From the October 1998 issue of Startups

With golf, as with any sport, practice makes perfect. But if you don't practice, you won't ever be perfect--or even pretty good, for that matter. As an executive for The Coca-Cola Company, Mike Connor spent many hours on the links improving his handicap while making business deals. All the while, he kept hearing the same complaint from his golfing buddies: "If I had time to practice, I'd be a better golfer."

After seeing an advertisement in a golf magazine for backyard putting greens, Connor realized that, given the rapidly growing numbers of amateur golfers, his pals probably weren't the only ones who would pay for the opportunity to practice the game in their backyards.

"I knew if I came up with a quality, cost-effective practice golf product that could be installed in a backyard, then people like me would certainly be interested," says Connor, 40.

In 1995, with $250,000 raised from private investors, Connor started Short Game Inc., a McKinney, Texas, company that installs custom-designed putting greens in backyards, golf training centers and hotels. To get the word out to golf nuts, Connor installed demonstration greens at local golf tournaments and offered a putting green as a prize in a contest sponsored by Sporting News magazine.

Connor expects Short Game to gross $1 million this year. The company has been offered licensing agreements and will soon expand to other states.

Happy Feet

If you've ever bought shoes too small for your feet, you know ill-fitting footwear can make walking a miserable experience. For someone afflicted with clubfoot, arthritis or diabetes, even shoes that are the right size can be painful.

That's one reason sales are stepping up at The Shoe Fits, an Indianapolis shoe store specializing in footwear for people with foot problems. Owner Sheryl Hepfer, 36, a certified pedorthist (a pharmacist who fills prescriptions for custom-made shoes), worked at a custom shoe store in Indianapolis for 17 years before striking out on her own last July to found The Shoe Fits.

Referrals from doctors have helped Hepfer build her clientele. "A lot of patients can't find comfortable, nice-looking shoes to fit their [orthotics]," she says, "so doctors send them here to make sure they get a proper fit."

Hepfer, 36, who sold $150,000 worth of comfortable shoes last year, hopes to hit sales of $180,000 this year and is training employees to open another location in Louisville, Kentucky.

Something Old, Something New

Anyone can slap a few coats of paint onto a piece of old furniture, but turning a dresser into a work of art is a job best left to an expert like Wanda Michaelson, founder of Natick, Massachusetts-based Perspective. Michaelson, 49, ran a furniture manufacturing firm for 10 years before she sold it and learned the art of furniture finishing and painting. In 1994, with $30,000 in start-up capital, she opened her custom-painted furniture business.

Perspective specializes in trompe l'oeil, painting images so realistically on a surface, it fools you into thinking there's actually an object there. (One family asked her to paint a remote control on a coffee table.) "It makes furniture more personalized," Michaelson says. "It's also a good way to recycle heirlooms that don't match anymore."

Success is no illusion, though: With direct mail and newspaper advertisements sparking more orders, Michaelson is gearing up for further growth.

Contact Sources

Perspective, 3 Byron Rd., Natick, MA 01760, (508) 650-5766

The Shoe Fits, 8528 Moller Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46268, (317) 471-8880

Short Game Inc., P.O. Box 2616, McKinney, TX 75070, (800) 591-7888, (214) 220-9576