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Computer Accessory Maker Finds Sweet Success in Danville

Resident Tim Hickman finds niche in computer accessory market.

Days before Apple launched its new iPad tablet computer in San Francisco January 27 a smart and stylish case for the new gadget was taking shape at Danville's Hard Candy Cases.

Hard Candy, a tiny start-up designing premium cases for Apple laptop and PC netbook computers, had just been founded in November. Yet within its first 30 days of sales, the company clocked revenue of $150,000. Before the end of 2010, founder and CEO Tim Hickman expects to see revenue of several million dollars.

"It's pretty fun to go from zero to rocking out like that," said Hickman.

But Hickman, who lives in Danville with his family, is barely starting from scratch. In 2001, he started and ran the Palo Alto-based Apple accessory-maker Speck Products.

During that experience, he learned the ins and outs of the accessory business and what he believes to be the key elements of success in the sector: timing, design, style and management.

A play for right timing is largely what launched the company. The surging popularity of netbooks provided an opening similar to that created by the iPad—a new category of devices without an established market leader. With sales of the mini laptops growing from $285 million to $3 billion in 2009, according to the market research firm DisplaySearch, Hickman saw an opening. So too did the angel investors backing the private company.

To tackle style and design, Hickman brought on Brentwood-based industrial designer David Adam, whose concepts are behind Hard Candy's plastic multi-colored bubble-themed and rubber ruggedized case lines.

"You need to have enough design and style to stick out but enough mainstream likability to help retailers make the money they want to make," says Hickman.

But proper management may be the most important factor, says Hickman. Hard candy has no patents, he said and there's no real barriers to entry in the case business, aside from the cost of tooling up a manufacturing line.

For an advantage, Hickman relies on hard-won expertise in controlling inventory, cash flow and forging crucial retail placements, such as the spot Hard Candy has in Apple's online and national retails stores.

The value of such placements is clearly illustrated by another Danville company, Meridrew Enterprises, which makes iKlear and Klear Screen brand computer cleaning products.

Meridrew, founded in 1992 by technology marketing executive John Younghein, has found long-term success as Apple's go-to supplier of cleaning fluids, cloths, wipes and kits. The company, which originally sold its cleaning solution to cleanse CDs now sells kits geared at everything from iPhones to HDTVs.

Much like Hard Candy, Younghein and his wife, Meridrew's owner and CFO, have positioned their company as a premium accessories supplier, using highly designed packaging and marketing to set it apart from commoditized competitors.

Apple customers spend three times as much on accessories as PC users, said Younghein, because they have often purchase the Apple hardware with their own money, instead of receiving it as business equipment from their employers.

Like Hard Candy, Meridrew employs about five people in its Danville office El Sobrante Drive. Meridrew also employs about 75 more workers with full-time manufacturing jobs in Benicia, Antioch and Concord.

Both Hickman and John Younghein cite Danville as a great place to do business despite the town's higher cost of office space when compared to neighboring cities. For both, its a logical base of operations not far from home and a great base from which to run businesses with international reach and easy access to Apple, a crucial source of business and connections for both companies.

Compared to San Ramon, from which Hickman and his family moved in 2007, "Danville has a little bit more culture, a little bit more pizazz, a little bit more style," he said.

Michael Fitzhugh February 27, 2010 at 08:25 PM
Interested in learning more about the market that Hard Candy and Meridrew compete in? The Wall Street Journal posted an interesting article Friday that addresses the sector: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703795004575087583594732288.html

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