From the March 2000 issue of Startups

Vegging out in front of the tube usually isn't a high priority for entrepreneurs, but in case you've gotten the chance to tune in lately, you may have noticed the wave of entrepreneurs taking over the WB and Fox. The good news? Television producers have caught up with the rest of the world and abandoned Xers as slack-infested losers in favor of entrepreneurial characters. The bad news? TV's entrepreneurs are offing their competition and getting their loans rejected because of demonic interference. Well, at least these shows are getting it half right.

From Donna and Kelly, co-founders of a hipster clothing boutique on Beverly Hills 90210, to Jake, a bar owner, on the late, great Melrose Place, TV entrepreneurs reside in a land of chic restaurants, hip night-clubs and over-priced high fashion boutiques--places where they seldom even lift a finger. Perhaps you'll be more realistically portrayed after the networks catch up with the dot.com age--Po Bronson, author of TheNudist on the Late Shift, and e.r. and L.A. Law vet Paul Manning are currently penning a new drama about a San Francisco Internet start-up--but we're betting there will still be an excessive office romances and intrigues. In the meantime, check out some current offerings and see how they measure up.

Show: Felicity (WB)

Entrepreneur: Sean Blumberg

Company: None, just a different start-up idea every episode

The Story: Little more than comic relief, Sean's business ideas and inventions are seldom thought out, and when they do work, it's usually because of input from his friends. He struck out selling overpriced fruit to finals-cramming students until his comely friend Julie started hawking apples and bananas for him. His freshman survival packs (condoms, No-Doz, pepper spray, maps, aspirin, energy bars) went nowhere until he lowered the price from $15 to $5 at Julie's suggestion--but did he break even?

Reality Factor: Yes, there are some nutty professors out there--people who toy with lots of ideas but never follow through. But a 20-something guy who hangs out with college sophomores and creates condiments named Smoothaise and Zestrica? Is this who you want representing you?

Show: Party of Five (Fox)

Entrepreneur: Bailey Salinger

Company: Salingers', an upscale restaurant in the San Francisco area

The Story: After the Salingers' parents were killed by a drunk driver, the four young-est siblings were left in the care of the eldest brother, Charlie. The restaurant was left in the care of the parents' partner. Charlie joined the partner for awhile, but he's easily bored in the employment department. So at the ripe old age of 20, Bailey took over the Salinger clan's eatery.

Reality Factor: Not bad. Bailey is struggling to keep his social life intact, and he requires constant reminders from his friends and family to be spontaneous and act his age so his youth won't be sucked dry by heavy responsibility and long hours on the job. Sound familiar?

Show: Charmed (WB)

Entrepreneurs: Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell

Company: P3, a nightclub in San Francisco

The Story: Piper quit her job as a midlevel manager at a chic S.F. eatery with dreams of opening a nightclub. But while on a date with her loan officer, the two were attacked by demons and Piper's loan application was rejected. Her sisters came to the rescue with a fast $60,000 by mortgaging the Victorian home inherited from their grandmother.

Reality Factor: Hmm, demons attacking a loan officer/beau--I won't go there. And how about $60,000 being enough to start a swanky nightclub in San Francisco? This is including Bay Area rent, renovations, employee salaries, marketing and stocking the bar. Not likely.

Show: Dawson's Creek (WB)

Entrepreneurs: Joey and Bessie Potter

Company: At press time, they were planning on starting a bed-and-breakfast.

The Story: The two sisters kept the family diner alive after their mother passed away and their father went to prison. When Dad was paroled last season, he fell back into a life of crime and his underworld competition firebombed the restaurant. With Dad back in prison, the girls are using the fire insurance money to turn their creek-front home into a bed-and-breakfast, with the police auxiliary volunteering their renovation skills.

Reality Factor: Wow, people on TV sure do inherit a lot. Not that they didn't struggle, mind you. Bessie is a single mom and Joey misses out on a lot of high school hijinks to help her sister keep things going. But with the sisters' experience, the view of the creek, and father Potter out of the picture, the bed-and-breakfast might be a viable go.

Good Plan, Stan

What makes a good business plan? First and foremost, it should prove that the business will make money, according to a recent survey of 81 investment bankers, private investors, attorneys and accountants by Business Plans International (BPI). The majority of investment professionals look first to sections that tell them if the business can bring investors significant returns. When asked what they considered the most important sections of a plan, several parts were popular, including its summary, management section, historical financial results, and financial projections. "Your business plan should focus on describing your strategy for growing the business and on demonstrating its potential," says Judith Schneider, president of BPI, a New York City company that helps companies develop business plans. Organization is also a factor for many investors. "The presentation and content of the plan can [also] play a decisive role. Everything has to be clear and precise," shares Schneider.

Need more info on writing a business plan? Check "What's The Plan?"

Wet Profits

Amid the montage of potables chilling in your local beverage section, it's exciting to view a small group of premium soft drinks posing as lava lamps, persuading us to ignore their boring aluminum competitors.

So exactly how do start-up beverage entrepreneurs create enough consumer interest and accomplish the feat of securing a section of the corporate-dominated shelf space? "With luck, creativity and by providing refreshing alternatives," says Tom Vierhile, general manager of Marketing Intelligence Service, a new-product-reporting firm in Naples, New York. "It also depends on picking your spot in such a way that the larger companies won't be interested."

With a number of avenues to choose from--the homespun/old-fashioned approach, the nutraceutical/herb-enhanced approach, the new/exotic flavor approach--tapping such niches is exactly what will keep the big guys from stepping on the small guys' toes. "If you're a small guy, you're not gonna come up with another cola knock-off," says Vierhile. "You're going to come up with product niches that are perceived as underserved."

But aside from the obvious necessity of creating a product that tastes great, has a cool package and boasts something more than the average soda, new drink businesses still have the task of achieving distribution and shelf space. "That's one of the biggest challenges for small beverage companies," explains John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest. "[Securing distribution] takes a ton of entrepreneurial spirit and energy."

It was such entrepreneurial spirit and energy that prompted Hoby Buppert, 27, to put into action a business plan he devised during his last semester at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Buppert soon created his own line of soft drinks made with the naturally caffeinated Amazonian Guarana berry. After witnessing the popularity of highly caffeinated beverages in European dance clubs, Buppert decided to launch BAWLS (Brazilian American Wildlife Society) Guarana, to the guarana-savvy dance-club mecca of Miami in 1996.

Part of a $200,000 bank loan went to designing BAWL's distinctive packaging: a bumpy, cobalt-blue, 10-ounce glass bottle that Buppert says gets lots of attention. He distributed the bottles to local clubs and cafes himself in a company van until his prayers were answered by Arizona Distribution, who soon spread the product all over Florida. The company has since helped put BAWLS Guarana in 16 states.

Cluing in to teen lingo can help a new drink stand out as well. By using marijuana-related slang for its highly caffeinated line of carbonated beverages, called Bong Water, Merrillville, Indiana's Real Things Distributing Co. has definitely grabbed the attention of young adults, all the while promoting its alcohol-free sodas as an alternative to drinking and drugs. Bong Water further captivates with its strong-smelling, grapefruit-guava mixture boosted with 105 mg of caffeine and a good percentage of your recommended daily B and C vitamins.

Achieving PR through grassroots marketing, Real Things focuses on convenience stores, taverns, health stores, and smaller mom-and-pop operations for its shelf space. By targeting niche markets, whether with exotic flavor blends or provocative package designs, beverage companies like Real Things have been able to get bottles on shelves.

And although experts admit it's no simple task building new beverages to the national level, one thing's for sure: Creative formulation is extremely key when bringing new, exciting concoctions to the parched masses.

Elemental Intrigue

More ways small beverage entrepreneurs can take on con-stituents big guys won't touch:

  • Try no preservatives, like Reed's Extra Ginger Brew, brewed from roots and fruits.
  • Use fun and interactivity, like Orbitz does with its floating, multicolored gellan gumballs.
  • Get offensive: Skeleteens Counter-Culture Sodas boast such drinkables as Rat Bastard Root Beer (tastes like a son-of-a-bitch) and Love Potion #69 (an arousing carbonated drink).

Contact Sources

Brazilian Amazon Wildlife Society, (888) 439-2295, hobybawls@aol.com

Business Plans International, 400 E. 58th St., New York, NY 10022, (212) 753-0555

Marketing Intelligence Service, (716) 374-6326, ext. 28, http://www.productscan.com

Real Things Distribution Co., (888) 273-4152, http://www.drinkbongwater.com