But one Michigan company is moving faster than a speeding bullet — by selling superhero capes.
Livonia-based Superfly Kids makes and sells capes — custom capes, to be exact — for kids and a few adults. And their sales have taken off like, well, Superman.
From 2010 to this year, the company, owned by Holly Bartman and Justin Draplin, has seen its revenues leap from about $260,000 to an estimated $2.4 million. They are expected to double next year.
It all began seven years ago when Bartman's son, Owen, who was turning 4, wanted a superhero party.
"But he didn't want to be Batman or Spider-Man. He wanted to be his own superhero," said Bartman, who taught special education before launching the business.
So, the mild-mannered mom made superhero capes — red ones, blue ones, black ones, all different colors — out of satiny material with lightening bolts and stars on them for the 15 or so kids invited to Owen's birthday party. The kids ran around the backyard, the flowing material trailing them as they went. Other parents and friends were impressed.
One friend told her the capes were so good she should sell them.
A few months later, she did just that.
Bartman, 40, said she initially had no business plan — or any plan at all, really.
Employee Julie Boase sews a custom cape at Super Fly Kids on Thursday, Sept.26, 2013, in Livonia, Mich.(Photo: Andre J. Jackson, Detroit Free Press)
Making capes was a hobby. She sold them online to make a little money. Orders would come in. She'd fill them. Then, even more orders would come. Aft! er a couple of years, the demand grew so big that she ran out of space in her house.
That's when she started renting space for about $160 a month in a Farmington office building, where she met Draplin, now 33.
Draplin, a fearless entrepreneur who thrives off creating businesses, had a marketing company in the same building. Every morning to get into his office, he had to step over material Bartman had rolled out in the hall to cut for her capes.
Curious, Draplin asked her what she was doing. She told him she was in the superhero business.
"At first, I thought there was no way she could make money selling capes," he said. "I couldn't wrap my brain around it."
But later, he did some calculations. He estimated there are about 30 million kids age 7 and younger in the U.S. If they all wanted capes, which Superfly sells at about $30 each, the market could be huge — $900 million.
So in 2009 Draplin went into business with Bartman.
Up, up and away
Bartman was more interested in designing and making the capes than selling them. She welcomed the partnership.
Draplin bought capes from Bartman and resold them through his own website.
After a few weeks, the two entrepreneurs decided to combine their businesses and the enterprise grew even faster. The duo have moved and expanded 10 times. They now work from a 7,600-square-foot factory in Livonia, and the company has 18 employees. They playfully answer the phone: "How can I save your day?"
Mike Siegrist prepares fabric to be made into customized capes at Super Fly Kids on Thursday, Sept.26, 2013, in Livonia, Mich.(Photo: Andre J. Jackson/ Detroit Free P Detroit Free Press)
Inc. Magazine ranked Superfly Kids the second fastest-gr! owing pri! vate company in Michigan, and 227th fastest in the U.S., by revenues in the past three years. The magazine ranked it behind Marketplace Homes, also in Livonia, and ahead of LinTech Global, a software consulting firm in Farmington Hills.
However, the owners acknowledge they made their first big mistake earlier this year when they overestimated how much they would sell in an online promotion. They were left with too much inventory. As a result, they expect their annual sales to be flat this year compared with 2012.
The owners also concluded that to continue growing, they need to open new channels — not just online — to sell to customers.
Despite the super growth curve, the decisions Bartman and Draplin make next likely will be the most challenging, and perhaps scariest, of their partnership.
"It's a critical point in the company, and they have to explore whether they want to bring it to the next level," said Julie Gustafson, executive director of the Macomb-Oakland University INCubator in Sterling Heights. "If they make the wrong decisions, there's a chance of failure."
'A lot of fun'
In many ways, Bartman and Draplin said, they are a good team.
Bartman said she tends to focus on the products and quality control — and takes a slow and steady approach. Draplin wants to grow the company as fast and as big as he can. He calls himself a spaghetti thrower, trying a lot of ideas to see which ones stick.
In addition to capes, the company sells superhero cuffs and masks, T-shirts, tutus, belts, crowns and stuffed toys. It has created its own comic book. (Characters in the book are named Owen, Lily and JJ.)
Superfly Kids even sells a line of adult-sized capes that can be customized with corporate logos. Their merchandise is made in the Livonia plant.
Draplin said he wants to broaden both their product lines and distribution to reach more retailers. He also has contemplated multilevel sales techniques similar to those of Amway and Mary Kay cosmetics.!
To! expand even quicker, they are considering whether to seek outside investors, which could require relinquishing control of the enterprise.
"I never thought I'd be doing this for a living," Draplin said. "This is a lot of fun."