From the January 2001 issue of Startups

They came; they saw; they conquered. They ventured into barren lands and planted their flags, initiating new waves of product ideas, new lines of thought, new methods of getting the job done. At this point, perhaps you're expecting an essay about Mr. Dell, Mr. Gates or some other household name. Sorry to disappoint you (or should we say "Glad to make your day"?), but we're thinking of some young entrepreneurs who, while perhaps lesser known, are no less deserving of the "trailblazer" designation-not only because they planted their proverbial flags, but because they're planting more and more of them by the second. If these entrepreneurs are any indication of the kinds of pioneers we'll see throughout the 21st century, today's trailblazers prove that it's good for history to repeat itself. And they also prove that it's not out of reach for you to blaze a trail of your own.


Laura E. Vasilion is a trailblazer herself. As a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Chicago Tribune, she beats a path to her computer every day.

Home Decorating Items Business

Surrounded by two dogs, three cats, a horse, a donkey, a pygmy goat, a goose, ducklings, chickens, roosters, peacocks, a flock of sheep and twin sons (Maximilian and Fineous), 32-year-old Tracy Porter hardly fits the traditional trailblazer image. Looks, however, can be deceiving.

Nine years ago, Porter and her husband, John, moved from Chicago to their 26-acre farm in Princeton, Wisconsin. Porter, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, watched her parents work together to build a business, and she knew she wanted that kind of life with her own husband someday.

Hence, in a chicken coop, she started Tracy Porter Inc., an exclusive line of home decorating items that includes dishes, linens, furniture and more-products that reminded her of her Grandma Lucy, her mom's mom, who lived with the family while Porter grew up. "She was a wonderful French woman," says Porter, "with a love of so many things that still influence me today, like antiques, textiles, millinery flowers and lace."

Those solid family influences and her hard work catapulted Porter out of the chicken coop and into the limelight. Today, Porter is so successful, with sales in the multimillions, she's written two books, appeared on Oprah and been dubbed the Martha Stewart of the Midwest. Sure, Porter has had setbacks. But they only made her stronger.

Her secret? "Believe in yourself. Even when everyone else is telling you no," she says.

Porter learned that lesson at a young age, when she graduated from high school and went to Paris to pursue a modeling career. At every turn, Porter's dream seemed doomed. "No, you're not pretty enough-you're not the right height; you're not the right type for this job" became a familiar refrain. "It's hard to hear 'no' as much as I did," she recalls.

And even though Porter ultimately gave up on modeling, she believes the experience forced her to have the tenacity to keep pushing onward and give herself credit when no one else would. Most important, she learned not to take things personally. "Sometimes," she explains, "['no' is] just about them and what they're looking for."

That attitude is the mark of a true trailblazer, according to Stever Robbins, president and founder of VentureCoach.com, a coaching firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his two years of coaching start-ups, Robbins has discovered a common thread among successful leaders and entrepreneurs: "I've never met anyone who's good at everything," he says. "That's why you have to be self-aware. Know thyself. Know what you're good at and what you're not."

Once you do, the key is to balance your strengths with the strengths of a trustworthy management team. The next step, says Robbins, is to let go. "Young entrepreneurs tend to tell their employees what to do rather than trust them to do it," says Robbins. "But to succeed, you have to develop the ability to let go."

A Restaurant

Still, there may be something to the idea of rolling up your sleeves and really getting your hands dirty. Malik Armstead, for instance, 29-year-old chef and owner of The Five Spot Soul Food Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, still works seven days a week, four years post-start-up. "I don't want to seem arrogant. But I can say everything I've put my mind to I've accomplished," says Armstead, who opened his restaurant using every penny of his savings ($20,000) and proceeded to earn back his investment in just four months. Favorable restaurant reviews and word-of-mouth have made The Five Spot popular with locals, the downtown office crowd, blue-collar workers and families. To accommodate the throngs, Armstead recently bought the restaurant's building . . . and the one next door.

All this despite the fact that owning a restaurant wasn't Armstead's first dream. "I always wanted to work on Wall Street," he says. After receiving a finance degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Armstead headed to Wall Street and landed a job at Morgan Stanley. As a financial analyst, he analyzed companies in distress. But the dream wasn't all it appeared to be. "After two and a half years, I developed a disdain for the corporate world and all the politics," he says. "I didn't like someone having control of my destiny."

It seems Armstead, like many young trailblazers, probably never liked leaving destiny in someone else's hands. When he was in high school, he enrolled in The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepre-neurship (NFTE) program, which offers an entrepreneurial education program to inner-city youth to teach them business ownership. Armstead was one of NFTE's first graduates.

According to Steve Mariotti, the former New York City high school teacher who founded NFTE in 1987, it's this kind of desire for autonomy that's elevating many of today's young entrepreneurs to trailblazer status. "I think we're in the middle of an entrepreneurial revolution, a cultural shift that's making the entrepreneur the hero," says Mariotti. "It isn't for everybody. There is great risk. But overall, this great interest in owning a business is creating value in the marketplace-especially for minorities and women who traditionally might not have considered becoming entrepreneurs."

Want a new business to cook up? Read Piece Of Cake to find out how to start your own restaurant.

Marketing Consulting Service

Don't leave them out of the loop. Read Youthquake to get in touch with the teen market.

Online Buying And Selling

Chad Little's motivation for trailblazing is more tongue-in-cheek. Make that geek. In 1998, Little, 32, founded Scottsdale, Arizona-based myGeek.com, a service in which subscribers provide a detailed description of what they're looking for, and Little's skilled "geeks" then search the company's 3,000 sellers to locate the desired product, brand and price.

Laugh if you want at the geek concept-Little welcomes it. But don't laugh at Little's reverse-shopping concept. It recently attracted $5 million in venture capital. And last year, myGeek.com received the Web site of the Year award at the Celebration of Innovation awards gala, sponsored by AZSOFT.net, a Scottsdale Internet and software trade organization representing 454 Arizona technology companies. Little and his geeks showed up for the event wearing lime-green tuxedos and black-rimmed glasses . . . with tape on the lenses. "Our identity is one of our key assets," says Little, proudly. "It's one of the most difficult things for a company to create."

But behind myGeek's quirky identity is a CEO with business savvy. He may look like the company mascot, but he knows you need more than spin to make it today. "Cooperation, what I call culture, is an extension of the interaction between the people and environment in which you are working," explains Little. "I'm most proud of the culture we are creating."

Stumped for online business ideas? Read Got Net for the 10 hottest e-commerce businesses to start."

Computer Consulting Company

Like Little, it seems all these trailblazers have that certain savoir-faire-that ability to make age and appearances a nonissue. Nicholas Chavez, for instance, started blazing a trail at 15, when he started his first computer consulting company in Arvada, Colorado, where he grew up. At 17, Packard Bell, IBM and Lucent Technologies were using his services. By the time he was 18, the U.S. Department of Defense was calling on him.

Even as a child, Chavez was convinced he wouldn't be the guy with the beige sedan going to the same job every day. He was right. Today, the 21-year-old drives a Jaguar, owns a large home in the Houston suburbs and employs eight independent contractors. More important than these material belongings, though, is Chavez's seemingly innate confidence. It's what allowed him to speak in front of crowds at age 5. It's what prompted him to strike up a conversation with a big-name architect on an airplane and hatch the concept of a secure, interactive online database for architects, construction teams and their customers, dubbed ProjectVault.com. And it's what's allowed him to successfully launch three other dotcoms in addition to ProjectVault: IlluminatiSystems.com (Web design and hosting), WowRecruits.com (a recruiting database for sports scouts and players) and httphomes.com (a service for real estate agents).

Ask Chavez the true secret to being a trailblazer, however, and you might get a different answer. "My father always said he would rather have a thief living in the house than a liar," says Chavez, also the father of a 1-year-old son, Nicholas Chavez III. "If you don't have integrity, you don't have what it takes."

Here's to hoping that history will repeat itself for a long time to come.

Get a computer consulting business of your own. But first read Get With The Program to find out how to get your computer consultant smarts.

Contact Sources