From the March 1999 issue of Startups

When you hear about successful entrepreneurs, often the first question that springs to mind is "How did they think of that?" To assuage your curiosity--and, hopefully, inspire some big-bucks ideas of your own--we asked several successful entrepreneurs to share the stories behind their big ideas.

Solving a problem

Entrepreneur: Robert Crespin, 35
Company name: Pigeon Control Professionals
Location: Redondo Beach, California
Year started: 1989

How it all hatched: As owner of a maintenance firm, Crespin witnessed the results of brutal bird bomb squads day in and day out. The last straw came when one client, a restaurant, received recurring pigeon gifts--all on the same window. "[It was] trashed," Crespin recalls.

Race for the cure: Determined to find out what makes these feathered fiends tick, Crespin vowed to "learn the bird." "It was almost a joke when we first started," he says, recalling attempts to scare pigeons with rubber snakes. "Now we're pigeon experts." The key fact his research uncovered: "Once pigeons find a nook, they're going to roost and poop everywhere. When one bird leaves, another comes in, because droppings attract other birds." With that knowledge, Crespin now uses screens, reflective balloons and nonharmful repellent to rid clients of pigeons. (His products are also available at select Los Angeles County hardware stores or by ordering directly).

Soaring to new heights: Clients such as Starbucks, Arby's, The Walt Disney Co. and The Rose Bowl, plus residential customers, have propelled the 20-person company's sales to $1 million plus. Let's hear it for the birds.

Lesson: If you've got a problem, chances are someone else shares your frustration--and is willing to pay for a solution.

Process of elimination

Entrepreneurs: Todd Graves, 27, & Craig Silvey, 27
Company name: Raising Cane's
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Year started: 1996

We'll have the chicken: Pals since they were partners in a seventh-grade social studies contest, Graves and Silvey knew they worked well together. They kept in contact while attending different universities, and decided if they ever started a business, it had to be a team effort. But what business? They chose a chicken fingers-only restaurant. "It was a simple system we could master--it wasn't an extensive menu," says Graves of their decision to focus on the bar and restaurant favorites. "We knew that would make everything easier, from ordering to training employees."

Plus, jokes Silvey, "Todd's obsessed with [chicken fingers]. He eats them every night."

Socially acceptable: "We went to banks and [basically got] laughed at," says Silvey. So the buddies got jobs on an Alaskan fishing boat to save up for start-up. By the time their first drive-thru/dine-in location was a success, banks were lining up to offer loans for the second, also in Baton Rouge. What convinced the pair their plan would work when banks didn't believe? Their inside knowledge that "students are always eating at all times of the day," according to Graves.

Success to-go: The two Raising Cane's locations employ 70 people and should gross well over $2 million this year, thanks to the restaurants' late-night hours (until 3 p.m. four nights a week, and midnight the rest of the week) and Baton Rouge-area students who don't cook.

Lesson: Know you want to start a business, but don't know what business to start? Assess your market's needs and your needs until you find a match.

Filling a niche

Entrepreneur: Brad Barnhorn, 32
Company name: Fantasia Fresh Juice Co.
Location: Rosemont, Illinois
Year started: 1998

The time was ripe: Hanging out in Cincinnati late one August night, Barnhorn listened as pal David Chung mulled ways to make extra cash while writing a screenplay. "Maybe I should squeeze juice or something," Chung mused. ("You know how artists are," shrugs Barnhorn of the rationale behind the remark.) The offhand comment led to deeper discussion because Barnhorn, who worked for a California food and beverage consultancy, had seen the popularity of fresh juices on the West Coast. "We pulled out a napkin and scribbled numbers about how many oranges it takes to squeeze a pint of orange juice," remembers Barnhorn. A later-night trip to a local supermarket where they begged an employee to reveal the in-house juicing machine followed.

Dime a dozen: Barnhorn and Chung (who has since left the company to go back to his screenplays) picked the Midwest as market of choice for their fresh-squeezed juice. "If we began on the West or East Coast, we wouldn't be adding anything new," explains Barnhorn. The Midwestern natives also relished the opportunity to bring something "nourishing" to the region.

Not a lemon: With its only sizable competition a juice company that ships product from the West Coast, it's no wonder Fantasia's stocked in 500 Midwestern stores.

Lesson: Look beyond your own backyard. Could a business that's hot in another part of the country (or world) fill a niche in your hometown?

Lightning strikes

Entrepreneur: Robi Fugate, 34
Company name: i do its
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Year started: 1995

Fashion victims: As a cosmetics company coordinator, Robi Fugate witnessed a slew of fashion don'ts. "I wasn't trying to come up with a business," she explains. "I was just around kids and their moms in retail, and I realized kids never matched." One day in 1989, a mismatched tot in a Chinese restaurant inspired a flash of inspiration: kids' clothing with no front or back and no designated inside or outside, so kids can dress themselves in style.

Taking time to grow: Fugate was 23 when the lightbulb appeared, and had an investor willing to provide capital, but wasn't ready to take the plunge. "There were too many people willing to jump in for a percentage," she says.

Hand-stitched dreams: After sitting on the idea for six years, Fugate accepted the investment offer and now saves children from fashion faux pas with her clothing, available in more than 250 specialty children's stores nationwide. This year i do its will reap $500,000, and Fugate plans to promote the line to special-needs kids with the help of nonprofit organizations.

Lesson: Make sure your flash of inspiration isn't a flash in the pan by taking time to think about and research your idea.

Got A Winner?

Not all ideas are created equal. To assess the potential of an idea for a new business or product, ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you considered all the advantages or benefits of the idea? Is there a real need for it?
  • Have you pinpointed the exact problems or difficulties your idea is expected to solve?
  • Is your idea an original, new concept, or is it a new combination or adaptation?
  • What immediate or short-range gains or results can be anticipated? Are the projected returns adequate?
  • Are the risk factors acceptable?
  • What long-range benefits can be anticipated?
  • Have you checked the idea for faults or limitations?
  • Are there any problems the idea might create? What are the changes involved?
  • How simple or complex will the idea's execution or implementation be?
  • Could you work out several variations of the idea? Could you offer alternative ideas?
  • Does your idea have a natural sales appeal? Is the market ready for it? Can customers afford it? Will they buy it? Is there a timing factor?
  • What, if anything, is your competition doing in this area? Can your company be competitive?
  • Have you considered the possibility of user resistance or difficulties?
  • Does your idea fill a real need, or does the need have to be created through promotional and advertising efforts?
  • How soon could the idea be put into operation?

    Source: Princeton Creative Research, Princeton, New Jersey. Reprinted with permission.

10 Days And Counting

Do it now.

By Laura Tiffany

Chaotic. Exhilarating. Exhausting. Your first 10 days in business will be a whirlwind of newfound responsibilities and endless errands. To help you turn this chaos into order, Terri Lonier, author of Smart Strategies for Growing Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, PRICE?, 800-225-5945) offers these tips on what to include on your to-do list for your first 10 days.

1. Clearly state your business mission and goals, and create an outline for your business plan.

2. Analyze your personal strengths and weaknesses to determine where you'll need help. Begin to put together a business advisory team, which may include an attorney, marketing consultant and computer consultant.

3. Name your business, and create a professional business identity by printing business cards and letterhead with your logo.

4. Register with the required local agencies, whether by filing a D.B.A. or obtaining a business license.

5. Set up your telephone and fax access with dedicated business lines.

6. Set up an office with a computer and furniture (buying used is the best money-saver).

7. Set up an Internet account and begin to plan a Web site strategy, which may include registering a domain name for your company.

8. Set up a business checking account and begin to build a relationship with a banker.

9. Establish a financial management system, beginning with a computer software program such as Quicken or Quickbooks.

10. Make sure your business is protected: Find an attorney and insurance agent.

Finally, take a deep breath. Lonier stresses, "You want to build a strong foundation, but [everything] doesn't necessarily have to happen in the first 10 days."

Been Caught Stealing?

The legalities of trade secrets.

By Jane Bahls

Why would a rapidly growing start-up hire people away from a huge corporation? The answer depends on who you talk to.

Las October, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., based in Bentonville, Arkansas, sued Amazon.com Inc., Drugstore.com Inc., and the venture capital firm that funded them both and helped assemble their management teams, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of Menlo Park, California. The charge? Stealing trade secrets by hiring a group of former Wal-Mart employees with intimate knowledge of the giant retailer's state-of-the-art computer system, which took more than 15 years to develop. Both firms aim to compete with Wal-Mart through their internet retailing - and stand to gain enormously from what their new employees know.

"When you're building a computer system, the key is knowing which roads not to go down," says Betsy Reithemeyer or Wal-Mart. "It's not just the proprietary information, but the amount of time not spent chasing rabbits down holes." So far, nine of Wal-Mart's information systems employees have moved to Amazon.com in Seattle, and six have moved to Drugstore.com in Redmond, Washington.

"We're not interested in anyone's trade secrets," retorts Bill Curry, spokesperson for Amazon.com. "We're interested in finding the brightest, hardest-working and most talented people, wherever they might be."

Wal-Mart is seeking a temporary restraining order on further recruiting, plus an injunction against the competitors' using proprietary information. The parties are discussing options for settling the suit.

Jane Bahls (Jebahls@aol.com), a writer in Bexley, Ohio, specializes in legal and business issues.

Chill Out

Do entrepreneurs thrive on stress...or do you just not know how to relax? In recent survey that asked entrepreneurs what they do to relieve stress during the workday, 37 percent said, "Nothing." If you're one of them, we hereby order you to take a chill pill. Try these techniques cited by other respondents (personally, we're partial to lunch).

Go for a walk: 17 percent

Exercise: 7 percent

Meditate: 6 percent

Leave the office: 5 percent

Listen to music: 5 percent

Talk to others: 5 percent

Read: 4 percent

Go to lunch: 4 percent

Source: Keycorp Survey of Small Business Sentiment Wave 9

Contact Sources

i do its, (205) 323-2345, http://www.idoits.com

Pigeon Control Professionals, (310) 316-5821

Raising Cane's, clsilvey@raisingcanes.com