In 2014, about two years after starting their first commercial venture, Janie Cooke, BA ’89, and Caroline Nix, BA ’91, faced a playful challenge. The founders of Adventure, maker of the Big O keychain, were working – at the time, running their business in an empty playroom in Nix’s house – when his mother took over. Inventory boxes lined the edge of the room, which still had a Fisher-Price basketball net hanging on the wall. Seeing the two close friends working hard, Nix’s mother said, “I think you should set a goal of selling $ 1 million.” Back then, that number seemed unimaginable – so far they had only sold around 7,500 of their stylish key chains.
Flash-forward to 2021 and first-time entrepreneurs expect to hit the one million-sales mark this year, and there are no plans to slow down. “We want to be like McDonald’s: over a billion people served,” Cooke jokes.
It’s been nine years since the friends founded their Dallas-based business and turned their initial investment of $ 10,000 – $ 5,000 each of their own savings – into a business that had $ 5.4 million in sales in 2019. They are on track to have $ 7.5 million in sales this year. And they have been successful without any experience in starting a business, working as co-CEOs who strive to support each other and other women entrepreneurs.
“When we started, people were like ‘you can’t run it this way, you can’t have a co-CEO,’” says Nix. “We just kept doing it, and it works for us. We kind of defied convention and did things on instinct. It was a real entrepreneurial adventure.
Cooke, 54, and Nix, 52, met at the University of Texas through Cooke’s husband’s brother. “[He] was in my class and was one of the first people I met at UT, ”Nix says. The friends reconnected in Dallas when two of their children started kindergarten together.
Over the years, working mothers have had various careers. Nix worked in human resources and Cooke worked in retail and marketing. But as their kids got older, they found themselves with more free time and both wanted to try something new. On a whim in 2012, Nix invited Cooke to lunch and pitched the idea of starting a business together. Without hesitation, Cooke said yes. “It was so easy. We took the plunge right away, ”says Nix.
“It had never crossed my mind, but I thought it was a great idea,” says Cooke. “Of course, we didn’t have the idea of the business we were going to do.”
Despite the lack of direction or experience, they worked hard, figuring out what they would like to sell. All they knew was it should be something to help make women’s lives easier. Then, coincidentally, they were both late for their date at the restaurant, as the two women were having trouble finding their keys and getting out.
They started researching women’s accessories, and with Cooke’s experience in leather accessories at Neiman Marcus, they determined that the industry hadn’t really changed in 20 years. They also studied the trends, noting that young women were forgoing large handbags to carry only their wallet and cell phone, and they recognized the growing movement towards organizing and simplifying areas of the home.
“Caroline and I thought, Why do women carry everything in their large handbags?“says Cooke.” You can organize your kitchen or your closet, but your purse brings together everything over the years that you might need. “So they came up with the idea to take the trend of simplification and apply it to something that people carry around every day.
They were inspired by the large brass keychain popular in the 1970s, one that looks like a jailer’s keychain, Nix says. They came up with a one-size-fits-all round bracelet design that was comfortable and stylish in leather. They launched the product with a small bundle – just 1,700 key chains – in five colors priced at $ 55 each.
To spread the word, the new entrepreneurs hosted in-home shows for their friends and families. During the holidays, the first batch was sold out. They reinvested what they earned in a larger order. They also made the strategic decision to switch from promoting the keychain as an accessory to selling it as a stand-alone gift item. They named their new business Adventure, a mashup of “O”, representing opportunity and wholeness, and the adventure of embarking on something new.
Soon they were roaming the state and making impromptu visits to gift shops. “Walking into a random store with a glass bowl of keychains, trying to explain the product and coming out with a check was the most uplifting feeling,” Cooke says.
In 2014, a huge opportunity presented itself at the Atlanta Gift Show. Cooke and Nix were not only able to showcase their product to store owners across the country, but they were also able to present it to the team behind “Oprah’s Favorite Things”. After convincing the team that the TV mogul’s life would be made easier with the keychain, Cooke and Nix were thrilled to see the Big O keychain featured as one of Oprah’s “favorite things” in the movie. November 2014 issue of O magazine. The pair described the national exposure as a blast that put the company on a whole new platform.
Over the years, Cooke and Nix have made decisions to grow the business while maintaining strong relationships with the clients who have supported them from the start. They are adding new merchandise to their product line, which includes small pouches, purses, and wallets that attach to the keychain. To keep up with the times, they presented their transparent wristband bag, perfect for game day and approved for DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Instead of partnering with big stores, they remain committed to working with smaller boutiques across the country. This has become essential for their business and the store owners they work with during the pandemic. Oventure implemented a program so that customers could order products from the company’s website, fourture.com, and designate which store would receive the commission. Gestures like this are appreciated by store owners like Courtney Wicks of J. Hoffman’s in Lubbock.
“During COVID, they were great. They sent us stock and tracked all of our orders, ”she says. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, so it’s good to have a business that’s still around and you can reach them and they’ll call us and check and see how things are going. ”
As liberal arts majors, Cooke and Nix believe they didn’t necessarily need business degrees to be successful in this world. Instead, they found that the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they developed at UT’s College of the Liberal Arts helped them. They also believe that just by attending UT, they were given the tools they needed to pursue any new business.
“To start an entrepreneurial business you need courage and determination, and since university is such a big place, I think even studying there requires a little courage and determination,” Nix said.
Today, Oventure has eight employees working in their company’s new office at the Design Center, located in the Design District of Dallas. The Big O Keychain continues to be their flagship product, now with over 100 colors and styles in leather, silicone and vegan leather.
And, according to their business name, Cooke and Nix recently partnered with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas to offer support to other struggling women entrepreneurs after the pandemic and the February freeze.
“Our goal over the next five years is to be successful enough that we can continue to nurture more women in business and ensure that more women entrepreneurs and more women thrive,” Cooke said. “When women support women, we all elevate and prosper and that’s who we really are. ”
Credits (from top): Jason Kindig, courtesy of Adventure