From the November 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

It is often said that it's better to give than to receive. Some of today's entrepreneurs might also say it's better to serve than to be served. Keep that principle in mind as you prepare to start a business, and you may discover that service-themed businesses are not only profitable, but also often overlooked.

The key to a successful service business is to offer something that's desperately needed-and often that's something you'd never think could be a business. Jayne Anne Harris and her sisters, Eloise and Mary Lou, discovered just how necessary the coat-check business is. As aspiring actors and singers, the Harris sisters worked the coat room at the famed Studio 54 in New York City. The company that provided the club's security also worked other events, and it soon asked the Harrises to run coat-check rooms at other soirees. "At first, it was a side job to pay our rent," says Jayne Anne, 46. "We tried a few, and it accidentally turned into a full-fledged business."

The trio officially started Coat Check Inc. in 1993. "There was a demand for it," says Mary Lou, 40. "There was a lot of work out there." These days, the sisters are busy year-round running coat checks at glamorous events-from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Ball to galas hosted by The New Yorker and Vogue-and annual sales are fast approaching $230,000. And while training their staffers to properly handle thousands of coats in one evening is no easy task, the mavens of Coat Check know it's all part of providing good service. "We keep it hospital corners all the way around," says Eloise, 42.

That kind of devotion to customers is integral to any good service business-whether it's caring for socialites' coats or something a bit more, shall we say, down-to-earth. Cara Brown, 28, and Erin Erman, 29, combined a desire to provide excellent service with a passion for dogs when they launched Dirty Work, a pooper-scooper service, in 1998.

The pair publicized their Atlanta business through fliers and ads in the local paper, but Erman notes that the cheapest and easiest marketing tool was their Web site. "It was one of the smartest choices we could have made," says Erman. "People want to investigate you first, get a feel for your business and [determine] if they like what they see before they commit to talking to you-and feel like they're being pitched for a sale."

Getting the word out to people was the biggest challenge, says Erman. "[In our area], people had never heard that you could hire someone to scoop your yard," she says. Because Dirty Work is dependable and inexpensive, customers quickly grew to love their service. Erman and Brown recouped their $1,500 start-up costs in about six months, and sales have continued to grow.

Be it hobnobbing with the rich and famous or keeping pet owners' yards clean and fresh, serving can be the best way to receive-a profit, that is.

SERVE' EM HOT!
Just as the errand-running services of a few years ago turned into concierge services-one of today's hottest business ideas-the following service business concepts could also be poised for some serious growth:

When on the hunt for a microloan, you'll need to save as much money as possible on your operating expenses. We asked Linda Saggau, a communications and business consultant and founder of Mr. Wolf Ltd. in Minneapolis, for tips on how to tighten your belt during start-up:

  • Bathroom attendant: Provide service to high-end restaurants and nightclubs.
  • Dog walker: A variant of the pooper-scooper service.
  • Handyman: Provide the little fix-it services people need; could eventually turn into an entire fleet of handymen.
  • Apartment hunter: Take the relocating stress off clients-they'll love you.

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