Don't reinvent the wheel, they say.
But five Naples men have done just that — and expect to make millions with Billboard Wheels, lighted, non-moving hubcaps featuring ads and door panels that match.
Their first target? Taxicabs.
"We just signed one of the largest fleet owners in the United States to an exclusive contract to employ our signs," Billboard Wheels CEO Bruce Sonneborn said, referring to a Chicago owner with 2,400 cabs, in addition to fleets in New York and Baltimore.
"We're sending out contracts tomorrow for Houston and Austin. Dallas is in line. …. And we got a call from Italy."
Almost all calls were unsolicited, he said, prompted by people doing Internet searches and finding the StreetmediaPartners.com and BillboardWheels.com websites.
"Even with Murphy's Law in place, we'll expand beyond the borders of the United States," said Sonneborn, who also is president of marketing and sales. "It's going to be huge. This has the largest profit potential of any business deal I've ever been involved in."
The concept of Billboard Wheels was hatched five years ago by company founder Tom Mooney, who retired from a corporate entertainment management career 12 years ago to focus on developing innovative automotive products and media for auto advertising.
As he sat in an airport watching a McDonald's bag stuck to a golf cart wheel, he realized wheels were valuable real estate that could be transformed into high-visibility advertising.
Mooney enlisted Bill Brown, an engineer for 20 years who specializes in designing and manufacturing high-performance auto parts. Brown helped him refine and design Billboard Wheels, which led to various prototypes, consultants weighing in, road tests and, eventually, the idea to light the hubcap.
Mooney also turned to Thomas Threlkeld, CEO of Nassau Pools for 30 years and the inventor of the Pebble pool finish. Threlkeld then asked Sonneborn to join the team.
"I was in the middle of doing a resort with Michael Douglas in 2008 and all the banks collapsed and so did I," Sonneborn said. "If not for Tom Threlkeld, I would not be here. He asked me to read the business plan. ... It's called coming out of the depths of depression to serendipitous, fortuitous opportunities."
Threlkeld also suggested Brunell, who works for Vistage, a group of CEOs and executives who help businesses. He'd helped Threlkeld before, so Threlkeld asked him to work with Sonneborn on the business plan.
"After a few minutes of conversation with Dan, I realized I couldn't do it without him," Sonneborn said of Brunell's background in safety auto components and overseeing sales teams.
Brunell, who had been retired for five years, had moved to Naples for health reasons and a warm climate. He'd sold his Michigan real estate business and was working as a Vistage chairman, coaching businesses two or three days a week, three weeks a month.
"The rest of the time, I played tennis and lounged by the pool," Brunell said. "I was not really desirous to be back as an entrepreneur."
But the wheel idea intrigued the "serial entrepreneur."
"It's the excitement of building another business that brings me back," he said. "Entrepreneurs don't get involved with things just for the heck of it."
Now he's a board member and chief financial consultant for Billboard Wheels LLC. Mooney is chairman, founder and president of Billboard Wheels; Threlkeld and Sonneborn are CEOs, and Brown is president of manufacturing, engineering and new product development.
In September, they filed papers with the state to form Street Media LLC and three months later, Billboard Wheels LLC. They've been working on the design for months and their newest prototype arrived from China two weeks ago, in time for the product launch in August and September.
"We're considering production in Florida, but don't know yet," Brunell said.
They're not afraid of copycats because a patent is pending — and the engineering design that keeps the hubcap still was difficult to perfect. In addition, the patent process costs more than $100,000, they spent more than $300,000 designing the wheel, and they invested about $1.4 million, including from other investors.
The partners work inside a suite tucked behind a Sherwin Williams store in Northbrooke Plaza in North Naples, but spend their time racking up frequent flier miles and Skyping with their manufacturer, potential overseas clients and others. They immediately focused on taxis due to the success of the roof-toppers that became popular about 10 years ago.
"Once Bruce and I came on board, we studied why the advertising was so important to the drivers and fleets," Brunell said. "With costs so high, including turning over the car every three years, there was a considerable pressure on owners and drivers."
A NYC medallion is now valued at $1.25 million and financing that costs $75,000, in addition to financing the vehicle, he said, pointing out, "One NYC cabbie told me that he paid his first $900 per week, as did his partner, to finance the cab expenses. Advertising helps pay this amount."
"If our sales indicate it's easier to sell each side separately, we will," Brunnell said. "We're just going to do whatever the customer wants."
Depending on the market, the fleet size and length of the ad contract — three, six or 12 months — the monthly cost per cab would be anywhere from $215 to $290 per vehicle, except for New York City and Las Vegas. The price was set to compete with roof ads, which can bring in $700 monthly in major markets.
The team is working 12 hours a day to launch the product here and abroad. Taking the idea from the United States to Europe, they say, will take eight months.