Three Unlikely Small Business Success Stories

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Some of the best business ideas are borne of the notion that "it's so crazy, it just might work."

Who would have predicted the success of Zhu Zhu Pets? These hot toys of the 2009 holiday season, created by the small toymaker Cepia, have their own application on Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone. A Zhu Zhu Pets game for the Nintendo DS is due out this spring.

Cookies
Dr. Sanford Siegal pioneered a diet based on special cookies.

Here are three of our favorite success stories from entrepreneurs who took a chance on seemingly strange ideas.

Mediabistro.com

The average salary in journalism is $41,000, according to Simplyhired.com. This may be why it may sound nuts to target journalists as a potential source of revenue. But that's what Laurel Touby did with Mediabistro.com, which hosts parties and offers job-hunting services, classes and advice to more than 850,000 media professionals. In 2007, she sold the company to Jupitermedia (now WebMediaBrands ( WEBM)) for $23 million.

What began in 1994 as a series of informal gatherings for Touby's writer friends quickly bloomed into a word-of-mouth community. In 1996 she launched the Web site after forming focus groups to find out what the community wanted in an industry resource center.

"I basically listened to the customer, and in that way extracted money out of people who you would think had no money," she says.

The organization still relies on a model of "party marketing," a term Touby coined. "Nobody's going to open an e-mail that says, 'buy my product,'" Touby says, which is why Mediabistro.com sends e-mails with "Come to our party" in the subject line. The messages lead with party information but end with a plug for upcoming classes, which cost up to $499.

Dr. Siegal's Cookie Diet

"It was quite clear to me that hunger could be controlled by foods, but specific foods were more effective than others," says Dr. Sanford Siegal, who in the 1970s pioneered his seemingly contradictory diet in which patients lose weight by eating specially formulated cookies. "Cookies are popular, people like them, and they're also portable."

Siegal saw immediate success in the diet, which consists of six cookies and a lean dinner, for a total of 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day. "If you stick to 1,200 calories a day, you'll lose weight. I don't care who you are," he says.

He kept the diet confined to South Florida, where he practices, for close to 30 years. "I'm 81 years old now, and I'm from the old school where doctors don't advertise," he says. "I felt it would damage my reputation rather than enhance it because inevitably this product would be misused and someone would make false claims that it was magic."

It took his son, Matthew Siegal, a former software entrepreneur, to persuade Dr. Siegal that he should sell the cookies to the masses. The Web site Cookiediet.com launched in 2007. The cookies are now available at Walgreens ( WAG) and GNC ( GNC), as well as a Dr. Siegal's store in Beverly Hills, Calif., where actress Denise Richards has been spotted buying cookies. The company made $20 million in 2009, Matthew Siegal says. He expects revenue of $100 million this year.

Although the cookies are now mass-produced, Dr. Siegal still mixes the cookie's secret formula of amino acids by hand. While wary of copycats, the company has made a conscious decision not to patent the formula. "The reason it isn't patented is that one of the things you do when you apply for a patent is give out all the details," Matthew Siegal says. "Better just to keep it a secret."

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

According to Ninjaturtles.com, this odd success was born in 1983, when Kevin Eastman (then a short-order cook) and Peter Laird (an advertising artist) were hanging out at Laird's house, riffing on a sketchpad. Eastman drew a bipedal turtle with nunchucks on its arms, Laird suggested upping the ante by turning it into a mutant teenager as well, and the two of them pooled $1,200 to create the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic book in 1984.

By the end of the century, the Ninja Turtle franchise included a cartoon series, a breakfast cereal and action figures. So far, the turtles have starred in four feature films - the last of which grossed more than $95 million for Time Warner's ( TWX) Warner Bros. studio. And of course there's a game for the Nintendo ( NTDOY) Wii.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.com.

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