The Longhorns Behind an Iconic Accessory Explain the Key to their Success

Back in 2014, about two years into their first business venture, Janie Cooke, BA ’89, and Caroline Nix, BA ’91, were presented with a playful challenge. The founders of Oventure, maker of the Big O Key Ring, were working—at the time running their business out of an empty playroom in Nix’s home—when her mother stopped by. Boxes of inventory lined the periphery of the room, which still had a Fisher-Price basketball net hanging on the wall. Seeing the two close friends hard at work, Nix’s mom said, “I think you should make it your goal to sell 1 million.” At the time that number seemed unimaginable—so far, they had only sold about 7,500 of their stylish key rings.   

Flash-forward to 2021 and the first-time entrepreneurs expect to reach the 1-million-sold milestone this year, and there are no plans to slow down. “We want to be like McDonald’s: over 1 billion served,” Cooke jokes.  

It’s been nine years since the friends founded their Dallas-based business and turned their initial investment of $10,000—$5,000 from each of their own savings—into a company that pulled in $5.4 million in sales in 2019. They’re on track to have $7.5 million in sales this year. And they’ve succeeded without any experience launching a business, working as co-CEOs who strive to support each other and other women entrepreneurs.   

“When we first started, people would say ‘you can’t run it that way, you can’t have co-CEOs,’” Nix says. “We just kept doing it, and it’s working for us. We’ve just kind of defied convention and done things by instinct. It’s been a true entrepreneurial journey.” 

Cooke, 54, and Nix, 52, met at The University of Texas through the brother of Cooke’s now-husband. “[He] was in my class and was one of the first people I met at UT,” Nix says. The friends reconnected in Dallas when two of their children started kindergarten together. 

Over the years, the working moms had various careers. Nix worked in human resources and Cooke in retail and marketing. But as their kids got older, they found themselves with more time on their hands and both felt like trying something new. On a whim in 2012, Nix invited Cooke to breakfast and pitched the idea of starting a business together. Without hesitation, Cooke said yes. “It was so easy. We jumped right in,” Nix says.   

“It had never crossed my mind, but I thought it was a great idea,” Cooke says. “Of course, we didn’t have the idea for what business we were going to do.” 

Despite the lack of direction or experience, they plowed ahead, brainstorming what they would like to sell. All they knew was it should be something to help make women’s lives easier. Then, as if by fate, they were both late to their meeting at the restaurant, because both women had trouble finding their keys and getting out the door. 

They began researching accessories for women, and, with Cooke’s experience working in leather accessories at Neiman Marcus, they determined that the industry hadn’t really changed in 20 years. They also studied trends, noticing young women were forgoing large handbags to carry just their wallet and cellphone, and they recognized the growing movement toward organizing and simplifying areas of the home. 

“Caroline and I thought, Why are women carrying everything in their big handbags?” Cooke says. “You can organize your kitchen or your closet, but then your handbag is collecting everything through the years that you might need.” So, they had the idea to take the simplification trend and apply it to something people carry around every day. 

They took design inspiration from the big brass key ring popular in the 1970s—the one that looks like a jailer’s key ring, Nix says. They came up with a one-size-fits-all round bracelet design that was comfortable and stylish in leather. They launched the product with a small batch— just 1,700 key rings—in five colors at a price of $55 each. 

To get the word out, the new entrepreneurs hosted home shows for their friends and families. By the holidays, the first batch sold out. They reinvested what they earned into a bigger order. They also made a strategic decision to switch from promoting the key ring as an accessory to selling it as a standalone gift item. They named their new company Oventure, a mashup of “O,” representing opportunity and wholeness, and the adventure of embarking on something new. 

Soon, they were traveling around the state and making impromptu visits at gift shops. “To walk into a random store with a glass bowl of key rings, try to explain the product, and come out with a check was just the most exhilarating feeling,” Cooke says. 

In 2014, a huge opportunity came at the Atlanta Gift Show. Not only were Cooke and Nix able to introduce their product to store owners around the country, but they also got to pitch it to the team behind “Oprah’s Favorite Things.” After convincing the team that the television mogul’s life would be made easier with the key ring, Cooke and Nix were thrilled to see the Big O Key Ring featured as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things” in the November 2014 issue of O magazine. The pair describes the national exposure as an explosion that put the company on a whole new platform. 

Over the years, Cooke and Nix have made decisions to grow the business while maintaining strong relationships with the customers who have been with them since the beginning. They add new merchandise to their line of products, which includes small pouches, purses, and wallets that attach to the key ring. To keep up with the times, they introduced their clear Bracelet Bag that is perfect for gameday and approved for DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium. 

Instead of partnering with large department stores, they remain committed to working with small boutiques around the country. This became critical for their business and the storeowners they work with during the pandemic. Oventure set up a program so customers could order products on the company website,, and designate which store would get the commission. Gestures like this are valued by storeowners like Courtney Wicks of J. Hoffman’s in Lubbock. 

“During COVID, they were great. They sent us stock and kept up with all our ordering,” she says. “We’ve been doing this a long time, so it is nice to have a company that is always there and you’re able to get a hold of them and they’ll call and check on us and see how things are going.” 

As liberal arts majors, Cooke and Nix believe they didn’t necessarily need business degrees to succeed in that world. Instead, they have found the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills they developed while in the College of Liberal Arts at UT have helped them. They also believe that just by attending UT, they were given the tools they needed to pursue any new venture. 

“To start an entrepreneurial business, you need grit and determination, and since the university is such a big place, I think even getting your education there requires a little bit of grit and determination,” Nix says. 

Today, Oventure has eight employees working out of their company’s new office at the Design Center, located in the Design District of Dallas. The Big O Key Ring continues to be their signature product, now with over 100 colors and styles in leather, silicone, and vegan leather. 

And, in keeping with the name for their company, Cooke and Nix recently partnered with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas to offer support to other female entrepreneurs struggling after the pandemic and February’s freeze. 

“Our goal in the next five years is to be successful enough that we can continue to fuel additional women in business and get more female entrepreneurs and more women thriving,” Cooke says. “When women support women, we all rise and thrive and that’s what we’re really all about.”  

Credits (from top): Jason Kindig, Courtesy of Oventure


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