Mary Kay consultations, Tupperware parties--God bless 'em. Some multilevel marketing companies will always have a high kitsch rating. (C'mon--mini Tupperware bowls on a key chain?) But thanks to Dottie Gruhler's Web-based party venue, The Party Project, direct selling can move out of the '50s and into the future.
The 33-year-old Webmaster of an online women's community and an affiliate program partner is no stranger to how average Joes and Janes use the Internet. As a member of Mom's Network Exchange (thepartyproject.com's host server), Gruhler noticed an increasing number of women offering catalogs or touting wares online. "They were attempting to expand their businesses but didn't exactly have the avenue to do it," she says. "That's how [The Party Project] came to be: to give them a place to show their products, have an online order form and not just give people a catalog to look at but the [chance] to shop and talk to the seller."
Luckily, Gruhler's knack for coding and her Frederick, Maryland, home computer let her provide a solution for less than $500 in start-up costs. Fifty dollars each month go to chat technology provider ChatSpace (look, Ma--free plug), which had Gruhler's service up and running less than 24 hours after she first e-mailed for information last November. With ChatSpace's help, Gruhler can offer sales party hosts a framed environment, with a chat on one side and pictures of products on the other, for $25.99. Options are extensive: There's music, party games with "door prizes," ordering capabilities--you name it.
The events aren't limited to business pitch-parties, either: Gruhler now offers birthday party, baby shower and business meeting packages so friends and colleagues can congregate online. The best part: Everyone involved can attend in pajamas if so desired. So far just a part-time affair for Gruhler and partner Lori Callen, 36, The Party Project should bring in $50,000 this year.
Dale Tweedy's clients know he's not blowing hot air when he promises to make their businesses rise to a more efficient and profitable occasion. The 36-year-old owner of System 5 Technologies Inc. in Lake Norman, North Carolina, not only garners respect with his reputable background, but also advances his business with heart and soul.
"[Entrepreneurship] adds a dimension of stress, especially when you have  employees whose families depend on you to make the right decisions," says Tweedy of running his $10 million company, which streamlines the IT infrastructure of clients ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies using solutions from the likes of Oracle and Hewlett-Packard.
Sales have nearly doubled since last year--a phenomenon that can be attributed mostly to Tweedy's personal drive. Some examples: He "flung steel" at a mill post-high school to attend college at night. To afford better schooling, he joined the Army at 19 as a paratrooper, staying until age 23, when he started attending college full time. After graduating (in three years and four months), Tweedy became an engineer. But "sitting behind a computer 10 hours a day doing calculus problems" wasn't doing it for him. He took jobs selling software and hardware until August 1995, when he founded System 5 in the room over his garage (with cat Lucky by his side).
The start-up story makes you want to shake this guy's hand even more: "I second-mortgaged my house and [used] 14 credit cards. So I probably started with about $60,000," Tweedy explains.
System 5's endurance--even during first-year dealings with leery vendors and banks--has changed everything. "They're chasing me now," jokes Tweedy. With four additional regional offices throughout the South, a growth spurt is the only thing left to endure.
The Party Project,http://www.thepartyproject.com
System 5 Technologies Inc., (704) 895-3456, email@example.com