Nathan Jones, 37
Xlear Inc., Orem, Utah
Projected 2007 Sales:
$13 million to $14 million
Description: Manufacturer of xylitol products
Born From Necessity: Nathan Jones was deeply involved in underwater welding when a breathtaking opportunity brought him quickly back to the surface. Jones' father, a family physician, had invented a xylitol-enhanced nasal wash in a desperate attempt to cure his patients' recurring ear infections. A naturally occurring sweetener, xylitol had primarily been known in Finland for its effectiveness in preventing tooth decay. The nasal wash brought relief to his father's patients--and inspired a new direction in Nathan's own life. In 2000, armed with $40,000 startup capital from a friend, Jones purchased the rights from his father, founded Xlear Inc. and started manufacturing a line of xylitol products that now includes dental products, candy and even a recently launched xylitol gel-filled pacifier.
Leader of the Pack: Being an early xylitol player required educating the public about its benefits. "Four years ago when I started going to dental conventions, they didn't even know what [xylitol] was," says Jones. But regularly attending trade shows and dental conventions paid off, helping Xlear secure shelf space at more than 6,000 retailers nationwide and in parts of Europe, with even broader distribution expected by next year. The early start also enabled Jones to build up the company's purchasing power in order to snatch up a significant portion of the world's limited supply.
Shape-Shifter: Specializing in such a niche and hard-to-obtain product naturally reduces the number of competitors, but to better position the company even further, Jones applied for a trademark on diamond-shaped gum, which he plans to license to other companies. The shape will indicate to consumers when a gum is 100 percent xylitol-sweetened, preventing competitors from stealing the market with anything less.
Follow His Lead: Don't let a good thing pass you by. Seize the right opportunity, and you just might become the market leader. --Sara Wilson
The Great American Hanger Company/ Hangers.com , Miami
Projected 2007 Sales: $10 million-plus
Description: Manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of clothes hangers
Frame of Reference: The fact that Devon Rifkin never attended college is just a tiny footnote in his success story. The fact that he has made millions selling hangers is slightly more unique. But for Rifkin, defying the standards means nothing if his business isn't successful--or if his team isn't sharing in the success. Says Rifkin, "To me, people have made the biggest difference because they're the face of the business."
Hire Education: After high school, as his friends went off to attend Ivy Leagues, Rifkin moved to New York City and talked his way into a job as a stockbroker. Three years later, his entrepreneurial ambitions got the best of him, and he moved back to his hometown of Miami to work at his dad's store-fixture company. The nuts and bolts of store fixtures didn't fascinate him, but customers' interest in clothes hangers--not only for retail but also for personal use--sparked his curiosity. In 1999, Rifkin had found his new business idea.
All Hung Up: Rifkin's early forays into market research were conducted with a phone and the White Pages. "I actually called [consumers] and asked them where they bought their hangers," he says. "I learned that everybody begged for hangers when they bought [clothes] in the stores, or they took hangers from hotels. That's how I got the idea to start the business." A business devoted to hangers was an unexplored venture, and Rifkin quickly became its Magellan, garnering attention from eager retailers, consumers and celebrities alike.
Fast Forward: The company, which sells more than 400 kinds of hangers--from fabric to cedar to custom designs--on its website, has just launched the first-ever mail-order catalog for hangers. And even with celebrity customers like Jerry Seinfeld and Jennifer Lopez, Rifkin hasn't let it go to his head: "Too many people get caught up in the business of the day, and they don't pick their heads up and say, 'This is what I want to build.'"
Follow His Lead: Just because you haven't taken the cookie-cutter path to entrepreneurship doesn't mean you can't make your business a success. --Kim Orr