He figured he'd sell the lens afterward -- until he had a flash. Why not rent it out online?
So that September, Cicala set up a free web domain, LensRentals.com. To make it "look like a real business," the Cordova, Tenn., resident -- then an anesthesiologist in a Memphis practice -- included a camera and 15 other lenses he owned.
He promoted the site in online photography forums. Within a week of launching in January 2007, Cicala's entire stock was rented.
Emboldened, he spent $30,000 on more gear and generated $13,000 in revenue the first month. He wrote a business plan for targeting pros and serious hobbyists, and continued to invest his savings, cashing in his 401(k) along the way. In six months he met his three-year goals.
"We were filling a vacuum," Cicala says. "There was only one other company renting gear, and it was smaller." Still, he viewed the venture as a sideline business: "I didn't know whether it could replace my salary."
That changed in 2009, when the company took in $3 million. Cicala then decided to go part-time in medicine; two years later, with his wife's support, he quit.
Drawing a salary of $175,000 from LensRentals.com, he was able to sustain their lifestyle. By that time the business had become a family affair: His daughter and son-in-law joined in 2008 and 2009 respectively; his son signed on in 2010.
Today LensRentals.com is a 42-employee firm with $13 million in annual revenue. This month Cicala spun off a repair and sales operation called the Lens Authority. As CEO of both, he earns $220,000 a year, about what he pulled down as a doctor after insurance and license fees.
"I love what I do every day," he says. Best of all, unlike medicine, "I'm not on call every third night!"
HOW HE DID IT
Amount it took to start up: $800,000
About $550,000 of the money -- which was used primarily for inventory -- came from Cicala's now-liquidated 401(k) and personal savings. The rest was financed by a personal bank loan and credit cards; they have since been paid off.
When he sold part of the business: 2012
Cicala's kids will make 20 annual six-figure payments, which Cicala says takes care of his and his wife's retirement needs. In the next five years he anticipates selling his remaining 37% stake to his family, so he can "travel the world and take pictures."
Projected annual revenue growth for the next three years: 40%
To realize that goal, Cicala will expand his professional inventory to include video and audio gear, which can rent for as much as $1,500 a week. Even as revenues grow, however, he has no desire to increase his salary. "I'd rather build equity in the business," he says.
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