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.
Learned 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.
My husband and I divorced and I bought out his ownership. While I had always had a few independent contractors, I now needed employees to help manage the business.
The new employees brought lots of new ideas and skills. We started getting active in the maker/crafter movement as makers loved using mannequin and mannequin parts to create art. We released digital tutorials to show people how to make a Dress Form Christmas Treeand we had a booth at the Maker Faire in San Mateo.
When we recycled mannequins for a Macy’s store, we received a ton of faux flowers from the annual flower show. Because we didn’t want to throw the lovely flowers away, we started making floral crowns headdresses on our mannequin heads.
This gave anidea to host classes where people could come in and design their own headdress. Similar to the popular paint and sip parties, we called it “Design and Wine.” We hosted group classes as well as private events like bachelorette parties, birthday parties and corporate team building.
It became so successful we created a separate division,
The Headdress Workshop. We also offer custom-made headdresses created by our resident designer.
Walmart sponsored us to host a mini version of The Headdress Workshop at Oakland’s Black Joy Parade. Attendees could make a headdress and then take and a photo of themselves in the Instaworthy photo booth which was designed specifically for this occasion.
Our family friendly activity that a was one of the most popular booths as the parade. Walmart was interested in having us do this at other community events an on site as team building activity for their staff.
COVID19. As I write this, we are still struggling with how to survive for the long term.
We were not considered an essential business, so we had to close for a month until I received a PPP loan. When we reopened, sales of mannequins were very sluggish. And although our warehouse is large, it didn’t seem safe to host the headdress classes. Plus where could people wear them anyway?
This created an opportunity to expand into an area we had dabbled in before but now had a renewed focus: Pet Photography.
In the past customers had rented our photo studio from time to time to take photos of their pets. Now we decided to offer photo packages called FurtographyPetPics.com. to make it even easier for people to take fun and fast photos of their fur baby. We have amazing props and hand made floral collars for dogs and enough room for our photographer to social distance.
So many people attribute the companionship of their fur baby to keeping them sane while self-sheltering, we want to give them a chance to capture special moments with their fur baby.