How to Make Millions Out of DNA

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ONTARIO, Canada (MainStreet) -- The success of DNA 11, a 6-year-old e-commerce site dedicated to selling personalized DNA-inspired art, goes a long way toward showing that by following some tried and true business tips you really can make a business out of anything.

DNA 11 is not your average online art store. The company creates personalized prints based on a person's DNA profile. DNA 11 has produced pieces for Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) executives, NFL stars and the co-founder of Cirque de Soleil, among others.

Before starting the company, co-founder Adrian Salamunovic worked for a Web consulting firm, while partner Nazim Ahmed worked for a biotech company selling digital biological imaging machines -- the same equipment that creates the DNA profiles for the art.

The partners, then in their late 20s, came up with the idea based on trends they saw in the marketplace -- a growing demand for personalized items -- and Ahmed's background in genetics. With a few thousand dollars, the partners looked to create a part-time business that would take online orders, send out a DNA cheek-swab kit with instructions and, four to six weeks after the DNA kit gets returned, deliver a unique work of art.

"We started DNA 11 not to turn it into a multimillion-dollar company -- we never dreamed we would have 30 full-time employees doing this," Salamunovic says. "We thought to ourselves ... wouldn't it be great if we could sell five to 10 portraits a month on the side?"

But after some media attention, DNA 11 achieved $1 million in sales in its first year of business. Salamunovic wouldn't reveal the company's latest sales numbers, but said the company was now nearing $10 million.

"We were surprised ... that it succeeded," Salamunovic says. "As the world becomes more mass-produced, people want more personalized things. And they will pay a premium for that. It's the kind of thing, whether you like it or not, you're probably going to mention it to someone at some point, and that helped us get the word out and get PR."

Having a unique product is certainly attention-grabbing, but the company, which sells mainly direct to the consumer, was smart enough to pay equal attention to the look and credibility of its website to sell their concept.

"We have over 40 copy-cat companies around the world," Salamunovic says. "None of them have had our success," which he attributes to the firm's pioneering of the idea and the priority given to the website's design and ease of use.

DNA 11 work has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art and on CSI: NY, giving the company further credibility, Salamunovic says.

The success of the art has led the company to expand, offering prints based on a person's fingerprint or kiss imprint. The company also started a sister company, CanvasPop, to which customers can submit photos to be printed on canvas. The company plans to further expand its product line.

"Being a niche business is good because it allows you to be hyper focused and dominate a space," he says. "It's important to broaden out your offering so that you can catch more fish."

Alice Bredin, small business adviser to American Express (Stock Quote: AXP) OPEN and president of Bredin Business Information agrees that business owners holing too fast to their original idea or customer may not be able to grow.

"The first thing may just be the kernel of your really blockbuster idea. Your original notion may be part of the answer but not the complete one," she says.

Business owners who don't take the time to develop and research their target market fully are unlikely to succeed, she says.

Once that target market is decided, "you have to have a way to let that target know about your products," she adds. "Is it the kind of product that needs speaking engagements at trade shows or something for which to use social media? Do we need to advertise or something that an influencer like a financial planner or real estate agent should know about?"

As the company grows, Salamunovic says there are growing pains.

At first it was a challenge to even get a DNA lab to agree to do the order, because most did not take the company seriously.

"Many hung up on us," Salamunovic says, crediting his partner's persistence with finally finding a lab in Montreal. "Now we pump thousands and thousands of orders a year through them." (The company wouldn't disclose the name of the lab for competitive reasons.)

As the product line expands, DNA 11 has had to hire managers and directors to run those businesses. As an e-commerce site, brand and product management and SEO is an increasing priority, he adds.

The company is also in need of more manufacturing space. It plans to open a facility in Las Vegas this fall.

"We're the same as every other company. We have the same fast-growing company experiences. We just happen to pick a very unique industry," he says. "We're no different than Zappos (Stock Quote: EBAY) or Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL)."

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski, who you can follow on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski

—For more tips and tricks for your small business, visit MainStreet’s “Small Business” topic page for all of our latest coverage!

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