Great Companies Started for $1,000 or Less

COMPANY: Lori Bonn Design Inc.
BUSINESS: Jewelry design and manufacturing
1999 REVENUES: $2.2 million
2000 PROJECTED REVENUES: $2.8 million

Lori Bonn Gallagher loves to travel, and she knows how to do it on the cheap. In 1991 she was working as a sales representative in the San Francisco Bay area for her mother's Tucson-based jewelry wholesaler, Charna. She lucked into a bargain ($499) airfare to Paris and took off on an impromptu vacation.

While looking in store windows near the youth hostel where she was staying, Gallagher spotted some funky handblown-glass jewelry. She spoke to a store clerk and arranged to meet the jewelry maker in a nearby café. Knowing no French, Gallagher drafted her French Canadian roommate as a translator. In addition to a cappuccino, Gallagher wound up ordering $1,000 worth of samples.

Then she had a brainstorm that would define a new career. She realized that, as she puts it now, "going around traveling and finding interesting things would be a great business." When Gallagher returned to the United States, a friend told her about amber jewelry being exported by what was then the Soviet Union. Gallagher, who was then 27, flew to Toronto and persuaded the Canadian company operated by the USSR's jewelry export organization to make her an official sales representative selling on consignment, so that she didn't have to pay for the jewelry until she sold it. She began by selling the French and Russian pieces at trunk sales at Nordstrom; eventually, the store began buying and stocking jewelry directly from her.

In 1993 Gallagher had moved her office from her bedroom to her dining room, a move that coincided with the opening of the movie Jurassic Park, which featured dinosaurs cloned from amber-preserved DNA. Suddenly, amber was hot.

Needing new jewelry designs, Gallagher developed some sources in Poland. Soon she was shuttling regularly to Gdansk via Berlin to take advantage of cheap flights. She shared a room at a Berlin youth hotel for $25 a night and proceeded by train or car to Gdansk. On the way back she slept at the youth hotel with thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry stashed in a wall locker near her bed.

Gallagher's business has matured in recent years. Now her jewelry is designed at her headquarters, in Oakland, Calif., manufactured in Bali, and retailed through outlets such as Discovery Store and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts museum shop.

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