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Accidental Entrepreneurs Create a Thriving Textile Business

When it comes to theatrical materials, one company is center stage.
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Megan Duckett's business started out just one step up from a hobby. A lighting tech/roadie for touring music acts, Duckett was in need of extra cash. In 1992, using a rented sewing machine in her garage, she took on a side job making props for a haunted house. Soon she was sewing theatrical set dressing of all kinds, piecing together props, curtains and other onstage materials for use by concert tours, theatrical shows and other productions.

After a few years, it became apparent to Duckett and her husband, Adam, that her side project, dubbed Sew What?, had become more than that. "We realized it was generating as much income as a full-time job," she remembers. In 1997 they incorporated the Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based business and hired an accountant and their first employee. "That was a game-changer for us; neither of us had been to college or university, much less business school. The questions from the employees started. We found out that running a business is not like a job. We needed a lunchroom and microwave and more than one toilet stall."

By the end of that first year the Ducketts had three employees and more than $80,000 in sales--all from an 800-square-foot rented industrial space. Growth has been steady ever since. Last year Sew What?, which now operates out of a 16,000-square-foot warehouse and has 32 employees, posted revenue of $5.2 million. A sister rental business, Rent What?, pulled in another $1.5 million.

Duckett's former sideline is now an industry leader, making curtains and other textile props for theaters and a variety of touring productions, from Circus Vargas and the live version of Glee to top music acts such as Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly. One memorable assignment was re-creating Rod Stewart's family tartan in a large enough format that his audiences--even way back in the cheap seats--could see the pattern onstage. (The final waterproof, flame-retardant plaid enlarged the original 1-inch scale to 24 by 24 inches.)

Sew What? also creates and hangs textiles for corporate events, houses of worship or anyone with an unusual fabric need. It even helped Nabisco make it into Guinness World Records by creating the world's largest beach towel (which required a forklift to move).

Such projects help Sew What? generate income consistently despite the ups and downs of the seasonal rock 'n' roll touring business and the few-and-far-between needs of other clients. "A theater does not need new drapes every year," Duckett points out. "It needs new drapes every 10 years." The Rent What? business, launched in 2008, also helps, providing textiles to venues and tours that want them only for limited engagements.

Just as Sew What? transforms stages, the business has worked its magic on Duckett, who realized she had a secret desire to be in the spotlight. For her 39th birthday she took singing lessons and now fronts a hair-band tribute act that plays Iron Maiden and Whitesnake tunes. "This is the most exciting industry I can imagine," she says, "but the band lets me go beyond the backdrops."