Keego Harbor, MI (PressExposure) May 24, 2011 -- Vladimir Gendelman already was running his own Web design shop when he was captivated by a brand of metal artwork, H&K Sculptures, which are made in Germany and sold through gift shops and other venues in the United States.
Gendelman liked the kitschy objects, which use odds and ends of scrap copper and steel to form characters ranging from baseball players to business card holders. In 2007, on an impulse, he contacted the distributor and created a no-frills online store to sell H&K artwork. The first iteration of Metal Imagination, as he dubbed the company, didn't even have an online checkout process.
"I was afraid they wouldn't sell because they are rather expensive," said Gendelman, noting that H&K pieces average $80 to $90 each. "But I liked them so much that I wanted to be involved with them somehow.
"And they took off like crazy. When people started calling to buy them as unique gifts, I said, 'Oops,' and redid the website."
Even during the recession, Metal Imagination sold thousands of units a year, Gendelman said. Some sales are to individuals, but a significant chunk of the business involves corporate sales. Because many of the H&K sculptures are suitable as office or desk art, and many pieces are functional - like wine bottle holders and business card racks - they're popular as business gifts, the 36-year-old entrepreneur said.
Many designs feature caricatures of various professions and occupations, and Metal Imagination will work with clients to develop custom sculptures on request.
"A dental specialist might order little dentist sculptures as thank-you gifts for dentists who make referrals," Gendelman explained. "Or a company might make them presents to employees, or sales people give them to their clients. One company bought 75 reindeer wine bottle holders as holiday gifts for employees."
Interestingly, though, Metal Imagination does not cold-call prospective clients or otherwise use active sales tactics. Instead, the company lets customers come to it.
Gendelman relies on Internet tools such as search engine optimization to help customers locate Metal Imagination.
He and his workers - 13 employees who also staff Gendelman's Web design firm and related businesses - monitor search engine results every day and tweak the coding of the online store site with phrases like "doctor gifts" to make sure it pops up high in Internet searches.
Social media marketing also is key; the company is on Facebook, Twitter, deals sites and even YouTube, touting seasonal gift ideas for occasions such as graduation and Father's Day.
"Our whole concentration is on being found by potential customers," Gendelman said.
That's in line with national trends among online retailers. According to a new report by Shop.org and Forrester Research, 72 percent of online merchants say they'll boost investment in social media marketing this year, while 75 percent said they'll devote more resources to search marketing.
The only downside for Metal Imagination: H&K Sculptures pack such an artistic punch that - collectors excepted - they're usually a one-to-a-person gift.
"You would not necessarily give them to the same recipient twice," said Gendelman. "Fortunately our corporate customers have new clients, new employees every year, so we do get repeat business."
To keep things fresh, Gendelman is looking for other suppliers. He recently added a Kentucky-made line of metal sculptures, Yardbirds, which features animal motifs for home and garden décor.
"And of course, my ideal would be to find a local Michigan supplier," Gendelman said.
The experience of turning a whim into a thriving company fits with Gendelman's business philosophy.
"It's not about how you do things," he said. "It's about doing them," he said.