Today we offer a tale from the nation's small-business capital which--because that capital is Southern California--begins with a car. The car belongs to a homeboy, and on the rear window is the hot homeboy fashion: a Nike swoosh as long as a homeboy's arm.
Homeboy displays said swoosh to fellow homeboys, who go looking for their own swooshes. A niche market is born. And from there, we go to a small-business man named Ralph Rodriguez, who brings us today's letter from the entrepreneurial underground.
"It all started at the swap meet," Rodriguez sighs, sitting at his home in Santa Ana, which is also the headquarters of Fantasy Stickers, the business he launched four years ago. It wasn't a big business, but the product was a local staple: window stickers for Southern Californians' cars.
"Baby on Board" stickers for the BMWs of La Canada. "Bad Boy" eyes for the truck-campers of La Verne. "X-Files" aliens. Variations of the spike-haired cartoon boy, Calvin, altered so that he appears to be, um, doing the human equivalent of lifting his leg on the words "La Migra" or "Chevy" or "Ford."
The product is part of that high-tech, home-based economy you've heard of. You just copy a design, hook up a scanner and a special cutting tool to your home computer, invest in some vinyl and, voila: instant decal factory.
The equipment is cheap, the markup healthy. The decals cost pennies to make, go wholesale for about $1 and retail for about $5 apiece.
There's just one catch: The best-selling decals tend to be the ones on which someone holds a copyright.
"Most of those things, you try to sell 'em at retail stores, the big boys will come and confiscate 'em," observes Steve Stearns, who owns a bigger decal business in Huntington Beach. "You try to sell Mickey Mouse flippin' somebody off, you don't think Disney's gonna come after you?"
Actually, Rodriguez hadn't given that angle much thought. "I mean, they were only stickers, you know? Also, I bought them right out of a catalog this company was handing out at a big trade show in Las Vegas. You see somebody at a huge convention in Las Vegas, are you gonna think they're a bootlegger, or do you think they're legit?"
Rodriguez ordered a bunch and took them on the swap meet circuit. Customers loved them.
Then one day, "this guy came up and said, 'I'm an exporter-importer, and I export back East and to Israel and I want to carry your stickers. Do you make 'em yourself?'
"Now in this business," Rodriguez explains, "you have to tell people you make 'em, or else they'll look down on you. That's the only way to drum up business, is custom orders. So I told the guy I made 'em, even though I didn't, but I just said that. And he said, 'Can we meet later?' And I said, 'Come to the house. I'll take your order tonight.' "
It was a whopper. The guy was ordering in lots of 500. "He wanted the Fila, the No Fear, the Oakley, three sizes of the Nike. It was $4,500; it added up."
Rodriguez was ecstatic. He stood to net two grand. When the order came in, he told his kids to get ready, he was going to treat everybody to lunch. He was so excited, it didn't occur to him that there might be something odd about a client who wanted to pick up his order in Lynwood in a Food 4 Less parking lot.
"He goes, 'I got the money; lemme see the stickers,' and I opened the trunk and like two seconds later, I'm like hit by all these sheriffs, and I go, 'I didn't make 'em, screw you guys!' And they're like, 'Who did?' and I'm like, 'You guys can kiss my you-know-what!' "
Of course, they were bootlegs. En route to the station, Rodriguez got a short course in the law from the boss of the so-called buyer: Kristopher T. Buckner, private eye. Buckner, too, was a businessman, though he had been a deputy until an incident involving a car crash and a barroom brawl.
Fortunately, this is the land of many niche markets, and Buckner had found one: protecting big businesses' intellectual property. His cases range from big counterfeiting operations to smaller trespasses, such as fake swooshes, and he frequently coordinates with his old friends, the local deputies.
Rodriguez reports that, after the bust, Buckner took everyone to a warehouse, where he gave bootleg T-shirts and ball caps to the lawmen. The miffed vendor thought it was payola, but Buckner said they were samples, intended to educate. If they were also good customer relations, Buckner didn't say.
As for Rodriguez, last month he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of selling trademarked goods. His punishment: a $100 fine.
Fortunately, the homeboys have been asking for a new decal, a "psycho-devil" face created by a local tagger. Rodriguez can only hope it's not a copyrighted design.
Shawn Hubler's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.