How A Side Hustle Turned Judi Henderson-Townsend Into The Queen Of Mannequins

September 19, 2016  |  

(Photo: Mannequin Madness)

(Photo: Mannequin Madness)

You most likely see them every time you go shopping and probably pay them little mind, but have you ever thought about mannequin making as a business?

Judi Henderson-Townsend hadn’t, until one day in 2001 she met someone in the industry who was getting rid of his mannequins, and on a whim she decided to buy 50 of them. Fifteen years later, she’s now known as the Queen of mannequins.

As part of the fashion sector, mannequins are manufactured, sold, resold, and rented. While Henderson-Townsend’s company Mannequin Madness doesn’t craft mannequins, it is perhaps the most well-known company that sells used such figures. And even though she had never actually touched a mannequin prior to getting into the business, Henderson-Townsend decided to go for it. With a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California, Henderson-Townsend was working for a failing dotcom in early 2000 and was looking for a second revenue stream. The mannequin business at least seemed like an interesting one, but first she had to figure out how to rent out the mannequins she had purchased. So she turned to online marketing, reaching trade-show vendors, small retailers, artists, eBay shoppers, event planners, and more. Henderson-Townsend soon had so many requests she had to find more mannequins, and thus her business was born.

Mannequin Madness’ used mannequins go for $100-$350 and she sells more than 5,000 mannequins annually. She also rents and acts as a mannequin broker, among other things. But it’s not just the money that Henderson-Townsend loves when it comes to her business, she’s also excited about helping the environment by re-circulating mannequins instead of them being thrown away in a landfill. In 2003, Mannequin Madness received a special achievement award from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling over 100,000 pounds of mannequins in just one year.

Henderson-Townsend spoke with MadameNoire about how she got into such an unusual business and her biggest entrepreneurial lesson.

MadameNoire (MN): How did you get into running a mannequin business?

Judi Henderson-Townsend: It’s a story–I was actually looking on Craigslist for Tina Turner concert tickets when I saw an ad for a mannequin for sale. I kind of was interested because I actually wanted to put a mannequin in my garden. So I called and went to get the mannequin. This was in the Bay Area. And when I got there, I was overwhelmed at the sight of 50 mannequins all around his warehouse. I studied journalism in school, and when I saw this my journalism skills took over and I started interviewing him about why he had so many mannequins, what he used them for, why was he selling them, etc. Turns out he was a window dresser and he had a business renting mannequins. But now he was moving out-of-state so he needed to sell. And then when he said “Now that I am leaving the state, there won’t be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay Area,” a light bulb went off in my head. I bought all his mannequins.

MN: Why were you interested in mannequins?

JHT: I had been working in a small dot com, which wasn’t doing very well–this was before the tech boom in the Bay Area–so I had been looking for other forms of revenue streams and this seemed possible, even though I have never touched a mannequin before or worked in the retail industry. But I had a gut instinct about this and I firmly believe in following your gut instincts.

Funny though, since the seller was moving out fast, I really didn’t have the opportunity to change my mind once I first agreed to buy the mannequins. If I had more time I might have talked myself out of it.

When I took the mannequins home, there were everywhere. My ex-husband and I were doing the business out of our home and the mannequins were everywhere—it was madness. This is how I thought of [the name] Mannequin Madness.

MN: What made you want to take this entrepreneurial risk?

JFT: I had been reading “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosak and it said to have diverse revenue streams. I was looking at the mannequin business as an addition revenue stream. I don’t want to get a second job, so this seemed like a good idea. At the time I thought it would just be a side hustle, not a full-time job.

MN: So how did you go about renting out your new mannequins?

JFT: I had missed the deadline to be listed in the Yellow Pages (remember that?), so in desperation, I turned to online marketing. In 2001 a website was still a fairly new concept in the mannequin rental business but I created one. And the first week our website went live we had people from all over asking about mannequins, including a Canadian vendor who emailed us about renting mannequins for a trade show he would be attending in the Bay Area. All of a sudden we where renting and shipping mannequins out all over the country and even internationally.

MN: While you said you were looking for additional revenue, you hadn’t really thought of becoming an entrepreneur?

JHT: I was kind of an accidental entrepreneur. It wasn’t like I had a master plan. I was forced to grow. I brought the mannequins and the demand was so large I was forced to find more mannequins and make connections with retailers. Then I was getting so many requests for selling, that I was forced to go from renting to selling used mannequins. Then I was getting retailers calling me offering their old mannequins, so I started acting as a broker for other sellers across the country. I take a finder’s fee and it is another stream of revenue within my business.

MN: Being a green company seems to be very important to you as well.

JHT: At one point we discovered that Sears was eliminating the use of mannequins in their stores. I convinced most of the Sears stores in the area to give or sell us their mannequins instead of throwing them in the garbage, which is what most retailers do. They wind up in the landfill, and mannequins should never wind up in the landfill because they are not biodegradable. As a green business, we’re very proud of the difference. I have a tutorial where I show people different uses for mannequins, such as fashion them into Christmas trees. Some people like to save the whales, I like to save the mannequins.

MN: What has been your biggest business lesson?

JHT: That you have to delegate. When you’re first starting you have to do everything yourself;  I am truly a bootstrap business–I bootstrapped with my own $2,500. But as I became more profitable I learned how to delegate to other people who do those tasks better than I do. And this doesn’t mean you have to hire a full-time staff. I have a man in India who helps me with my website and online presence and we have worked together for two years. I have someone doing my bookkeeping and they come in once a week. This gives me time to focus on the things I am good at and time to grow the company.

MN: What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs?

JHT: I heard a long time ago that a lot of women who own business tend to be service paced business, and a lot of times service paced business depend on personality. If they like you, you get business. I think women should focus on product-based businesses.

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