Recycling-Focused Entrepreneur Is No Dummy

“It’s amazing to me how many people need a mannequin,” says Judi Henderson, the founder and owner of Mannequin Madness, which rents and sells new and used mannequins to small stores, museums, private individuals, and others. The business is responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands of mannequins out of landfills every year. At the same time, Henderson is able to supply mannequins to small businesses and artists who might not be able to afford new ones. Henderson has grown her business  from working out of her home by herself to running a flourishing online business out of a warehouse in Oakland, Calif.

Her small-business success story almost didn’t happen. When she was in her early 30s, the artistically minded Henderson, now 57, went to work for herself as an agent for photographers and illustrators. That business folded after two years. “I felt not just that I had a business that failed, but that I was a failure at business,” she says. “I thought I would never have a business again because that experience was so emotionally and financially devastating.”

In the late 1990s, she worked at a dot-com startup. There, she met young men who “went through several businesses that failed and never felt they were a failure,” says Henderson. “That was just part of the learning process.” This made her think about entrepreneurship again.

The first thing Henderson did the second time around was take a class at her local Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. “I felt that it would be important for me to get some sort of training,” she says. “About halfway through the class, I realized that the vague idea I had in mind [for a startup] was not going to be successful,” she says. “Once again, I’m thinking, ‘I guess it’s not meant for me to be an entrepreneur.’”

Inspiration from an Online Ad

Fate, however, had one more twist in store. “One day, I’m searching for Tina Turner concert tickets and I see that someone is selling a mannequin,” she recalls. “I always wanted a mannequin, just for a little art project for my backyard.”

The seller mentioned that he was moving away and there would no longer be a place to rent a mannequin in the Bay Area. Henderson says her training at the Renaissance Center allowed her to recognize an opportunity when she saw it.

She bought the seller’s stock and he promised to give her a list of clients. “I never heard from him again,” she says. “There I am with 50 mannequins in my living room and no client list.” She had missed the deadline for a yellow pages ad, so Henderson put up a website instead.

Within a week, she had a call from someone in Canada who needed to rent a mannequin for a trade show in the Bay Area. Although e-commerce had not yet taken off, “I knew early on that the web was going to be important for my business,” Henderson says. She realized the web was the best way to reach the wider clientele she would need to survive. “I’m definitely one of those seniors that embraced technology with gusto," she says.

Henderson approached every major department store in the region. She knew they were unlikely to rent from her, but she hoped they would provide referrals if people called them about buying or renting mannequins. There, Henderson stumbled on information that would revolutionize her fledgling business. “I found out that retail stores would often throw their mannequins away when they were slightly dated or broken,” she says. “Fashions change and mannequins change along with them.”

Disposing of mannequins costs retailers money because they have to rent dumpsters and pay for hauling. Henderson offered to remove the unwanted mannequins for free or to pay a small fee to the store. “It got expensive [for stores] to throw mannequins away,” she says. “That’s the real green that got their attention.”

Henderson says 80 percent of what she takes from stores is reusable. Recycling allows Henderson to offer used mannequins at a lower cost to customers. “We can sell those mannequins to people who can’t afford a mannequin,” she says. It also allowed her build a business that could support her.

“One thing that’s different about this business and the one that failed before … is I’m really passionate about mannequins, as wacky as it is,” says Henderson. “To be a middle-aged African American woman in the fashion industry is not something that you see very often. I’ve been able to carve out my little niche.”

Photo of Judi Henderson courtesy of Mannequin Madness.

Author: Laura McCamy

Laura McCamy is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She writes about small business, real estate, and development. An avid urban bike rider, she also loves to cover bicycling, urban planning, and the intersection of bicycles and business. Follow her on Twitter @lmcwords.

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