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Made in the USA: The End of 'One Size Fits All'

Thanks to the Web and manufacturing technology, consumers can now customize virtually anything -- from dress shirts to cereal. A look at the innovative startups that are quite literally giving the people what they want.

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It's personal: DNA11, which makes artwork based on your DNA or fingerprints, is one of many companies taking customization mainstream.When Ike was president and the Baby Boomers were young, consumerism was about conformity -- in 1962, Malvina Reynolds sang "Little Houses," a song that referenced the homes, people and children who "all look just the same." But the Boomers' offspring have decided that "same" is boring, and to help meet that demand, today's entrepreneurs are rebelling against the big-box stores and coming up with something a little more unique.

Shopping is no longer about fitting in. It's about standing out and declaring your individuality. It's about picking and choosing from all the options and having your own product, one permutation out of millions of possibilities that was made specifically for you (like your very own Pandora radio station). Fortunately, a bevy of creative startups in a variety of industries cater to the bespoke shopper without breaking the bank. And aspiring entrepreneurs should take note -- with today's technology, starting a mass-customization business is easier than you think.

A New Era of Customization

The premise of customization isn't new -- products and apparel were handmade and hand-stitched prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the cobbler and the tailor made custom shoes and clothes. In the modern shopping world, the most prominent example of mass customization is NIKEiD, which was launched in 1999 and allows customers to design their own sneakers using a variety of materials and colors. Dell, Levi's and General Mills tried the trend, but didn't experience the same success as the iconic shoe brand. Today's mass customization seems to be finding its place in e-commerce, where it can be applied to many industries.
  • Art. Bioimaging company DNA11 marries art and science -- they'll turn your DNA (via a cheek swab), fingerprint, or pursed pucker into an personalized piece of decor. Prices range from $200 to $1,000, which is relatively inexpensive when you consider that it's a designer piece of high-end art sold in the Museum of Modern Art Store. For a less expensive but still unique gift, DNA11's sister company CanvasPop makes custom prints of photos that are perfect for home decor or gifts. Basically, DNA11 is the antithesis to that trite Breakfast at Tiffany's print from Ikea and Kandinsky's circles you find in many apartments these days.
  • Chocolate. Chocolate has always been an affordable luxury. Now Chocri offers customized chocolate bars that you'd never find readymade at a sweet shop. The first Chocri bar was actually a last-minute gift for co-founder Franz Duge's girlfriend, featuring her favorite treats on a white chocolate bar -- a combination that couldn't be found in stores. It might cost $8, which is several times the price of a Hershey's or Nestle bar, but "you can really make the chocolate bar of your dreams, and that has more value for consumers," says Carmen Magar, the U.S. CEO of Chocri who studied mass customization throughout her University of Chicago MBA program.
  • Dress Shirts. Especially in a recession, when people might not be willing to splurge for Burberry or Thomas Pink, they can spend their money on something that's more personal and reflects their individuality in a unique way. After all, much of a high-end item's price can be attributed to the brand itself -- so Danny Wong created a custom dress-shirt company called Blank Label. "The idea is that we're not trying to be a label or a brand," Wong says. Blank Label allows consumers to be their own brands and the website even allows users to craft their own "designer label" on the shirt to emphasize it's theirs. There's also ShirtsMyWay.com, which "offers the same price level [of a standard shirt], but with all the personalization and customization," says co-founder Peter Crawfurd.
  • Family Trees. Entrepreneur Brian Backus started his business Kidlandia to entertain and educate kids with their own family tree. By personalizing maps of "fantasy kingdoms" to include names of relatives, a kid named, say, Matt can learn about geography, spelling, and his family in a map of "Mattland" that has towns and beaches named for family members. As a child grows older, he can use the Kidlandia map to learn spelling and map-reading skills, all while feeling a sense of attachment to his relatives. "It's the story of you," Backus says.
  • Fragrance. The Perfume Studio, based in the United Kingdom, takes customers on "a sensory journey" to create a custom blend from 18 base fragrances that cover the entire palette -- citruses, woods, spices and florals. "Why wear what everybody else wears when you can wear your own?" says spokeswoman Sue Philips.
  • Cereal. Mass customization can even be applied to something as quotidian as cereal. Take Adam Sirois and Alexander Renzi, former college teammates who quickly learned that the dining hall's runny eggs and sugary cereal wouldn't cut it on the soccer field. They began taking trips to Whole Foods to stock up on grains and granola, and realized they probably weren't the only ones mixing their own cereals as an alternative to Frosted Flakes. Their realized the size of their potential market when they discovered that 95 percent of American households buy cereal. Now two years in, their Me & Goji allows customers to build their own cereals online. The company's website updates nutrition facts in real time, giving consumers the flexibility to monitor their sugar, fat and fiber intake and create a cereal for their individual health and dietary needs.
  • Bicycles. Villy Customs, based in Dallas, is a big bike company's worst nightmare. Owner Fleetwood Hicks recently made a custom ride for Dallas Cowboys marketing vice president Jerry Jones Jr., emblazoned with blue and silver pinstripes, the Cowboys logo and the years in which the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Schwinn just can't offer that degree of customization. With 29 frame colors, 14 fender colors, eight chain colors, 45 pinstripe colors and 11 styles of tires, Villy Customs is all about remarkability. "You gotta have something eye-catching these days," Hicks says. "We took things to the next level."

And while convention dictates that custom-made goods are pricier than mass-produced, store-bought items, many "co-created" goods undercut their top-tier competitors. A Chocri bar is less expensive than a comparable Ghirardelli bar. A custom Villy bike averages $500, while a standard Schwinn cruiser is anywhere from $299 to $649. A DNA11 piece might cost $800, but an artist's piece could easily run $5,000. Plus, there is added value in the experience of creating your very own product.

"Consumerism is at an all-time low, so if people do purchase things, they want something that has meaning," says Adrian Salamunovic, co-founder of DNA11. In a world that's becoming increasingly cookie-cutter, Salamunovic and his co-founder, Nazim Ahmed, are on a mission to restore individuality to people's homes and lives.
Take Katie Roek, an attorney in Minnesota. As she's become a more picky and health-conscious eater, she's found that the grocery store doesn't always offer products to fit her needs.

"I've become more conscious about ingredients, and choosing a cereal with no sugar is way harder than I thought," Roek says. She calls Me & Goji a "one-stop shop" -- and she orders a few batches at once with a simple click of a button. "It's more convenient than mixing my own cereals and I know I'm getting exactly what I want."

Perfect Fit for Small Business

We've seen big businesses try to adopt the mass-customization model, but NIKEiD is one of the few that have really made it work. The customization trend seems ideal for small businesses, which are more niche and tend to be more innovative. In fact, the chocolate company Ritter recently invested in Chocri's operations so it could get in on customization without reorganizing their production process. And while the recession has made it tough for startups to get funding, mass customizers have capitalized on the fact that they don't need much capital. Because everything is made to order, there are no receivables and no outstanding invoices, making cash flow less of an issue.

Salamunovic and Ahmed each invested $1,000 at the get-go and made a few prototypes, but the rest of the business was financed by pre-orders. In five years, DNA11 has become a multimillion-dollar company.

"You can't get that return on your money in other businesses," Salamunovic says.

And don't forget the social media boom, which is all about individuality and personal identity. Social media has trained consumers to be me-centric, even picking who and what to follow to create a personalized information flow, Magar notes. Social media also make it easy for small businesses to reach out to consumers -- and for consumers to spread word of the brand.

"Social media is a valuable tool for any customization business, because customers love to share what they create and the brands they identify with," Sirois says.

Early adopters of these design-your-own products are likely to be more tech-savvy and socially connected, which means they'll share their creation on social media sites. And that leads to viral marketing. Consider it narcissistic consumerism, but shoppers will forgo loyalty to a big-name brand and opt for the brand that engages them, the brand that is their own -- especially when the companies make it easy to re-order the customized product online, according to mass-customization expert Frank Piller.

Generational Divide

It's obvious that customization can be a successful business model, one that's often easier to launch. So why are we just seeing a surge now? It might have something to do with "the me generation."

"We're so used to everything being catered to us -- maybe it's the entitlement of Generation Y," Magar says. "Everything has to be the way we want it to be."

And Magar says you'll notice that customizers tend to be young. Duge and Michael Bruck were 22 when they launched Chocri in 2008, Magar is 25. Me & Goji's Sirois and Renzi are 26, Salamunovic and Ahmed launched DNA11 at 28 and Blank Label's Danny Wong is 19.

These 20-something entrepreneurs came of age with the Internet. They spent their teenage years in the dot-com bubble, were fully wired and connected in college thanks to Facebook and iPhones and started their businesses just as Twitter exploded. They're the first generation that grew up with fully immersed in technology, and they've had the ingenuity to marry technology and manufacturing to sell a tangible and unique product.

Still, Piller says mass customization always will be a niche business. "Even in the most promising industries, like clothing, it never will be more than 15 to 20 percent of business," Piller says. Because the business model necessitates high involvement from the consumer, the co-creation model "will never overtake normal business," he adds. "But it's a really profitable large niche."

Tags: Blank Label, Chocri, custom, customization, DNA11, inventions, Kidlandia, Made in the USA, mass customization, Me Goji, Perfume Studio, ShirtsMyWay, starting a business, startups, unique business ideas, Villy Customs

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