Small Business Success: Tapping into Obama Mania


Sometimes losing your job can be a great money-making opportunity.

Take Marissa Corwin, a Queens, N.Y.-based freelance textile and product designer who was recently laid off by a large media company. With a more open schedule, Corwin and some friends planned a trip to D.C. for Barack Obama's inauguration.

They were talking about what kind of Obama banners they’d make to honor the new president when inspiration struck.

“Bandanas are like personal banners,” she says.  “The idea for the bandanas came out of that.”

From Concept to Cloth

Corwin set to work designing and creating bandanas emblazoned with the president-elect’s face and a variety of references to his Kenyan heritage and Hawaiian background.

She bought the materials wholesale, and made a preliminary investment of $6,000 for design and production of the first batch. Corwin did much of the initial silk-screening while also setting up a production process that can accommodate serious demand for the product. Within a couple weeks she had boxes of bandanas not just for her and her friends, but to sell to the public.

“People have been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive about this project from the beginning,” says Corwin. “In fact, wherever I go, kids seem almost fanatical about the bandanas, wanting to touch them and wear them all different ways.”

Standing Out in a Crowd

According to a recent Conde Nast survey, Obama-related merchandising will be a $2.5 billion business in 2009. That includes not only t-shirts, mugs and buttons, but also toilet paper, lip balm and even "Hope on a Rope” soap.

Corwin recognizes there’s a lot of competition but believes that much of the Obama paraphernalia is simply a common item with a logo slapped on it.

“What makes my product different is that the design is integral to the actual product,” she says. “I wanted to make sure it had some formal commemorative political imagery but that it looked enough like a real bandana that people wouldn't be precious with it or assume that it was unaffordable.”

Keeping Pace with Targeted Customers

Corwin plans to arrive in Philadelphia the same day as Obama, and then she will follow him down to D.C. She plans to sell her wares to the throngs of people following the same route and attending the inauguration.

In addition, she’ll eventually sell the bandanas online, using – an e-commerce site that allows makers of art and crafts to sell their products both to individuals and resellers. She’s charging $10 per bandana, but if you buy packs of 25 then you save 25%. “It’s very easy for me to ramp up production,” says Corwin. “I have local wholesalers and printers.”

Job Endings can be New Beginnings

No one likes getting laid off and Corwin is no exception. When she was let go a month ago from her steady job she had some tough choices. She wanted to go back to school but without a consistent paycheck, it would be tough to make it work. Now, if the Obama bandana takes off, she thinks she’ll be able to afford to follow the path she really wants to take.

“The blessing in disguise about this economic climate is that because so many people are out of work, and traditional sources of income have dried up, people are innovating clever new ways to make money,” she says. “I hope that the trend of start-up entrepreneurship continues to develop with a positive bend towards creating locally made products that are both useful and thoughtful.”

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