Entrepreneurial inspiration can come from just about anywhere, even the frozen landscape of Antarctica -- or at least its waddling, plumed, flightless, fish-eating residents. Many years ago, Queens, New York, native Eric Bennett had a girlfriend who had a thing for penguins. Collecting penguin-themed items became their thing, and his assortment grew to include stuffed animals, beer bottles, hockey jerseys and more. The relationship didn't last, but Bennett's love of penguins did, and they became his life's calling. Starting with a Penguin Place pushcart in 1984, Bennett's business grew to include stores, then catalogs and now a robust e-commerce site.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Bennett has built a career on the backs of everyone's favorite well-dressed birds. If March of the Penguins taught us anything, it's that the lovable little scamps are known to mate for life. As Bennet's "Webbed site" reads, "In the 24-plus years, Eric has stayed true to his passion and has never offered up a non-penguin item for sale, and claims to have never met a penguin or penguin lover he didn't like."
How did you go from an aficionado to running an actual penguin-themed business?
I graduated college in the early 1980s during a time of recession and never found a real job. People had been giving me all of these unique items and I'd talked to friends about selling penguin stuff. I'd recently been to Faneuil Hall in Boston, where they had little themed outlets, and I thought a penguin store would be a lot cuter than the ones focused on pigs or cows. It seemed like a fun idea, but the business truly started as a lark. The South Street Seaport [in Manhattan] opened in 1983 as a tourist destination, and one day I stopped and asked a security guard who I should talk to about a store. I filled out an application and by the time I'd gotten home on the train, someone from the Seaport had called and wanted to talk to me. It fit the nautical theme they wanted.
It was that simple?
They needed stores. Right away, they asked me when I could open. I said, "I know nothing about retail, I was a history major." I figured I'd need a bank account, a tax ID and a business license, but they let me take my time and go step-by-step putting it together. That was in October and I opened in April.
How much money did it take to get going?
I raised around $4,500. I had about $1,200 in the bank, sold my VW Karmann Ghia, and my dad gave me $1,000. It was weird that my dad lent me money, because he was a wallpaper hanger and a housepainter working on his third heart attack at the time. I didn't realize it then, but I do now, that his loan was a big deal. I started out with a pushcart. The standard lease was two weeks for $600, so it was one of the cheapest startups you could find.
How did your find your inventory?
This was before everything was computerized, so I would simply look at the labels of the stuff I owned, call up the company and ask what they had with penguins on it. The only storage I had was behind some steps we built, so we carried 50 or 60 small things like stuffed animals, mugs, pencils, ceramics, wind-ups and little tchotchkes. My first sale was to a woman looking for Band-Aids. She didn't care about the penguins -- her feet hurt.
And did the business take off from there?
It did. I was fortunate, because I bet 75 percent of pushcarts fail within two weeks, but the location was ideal for me. At that time, New York City had a lot of crime and it was a much more dangerous place. Times Square was beyond its Taxi Driver days, but tourists didn't visit it -- they flocked to the Seaport because it was a safe insular place. It had its own security force, and kids weren't going wilding after school on the cobblestone streets. I grew with the Seaport -- by summer I had a permanent kiosk, and after a year, I realized I might be here awhile. I opened the Next Stop South Pole in Pier 17 and then followed that up with one in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
When did the catalog business begin?
Around the same time -- 1987. The first ones were black-and-white Xeroxes, but I knew I needed them, because most of my customers weren't New Yorkers. They were tourists who liked penguins, so if I didn't have a catalog, I wouldn't ever hear from them again.
What were your biggest years?
Probably 1990-91. I had the stores, a few seasonal pushcarts in places like Miami and Denver, and the catalog. It was never a million-dollar business, but I was doing well, making some money. A Japanese company hired me as a consultant to open a store in Osaka. Basically, I was a beard. They thought it would be a novelty to have an American-run store, so I was the face, doing interviews for a couple of weeks.
Was it fun being the "Penguin Guy?"
It wasn't like being Derek Jeter, but it was fun having my own business. At parties and stuff, though, I didn't always want to tell people what I did, because it always led to 45-minute conversations. Guys saying, "C'mere and listen, this guy sells penguins." Sometimes it was just easier to tell people I was a fireman.
When did things start to change?
By the mid-1990s, New York City was getting cleaned up, and the Seaport already had a reputation from locals as a tourist trap where the food sucked. I noticed buses would pull up, people would get out en masse, take pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, and get out of there. We were stuck, because it wasn't the type of store that could be opened in Greenwich Village. Had the Internet not come around, we wouldn't have survived.
You were an early adopter?
That was also fortuitous. Around 1997, a friend of mine who was a video-game developer told me to start a Penguin Place website. At first, it was just a static page, then it featured items, but customers still had to call us up. We were one of the first retail companies to sign on with Bway.net. By 1998, we were taking orders.
When did you decide to close the stores?
Around that time. New Seaport management was using strong-arm tactics to raise my rent from $2,500 a month to $4,000, which I couldn't afford. I decided to go strictly with the catalog and this new thing called cyberspace. We closed New York in 1998 and Baltimore in 1999. The thing is, though, even in our best years, running multiple locations was always a headache, and we weren't making exponentially more money. I thought it was best to go after the customers on our mailing list with more inventory and a better-looking catalog.
After the stores closed, where was your base?
I lived in a Dumbo loft that was zoned for residential and commercial. We had the space and I only had one employee, so there was little overhead. I tread water for a few months, but orders started regularly coming in online by the holiday season, and I knew it would happen. We put out our last catalog in 2000.
Have you ever sold products made by Penguin Place?
We've always had a few exclusive items. We buy cake toppers without the bride and groom and turn them into penguins. We also do holiday-themed items that you can't find anywhere, like "St. Paddy Pete" with an Irish hat and a four-leaf clover. I'm also a big Monty Python fan, and for 20 years we've sold a T-shirt as an homage to their sketch, "Penguin on the Television."
How many items do you carry?
Six hundred, give or take. They range from a $200 French Limoges figurine to stickers for under a dollar.
How have sales been in this economy?
We've had the same number of sales, but for less money per transaction. I'm featuring more items in the $10-$20 range than the $50-$60 ones.
What's the most unique item you've ever offered?
We had a penguin menorah, but the person who made them passed away. Hopefully, someone will start making them again.
It seems like penguins are everywhere in pop culture these days. Does that help the business?
It's a Catch-22. Movies like "Madagascar," "Surf's Up" and "March of the Penguins" help when they are released, but it's also gotten a lot more people selling online. I used to be No. 1 on Google, and now there's other companies selling all things penguin ahead of me. There's a lot more competition -- even online toy stores have designated penguin sections.
How do you keep your customers?
There's social networking, sending out specials on Twitter, that sort of thing. Ultimately, it's about treating customers right. For instance, lots of customers don't realize three-day UPS shipping only counts weekdays. I can tell if they order a bunch of small things that it's probably for a party, so I'll call them up just to make sure. The child has a great birthday, the parents are blown away and I've got them for life. I get letters and e-mails all the time from happy customers.
It sounds like you have a special relationship with your customers.
I do. I don't get that many returns, even on Halloween costumes, which are notorious for being sent back after the holiday. I never met a penguin lover I didn't like. Some are OCD maybe, but they all tend to be silly, whimsical, fun people. Just last week, I got orders from Israel and Saudi Arabia. I should bring them together. I even started the P-Bay auction on our site so people can find fellow penguin lovers.
Tell us about the Penguin Post.
Early on, I noticed people didn't just buy things -- they wanted to tell me their penguin stories -- so I started a newsletter. It was $5 a year, and I had ended up with more than 1,000 subscribers. We put out 23 issues with all kinds of stories: profiles of famous penguins like Opus and Chilly Willy, an article about women in South Africa who knitted sweaters for penguins affected by an oil spill, and an interview with former Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey. He thought I was joking because all I wanted to talk about was his nickname -- what else, "The Penguin."
Why did you stop printing it?
I got married, had children, the price of postage went up. It just got to be too much. I loved it, though, cashing $5 checks, knowing readers looked forward to the stories. I still have a blog, but it's not the same as laying it out and getting it printed on deadline.
Let's wrap up with this vital question: Who is your favorite penguin?
Tennessee Tuxedo. He's a forgotten guy. I showed my two young daughters a couple of VHS tapes of Tennessee, but they weren't into it. Cartoons back then had too much plot.
Name: Eric Bennett
Company: Penguin Place
Location: Northampton, Mass.
Revenue: Roughly $250,000
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/10/10.