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Windfall Profits

It started as a joke. But Linda Katz's tumbleweed on-the-Web startup isn't just in Kansas anymore

The lowly tumbleweed is a nuisance to most inhabitants of Western Kansas. The Russian thistle bushes are everywhere. They clog drainage ditches, pile up against fencerows, and have even been known to cause traffic accidents.

But the weed is blowing only good fortune to Linda Katz of Garden City, Kan., who is proving that you really can sell almost anything on the Internet. You see, this former real estate agent, who's married to a roofer, sells tumbleweed over the Web.

"It all started as a joke,"says Katz, 49. She asked her son to build her a family Web page so she could communicate with friends and give it the tongue-in-cheeck name Prairie Tumbleweed Farm. Never mind that she didn't even live on a farm, but in a subdivision. Nevermind that you can't cultivate tumbleweed, which spreads its seed as it tumbles in the wind. For authenticity's sake, Katz added a price list ($35 for a big weed, $25 for a midsize one, $20 for the small economy model). And she guaranteed that each tumbleweed was "Y2K compliant" and quality-tested to tumble in even the gentlest of breezes.

Remember, Katz wasn't looking for business, but it found her all the same, thanks to the power of Web search engines. Orders started to pour in from all the places where people love Hollywood Westerns: Alaska, Austria, Britain, Hong Kong, India. Japanese customers proved so eager that she has added a section to her Web site in Japanese. Movie and TV production companies in Britain, Finland, and the U.S. have ordered tumbleweed for props, too, including a $1,000 order for the children's show Barney & Friends. A scientist from New Mexico wanted tumbleweed for research purposes. Many of Katz's newfound customers use tumbleweed to decorate their homes, even in lieu of the traditional Christmas tree.

During Katz's first two months on the Web, the site (www.prairietumbleweedfarm.com) logged 2,000 visitors. By mid-January, the number had grown to more than 56,000. Katz says she's making about 30 tumbleweed sales a week, which suggests revenues of about $40,000 a year.

That may not sound like much, but neither are her costs. She fills orders by grazing Kansas fence lines for tumbleweed and buys her mailing boxes in bulk lots. For labor, Katz uses her five nieces and nephews (aged 11 to 19) to help collect the stuff, and she gives them a share of the profits.

"Isn't the Internet a wonderful thing?" says Katz.

For more entrepreneur files, click Online Extras at frontier.businessweek.comBy Robert Deitz


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