From the March 1999 issue of Startups

You think you work long hours? Consider the late-night and early-morning schedules Valerie Waters' Hollywood clients face when on location for a movie or TV show. The personal-trainer-turned-entrepreneur knows the importance of regular workouts, "but how do you fire up at 11 o'clock at night--or at 4 o'clock in the morning?" she says.

In late 1998, Waters, who counts such flab-free celebs as Cindy Crawford among her clientele, came up with a concept guaranteed to get exhausted actors and models motivated day or night.

"Most actors already have a trainer. We just provide a facility [for them to exercise in]," explains Waters, 36. Muscle Truck Co. provides a decidedly upscale alternative to the "trailers with weights" actors typically use to work out on the set. Waters spent roughly $250,000 to build two fully equipped gyms-on-wheels, featuring the best in cardio and weight equipment, a state-of-the-art entertainment center with surround sound, recessed lighting and mirrored walls. Thanks to forced air conditioning, celebs can even work out in between takes without breaking a sweat or ruining makeup jobs.

To see the luxurious gym is to love it, says Waters, whose biggest challenge has been creating market awareness of her fitness godsend. "The person who uses the gym is not necessarily the person who pays for it. Generally, the production company pays for it, but the actors need to request it," explains the West Hollywood, California, entrepreneur. "So I'm networking like crazy, making contacts and letting actors' agents and publicists know this is available."

Next step: building more Muscle Truck gyms. Designing home and corporate gyms in the past helped Waters build the first two, but it still took three times longer than she'd expected. Now, with the routine down to a science, "I can [create a truck] in four weeks," says Waters. Plans are in the works for a minitrailer as well as a customized version. "Nothing's as easy as you think it's going to be," says Waters, "but it's still exciting. I'm enjoying the process."

Got Grub?

They've got nothing against college cafeteria cuisine, say former frat brothers Scott Sassoon and Laurence Rubin, both 24. "[It's just that] most students are no longer satisfied with the quality of food at the institutional level," says Sassoon. So after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1996, the two set out to build a meal-plan business for starving students in the Boston area, based on a debit card system they'd seen friends use at their alma mater.

"[We] thought it was a pretty sexy concept--innovative and unique," says Sassoon. They launched VersaComm Inc. in 1997, offering university students a choice of meals from 37 restaurants in the Boston area; the debit cards can also be used to have food delivered from another 64 restaurants. Parents buy Swipe It Meal Cards at the start of each semester; all purchases, from an order of fries to a steak dinner, are then debited from the account.

"We really had no idea how to go about it," recalls Sassoon of their start-up. "We were at square negative-one!" Turning to the Yellow Pages, the partners located a software developer they hoped could set up the operating system. The fledgling entrepreneurs were amazed to discover he was the same developer who'd designed the software for the meal-plan company at UMass-Amherst. "From that lucky break, things started to snowball," says Sassoon.

Financial backing from family and friends (and a small commercial loan) provided the roughly $45,000 required to purchase the hardware participating restaurants need to use when debiting the Swipe It Meal Cards. Next, the partners found a list broker and purchased a home address list of students for the upcoming semester, then timed their advertising mailer to coincide with the tuition bills parents received.

"We really didn't plan. We just had a good idea and went with it," says Sassoon of VersaComm's trial-and-error early days. But first-year sales of more than $100,000 seem to indicate the duo learned their lessons well. "Our concept is marketed to kids, but parents love it," Sassoon says. "They sleep better at night knowing their kids are well-fed and aren't blowing all their money on things like CDs. They enjoy the control."

Contact Sources

Muscle Truck Co., (310) 657-6944, msltruc@aol.com

VersaComm Inc., (617) 332-3638, scott@swipeit.com