Starting a company with only a few thousand dollars in hand seems like a daunting task, unless the business benefits from user-submitted content.
No, we're not talking the Internet or YouTube.com here. Starting a small business now with little cost doesn't have to be digital -- this one is something very tangible, even old-fashioned: quilt-making.
Leigh Lowe, owner and founder of
Campus Quilt, established her company as the thesis project for an M.B.A. degree at the end of 2000. Now in its seventh year, the business has grown leaps and bounds from its humble beginnings.
"I launched the business out of my apartment," Lowe recalls. "I was 24 years old with $5,000 I had saved from my first job out of college. We basically only made quilts for my friends and family that year."
One of the reasons a business such as Lowe's can succeed is because it relies on its customers to provide a bulk of the raw materials. Campus Quilt's specialty is transforming old concert t-shirts, or just about any type of fabric, into a high-quality, future-heirloom blanket. Lowe was her own first customer as the business was coming together.
"My husband and I each have a quilt commemorating our college days," she said. "After that, every t-shirt I could find went into one test quilt or another."
Buyers begin their order online or by phone with a $100 deposit. Campus Quilt then ships out a mailing kit that contains everything one would need to package up their shirts, including a prepaid mailing label. (There will be more about that later.)
The quilt is assembled within two or three weeks after the company receives the shirts, and the balance is then due upon completion. Prices for quilts run from $125 up to about $400.
For a fee around $25 to $150, depending on the quilt's size, customers can add a 1 1/2 inch sashing between each t-shirt square. Embroidered lines are available at an additional cost as well.
"We do a lot of t-shirt quilts for graduates, concert-goers, and athletes of all kinds," says Lowe. "But, we can also make almost any customized quilt requested of us."
Lowe points out that old concert t-shirts aren't the only items the business has received in buyers' packages. Campus Quilt has made quilts out of photos, baby clothes, swimming suits, ties and baseball hats.
"One customer had us make a quilt from a collection of golf towels. It was a really neat project," recalls Lowe.
As her business is still relatively small, Lowe is able to provide personal care to every client. As there is a certain sentimentality involved in swapping a closet-full of shirts for an embroidered quilt, Lowe insists on the best customer service available. And that service has paid dividends, through word-of-mouth business.
Typically, a representative from Campus Quilt will respond to customers via email in less than 24 hours within ordering a mailing kit, explaining the entire process. Once the customer authorizes a deposit for the job, a quilt kit is mailed, including directions, labels, color swatches for the border and backing, and spaces for special instructions.
Campus Quilt provides each customer with email updates throughout the process and, usually within three weeks, the finished product is mailed back.
Lowe says she has learned how powerful the individual customer is through reviews of the product, even though the company has been profiled on big media outlets including
"Today Show" and the "Rachael Ray Show."
But most important, Lowe knows that it's the customer that matters most. After all, Campus Quilt's customers aren't just paying for a product, they're practically providing it themselves.