From the March 1999 issue of Startups

To keep this interview appointment and catch a last-minute business flight, Surya Jayaweera had to juggle a cell phone and defensive driving. No problem for this model member of Generation Tech, who handled both tasks with the same skill he's used to steer his company to success.

Growing up, Jayaweera's dreams bounced between scientist and inventor, but age taught him entrepreneurship was the practical route to making his mark. Before getting his engineering degree in May 1996, Jayaweera brainstormed product ideas with business potential. A day at the park with a pile of magazines sparked the winner: An article on two-way pagers catalyzed images of a pager that could access e-mail and the Web.

Two days later, Jayaweera drove to Las Vegas and pitched his idea to Motorola at COMDEX, the major computer and electronics show. After a meeting at company headquarters, he penned a deal: He'd create the software; they'd make the pagers. In 1997, Jayaweera's vision, the Motorola PageWriter, was launched--and his business, WolfeTech Corp., was born.

What started as four people working from an apartment has grown to a payroll 22 strong working in several offices in Claremont, California. Jayaweera's staff: brilliant young people "who'd normally take $80,000 jobs at Microsoft, but instead are working for minimum wage where they can take on high[er] responsibilities," says the 24-year-old entrepreneur.

Although Jayaweera's initial funding involved just $12,000 in savings and credit cards, in mid-1998, connections at his alma mater, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, led him to angel investors. Today, he frequently turns down buyout offers for his $15 million company. Says Jayaweera, "My goal is to help WolfeTech grow into something really big so we can take this technology as far as it can go."

Holy Smokes

Dave Sabot may be the king of his domain, but as a result, he practically needs a closet for all the shoes he fills. You see, since May 1997, when he started Dave's Humidors Inc., those cigar havens have literally taken over his Glen Cove, New York, home. Though Dave's is strictly an online venture, humidor-related gear crowds almost every room (not to mention an entire garage devoted to inventory and order-packing).

The invasion first began in 1997, when Sabot's brother gave him some cigars. With no means of keeping them fresh, Sabot shopped around for humidors but found the market pricey. "I found cheaper [options] and figured other people would want them cheaper, too," he says. A single $45 initial investment (the price of his first humidor) and one Web design service (provided by himself, for free) later, he was in business.

But 26-year-old Sabot, who also does interactive marketing full time, wasn't always business-savvy. "I didn't draft a business plan [or] do test marketing," he says, though he vaguely remembers taking "half a marketing class" in college.

Turns out, Sabot's exemplary of what a business novice can achieve using the Internet. Still a one-man operation, Dave's Humidors grossed $250,000 last year. His philosophy: Pair low-priced products with all the customer service he can muster. Each humidor comes with instructions he authored, and his Web site (http://www.cheaphumidors.com) offers "newbies" clues on crucial topics such as how to hold and light cigars. "We're not just running a conveyor belt here," jokes Sabot.

Advertising tactics also rate high on the scale of elements fueling his success: So far, Sabot's started a "win-a-free-humidor" contest on his site, an affiliates program for linking with other sites and an online newsletter, Cigar Bargains.

What about the possibility of cigar-smoking dropping a notch on the hot/not meter? Sabot is confident: "The boom's died down, but my sales haven't reflected that at all."

Contact Sources

Dave's Humidors Inc., (888) 674-8307, http://www.cheaphumidors.com

WolfeTech Corp., (909) 596-2700, surya@wolfetech.com