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Making It
Inspired by a childhood of making things herself, a former software saleswoman crafts her own business

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, November 30, 2008

Molly Hamilton still has the original melamine Make-A-Plate she scribbled on when she was 3 years old. Little did she know that, a few decades later, she'd be selling thousands of dollars' worth of her own specially designed dinnerware.

Molly, 37, grew up in a large family, "where you made everything from scratch, whether it was baking or a birthday card or wrapping paper." She attended Boston College and worked in journalism before switching to computer software sales, which she enjoyed for some of the same reasons she did journalism. "You're getting to meet people, learn about all different subject matters," she says. "But it paid better."

The travel required by software sales became a problem when Molly had her first baby in 2002. Having learned a lot about the Internet, she started a Web-based retail business selling monogrammed silver jewelry, then branched into clothing and blankets for kids and adults. None of her products really caught fire until she remembered the Make-A-Plate and started making melamine dishes for kids. Molly thought she was on to something: The plates could be appropriate gifts for everyone from babies to beach-house owners, are easily customizable, don't require sizing and could be shipped directly from the printer.

Molly, who lives in her home town of Potomac with her husband, a financial planner, and children, dubbed her dinnerware Preppy Plates and set out to wholesale it. "I knew you could do a lot more business by having a whole army of people selling than just one Web site. You don't make as much per piece, but I'm selling a lot more pieces."

She bought software to convert her designs to digital images, created a new Web site and came up with a line of samples with designs from kid-friendly mermaids and firetrucks to adult-oriented paisleys, plaids and patterns, all of which can be customized with names or initials. Shortly before her fourth child was born in September 2007, she sent a mass e-mail to retailers across the country advertising the line. Now Preppy Plates are sold by almost 400 retailers, appear in three catalogues and are available at Saks Fifth Avenue's Web site. "It's been quite a year."

Retailers send Molly the orders; she customizes the designs on her computer and e-mails them to the printer, an arm of Make-A-Plate that produces the products and ships them to stores. A single plate retails for about $24; a bowl and plate are $44; a set of four bowls or four plates is $90. Other products include place mats, tumblers and glassware.

In her first year, Molly sold $278,000 worth of Preppy Plates to retailers, about half of which was profit, allowing her to recoup her $42,000 in start-up costs, which included software and legal fees. In September 2007, she had $900 in sales for the month. A year later, she had more sales than that in a day. "It's amazing to me to watch and see the growth, and it's all been organic, through the Internet."

Molly, who had been doing all of the work herself around her children's schedules, recently hired people to help with customer service and accounting and, with a bank loan, is automating the ordering process. But she'll continue designing the plates, and she has a discerning in-house critic. "I know when it needs more work when my 6-year-old says, 'I don't know if that looks too good, Mommy.' "

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail changb@washpost.com.

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