Maxine Clark recites her entrepreneurial philosophy with conviction.
"The main thing if you're an entrepreneur looking for a great business idea is to look straight ahead," Clark, the founder of St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear Workshop, said Thursday afternoon at Wichita State University's Center for Entrepreneurship.
"And to your right. And to your left. That great business idea is staring right at you."
Clark's idea to turn the teddy bear into an interactive parent-child experience mushroomed in 13 years into more than 400 workshops worldwide and a virtual workshop, buildabearville.com.
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"There were a few aha moments, of course, but I think the idea really started with my love of retail, with my love of the experience of going shopping with my mom," Clark said. "It wasn't about buying as much as it was about seeing and experiencing."
Clark had a long and decorated career in retailing, including time as the president of Payless ShoeSource in Topeka.
"It didn't feel like it was fun anymore," she said. "I used to feel like I should be paying them instead of them paying me, and when it started to feel out of balance, I thought there must be something else I could do."
Enter a 10-year-old friend in the mid-1990s and a Beanie Babies shopping trip in St. Louis.
"We couldn't find the one she wanted, so she said to me, 'These are so easy. We could make these,' " Clark recalled.
"She meant go home and make a craft project. I heard something much bigger."
The idea of making stuffed animals as a mall-based retailing experience drew mixed reviews, Clark said.
"Every adult said I was nuts," she said, laughing. "Every child said, 'When will you open?' So I knew I had a winner right there."
Build-A-Bear stores don't save on overhead — supplies and payroll are high, Clark said.
"The customer ends up paying us to let them do the assembly work," she said. "It ends up being a lucrative business model."
The reason: "Product costs," Clark said. "We don't ship it stuffed so it takes up less room in freight, less room in the warehouse.
"And the endless possibilities. We don't have to have endless SKUs (stock-keeping units) for you to make combinations of SKUs that are unique. We can have 80 outfits and 25 animals that can be made into millions of combinations. It's millions of choices without millions of items."
Clark doesn't want to dwell on business models, though: She'd rather plow through the WSU crowd before her speech to talk to the one little blond-haired girl in attendance with her father.
It's those two who are the true foundation of the Build-A-Bear business plan.
"When you make something, when you put your heart and soul into it, it means more to you," Clark said.
"It's creating something that's personalized, something that's uniquely yours and that matters to you."