An update on entrepreneurs featured in past issues.
Esoteric Sports Tours Inc.
THEN:1993 Sales: $2 million
Talk about true love. Back in 1993, Carey Dean and his staff were working 12- to 15-hour days to get their rookie business, which organizes custom travel packages to classic U.S. sporting events, off the ground. The team's efforts were paying off, but Dean was running himself ragged establishing Duluth, Georgia-based Esoteric Sports Tours as a player in the United States and, at the same time, marketing the business' services to foreign countries. In short, playing the game of business didn't leave Dean much time to watch the sporting events he's so passionate about.
NOW: 1996 Sales: $3.5 million
Hiring a full-time staff of five and firmly establishing contacts as the business matured has given Dean more time to himself--exactly what this entrepreneur wants. "I didn't get into this business to see how much money I could make," explains the 36-year-old entrepreneur. "I fully intended to live an easier life at some point in time, and that's still my goal."
Dean attributes Esoteric's heavy-hitting sales to three things: lots of repeat business, a strong economy, and just plain getting his company's name out there. Dean has also scored on the international front, with overseas contacts selling Esoteric's tours to clients in Australia, England and South Africa--proving that sports truly is the international language.
What's his winning strategy? "We've matured in a lot of ways," muses Dean. "Our markets have become more defined, our relationships with contacts have matured, and we've learned how to say no instead of taking every piece of business that comes down the pike"--something only an experienced, successful business owner has the luxury of doing. Guess change is the name of this game.
Super Vision International Inc.
THEN: 1994 Sales: $2.4 million
Brett Kingstone doesn't take business lightly. In 1994, his fiber-optic light and cable manufacturing company was doing $2.4 million in sales--but Kingstone still didn't consider it a shining success. Why? He knew Orlando, Florida-based Super Vision International could do much more.
Fiber-optic lighting offers so many advantages over neon (for starters, it uses less than one-third the electricity, and it's unbreakable), Kingstone felt confident it would continue to steal market share from neon, eventually edging it out of the spotlight. Even though his company's fiber-optic Coke bottle sign in New York City's Times Square was the world's largest, the entrepreneur was sure he could take his business to even greater heights.
NOW: 1996 Sales: $6.8 million
In March 1996, Super Vision broke its own record. The company designed the gargantuan AT&T sign, also in Times Square, which is almost twice the size of the Coca-Cola sign. If you placed all the fiber used in the AT&T sign end to end, it would reach more than halfway from Times Square to Orlando. "We outdid ourselves," Kingstone says proudly.
Meanwhile, the 37-year-old entrepreneur keeps setting his sights higher. Although Super Vision's annual sales have more than tripled in just over two years, "we don't consider that a major jump in sales," Kingstone says. "Approximately $30 billion worth of neon is sold worldwide, so if we were to get 10 percent of the world market, that's $3 billion in sales!"
Not that Kingstone will view Super Vision as inferior until then. He simply has loftier goals for his company. "A lot of people ask me, `When will you say you're a success?' " he says. "On the sales side, it's when our sales become a certain percentage of the overall neon market; on the earnings side, it's when every employee in this company--including the receptionist and the people on the production line can pay off their mortgages and put their kids through college."
The Princeton Review
THEN: 1987 Sales: $15 million
Some people are born overachievers. Consider John Katzman: By the age of 27, he had already started a business and begun franchising it--to the tune of $15 million in annual sales. His Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) preparation courses were helping thousands of teenagers ace the dreaded test. And the Princeton Review had begun to complement the classes with a line of SAT preparation books. Could it get any better than this?
NOW: 1996 Sales: $70 million
As a matter of fact, yes. The SAT books were just the beginning of what Katzman refers to as a "change in direction to a cross-media education company." The Princeton Review has added books and software to help kids make the transition from high school to college and from college to graduate school. And, of course, it's still offering its staple--the SAT prep courses, now available year-round in 65 cities at 600 locations across the country. Also in the works: courses aimed at helping students pass licensing tests (for example, helping medical school students pass boards) and classes for professionals looking to change careers.
How does a 21-year-old start a business that, only 16 years later, boasts sales of $70 million? Katzman got invaluable help from a Washington, DC, franchise attorney who taught him not only the legal side of franchising but the ethical side as well. As a result, says Katzman proudly, "we're one of the few franchisors that have never been in court with a franchisee."
And while students may find cramming for exams a bit of a drag, boredom has never been a problem for Katzman. "Over the years, we've hit our plateaus, but we've managed to work our way through them," he says. "The business has changed enough to keep me interested. There's always a next peak." There's only one way to describe both Katzman's personality and his report-card history: Type A.
Foghorn Press Inc.
THEN: 1993 Sales: $1 million plus
The publishing world has a glamorous reputation, right? Well, Vicki DeArmon got her start in the industry in 1985 by printing a history of the San Francisco 49ers, paying for the whole thing with her credit cards. Glamorous? Hardly, considering she was deep in debt. But the success of that book led Petaluma, California, Foghorn Press to publish more sports-related books, as well as some regional recreational and travel guides. By 1993, the business had a staff of 10 and published 33 titles annually . . . but that's not the end of the story.
NOW: 1996 Sales: $2 million
Here's the plot twist: Foghorn Press no longer publishes sports books; in the past several years, DeArmon has whittled down her list of titles to outdoor recreation guidebooks. Among the bestsellers are California Camping and the Dog Lovers' Companion series, which gives canine aficionados the inside scoop on where they can frolic with their furry friends.
Narrowing down Foghorn's title list did a lot to make the publishing house a success. "There's a shakeout in the publishing industry. You need a very focused publishing program to make it," explains DeArmon, 38.
Another chapter in this success story was switching to a "virtual workplace." The company has one fewer employee than in 1993, but with its CFO, editors and production people all working from their homes in Northern California's Bay Area, DeArmon says productivity has actually improved.
To achieve her goal of being the country's leading outdoor recreation guidebook publisher by the year 2000, DeArmon intends to customize the California Camping and Dog Lovers' formats to different parts of the country. Says DeArmon, "We're taking our show on the road."
THEN: 1993 Sales: $30 million
A 50-square-foot basement in Worthington, Ohio, may not seem like the most auspicious location for an electronic payment processing service. Indeed, when former fitness club manager Pete Kight started Checkfree Corp. in January 1981, nobody--family, friends and industry experts included--thought the business would succeed.
But Kight proved them all wrong. By 1993, the business boasted 1,200 corporate clients and handled $3 billion in payments annually. Better yet, Checkfree was at the forefront of an emerging market--what's now called financial electronic commerce--and was fast becoming known as the industry leader. Kight's big dream: "to offer people the power to manage their personal finances electronically."
NOW: 1996 Sales: $120 million plus
Kight no longer has to dream. Today, finances are just one thing people are managing electronically--and Checkfree Corp. is the reason why. How did Kight's big dream come true? Going public in September 1995 enabled Checkfree to acquire its number-two competitor, Norcross, Georgia-based Servantis Systems Inc. (SSI), the banking industry's leading provider of electronic funds transfer software, in 1996. By the time electronic banking really took off and banks began seeking out electronic funds transfer software and hardware, Checkfree was the provider of choice.
Now Kight is cashing in. Checkfree's client roster has grown to 1.3 million customers, and the company, now in Norcross, Georgia, handles more than $25 billion in payments every year. And that's not all: Kight has a new dream--one that could forever eliminate the dreaded phrase "The check's in the mail." The company is working on a product to deliver bills and statements to customers via e-mail, enabling them to pay on screen and have the funds automatically deducted from their checking accounts. "There's no reason to write out paper checks anymore," contends Kight, 40.
Believe it or not, even with partnerships with nine of the nation's top 10 banks--among them Chase Manhattan and Wells Fargo--and 1,500 employees at seven regional offices nationwide, Kight says, "We still have people who look at us and think we're too small to pull all this off." That's OK--the naysayers keep Kight's ego in check--or balance, as the case may be.