From the September 1999 issue of Startups

As a girl, Coby Steffani didn't concern herself with typical girly things. While her friends were playing with Barbies, young Steffani was out catching reptiles and spiders--and hoping for an opportunity to put her longtime love for all things scaly to good use. "I've always been a little different," she says with a slight laugh.

Steffani's unique ambition has paid off: She just celebrated two years in business at Reptropolis, her San Clemente, California, reptile store. Steffani spends her day surrounded by monitor lizards, frogs, turtles, tortoises, chameleons, geckos, boas and pythons--and she's loving every minute of it.

"Most people think only mammals are good pets," says Steffani, 20. "But reptiles are the same. It's cool to see how they're a lot like mammals--they give affection to each other and take care of their young."

It all started when Steffani met her now-husband, a lizard guru and former Petco employee. "Anyone who came into Petco with a sick reptile they didn't want--my boyfriend would take it home," recalls Steffani. "Our collection got up to around 45 reptiles."

Then came a settlement check for an injury she sustained at age 12--and soon after, Reptropolis.

Steffani, a musician who hopes to one day hand over her store to a trusted employee and do foreign ministry work, is quite content with her 2,500-square-foot store. In fact, she's so dedicated to her cold-blooded friends that she doesn't even keep track of her sales. "I don't think about that kind of stuff," she says with sincerity. "Every day, I just work my hardest and make as much as we can."

She admits, though, it's not easy working around certain city regulations. Nor is it easy to be a young business owner who might not immediately appear proficient in lizard care. "A lot of customers don't take me seriously," she notes.

Yet the self-educated entrepreneur, proud owner of two jungle carpet pythons, does know her stuff. "I tell them `This is what I know from experience," says Steffani, "not books."

I Want My MP3!

By Laura Tiffany

Stop pinching yourself--it's true. You've become a famous musician. You've sold millions of albums. You're number one on the Billboard charts. And your accountant just told you you're broke.

A strange scenario, but a familiar one if you watch the sob stories on VH1's "Behind the Music" or keep up to date with bands like TLC. How can something like that happen? Between record labels that give a very small cut to artists, bad management decisions, and paying for "necessities" like their personal publicist, management and lawyer, artists are often left with little to show for their creative efforts.

For most musicians, something seems wrong with this picture--very wrong. Leave it to the Web to once again even the score. Enter MP3, a file-compression technology that allows users to download CD-quality music from the Net--and has the potential to benefit both musicians and entrepreneurs. "It's going to create a middle class of musicians," explains Michael Robertson, 32, leading MP3 advocate and founder of MP3.com Inc., a Web site that lets musicians distribute their music and make a 50 percent profit. "[It will] allow individuals--the content creators--to be successful businesses by themselves."

Artists sign a nonexclusive deal with Robertson's service, offering one song for a free download. If customers are hooked, they can buy a Digital Automatic Music (DAM) CD that MP3.com creates and distributes. The kicker? The musicians, who remain sole owners of their creations, transmit their songs electronically through their home computers. "We do all the hard work. The artist simply fills out a form, clicks a button and they're in business," says Robertson, whose San Diego company distributes music from 10,000 musicians.

At press time, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was spearheading a movement to create a secure digital format that would filter pirated songs from consumer electronic devices. That's despite an unsuccessful effort earlier this year, when the RIAA lost a suit against the manufacturer of a portable device that lets users pull downloaded MP3 files from their computers and listen to them on the go. "It's the same as [using] any intellectual property," Robertson says. "If you didn't create [the music], you need to get permission from the [person] who did."

Arguably, it may be difficult to become well-known without the millions of dollars record labels spend on publicity, but for musicians who can't or don't want to get signed, or for entrepreneurs who want to distribute music in a new way, MP3 provides a unique alternative for sharing tunes with the world.

Use It Or Lose It

Feel like there's never enough time in the day? You probably have more time than you think. Maximize it by using those spare moments that typically go to waste. Here's what you can do with:

Five Minutes

  • Enter the month's appointments in your calendar.
  • Send a fax.
  • Return a phone call. if the other person isn't there, you may be able to return several calls. leave detailed voice mails about what action you need the other person to take, and you're one step closer to finishing the task.

10 minutes

  • Write a letter.
  • Open your mail or check your e-mail. even if you don't have time to read it, you can immediately trash the obvious junk, then sort the rest into "urgent" and "regular priority."
  • File the papers cluttering your desk.
  • Delete old files from your computer.
  • Skim the newspaper or your favorite web site.
  • If your office location allows, go outside for a 10-minute walk to energize yourself and clear your head.

30 minutes

  • Work on a small chunk of a complicated project.
  • Skim a magazine or two and clip relevant articles for later. (read them next time you have a spare five, 10 or 30 minutes.)

Last-Minute Loan

So you've been putting off making sure your business is Y2K-compliant? Well, procrastination might pay off. The SBA recently announced a new loan program to help entrepreneurs protect their computer systems from the millennium bug.

Y2K Action Loans provide loans to help qualified companies buy and repair computers and software, hire consultants and pay for other steps needed to ensure their systems are A-OK in Y2K. The loans are made through qualified lenders; the SBA guarantees up to 90 percent on loans of $100,000 or less.

To find out if you're eligible, or for information on how to apply, contact your local lender or SBA district office, which you can find by calling (800) 8-ASK-SBA.

Perspiring Minds Want To Know

Whether you're making a sales presentation, giving a speech or holding a crucial meeting with a big client, as an entrepreneur, there are plenty of situations that can make you sweat. How do you keep your cool when the pressure heats up?

PRESENTATION PROBLEM


QUICK FIX


IF THAT FAILS...


Sweaty Pits


Use three kinds of deodorant plus baby powder


Stuff a discreet wad of toilet paper in your pits or invest in dress shields (dorky, but effective).


Dry Mouth


Suck on drool-inducing hard candy (try green apple or lemon) right up until your presentation.


If your mouth is so dry your lips stick to your teeth, coat your upper teeth with a thin layer of vaseline.


Knocking knees/shaky hands


Keep the offending body part behind the podium or under the table.


No podium or table? Pace back and forth or gesticulate so no one notices your quivering.


Embarrassing stomach noises


Speak loudly and don't let a potentially disastrous silence fall.


Make a "decoy noise" with a chair, briefcase or squeaky pointer, or stand far enough away that your gurgles can't be heard


Blushing


Get a tan; your pink flush won't show as much.


Ride it out. Most people feel sympathy when they see you turn tomato.