ThinkGeek

Willie Vadnais, Co-founder

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- ThinkGeek is one of those magical brands whose multimillion-dollar success stems from nothing but authenticity. No agencies, no marketing strategies -- nothing but a few IT guys back in 1999 who thought it would be fun to sell a funny inside-joke-style T-shirt to all the other long-suffering men and women on the frontlines of the creation of the internet. So they did. That original "Got Root?" T-shirt sold out. And this year ThinkGeek is expected to sell close to $65 million in merchandise and has more than 400 T-shirt designs available to all manner of geek.

"We focused on a niche, but we were that niche," said co-founder Willie Vadnais. "We were the customers." Even though most of the merchandise sold by ThinkGeek is not available at mainstream retailers such as Target or Walmart, part of its success is that there is a little bit of geek in everyone. "A lot of the stuff we carry does appeal to a lot of people. 'Star Wars' is a very popular movie, and that's one of the things we've sold the most over the years -- light sabers, the ones that light up," Mr. Vadnais said.

Back in the 1990s, Mr. Vadnais, 40, started a dial-up internet service in Northern Virginia with three friends. Soon the sideline of selling T-shirts -- "Chicks dig UNIX" -- earned real money, so the friends decided to make it into a business. ThinkGeek expanded into products like the popular Star Trek Pizza Cutter and the trendy Bacon plush toy that says "I'm Bacon!" when squeezed. But it's not just the merchandise that makes the customer feel "geeky" -- it's the 360 degrees of geek philosophy. From the packaging to the customer service, all are steeped in the geek culture. "We understand the people we're marketing to," Mr. Vadnais said. "It's a gut feeling."

Perhaps another reason for ThinkGeek's success is the proliferation of technology and what Mr. Vadnais calls "the ascendancy of the geek."

"But we have not been called out as jumping on the geek bandwagon because we have been around since the early days."

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