From the January 2014 issue of Entrepreneur

There's nothing new about the products represented by the winners of Entrepreneur(R) magazine's Entrepreneur of 2013 Awards--camera lenses, wedding rings, baked goods--but what these innovators are doing with them is decidedly modern.

In creating his top-selling camera accessory, the olloclip, our Entrepreneur of 2013, Patrick O'Neill, hitched his star to arguably the world's most beloved device: Apple's iPhone. Emerging Entrepreneur winner Joshua Opperman developed an online market for discarded wedding rings from the lovelorn. And College Entrepreneur Nelly Garcia aims to take her successful cake-baking skills to the masses via internet workshops.

These three take our prizes for the year. From thousands of entries, Entrepreneur editor in chief Amy C. Cosper and vice president of marketing Lisa Murray, along with The UPS Store's vice president of marketing, Michelle Van Slyke, and PR manager Chelsea Lee, narrowed the field to 15 finalists. Then readers voted on their favorites at Entrepreneur.com. We hope you'll be as inspired by them as we are.

 

Entrepreneur of 2013: Patrick O'Neill

Entrepreneur of 2013: Patrick O'Neill
Photo (C) Ewan Burns
Patrick O'Neill
Entrepreneur of 2013

Patrick O'Neill

olloclip

Huntington Beach, CA
Founded: 2009
Employees: 45
Sales in 2012: $11 million

A New Focus

The olloclip amps up the iPhone camera

Patrick O'Neill, founder and CEO of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based olloclip, has two great passions: photography and technology.

An entrepreneur for more than two decades, he got into the mobile-accessories business in 2000. At the time, he was designing products for other companies, but his idea for an iPhone camera lens was already bubbling up. "I thought, wouldn't it be cool to put camera lenses on the phone like we do with our big cameras? The problem was," he recalls, "how do you elegantly mount it?"

Patrick O'Neill
Patrick O'Neill

His solution: attach lenses on either side of a small plastic sleeve that could be slipped over the iPhone's camera lens. "I felt more strongly about this than anything I've ever done in my life," O'Neill says. "I put everything into it. I put my whole house on the line."

Using his own money, he brought on his director of design, Chong Pak, and a marketing expert. Though O'Neill "knew basically how it would work," the team spent the next year creating hundreds of prototypes using a 3-D printer.

"Just OK" wouldn't do. There would be no moving ahead with production until the three-in-one olloclip--featuring fish-eye, wide-angle and macro lenses--was just right. The final lens set weighs less than an ounce and fits in a pocket.O'Neill says he never thought much about the company's growth potential. "I knew there were other people as crazy about photography as I was, and with the iPhone 4, the camera was amazing compared to any smartphone that had come before. That combination of factors--this was the right time for this," he says.

The company has more than 30 distributors throughout the world, and its products are sold in chains such as Best Buy and Target. Late last year, it introduced an update to the original olloclip--a sleeker unit with four lenses--as well as products for the chunkier iPhone 5c and a macro-focused lens set.A Kickstarter campaign seeking $15,000 brought in more than $68,000, enabling him to ship his first product in 2011. Growth came quickly. The company, which started out of O'Neill's house, now has about 50 employees. Revenue was $11 million in 2012 and projected at $20 million for 2013.

But the biggest coup has been getting olloclip stocked in Apple stores. "When we were developing this product, we said the best place we could be is in the Apple store," recalls O'Neill, who sent the company's merchandising team samples, telling them to "play with them over the weekend." O'Neill says he "believed in this product from the beginning. I knew they would love it."

And they did. Shortly before the iPhone 4s was announced, the merchandisers' review came in: "Wow, that's amazing."

"In the big Apple stores, we're on 10 pegs right now, and we've been there for two years," says O'Neill, who won't reveal what percentage of revenue comes from the retailer. "It's hard to stay in there. Apple is the pinnacle. If you can get in there and stay in there, you're doing a lot of things right."

Patrick O'Neill

Patrick O'NeillName three personality traits that have helped you become a successful entrepreneur.
Belief in myself. Curiosity. Persistence.

What kinds of people do you surround yourself with at your company?
Funny people and intelligent people, in that order.

Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?
Yes--double down and go for it.

What are your hobbies?
Taking pictures for fun. Travel. Racecar driving.

Are you a list-maker or a make-it-up-as-you-go type?
Make-it-up-as-you-go type. My mind is always going a hundred miles an hour. I would spin off into space without my solid team behind me.

How do you deal with people who disappoint you in business?
Off with their heads. All kidding aside, I'm not unreasonable. It's not a perfect world, and shit happens. But if someone betrays me or my family/company, I have to cut them off.

Emerging Entrepreneur: Joshua Opperman

Emerging Entrepreneur: Joshua Opperman
Photo (C) Andrew Rowat
Josh Opperman
Entrepreneur of 2013

Josh Opperman

I Do Now I Don't

New York, N.Y.
Founded: 2007
Employees: 3
Sales in 2012: $1.6 million

Happily Ever After

I Do Now I Don't spins breakups into solid gold

It was 2006, and things looked pretty good for Joshua Opperman. He was a market researcher for a New York City-based magazine publisher. He was engaged to be married. Things were on track. All was well.

But three months into the engagement, his fianc?e took off, leaving nothing but the ring behind. Adding insult to injury? The store where Opperman had purchased the $10,000 bauble didn't give refunds, only credit. As he started researching other ways to unload it, Opperman found that he could recoup, at most, 35 percent of the purchase price--if he didn't get scammed.

Emerging Entrepreneur: Joshua Opperman

"I was going to different places that bought jewelry online. I was finding that it wasn't really a safe environment to sell a piece like this back," he says. "That got me thinking, Is there a better way to do this?"

Opperman and his sister, Mara, tossed the idea around, and in 2007, just six months after his breakup, the first-time entrepreneurs launched I Do Now I Don't, an online marketplace for engagement rings. "We did it for fun to see if we could get traction on it," says Opperman, who serves as CEO. "We put up a little dinky site. We put in a few thousand dollars."

Three weeks later, with just five rings listed on the site, the media blitz began. Turned out that having a bad breakup story at the heart of the company was good news for I Do Now I Don't. Opperman's first TV appearance was on The Rachael Ray Show; soon after, his company was featured on the homepage of CNN.com.

"It was great, but it wasn't that great for us at the time. We weren't ready for it," he says. "[Our] site was down, so nobody could see it. It was crashed for weeks."

Those early dinky days had to come to an end. The siblings raised $450,000 from friends and family--their only funding--and launched a new site. Within six months of starting the company, they quit their other jobs.

I Do Now I Don't plays the role of safe go-between for sellers looking to unload engagement rings (and, now, other jewelry as well as wedding dresses) and those hoping to get the glitz without paying retail prices. When a transaction is initiated, I Do Now I Don't holds the cash until a gemologist certifies the ring, a system that is clearly calming buyers' nerves: The company sends about 100 rings to happier homes each month, including one that went for $100,000.

"I think the only reason somebody would spend $100,000 is that they're sure we're checking the ring, holding the money, and they're not going to be scammed," Opperman says.

In 2012 the business--which takes a 15 percent commission on each sale--brought in $1.6 million. Opperman estimated 2013 revenue of $2.5 million to $3 million. "I think we can make this a $100 million company," he says.

Up next: Opperman is close to signing contracts with two or three jewelry retailers ("names you would know," he says) to create trade-in programs at their stores. I Do Now I Don't will buy the old goods and give customers a credit toward the purchase of new ones at the retailer.

And, no need to worry: Opperman isn't sitting around miserable in the midst of all those engagement rings. He did find love again--and the ring he gave her, purchased on his own site, was the perfect fit.

Emerging Entrepreneur: Joshua OppermanWhat is your motto? 
"Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed." --Booker T. Washington

Are you a list-maker or a make-it-up-as-you-go type?
Usually I like to make it up as I go. Sometimes lists can be too constrictive. Things are constantly changing, and flexibility is important.

How do you reward those who have helped you grow your business?
The people who have helped grow this business with me are all a part of the company in one form or another.

Which fictional character are you most like, and why?
Jerry Maguire. He was at the top of his game before getting fired for developing morals. He lost almost everything, and instead of giving up, he started his own business managing just one athlete. He stuck with his convictions and his passion, sometimes struggling, but in the end he reestablished himself while gaining respect from the industry.

College Entrepreneur: Nelly Garcia

College Entrepreneur: Nelly Garcia
Photo (C) Sarah Wilson
Nelly Garcia
Entrepreneur of 2013

Nelly Garcia

College: Brigham
Young University

Brigham Young University

Sweet Success

A cake-maker prepares to share her craft

It started with the Facebook photos. When Nelly Garcia was an undergrad in Brigham Young University's online program, she posted some shots of a wedding cake she had baked for a friend. Between her lifelong love of baking and some classes she was taking for fun, Garcia had gained some serious sugar skills. "Then my other friends started calling and asking for wedding cakes. I decided to advertise as a wedding-cake bakery and got a lot of phone calls," says Garcia, now 27, founder of Austin-based Rocheli Patisserie.

Even before the advertising, Garcia, along with her mom (who was an executive chef in Monterrey, Mexico, before the family moved to Texas 12 years ago) and younger sister were turning out 15 cakes a weekend from their apartment kitchen, "which was a terrible mess," she says.

This past June, after earning her degree (and just before her classes started for BYU's online MBA program), Garcia began actively spreading the word about Rocheli through social media. Now the trio spends every weekend in marathon baking sessions, turning out 50 to 60 cakes.

"I start Friday at around 10 a.m. and finish at about 4 a.m. on Saturday," Garcia says. "We work overnight, then wake up at 7 a.m. on Saturday and deliver our cakes. We're usually done on Saturday at 7 or 8 p.m."

Her cakes start at $100 and have run up to $1,600 (for a wedding cake that had "a lot of details and bling-bling" and took 14 hours to complete). "I do love the extravagant ones," she says. "The harder they make it, the more creative I get."

The $5,000 prize that comes with the College Entrepreneur of the Year award will go toward a commercial mixer and video equipment for her next project: an online baking school. "I would like to give classes, to grow as much as I can and have franchises in different cities," Garcia says.But that's not all for Garcia. "I really would like for it to grow and not just be a bakery, but be an actual brand."

Once again, demand created the potential revenue stream. Living in Austin, Garcia has to travel to major cities to take classes in the latest baking techniques. She wants to make the process easier for others--especially those in Mexico (though she also has her eye on the rest of the world, naming Argentina and Spain to start). The recorded video classes will cost around $50, and Garcia plans to sell and ship supply kits for each class. She also wants to open a bakery in downtown Austin.

Launching a business while getting a degree has its challenges. "It's sad at times because I can see that there are always pictures on Facebook [of friends] in Vegas and having fun," Garcia says. "That's something I've never really had. I know I'll see the results in a few years from now. Hopefully."

College Entrepreneur: Nelly GarciaName three personality traits that have helped you become a successful entrepreneur.
Passion, determination and drive.

What is your motto?
Let excellence be your brand.

When you need to learn about something, how do you go about it?
I am a complete teach-yourself kind of person. There are books for everything! But when it comes to issues such as Texas laws or angel investors, I usually call governmental agencies such as the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, SBA, etc. I am not afraid of asking questions and making good use of their free workshops.

Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?
I definitely am. But I don't see the risk of what I can lose. I see how much I can gain. I seek opportunity, not security.

Are you a list-maker or a make-it-up-as-you-go type?
Definitely a list-maker. I have at least four notebooks that I carry with me all the time. Not only do I make lists but I group them into "urgent," "important," "follow up" and "general ideas."

Do you like surprises?
Yes. I like the thrill of the unknown--not knowing what tomorrow might bring, but knowing that whatever it may be, I am prepared for it.