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Erika Pope-Gusev, Toy Developer

STAY-AT-HOME MOM Erika Pope-Gusev, now 41, watched her then 8-year-old son quickly demolish a dryer box he’d made into a rocket. After a disappointing search for a better option, the Sarasota resident was inspired to create and launch her make-a-fort-kit company, Fort Magic, in December 2011.

Retailing for $199 online at fortmagic.com and on Amazon, the 382-piece Fort Magic kit includes a series of sticks and connectors of varying shapes and sizes. A full-color instruction manual with 20 designs for small, medium or large forts—castles, pirate ships, airplanes and submarines—is included, though Pope-Gusev says the pieces combine to create unlimited designs.

She relied on networking with local businesses and manufacturers to obtain the materials and construction of the product. Then she researched patents, worked with an accountant to create a business plan and, with her mother, invested $250,000 into the development of a prototype.

Pope-Gusev began to market online and by Christmas that year the company sold 21 units. (To date, more than 2,000 forts have been sold.) The toy received the Tillywig Brain Child 2014 Award, Dr. Toy’s Best Classic 2014 Award, Parents’ Choice Recommended 2014 and the 2014 PAL Award.

She advises other entrepreneurs to reach out to business experts who understand startups.

“You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of stamina and tenacity,” she says.

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