Mary Hickey: Found a Niche and Filled It

mary_hickey_june_2014I’m chatting on the phone with Mary Hickey, and we are giggling and gabbing away for at least ten minutes, forgetting that the reason I called was to interview her about her business. It’s easy to see how she’s built two successful careers, first in sales and marketing, and then as an entrepreneur.  Her gregarious personality certainly helped put her on a great first career path, but it was her desire for warm weather that really motivated her.

Hickey graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1985 with a BA in communications, and a specialty in marketing, and within four days found herself in California. “I needed to get out of dodge and into the warm weather.”

She landed in a pre-internet-boom San Francisco, and with no friends or family to rely on, knew she had to hustle to land a job and make a living. In a sign of just how much things have changed in the nearly 30 years since then, Hickey’s first “real job” was selling coupon books for Entertainment Publications, followed by a sales job with the Pacific Sun newspaper where she was responsible for selling time on their printing press.

She was supporting herself and living her California dream in Mill Valley, but at just 24 she was already bored having already learned the ropes of the job. “I had always wanted to be in sports somehow and had recently volunteered at the TransAmerica Open tennis tournament, so I thought I’d call them and poke around and pitch myself for a job.”

When she called the tennis organization, instead of reaching a lowly assistant or intern on the phone, Hickey spoke with the tournament owner himself, Barry MacKay, the famous tennis player and commentator-turned-entrepreneur.

“It would be like today getting Rodger Federer on the phone when you called his organization,” said Hickey. “I was so taken aback but continued, ‘Hi, I’m Mary Hickey and I’d like to help the tournament make some money and sell sponsorships for you.”  MacKay liked the proposition and told her to come in for an interview.

Months later, she asked him why he hired her. “I had no experience in sports marketing! I guess I had a little bit of chutzpah, but Barry said, ‘I have all these people calling me saying, ‘I’m John McEnroe’s cousin twice removed, and what does that get me? I’ll tell you – someone who has a connection, but needs a lot of training. You called and told me you could make me some money.”

She did make him some money and then leveraged that job into a string of successful sales and marketing jobs – managing the Virginia Slims’ tennis tournaments, licensing for video-game company Sega, and doing client services at an ad agency.

“The agency job was good for my nature because it was fast moving and I never got bored. For me, sitting and doing the same thing over and over is like factory work.”

But in the late nineties, Hickey got the Internet bug. “Everyone else was making it big in the Internet business, so I decided it was time for me to get rich. I moved to and promptly got poor.”

Like so many other start-ups in the dotcom heyday, Hickey’s shares went from being worth $4 million on paper to $4K in a matter of months. “If that’s not enough to give you whiplash I don’t know what is. But I didn’t learn my lesson. I tried working at AltaVista, but of course I picked the search engine that didn’t make it.”

Hickey gave up her dreams of Internet gold and took a stable consulting job at Cisco Systems. It was lucrative but didn’t feed her soul. But it gave her an epiphany. “I was almost 40 and I thought to myself, I don’t want to find myself chasing this hourly rate when I’m 50. I wanted to be my own boss by then.”

So Hickey looked at her time at Cisco as a way of stashing away enough money to either buy investment real estate or launch her own company. Making a significant hourly rate, in just three years she was able to amass a sizeable nest egg on top of her retirement savings. “Had I decided to invest in real estate then, my investments would have at least doubled, but no, I decided to start this death business,” she chuckles.

The death business actually turned out to be a great idea.

Hickey and an old friend, Bob Wheeler, whom she met through a friend at Cisco Systems and stumbled upon the concept for Renaissance Urns after Wheeler’s own mother died. He had made an urn for her ashes in a pottery class, and when the funeral director saw it “he went nuts” and asked if he had more. Wheeler had no interest in becoming a potter himself, but Mary thought that this was the inspiration she had been waiting for. She went to a local funeral home in North Beach pretending to look for urns and understood why Wheeler’s urn had been a hit. “They were dated, awful and expensive, but what really cemented the idea was my parent’s enthusiasm. They’ve been married for 57 years and have never agreed on a business idea, but they both thought this was brilliant.”

With the Catholic Church recognizing cremation, it was becoming a more popular option for baby boomers making their parents’ funeral decisions. And the industry hadn’t seen a new player in a long time.

Hickey and Wheeler each invested just $2500, hired a couple of artists, quit their day jobs and hit the road selling their first batch of urns to funeral directors up and down the coast of California. Initially called Urns as Art, the pieces sold wholesale for $150 to $250 each. They sold out but the repeat orders did not come. They scratched their heads in disbelief.

Around that time, Hickey came across a beautiful silk covered plastic box for transporting ashes online and had her second brainstorm. She found a manufacturer in Oakland to produce them and together she and Wheeler set up a website to sell them to a broader audience.

The boxes caught the attention of the press with the Wall Street Journal dubbing them “Kate Spade-esque” and Reuters pointing out the practicality of traveling with them in the post-9/11 era of x-ray machines.

“That’s when the rubber really hit the road,” says Hickey. “Sales took off, and we thought we had it made.”

Rebranded as Renaissance Urns, the pair were still discouraged to be working really hard and not pulling in as much money as they thought they would. “We went through all our costs of websites and logos and office equipment and ran the numbers and figured we needed to make $1000 a day to pay for the cost of doing business and clear a profit.”

So they made a few changes. First, they built a direct-to-consumer website And instead of doing 80% of their business to wholesalers the ratio flipped and the business took off even more. “That helped us a lot because we didn’t have to give a cut to someone else.”

But they still weren’t making what they thought was a reasonable income, and – when they decided the target number was actually more like $2000 a day – Wheeler decided to leave the business and got his real estate license. “It really helped me having the right business partner in the beginning because he was great at the details – setting up invoicing and quick books, and he called me the pit bull because if anyone said no to me I’d just go to the next person. So I had a really good foundation when he left.”

The sole proprietorship proved to be the right formula for Renaissance Urns. Hickey now produces some of her products in China with partners in the U.S. who can ship directly so she has little inventory and counts as one of her resellers. Twelve years into the business she jokes, “I’m getting rich in this business but very, very slowly.”

And despite the fact that Hickey hopped around in her early career because she “didn’t want to feel like a factory worker” she says the day-to-day is still rewarding with challenges like finding new products to design and new sales channels to sell through. “I miss the energy I would get from other people in the office, but not enough to go back.” As for regrets? Hickey’s only one is not starting sooner. “I’m 51 now and I think, gosh, if I had started at 35 instead of 40 where would I be now?” But there’s no time to dwell on that – there are too many new products to dream up.

You can find Mary’s company at:

Mary Hickey’s Business Tips:

  • Business partners are like marriage, success rates are not good. You have to support two people so the business needs to make twice the income. This puts a lot of pressure on a new business. If you can, go it alone. If you do decide on a partner, make sure they have skills that you don’t. Ideally their strengths are your weaknesses. Also, get your business agreement in writing before you start.
  • Have a sizable cushion before you start (6–12 months living and business expenses). Businesses are like house projects, they take twice as long and cost twice as much as you expect. If you don’t have that much money see if you can use OPM (other people’s money): angel investors, friends, family, Kickstarter, etc.
  • Think of ways to make money while you sleep. It’s nice to wake up richer than you went to bed without having to do anything. I wrote an ebook (Planning a Celebration of Life, A Simple Guide for Turning a Memorial Service into a Celebration of Life) and I sell it digitally through Amazon and my website I also invested in real estate, single family rental homes, when it finally became affordable in 2010.

Questions for Mary about starting a business? Post them here:

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