Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
One afternoon in early 2014, an employee of the Manhattan co-working space Coworkrs got behind the handlebars of a large tricycle and began pedaling it through the Flatiron district. The tricycle was outfitted with a small desk; the employee seemed to be sitting at her desk while cycling around the city.
A company called Peddler Pop-Ups had designed the display and rented out the tricycle for use as a rolling advertisement. (The tricycles can also be used as pop-up stores.) Peddler Pop-Ups is one of six companies founded and operated by a 27-year-old entrepreneur named Danielle Baskin. She does not have any employees, and until this month, Ms. Baskinâs businesses had their headquarters in a 160-square-foot live-work space in the East Village.
She credits a variety of relatively new, inexpensive e-commerce platforms and services with enabling her to test new concepts and quickly start new businesses.
Ms. Baskin started her first venture, Inkwell Helmets, in her New York University dorm room in 2008, when e-commerce was much more difficult, and expensive, to break into. As an art student interested in optical illusions, she hand-painted a scene of a blue sky and white clouds on her bike helmet and varnished it to a high gloss. When she wore the helmet on bike excursions around the city, people frequently stopped her to ask where she had gotten it.
âI didnât intend to turn it into a company,â she said. âI just thought it was a cool object. But then, once I made a few designs, I thought, âThere are so many possibilities.ââ
She began painting helmets with different images: a brain, an apple, a phrenology chart, a honeycomb. Initially, she tried to persuade boutiques and bike shops to carry her helmets. But although her products were unique, she struggled to break in to the bricks-and-mortar retail industry. So she decided to sell the helmets online.
Ms. Baskin couldnât afford to invest in a sophisticated website, so she built what she describes as a âreally scrappy-lookingâ one. Customers could look at photographs of the helmets on the site but couldnât order or pay for them there. Instead, they ordered them via email and paid with PayPal.
After her graduation in 2010, she bounced between apartments and live-work spaces. At one point, her studio was a 20-square-foot area in a loft. Later, she rented a 42-square-foot room in a co-working space; she kept such late hours that she often slept there at night.
As Ms. Baskinâs helmet business began to flourish, she came up with ideas for more products and services. Most stemmed from efforts to solve problems she was facing.
While looking for a way to display and sell her helmets at Citi Bike stations, she bought an old tricycle from a friend and turned it into a pop-up store. She realized she could rent out the tricycle when she wasnât using it, and Peddler Pop-Ups was born.
When she wanted to safely search for locations of Citi Bike stations while riding a Citi Bike, she designed a smartphone case that attaches to the rectangular handlebars of the bike. Now she sells the cases, which can be used on other bikes, through Trillobox. She also runs a sign-making business called Signmaker.nyc that serves clients in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. And she sells her own artwork and other products through two other companies.
By the time Ms. Baskin was ready to test these other ideas to see if they had business potential, technology was available that allowed her to easily create professional-quality websites that accepted credit card payments.
These days, more tech firms are catering to small-business owners like Ms. Baskin. âThere are a lot of plug-and-play elements and services you can access to put it all together,â says Leah Edwards, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Now when Ms. Baskin comes up with a new product or business idea, she gauges whether thereâs a market for it by quickly setting up a website using the content-management system Squarespace, which links to a payment processor called Stripe. She then relies on digital analytics tools, including Google Analytics and Inspectlet, to see if an idea is catching on. If so, she begins selling the products right away.
She can also instantly see if a product is striking out. âIf no one is going to a certain site or if no oneâs responding to an email from a certain account,â she said, âmaybe that thing isnât a good idea.â
Until a few months ago, Ms. Baskin handled her own shipping â boxing her products and ferrying them by tricycle to the post office every few days. Now she saves time by mailing them via Shyp, an on-demand shipping service that sends a messenger to her studio to collect the items, wrap them and ship them out.
But building an e-commerce business isnât as simple as putting up a website. âThe problem is that having a little tiny site, say on Shopifyâ â an e-commerce service â âdoesnât get you anywhere unless you put in a lot of work to direct people to it,â Ms. Edwards said. âYou have to actually use Facebook or do email campaigns with your friends and create awareness that it exists.â
To that end, Ms. Baskin has Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter accounts for most of her companies. So far, she has not felt the need to abandon any of her businesses after the early testing period.
Inkwell Helmets is her most successful venture. This year, she said, she has sold 20 to 75 helmets a month, an increase of about 200 percent over 2014. The helmets cost $ 85 to $ 300 apiece, depending on their intricacy.
Still, Ms. Baskin says, despite the help from technological innovations, her workload makes it difficult for her to expand her businesses. Several start-ups have tried to place 200-unit orders for bike helmets painted with their logos, for instance, but she doesnât have the capacity to fulfill the orders because she is solely responsible for product design, fabrication, fulfillment and customer service for all six companies.
To churn out products more quickly, she plans to automate aspects of her production processes. Doing that requires a larger studio space with better ventilation, which Ms. Baskin said would be easier to find in California. So this month, she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she plans to start a fabrication lab next year.
Moving forward, the items will âbe micro-mass-produced, but wonât look like they came out of a factory,â she said. âI want the quality of a handmade aesthetic.â
Ms. Baskin says she plans to design even more products and start even more companies. Sheâll also finally staff up, not with just one or two employees, she says, but an entire âsmall team.â
Despite her move to car-centric California, Ms. Baskin doesnât intend to abandon the two- and three-wheeled modes of transportation that have stoked her entrepreneurial creativity so far. Sheâs planning to buy a folding bike to bring on trains and buses â fodder, perhaps, for her next big business idea.