BERKELEY — In the Bay Area, technology reigns supreme. But Cristy Clarke has found success in a business that has nothing to do with electronics.
Her company is TableTopics, and the concept is basic: a plastic cube filled with 135 square cards, each with questions. And while toy stores carry the product that sells for $25, it's not a game.
"There are no rules, no winner, no right or wrong answer," Clarke said. "It's just about asking questions that promote conversations."
What began out of her Orinda home in 2004 has grown into a six-person operation at 2607 Seventh Street in Berkeley down the street from Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals. A few hundred customers has grown to thousands that have generated more than $3 million in annual revenue for the company.
In the "2010 Book of Lists," published by the San Francisco Business Times, TableTopics was ranked as one of the fastest growing private and woman-owned businesses in the Bay Area.
For Clarke, TableTopics stemmed from a solution to a problem. Whenever she went to a cocktail party she dreaded the fact she would hear the same old conversations.
"How are you?" "... "What do you do for a living?" "... "Where are you from?"
Clarke had an idea: come up with questions that promote better conversations.
When she saw how receptive people were to her questions, she decided to turn it into an entrepreneurial opportunity.
Keeping a notebook with her, Clarke would write down questions as they came to her mind.
Most of them are ones she thought about. But if she needs help for topics outside her expertise — such as Decades: 60s — she will seek help.
"With everything out there having to do with computers, I think it's nice to have something that's on the other side of the spectrum," said Clarke, 45.
The products can be found on the company website, www.tabletopics.com, and in retailers in all 50 states as well as several countries, including Australia, Canada and Britain.
Steve Banducci, store manager of Games Unlimited in Danville, said the TableTopics product is "phenomenally successful."
"They sit right in the front of our stores, and people just buy them as staple housewarming gifts," he said.
The family edition — which has questions such as: "Which famous athlete would you love to meet?" and "What family or school rule would you most like to change?" — is the store's best-seller, Banducci said.
Blair Thomson-Levin, of San Francisco, owns three editions, with the more risque "Not Your Mom's Dinner Party" being her favorite.
"I just think it's a great concept," she said. "I put it on my coffee table in my living room, and people love them."
For Clarke, she always had confidence that her idea would do well. Not surprisingly, the best advice Clarke can give to business owners is to ask questions of other companies — and make them good.
She cringes when she thinks about how many people have asked her, "How did you do it?"
Instead, ask questions that give more insight, she said.
When she started, Clarke asked about manufacturing, importing and warehousing.
She admits that she has made mistakes along the way, but it's part of the growing as a business.
"I think when you take risks, it's about smart risk taking," she said. "If you have a great product, you can make some mistakes and still have a chance to do well."
Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8534.
CEO: Cristy Clarke