Anxious to get their unproven enterprise off the ground, Kevin and Danya Mendell offered their first customer a price of $50 to organize a child's birthday party.
That was just three years ago. This year, the Mendells' Carmel-based company, Oogles n Googles, is expected to reach $1 million in revenue. The venture has been so successful that parents now shell out $325 to let them entertain their offspring, and up to 12 friends, for a few hours.
But the firm's success is occurring not just in the Indianapolis area, where the couple and about 10 independent contractors threw roughly 500 themed birthday parties last year. It's also happening in cities ranging from Charlotte, N.C., to St. Louis to Phoenix, where Oogles n Googles franchises now exist.
The Mendells granted their first franchise, in Charlotte, in April 2004. Their stable has since grown to 18 and could hit 40 by year's end, said Kevin, whose enthusiastic demeanor is a fitting complement to the kids' concept they created.
"We're pretty much coast to coast," he said. "We would like to be the Starbucks of birthday parties."
They have a long road ahead of them to attain that type of name recognition. But they are off to a nice start, said Kay Ainsley, managing director of Atlantabased Michael H. Seid and Associates LLC. The franchising consultancy assisted the Mendells in their quest to replicate the company.
"I think the concept is fabulous," Ainsley said. "They've managed to take a great idea and turn it into a very solid business concept. It's one thing to have something consumers want; it's another thing to make money at it."
The $20,000 franchise fee-relatively low in the world of franchising-is helping to boost revenue, along with other related proceeds. Besides birthday parties, the local Oogles n Googles takes its pint-size program, which might include song and dance activities, to about 30 area preschools that pay for the services and integrate them into their curricula.
Off and running
Neither Kevin, 38, nor Danya, 40, has a background in children's studies. They are, however, well-schooled in business. They both graduated in 1987 from Indiana University, where they earned business degrees, and wed the following year.
Kevin got a job at the then-upstart Telamon Corp., a Carmel-based telecommunications firm, and was the fourth employee CEO Albert Chen hired.
Danya's human resources background took the couple to St. Louis for five years in the 1990s, where she worked as a regional manager for a temporary staffing agency. They returned to Indianapolis to be closer to family upon the birth of their first child. The Mendells now have three boys who sometimes serve as guinea pigs for their ideas.
Kevin rejoined Telamon but then left his position as senior vice president of business development two years ago to assist his wife with their burgeoning birthday-party startup.
The idea for Oogles n Googles originated when they were searching for a wizardthemed birthday party, in honor of Harry Potter, for their now-10-year-old son, who was turning 7 at the time. Unable to locate any related paraphernalia, Danya suggested they start their own birthday party company. Thinking she was "nuts," Kevin soon relented.
"My issue was that I was just tired of going to parties and spending a lot of money on the decor and the paper goods, and there were no activities for them to do," Danya said.
The Mendells placed an advertisement in a local parenting magazine and received their first phone call in May 2002. With the Indianapolis 500 approaching, the mother wanted a race-themed party for her soonto-be 3-year-old boy.
The couple spent days planning for the event, a fact lost on the little tykes who proceeded to ignore any attempts at structure. Said Kevin: "It was utter chaos."
A few days later the phone rang, and the caller ID displayed the mother's phone number. Afraid of what she might say, both hesitated to answer the call. It turned out the woman wanted to express her gratitude for what she considered a fantastic day. The thank-you gave the Mendells hope that their concept might just have some legs.
Nine months later, they were throwing 20 parties a month.
Too much work
Kevin quit his job at Telamon in February 2003. Chen, his former boss and now an investor in Oogles n Googles, was not surprised.
"He always had the entrepreneurial spirit," Chen said. "I knew this guy would not stay at Telamon forever. He's a superb marketing and sales guy."
Indeed, Kevin handles the promotions side while Danya focuses on the operations end. Their decision to franchise followed a recommendation from Ainsley, who agreed with the Mendells that enough interest existed to warrant more outlets.
In St. Louis, franchisee Michelle Cote is so busy that the hectic schedule is beginning to wear on her. She's looking for a partner to share the load and also is searching for more contractors to work the parties.
"It's a lot more work than I had originally anticipated," she said. "I actually have to turn down parties, which is disappointing to me."
Potential franchisees travel to the Carmel office for an interview process and, if approved, they receive 10 days of training there. A five-year franchise agreement follows.
The basement of the building where Oogles n Googles is headquartered, on Augusta Drive near 96th Street and Michigan Road, serves as party central. The mural-painted rooms provide the backdrop for the parties, although staff will travel off site on occasion.
Children can choose from 14 party themes, including Tea Time, Pom Pom Princess, Rev Your Engines and Super Heroes. Recommended ages are 4 to 10.
Make no mistake, though, the parties sometimes are no laughing matter to parents. When asked whether anything unusual ever occurs at the celebrations-like a youngster getting sick from eating crayons-Kevin could not recall anything significant. But he said some mothers have called as many as 10 times during the week before the event to make sure the day goes off without a hitch.
Said Kevin: "Some of [the parties] you would think are weddings."