Photo by Janet Hostetter.
Photo by Janet Hostetter.
Martha Morris knows a good idea when she sees one. In the past 22 years Morris has founded three successful businesses without an MBA or a boat load of investors.

What she did have was instinct, good timing and smarts.

Play It Again Sports is Morris’s most well-known venture. In 1983 she founded this retail chain, which buys, sells and trades used and new sporting goods. At the time, the 29-year-old Morris didn’t fit the prototype of a successful entrepreneur. She had no college degree, no business plan and no major financial backers.

“When I look back,” Morris said, “it’s such an amazing thing. I started Play It Again with so much innocence. I didn’t know a business was hard to start. I didn’t know you needed an education or connections. I didn’t know there was a right or a wrong way to go about it.”

Morris was struggling to find a direction at the time. A St. Louis Park native, she had enrolled at the University of Minnesota after high school, but classes bored her. She didn’t know what she wanted study, so she left college to do what she really wanted to do: work in a bookstore on campus. She stayed there for seven years and left only because she was fired. “I was

devastated,” she remembered. “But it was a good thing because I’d probably still be there.”

The loss of her job left Morris without a clear goal.

“I just didn’t know what to do with life,” she confessed. “I went on this soul-searching trip across the country. I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. I thought it would be great. I thought I’d hike for two or three months. I lasted two or three days,” she laughed. “And I cried most of that time.”

Instead of going home, Morris drove around the country and camped out of her car for the next year. When she finally returned to the Twin Cities, she was broke. She started selling her belongings. Her couch went, as did her stereo. Eventually, Morris picked up the backpack she’d taken on her short-lived Appalachian hike. She took it to consignment stores around town, but nobody wanted it. One man finally told her, “I don’t want to sell used sporting goods.” A light bulb went off in Morris’s head. If he didn’t want to sell used sporting goods, she would.

She scouted a storefront in Minneapolis at 35th Street and Hennepin Avenue. The building had been vacant for a long time and rent was low. A friend loaned Morris a few thousand dollars to get started. She signed a lease, started shopping garage sales and put an ad in the paper for used sporting equipment. Everything came together.

“I got a lot of press,” Morris explained. “It was this new idea. Back then, people weren’t even recycling. The timing was good.”

In three years’ time, she opened a second store in Brooklyn Park. Shortly after, a third opened in Burnsville. Soon, customers started calling from Canada, Colorado, Florida and other far-flung places, wanting her to open stores near them. Morris taught herself about franchising and founded the Play It Again Sports Franchise Corporation. In 1991, just eight years after she’d opened her first store, she sold Play It Again Sports, but stayed on as a figurehead and consultant.

Today Play It Again Sports is owned by Winmark Corporation, and has more than 430 storefronts; the company also owns Once Upon a Child, Plato’s Closet, Music Go Round and other chains. Morris’s only remaining tie to the company is as a stockholder.

After the sale, Morris became a motivational speaker who focused on the true bottom line of business—which she sums up as “enjoying the moments of your life”—but she felt she was floundering. “I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to say,” she said. “I’d had all this success, but I hadn’t yet integrated what had happened to me with any business lessons. Most of what I’d done, I’d done unconsciously. It had all happened so quickly.”

She trimmed her speaking commitments and refocused on herself. She had a husband now, and a new baby boy. She began practicing yoga. “I think people need a way to find their center and find peace inside. Yoga does that. I started watching my son and thinking that yoga would be good for kids, that it could teach kids to be active, yet calm.”

Morris suggested a yoga class for children to her Life Time Fitness club. They liked the idea and Morris began teaching yoga classes there for preschoolers. She enjoyed it so much that she started searching for ways to make it a more profitable job.

She went to Whole Foods in Uptown Minneapolis and offered to teach a yoga class for children while their parents shopped. “It worked out,” she said. “I charged by the hour and I had a number of kids come through. I started calling them my little yoga bears.”

The words “yoga bear” stuck in her head and Morris found herself dreaming up a stuffed bear that could do yoga poses. She could use the stuffed animal with her students, she thought. Luckily, she knew a toy designer. With the help of local designer Ann Zeenor, Morris created a series of sketches of animals doing a yoga pose by the same name. For example, a furry dog was in the “down dog” position while a cuddly cat was in the “cat” position.

A new company was born: YogaZoo. This time around, Morris knew exactly what she needed to do in order to build a solid business base. She developed and trademarked a YogaZoo logo. She built a web site (www.theyogazoo.com). She researched possible markets for her stuffed animals and registered to attend a series of gift shop trade shows. She signed a contract with a toy factory and, finally, placed her first order. She ordered 12,000 stuffed animals in five yoga poses: Lotus Bear, Upward Dog, Downward Dog, Cat and Lion.

Although Morris had pioneered two successful businesses in the past, she had a case of the jitters before attending her first trade show to promote the YogaZoo line. “I was worried about people thinking I was trying to make money on sacred yoga, but I didn’t get any of that. People thought it was great that I was opening this up to kids.”

Orders came flooding in. Today, Morris’s YogaZoo animals are for sale in wellness centers, spas, gift stores and yoga studios across the country. She’s created more animals: Turtle, Monkey, Camel, Cow and Dead Bug should be available in 2006. YogaZoo also sells furry, flexible bookmarks and a line of yoga clothing. Morris is writing a small book to accompany each animal. The books are part of a much larger concept: she wants YogaZoo to be the next Winnie-the-Pooh.

Morris has more confidence in her business savvy this time around, but she has encountered doubters. “People say things to me,” she said, “like, ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice,’ or ‘the economy is different now.’ I know they are well-meaning. They are trying to protect me. But I have to protect myself. I have to keep my thoughts pure. I tell myself, ‘I can create anything I want.’”

So far, she is doing just that. And she’s already planning what comes after YogaZoo. Morris intends to go back to public speaking. This time, however, she’ll bring the lessons of yoga with her. “I want to speak now,” she said, “more than I did before. I want to speak about creating a single vision. Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, the union of mind and body, but I’m starting to think of it as the union of mind and creativity, mind and manifestation. If we put our minds to it, we can create anything.”