In 1996, Maxine Clark left her job as president of Payless ShoeSource, then part of the May Department Stores Co., to return to St. Louis. Clark wanted to do something entrepreneurial but didn't have an idea -- until a 10-year-old provided one. She was out shopping with Katie, the daughter of a friend, when both became frustrated that they couldn't find a stuffed toy Katie wanted. Then Katie said, "We could just make one ourselves." Clark's life was about to change forever. The company she founded, Build-a-Bear Workshop, now has more than 400 stores worldwide and about $364 million in annual sales. --As told by Kimberly Weisul
When Katie said we should make stuffed animals, the light bulb exploded in my head. She went downstairs to do a crafts project and I went online to find a stuffed animal business in the U.S. I knew kids loved field trips. I was thinking they could go on a field trip to the mall to make their own stuffed animals.
I had my own money, because I'd had a big job and I'd saved. I had decided I would invest a couple of million if I needed to. I wanted to do it my way. I kept meeting people who wanted to invest, and they kept telling me how to make Build-a-Bear as cost-effective as possible. I wanted it to be as big an experience as possible.
I knew where all the good malls were. I knew the best mall in St. Louis, and I knew the people who owned it. They were excited to be our first location. They helped us. In July, a woman was walking by our storefront. We weren't even open yet -- we just had a sign that we were hiring. She called me up and said, "Aren't you the person who used to work for the May Co.?" She was a reporter. She fell in love with my idea. The Friday the story ran, at 11:00 at night, I got a call asking if I would meet with a local businessman who owned a cruise ship line. His name was Barney, and I met him on Monday. He said, "I'm not a mall person, I just like animals. How much money do you think you're going to need?" I said, "For the first eight to ten stores, $5 million." He said, "Is next Thursday soon enough?" It was really one of those American Dream stories. But it turns out he knew all my bosses at the May Co. He was my first investor.
I was maniacal about the customer experience. A lot of it came from my own personal experience as a kid, and as a kid at heart. People just want to be treated special. When you'd go out as a kid and have a little drink, a Shirley Temple, you didn't know you were drinking fake alcohol. You just got a fun little umbrella. When Katie was about 8 years old, she had taken her bear, George, on vacation, and left him on the rental car shuttle. She was so scared and upset. So we put a bar code in our bears so that if you ever lost yours, we could get it back to you. Every customer gave us their name and address, because they wanted a birth certificate for their bear. We were building a database as big as every animal we sold.
I always tell entrepreneurs to write an in-depth business plan and a financial plan. Most people do a PowerPoint now, which is a real shortfall. Put in the plan everything you want the business to be. Dream the big dream. People are always trying to figure out how to build a business with less. Build the Rolls Royce dream, and then figure out how to do it on the Ford budget. If you believe in it, you'll figure out how to build the big dream at the right price. Otherwise, you'll end up building an average dream.