Smart Ideas 09/06
What: Multifunctional and fashionable fanny packs for women who experience chronic back and neck pain
Who: Kristy Sobel of LaNeige Purse
Where: Tampa, Florida
When: Started in 2003
What began as a solution to her chronic back and neck pain is now a line of purses for women who share Kristy Sobel's condition--or simply want a fashionable fanny pack. After three car accidents that resulted in extensive back and neck surgeries, the 35-year-old entrepreneur realized she couldn't do the traveling her then-job required. That's when "life took a very different direction," she says, and even the simplest tasks, like holding her favorite purse over her shoulder, became a burden.
To ease the weight on her shoulders, Sobel searched for a fanny pack that would accommodate her condition, but realized fashionable ones were nonexistent. So she created one. Before long, family, friends and even strangers were requesting this one-of-a-kind purse. She approached boutiques with her design after successful test runs at her friends' shops, but the door-to-door routine eventually took a toll on her body. Sobel continued her venture from home, found a rep to promote her bags at a trade show and used her and her husband and co-founder Eric's savings to launch LaNeige Purse. Her woven nylon bags appeal to a wide scope of women, from teens to those in their 80s. Sobel has since added larger bags to the collection and, in 2004, she introduced a leather line. With items priced between $54 and $200, LaNeige had sales of $210,000 in 2005.
"The most wonderful thing about LaNeige is being able to help people with chronic back pain," she says, pointing out that the product is also ideal for active women who need both hands free. Her bags are sold in over 60 gift shops and boutiques across the country, and on her website, www.laneigepurse.com
Despite the physical struggles she faces daily, Sobel's entrepreneurial spirit is anything but broken. "It's a huge challenge for me to get up each morning, let alone run a company," she says. "But I take [it one] day at a time and create as I go along."
Flight of Fancy
What: Jet charter company
Who: Todd Rome, founder of Blue Star Jets
Where: New York City
When: Started in 2001
Some have claimed that the introduction of fractional jet ownership has made jet charters more affordable, but Todd Rome found otherwise. While searching for private jet time, Wall Street guy Rome said to himself, "Why would I want to buy a fraction of a jet? I'd love to have a whole fleet." Implausible? Maybe, but it didn't stop Rome, 37, from starting a business to make flying more luxurious and reasonable for jet-setters.
Rome started Blue Star Jets--named after the airline in the movie Wall Street--and sought to cater to his moneyed clients' every need in the air. Available 24/7, Blue Star acts as a broker, getting bids for each trip on an individual basis. Jet operators worldwide compete for clients' business in an auction-like format, "ensuring the customer gets the best price and the best jets," says Rome. Within four hours of a request, a private charter (helicopters and turbo props are also available) is ready to whisk clients anywhere in the world. Blue Star provides ground transportation to and from the flight and acts as a luxury concierge service, catering to every detail. Special dietary needs are accommodated, and hairstylists, masseuses and yoga instructors have been onboard.
By attending high-profile events, including celebrity golf tournaments, parties and charity functions, Rome made a name for his company in its target market, promising flexibility and perk-filled travel. Blue Star Jets now boasts a nearly 90 percent customer-retention rate and expects $200 million in revenue for 2006. Rome hopes to ink more luxury partnerships in addition to the travel partnerships he's already made. And as business has shown, the sky's the limit.
Drum Up Business
What: Music school offering group or private lessons for students of all ages
Who: Billy Cuthrell of Progressive Music Center
Where: Raleigh, North Carolina
When: Started in 1992
How much: 78 cents
In 1992, Billy Cuthrell says, he was starving and had 78 cents to his name. He knew he needed to find a steady income since he wasn't making any money being in a band. Teach-ing drum lessons seemed like a smart way to capitalize on his talents.
After a breakfast of pork and beans one morning, Cuthrell walked to Kinko's, where a friend printed copies if his hand-drawn fliers decorated with magazine clippings. "This thing was ragtag," says Cuthrell, 32, of his business's first ad.
Despite its looks, the ad drew several responses. At first, Cuthrell drove to students' homes, loading his run-down Isuzu Trooper with drum equipment. "I was like the musical ice cream man," Cuthrell says. "The only thing I didn't have was the music playing outside the truck."
Eventually, Cuthrell rented space from a local music store and found he could teach more students at a physical location, so he opened his own. As business grew, Cuthrell hired instructors. He now has two locations offering lessons in guitar, bass, piano, drums and percussion, with 2006 sales projections of $1 million.
Despite Progressive's growth, Cuthrell still relies on word-of-mouth marketing, though he's branching out with a commercial that will run like a preview in local movie theaters. And his marketing materials have come a long way: The hand-sketched fliers have evolved into brochures-which Cuthrell hires someone else to design.