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James Oliver, 45, was a small business consultant. Now, he's the founder of WeMontage.
Marvin Shaouni for Money

James Oliver can thank HGTV for his business idea. In June 2011 his wife, Ayana, called him upstairs to watch a couple decorating their living room. "They were hanging wallpaper that had a collage of their family photos," recalls Oliver, a father of twins. "They said anyone could do it, but I couldn't find how to do it anywhere."

Oliver, a self-employed small-business strategist, saw an opportunity. Without giving up his consulting work, Oliver found printing and distribution companies and created WeMontage's sample product: a photo collage printed on removable wallpaper. A friend introduced him to a web strategist who mapped out an online game plan in return for an equity stake.

But building the website—supposedly a three-month project—took a full year and cost $35,000. "We were creating customized software that dealt with photo manipulation and generating high-resolution images that we could print," says Oliver, who depleted his liquid savings to cover the launch.

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The delays strained the operation. Oliver didn't touch his retirement funds but took on $5,000 in credit card debt and a side job: "I was working at a department store for $10 an hour to make ends meet." Meanwhile, his co-founder was weighing a full-time job and needed an exit.

Oliver persisted, though. In early 2013, after buying out his partner for $26,000—and with support from Ayana, who works in marketing—Oliver quit his other gigs and enrolled in a startup accelerator to attract funding. At the end of the program, he raised $330,000 from its affiliated investors and redesigned the site to make ordering easier. finally went live in August 2013.

To target families, he took a booth at a conference for female bloggers. Sales hit $70,000 in 2014 and $95,000 in 2015, on products selling for $60 to $120. Because the printing itself is outsourced, ongoing costs are low—Oliver's time plus web hosting—but he paid $17,000 to revamp the site for mobile after realizing that users were uploading photos from phones.

WeMontage isn't profitable yet, but Oliver has taken a salary the past two years and plans to hire one person this year. "As the business expands, it will help to have an extra pair of hands," he says.