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Unusual Business for an Unusual Woman

By Bruce Freeman

Judi Henderson -Townsend of Oakland, California is an entrepreneur with an unusual business. She sells bodies. Bodies and parts; heads, arms and legs, she’ll even rent you one if you like! Mannequin Madness is the name of Judi’s mannequin business and how she came to be there is an interesting story. Judi graduated in 1978 with a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California, and a sales job with a major pharmaceutical company. This, and other experiences with corporate America, took her to meetings of women’s business organizations and chambers of commerce where she saw entrepreneurs first hand. Later, she learned about working with the Internet, and realized that she was as capable as many of the executives she saw at the helm. This realization and the rigidity of corporate structures ignited the entrepreneurial flame that burned within her soul. Judi enrolled in a class at a local community center which takes students through the creation of a new business plan.

It was while surfing the net three months after completing the class that she stumbled across used mannequins for sale. She went to see the seller, only to find that he intended to move and let the business go. Thinking this might be a first step into entrepreneurship and a good extra revenue stream to supplement her day job, Judi Henderson-Townsend talked it over with her husband, Jay Townsend. They quickly researched the competition (There wasn’t any.) and realized that there was a market for the rental and sales of used mannequins. With only a week to make the decision before the seller left town, there wasn’t even time to procure warehouse space, so Mannequin Madness was born in Judi’s basement in 2001, when she bought out the seller’s inventory.

After just missing the yellow pages advertising cut-off date, Judi’s first step became the creation of a web site. Her first customer was Canadian; he rented a mannequin for a local tradeshow, a market she had never conceptualized. This opened her eyes to the power of the net, and the need for mannequins at tradeshows, conferences and events. In addition to working with small clothing retailers, she began attending meetings for trade show planners, trade show associations and any other meetings where potential customers might attend. Often she was the only person of color at these meetings, so people began to recognize her. Ironically, Judi struggled for years to blend into corporate America, only to find that her dreadlocks were an asset which helped her to stand out and build her business as an entrepreneur.

Most people who find they need a mannequin call department stores for referrals; so Judi went to every department store within 50 miles and started introducing herself. She quickly realized that department stores could also become suppliers as they updated and replaced mannequins, which should be disposed of responsibly since they are not biodegradable. Judi has even won an award from the EPA for her recycling efforts. Within one year, she recycled 100,000 pounds of mannequins. Within six months, Mannequin Madness went from 50 mannequins to 300. Now, she has 3000 mannequins and is the largest mannequin liquidator in Northern California. Sales come from all 50 states and she sells about 2000 mannequins annually. Business is so good that she is expanding, moving her headquarters to Atlanta, and looking for warehouse space in key regions.

Professor Bruce’s Words of Wisdom

Not many people have the kind of courage it takes to start a completely new business type. Successful entrepreneurs are sometimes quirky, always creative, and often have an enthusiasm for life that overcomes obstacles that stop others in their tracks. Judi Henderson Townsend sells mannequins in a homey atmosphere that helps first-time buyers overcome their concerns and creates a positive purchase experience. She has become an expert in her field and can steer customers toward an appropriate and affordable choice. It’s an unusual and successful business, but then, Judi Townsend is an unusual and successful woman.

Case History:

Mannequin Madness, Inc.  [EXTERNAL]

Entrepreneur’s Strategy:

Find something unusual to sell and look for new markets.

Could This Work For Me?

If an item is made in large enough quantities to sell, someone wants to buy it used.



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