so interesting. The company should use these stories to draw in new customers. Who wouldn't be intrigued by the tale of the lady who wanted her cat dressed like Sherlock Holmes? The company could offer, say, a credit toward a future purchase to customers who send videos and photos of themselves next to their stuffed likenesses. Regularly post these on the website as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Not only will this give the product more meaning and help build the brand, but the customers who are featured on the site will be more likely to tell their friends about the company.
NO. 4: Revamp the site
Tariq Farid, founder and CEO of Edible Arrangements, a Wallingford, Connecticut, franchiser that sells gift bouquets made of fruit
This is primarily a Web business, but right now, the site doesn't have much appeal. You need to get people excited about what you are selling. Make the site more interactive and add some videos. I would try to get some footage of a parent giving one of the toys to a child or of someone giving one to a friend at a bridal shower or a birthday party. Videos like that will give the site some life and will also help convey the idea that this product is a great gift.
Altuna likes many of these suggestions, especially the idea of creating a simple online game. Altuna agrees that it makes sense to partner with gift companies. The product is available on some affiliate sites, including Gifts.com, but so far, Altuna has had a tough time getting retailers to carry it. In the meantime, he and his employees are working on compiling more customer stories for the website. "We are on our way," Altuna says. "We also want to feature them on the main page." He admits that the website needs help but says the founders have limited programming knowledge. "That said, we can definitely contract the site out and come up with something impressive," he says.