Our Story

The Accidental Entrepreneur

Mannequin Madness is 100% owned by Judi Henderson-Townsend, a senior entrepreneur and African American woman based in Oakland, CA.

The business started in 2001 as a mannequin rental company and added recycling and selling used mannequins. Then we expanded our inventory to include new mannequins and store fixtures in order to provide the widest selection of mannequin choices on the internet.

In 2019 we branched into other areas of visual display: Furtography Pet Pics and The Headdress Workshop

People ask me all the time what made me start a mannequin business. It is certainly not a traditional career path.

I thought this business was going to be a side hustle. It was never my intention for it to become a full-time business with an International presence and earning business awards.

Neither did I plan to have four employees, four independent contractors and lease a 3100 square foot warehouse. Here is how I became an “accidental entrepreneur.”

Below is a timeline of how I got here and managed to stay in business while working with a bunch of stiffs and dummies. I also list some of the significant business awards I won along the way.

Let me begin by saying, I have a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California - so I that is why I like writing a detailed version of my journey.

I worked in marketing for Johnson & Johnson and United Airlines for 20 years. In 1999, I went to work at a dot-com start-up. I was in my early 40’s and one of the oldest employees there. Almost everyone there was a serial entrepreneur - something I had never been exposed to before.
 

While looking on Craigslist for Tina Turner concert tickets I stumbled upon a posting for a mannequin for sale.I had always wanted a mannequin for a mosaic project for my garden.

When I contacted the seller -- a former window dresser -- he had 50 mannequins to sell. He wasoperating the only mannequin rental business in the Bay Area and was leaving the state.

Although I had never touched a mannequin before, never worked in retail and never knew anyone who had rented a mannequin, I was intrigued.

I felt a city as creative as the Bay Area needed a place to rent a mannequin. My husband reminded me that I had been talking about mannequins since forever. With his support, I purchased theentire inventory.

If I had more time to think about it (the seller was leaving town in two weeks), I would have talked myself out of the idea. When the mannequins arrived, the only place we had room to store them was the living room! Eventually they ended up in the basement.  

My plan was to continue towork full-time at the dot-com and rent mannequins on the side. Even so, my friends and family thought I was crazy. Thus,I named the business “Mannequin Madness.”

The craigslist seller had promised to provide me with his client listbuthe never did. Nor did he leave a forwarding message on his answering machine referring callers to me. And I missed the deadline to advertise in the yellow pages (remember those days?). Not a great start for any new business.

Fortunately, my experience at the dot-com showed me the power of a web presence. This was WAAY before internet shopping was possible, and when most small businesses did NOT have a website.

One week after I launched a dinky two-page website, a customer from Canada emailed to inquire about renting mannequins for a ski convention in Lake Tahoe. This was my first indication that my business could reach beyond the Bay Area.  

A significant turning point in my business happened when I heard that Sears was rebranding and removing all their mannequins. They wanted to look streamlined like Target, which at that time was not using mannequins in their stores.

My husband and I rented a cargo van and spent most weekends driving to all the Sears stores in Northern California. In less than six months, my inventory jumped from 50 mannequins to 500 mannequins of every shape, size, age and style.

I was still operating the business from home. Themannequins could no longer fit in the basement but were lining the shelves in our garage and in makeshift tents in the backyard.

However, with all this inventory, I could now move from just renting mannequins to selling them too. 

One month after the 9/11 tragedy, the dot-com startup I worked for declared bankruptcy and laid everyone off. Although this was a fearful time, I resolved to live more fearlessly and do what I loved. Mannequin Madness was still fledgling and not self-supporting, but I took a leap of faith and decided to make it my full-time business.

https://archive.epa.gov/epapages/newsroom_archive/newsreleases/77516394498d9fc7852570d8005e152d.htmllearned that it was normal for retailers to throw unwanted mannequins in the trash if they were closing or remodeling. This is a horrible habit because mannequins are made out of materials that do not biodegrade.

I decided to offer them an alternative: free mannequin recycling. This would save them money on waste disposal fees while also being an environmentally-friendly way to dispose of the mannequins. We would pick up their mannequins at their location and then resell them.

The “free pick up” incentive took off and in just one year, we recycled over 100,000 pounds of mannequins. The Environmental Protection agency gave us a Special Achievement Award from the Environmental Protection agency.

The retail industry is second only to the oil industry in producing environmental waste and my efforts were contributing to changing that reality.  

2002 Environmental Protection Agency SpecialAchievement Award
2005 Living History Maker Award, Wells Fargo Bank 

When Nike remodeled stores on the West coast we received a semi-truck full of used mannequins. The mannequins were in coffin-like boxes that we stacked 6 feet high in multiple rows in our backyard. It was time to move into a warehouse.

We launched an e-commerce website site (highly recommend Shopify) and started shipping used mannequins all over the country. I expanded my inventory to include new as well as used mannequins and began using various mannequin vendors as drop shippers.


2006 Grand Prize Winner The World of Difference$100,000 Technology Grant sponsored by Intel Corporation 

I created an affiliation with used mannequin vendors in other cities to facilitate recycling mannequins on a national level, instead of just regionally.

The client list for our recycling services grew and we tripled the amount of mannequins we diverted from landfills. I was featured on CNN and my business inspired a woman in London to start a business like mine - MannakinLtd.

2010 British Airways Face to Face Winner 

American Apparel started bankruptcy proceedings and contacted Mannequin Madness to recycle an army of mannequins stored at their headquarters. Over a period of several months, three 50 foot trucks filled with mannequins arrived at the Mannequin Madness warehouse, causing it to overflow with bodies and boxes everywhere. It was time to move to a larger space.

Mannequin Madness moved into a new warehouse that was double the size of the previous one. This space had a storefront location that allowed Mannequin Madness to add a showroom, photo studio and visual merchandising gallery. She could invite local customers to come by, shop, and utilize the space for their own needs. With the larger location Judi added 4 employees to her team in addition to the 5 independent contractors she had. She used to say she enjoyed working with mannequins because they didn't talk back. But she really enjoys working with a the creative and talented members of her team because they are very outspoken and challenge her, making for a stronger, smarter business.

Mannequin Madness won the Oakland Indie Spirit awards in the category of green business. Judi feels that the SF Bay Area -- with its diverse population, strong economy. independent thinkers and commitment to being green -- provides the support for a business like Mannequin Madness to start up, grow and thrive!