Great Companies Started for $1,000 or Less

COMPANY: BarCharts Inc.
BUSINESS: Publisher of quick-reference charts
1999 REVENUES: $6.6 million
2000 PROJECTED REVENUES: $10 million

When the Florida real estate market tanked in the late 1980s, Boca Raton commercial real estate broker John Ford, then 43, suddenly needed a new way to make a living. He tried a woodworking venture, but it fizzled. Next his plan to market mini-billboards for the tops of cars ran up against county regulations.

Then bingo: an idea sprang forth from his kitchen table. That's where, in February 1991, Ford's wife, Bobbie, was studying for the Florida bar exam. She drew a flowchart summarizing her Constitutional-law notes. When she shared the chart with some of her fellow students, they loved it. "A little lightbulb went on in my head," John Ford says.

He drove to several law-school bookstores and described the chart to the managers. "I got a pretty positive response," he recalls. His neighbor, who had just been laid off from a job at IBM, sold Ford a 386 PC for $1,000 and taught him PageMaker desktop publishing. Then Ford laid out the chart on the computer. Having published art prints in the late 1970s, Ford says, "I knew about color and composition." He concentrated on making his charts clearer and more attractive than the products already on the market. He also persuaded some of Bobbie's law-school professors to critique the content gratis.

By June 1991 the Fords were living on credit cards. They borrowed $6,000 from their parents to have study charts printed up for six law courses. They hired neighborhood kids to staple the charts into plastic bags and paid them 5¢ a bag. John dug out his woodworking tools to build melamine display units. He sent the units and six-chart samples to law-school bookstores across the country. "Two weeks later we got our first order from Arizona State University at Tempe, for $230," he says. "We went out and celebrated at McDonald's that night."

By the end of 1991 the Fords had sold $45,000 worth of charts, which retailed for $4.95 each. John built bigger displays and invested $500 in a used laminating machine. In 1993 he started selling study charts to undergraduates and hired professors at Florida Atlantic University to outline popular courses for $650 a course. Even as BarCharts grew, however, the Fords held tight to their bootstrapping ways, operating the business from their 1,500-square-foot house for four years before finally moving it to a separate office. "Bobbie was doing all the accounting in the bedroom," John says. "Another bedroom was my workroom, where I was making the charts. The living room had boxes to the ceiling. Our patio had cardboard shipping boxes under a tarp on a pallet."

Today the company makes and markets about 200 charts covering such topics as cooking and child development as well as its staple of academic titles. Free samples remain the cornerstone of the company's marketing strategy. "This is a product," Ford says, "that we can afford to give away."

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