Al Bhakta, 28; Chet Bhakta, 30; Nik Bhakta, 28; Ron Parikh, 27; & Jay Patel, 30
The Chalak Group of Companies
Projected 2006 Sales: More than $20 million
Description: Franchisor of Genghis Grill--The Mongolian Stir Fry
Driven to Succeed: These five enterprising business students were already running a pool hall and two game rooms when they became regular diners at the local Genghis Grill. When Genghis decided to launch a franchise program, they sold their other businesses, pooled their savings and secured an SBA loan to become franchisees. Two locations and three years later, in 2004, the group of recent graduates bought the company and became Genghis' franchisors, naming their legal entity The Chalak Group. "In [Indian] culture, chalak has several meanings--wise guys, abundance, overflow," explains Al.
Training Ground: The friends' (Al and Nik are also cousins) goal was always to run a business together, so some of them went back to school to take additional business courses on top of their 15-hour days at Genghis. "It was tough. We've lost a little bit of hair since then," quips Al. The learning curve included keeping food costs down, staffing, and working every position from dishwasher to assistant manager. Eventually, each partner found the niche in the business that best suited his personality. Some vendors and landlords initially balked at their youthfulness, but the professionalism and ethics the partners demonstrated quickly won everyone over.
Stirring Sensation: When The Chalak Group bought out the franchisor, there were seven Genghis Grills. Today, there are 19 locations--five company-owned restaurants and 14 franchises--across 11 states, and growing. The partners' recipe for success is catering to dietary restrictions with an abundance of fresh veggies, protein selections, starches, sauces and seasoning choices sure to please even the staunchest of carnivores and vegetarians alike. Diners can choose pre-designed menu items or create their own stir-fry concoctions, and grill attendants prepare each bowl on a large circular grill. Once the franchise has grown considerably, the partners hope to explore another business idea unrelated to Genghis Grill, though it's still under wraps.
Follow Their Lead: When there are multiple partners, positive attitudes and clear communication are vital to smooth operations.
Jeff Fluhr, 32
Projected 2006 Sales: More than $200 million
Description: A secure online marketplace for the resale of live event tickets
That's the Ticket: A void in the market for a reliable, one-stop shop in the secondary ticket market prompted Jeff Fluhr and a former partner to start StubHub in 2000. "We felt there were a lot of problems with the options that were available for fans," says Fluhr, who wanted to transform secondary ticket sales from back-alley deals into secure transactions. So he pioneered a system that allows sellers to list tickets at www.stubhub.com for a 15 percent transaction fee, and buyers to purchase tickets for a 10 percent transaction fee--guaranteeing the safety of the transaction for both parties. "We provide an escrow-type service," notes Fluhr.
Safety Dance: Security is the number-one priority for StubHub. The system allows sales only after both buyers' and sellers' credit cards are fully vetted, leaving nothing to chance. StubHub also has a direct partnership with FedEx to generate the shipping labels for sellers, so the company can monitor delivery at every step.
Teaming Up: While the core of the business is based on peer-to-peer sales, Fluhr has found it helpful to build partnerships with venues and teams nationwide, including the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Such alliances help market StubHub's services to season-ticket holders who might want to unload a few tickets during the season.
Fan Focus: Constantly improving StubHub's customer service is key for Fluhr, who is also a fan of the music, theater, comedy and sporting events that are his company's bread and butter. In fact, a phenomenal Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden was one of his most memorable "product testing" outings. And Fluhr's not just trying to win fans on the spectator side of the stage--while starting his business, he recalls working to convince "old-school businesspeople in the music industry that the secondary market is a huge opportunity for them, not a threat." Fluhr admits it's an ongoing challenge for StubHub.
Follow His Lead: Give your customers peace of mind while providing a valuable service in a specialized niche
Across Countries: Thomas Gorny spent the first 14 years of his life in Poland. A move to Germany found him attending a prestigious business college and running his own PC hardware business. Then, two months before graduation, he dropped out and sold his business for very little money to seize an opportunity to immigrate to America. The risk paid off not once, but twice.
First Time Around: Gorny joined one of the very first web hosting companies in 1996 and earned 20 percent ownership. The company was sold in 1998, and when Gorny left in 1999, he was in the money. "I never thought I'd go back to web hosting," he says. So he jumped into marketing and real estate, but when the bubble burst in 2001, his stocks dropped and his real estate projects suffered. "I just got involved with the wrong people in business," says Gorny, who lost everything.
Second Time Around: "Being on an investor visa, I couldn't even go to work for somebody because I didn't have a work permit," Gorny says. After re-examining the hosting market, he realized there was room for a company offering web hosting and site building for nontechnical users. Armed with his American Express card, Gorny willed iPower into existence in late 2001. "I said to myself, 'If we can acquire 10 customers a day, I'm going to be in heaven.'" The company garnered 60,000 customers in its first year. Now with more than 500,000, iPower recently moved its headquarters from Santa Monica, California, to Phoenix.
No Exit: "One thing I said at the beginning is that I do not have an exit strategy, and I'm holding to [that]. That is a powerful thing," says Gorny. His business is now the world's fourth-largest website hosting company, thanks in part to Gorny's vision of offering feature-rich but also easy-to-use hosting packages. Phoenix may be a long way from Poland, but Gorny has definitely found a place to call his own.
Follow His Lead: Turn adversity into opportunity by revisiting your business strengths and taking cues from your past successes.
Bigger Than the Wheel: Working in the family's optometry business in his home country of Greece, Leon Yohai felt his future was going nowhere. That is, until the internet came along-and suddenly, Yohai knew where to look. "It was the biggest discovery, even bigger than the wheel," Yohai laughs. He taught himself how to write computer code and, in 1999, started his own business, InternetQ. The company started out building websites but eventually switched to the telecom industry. By 2003, InternetQ had become the largest mobile content pro-vider in Greece.
Coming to America: That same year, Yohai sold InternetQ and decided he should introduce the technology overseas. Living and working out of a friend's home in Virginia, Yohai started Qmobile with two friends from Greece, Predrag Djokic and George Lipordezis, who were also former InternetQ employees. Together, the trio secured $6 million in venture funding and was able to negotiate a deal with their first client, T-Mobile. "We were lucky enough that our billing platform was made by the same manufacturer as their billing platform, so it was easy to connect," Yohai says. By 2004, the company had moved into a proper office in Reston, Virginia, and has since grown to 25 employees.
The Next Big Thing: With all the capabilities mobile phones have today, wireless content may not seem that original, but Qmobile was one of the first to introduce the possibilities of SMS text messaging technology to the U.S. Qmobile, the parent company of Qtones.com, provides content such as games and ringtones to customers from all major carriers, including Sprint and Verizon. Customers order content via SMS text messaging or online and are billed through their phone service.
A Different World: Yohai says the differences in business practices between Europe and America are startling. "To create a company from scratch in Greece, you need to wait a good three months from the day you file papers, and it costs you a bunch of money," Yohai says. "Here, you can start the company the same day, and you pay a tenth of what you pay [in Greece]."
Follow Their Lead: Follow your passion wherever it takes you-even if that means relocating with good friends by your side for support.