When most people go to the movies, they at best usually get two hours of escapism. But in 1977, when Brick Price, founder and president of Canoga Park-based props, sets and miniature design firm WonderWorks, went to his neighborhood theater to catch the latest blockbuster film, he got a livelihood.
The film that Price saw was "Star Wars." Upon seeing director George Lucas' groundbreaking use of special effects, Price immediately decided that he wanted to break into the movie miniature industry. Taking his life savings, the former aerospace engineer founded a company called Movie Miniatures, which later became WonderWorks.
"I had no business plan at the beginning. If I had known better at the time, I probably never would've done it," Price joked. "When we got started, there was no independent company doing what we were doing. People have tried to break into the industry and they come and go. We've stayed in business for almost 30 years because we've diversified what our company does."
Indeed WonderWorks builds models of space shuttles, space ships, boats, planes, trains, cars and buildings, as well as constructing special exhibits for theme parks, museums and even music concerts. Price might not have been the first person to build miniatures, but he was definitely one of the first to build an independent firm solely dedicated to the construction and design of miniatures of all kinds.
But as Price learned, having a great idea doesn't necessarily guarantee success. Having a creative vision is one thing, but sustaining success in the business world requires more than just artistic ability.
"It was very difficult running the business at first. The minute that I hired my first employee, everything changed," Price said. "We became so successful so quickly that I didn't even realize there were so many hidden rules like workers' comp and other insurance and legal requirements. I had to learn to deal with people on an employer/employee level and I hadn't done anything remotely like this before. The learning curve was painful and expensive."
More than an idea
John Dilts, the president of the Los Angeles and Westlake Village chapters of angel investment group Keiretsu Forum, as well as an entrepreneurship teacher and consultant, maintains that to be successful any businessperson needs more than just a great idea.
"There's a difference between great ideas and great entrepreneurs. There are certain aspects of developing an idea that can make it bulletproof or pressure tested," Dilts said. "Take Walt Disney for example, he used to run each idea through three different perspectives. He looked at them through the mindset of the dreamer, the realist and the critic. You have to have a big vision, but it needs to be realistic and practical as well."
When John Garcia came up with the idea for his video game publishing company, Calabasas-based NovaLogic, the year was 1985 and the first editions of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System were just hitting stores. A playstation was something that your children ran wild on at the local McDonald's. Starting up a video game company was a particularly risky endeavor.
Though he was an entrepreneurial novice, Garcia had worked as a programmer, becoming involved with one of the best selling computer games of the period. Thinking hard about what the computer and video game industry lacked, Garcia decided to start up his own firm.
"I looked at the business model of the old company that I worked at and it was definitely flawed. Most of the games lost money and a few made a huge amount and paid off the losses from the other ones," Garcia said. "I called my company NovaLogic because I wanted to start with a new logic. I wanted to just make the good games and none of the bad ones. That pretty much worked. We started out doing development work for third parties, but in 1988, we began to develop our own intellectual property."
Eventually Garcia segued from the licensing world into the notoriously difficult to crack, game publishing industry. Today, NovaLogic is one of the largest independent video game publishers in the world. As for the reasons behind his success, Garcia attributes it to a variety of qualities.
"It was a huge risk for me. I threw every penny that I'd ever saved. The only thing that I had left at one point was my car. But slowly things increased and then in 1992, the company took off like a rocket," Garcia said. "I think it was a matter of good timing, being in the right place at the right time, and a rare moment of vision. I knew that this explosion was going to occur in the industry."
Kathleen Allen, a professor at the University of Southern California's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, says that recognizing the right opportunity, as Garcia did, is essential for maintaining a successful company.
"Ideas are a dime a dozen. But when you can turn an idea into a business concept, that cures a real pain in the market. That's the secret," Allen said. "If you solve a problem, you will have customers. Entrepreneurs are good at recognizing opportunity in the marketplace and figuring out a way to commercialize that opportunity. You need to pay attention to the world around you, network and look for a problem that needs to be solved."
Filling a need
Mike Weaver and Jim Alexander, two of the founders behind Agoura Hills-based QSonix, Inc. a maker of high end digital music servers, are a quintessential example of recognizing a need in the marketplace and trying to fill it.
"Two and a half years ago, Kelly Gamble (another QSonix co-founder) and I were sitting down and searching for a way in which we could leverage our technology backgrounds to work on a new type of music product," Weaver, the QSonix president, said. "We're both music people and we set out to solve a problem: how to make organizing and listening to your music library simpler. We wanted to get the concept of digital music away from the desk and into the living room."
Bringing in tech industry veteran Jim Alexander to serve as CEO, Weaver, Gamble and fourth co-founder Doron Ben-Zby, delivered the Q100, a device that allows music fans to store their entire music library on a media server and connect this library to different rooms of the house. Often labeled an "iPod on steroids," the Q100 has been attracting buzz in tech circles since its official debut at the beginning of the year, making the cover of Home Entertainment magazine and getting called "the most enjoyable music server ever seen," in the pages of the Robb Report.
But bringing the product from an idea to reality involved huge risks. The company's four founders quit their day jobs and took out second mortgages and various loans to help finance the start-up.
"Everybody had jobs. I was doing consulting and working on corporate turnarounds, but we dropped it all. We're totally committed to our roadmap," Alexander said.
Weaver added that none of the founders were independently wealthy either, adding to the great risks already inherent in starting up a business. Yet Weaver never doubted his odds of success.
"We'd all done the second mortgages and leveraged everything to bring this to market. But we've been pretty confident and bull-headed the whole way through," Weaver said. "One of the things that keeps you going is that I can't think of a single demonstration or presentation when we haven't gotten an extremely positive response. It's definitely been worth it. You know when you've got something special."