Beyond Their Years

IT Consulting, Stuffed Animals & Mobile Computing

Enlightened Inc.
Company description: IT consulting firm
Founders: Antwanye Ford, 38, Andre Rogers, 37, and Thomas Spann, 38
Year started: 1999
Location: Washington, DC
2003 sales projections: $5 million-plus

The old saying "Three's a Crowd" doesn't apply to Washington, DC-based IT consulting firm Enlightened Inc. Founded by three friends who met at George Washington University, three is the number that makes Enlightened thrive. In 1999, president Antwanye Ford, vice president Thomas Spann and vice president Andre Rogers took a leap of faith from corporate jobs to start a business.

With government contracts a major part of their business, Enlightened had to adapt when the government restructured after 9/11. Contracts were put on hold and agency funds redirected as more than 20 federal agencies collapsed into the Homeland Security Department, leaving Enlightened in the lurch. "It's forced us to be structured about managing the company," says Ford. "We don't take as many chances as we did before." A focus on current customers and investigating opportunities in the commercial sector are getting them through hard times.

It's the ability to adapt, focus and grow that sets Enlightened apart from its competition. "We don't let the grass grow under our feet, "says Rogers. "We're able to take the ups and downs." With 2003 sales projections expected to be more than $5 million, Enlightened is seeing the light. -Amanda C. Kooser

Success Secrets
Entrepreneur: What is the work environment like at Enlightened?
Antwayne Ford: We try to keep a very professional environment in the way we carry ourselves, the way we try to dress, the way we like the look and feel of the offices. On the other hand, we joke with each other and the staff all the time. It's an environment where people feel very comfortable with each other. We value our relationships with our employees.

Entrepreneur: Who are your entrepreneurial role models?
Ford: One of mine is my parents. They owned their own upholstery shop. After school I went to the business and went upstairs. It was just the two of them, a mom-and-pop-type environment.

Thomas Spann: I had two influences: My aunt Barbara Stokes, when I was very young, owned a daycare. I actually was able to see early on what it took to run a small business and some of the challenges. More as an adult I was fascinated by the story of Reginald Lewis and how he was able to get to point where he could buy Beatrice.

Andre Rogers: My father had a landscaping business, so that gave me the insights. I think that was where the bug kind of hit me. I was fascinated about growing the business and how he could grow the business and make it work better. That translated even when I had a paper route. I had one of the largest paper routes in the country.

Entrepreneur: What does the future hold for Enlightened?
Rogers: The future is very bright. This environment is going to weed out the men from the boys. We came to that conclusion last year that we were going to survive, no question about it. Right now we are making structural headway, maintaining relationships in the commercial sector. I'm salivating over telecommunications turnaround.

Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co.
Company description: Plush toy licenser and manufacturer
Founder: David Socha, 34
Year started: 1994
Location: Santa Clarita, California
2002 sales: $20 million

In his youth, David Socha imagined himself as a professional hockey player. Little did he know he would head up a $20-million-per-year plush-toy company securing licenses with the likes of The Coca-Cola Co. and Universal Studios, and producing product tie-ins with the movie Babe or Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer TV series. But flexibility and change are nothing new to Socha.

In 1994, when this Santa Clarita, California, entrepreneur realized that a hockey career was not in his future, he started a mail order catalog business to peddle specialty teddy bears. His business hit hard times, but with some ad time on a local radio station and a piece on the local morning news, business skyrocketed-and gave Socha the opportunity to make teddy bears for celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Steven Spielberg. Socha heard opportunity knock again when he began to get requests for a wider variety of plush toys. That led him to licensing, which has propelled the company's double-digit growth for the past four years.

Socha knows he's in a market with a few Goliaths, but he's proven that his company is a force to be reckoned with. "We can turn on a dime. We've gotten orders [where] we may have been the third choice, but because [we'll] jump on a plane and go to the manufacturing facility in China or meet with a customer in Dallas," he says, "our company has gotten the reputation of getting the job done no matter what." -N.L.T.

Success Stories
Entrepreneur: What has been the biggest challenge in getting the company up and running and in running it day to day?
David Socha: I don't want to make it sound too negative. But there are people out there who don't have the same integrity or morals and ethics that many people in the business do, and I think it's a matter of being aware of those people and protecting yourself from the harm that can come from someone who's out to hurt you. [It's] being on your toes.

It's a constant battle, not only with our competitors, but even with people we do business with to make sure that you get in business with the right people. And I would say the biggest difficulty is watching out for the people who want to take advantage of you.

Entrepreneur: Coming into this industry, how do you compete with the bigger companies?
Socha: Really, we win a lot of jobs and a lot of contracts by default. If I could give small businesses one recommendation, it's to always be nimble on your feet.

Entrepreneur: Was it that reputation that got you in the door with those initial meetings with, say, Coca-Cola?
Socha: It probably took us three years to get Coca-Cola to consider us. And that's a part of just being faithful and knowing who you want to be in business with. That was one we said, strategically, they're the biggest brand in the world. We want to do something with them. So every few weeks, every few months, [we would] just call up. It's truly just the follow-through and the tenacity to not take no [for an answer].

Handango
Company description: Mobile software publisher and platform technology
Founder: Randy Eisenman, 28
Year started: 1999
Location: Hurst, Texas

Randy Eisenman wants to make one thing very clear: He is not a millionaire. That title is about his business, not him personally. As founder and president, he has shepherded mobile software publisher and platform Handango to multimillion-dollar sales and an impressive 30 percent quarter-on-quarter growth over the past three years. The only millions he's counting are the more than 6 million customers the Hurst, Texas-based company reaches every month.

Nobody is born an entrepreneur, but Eisenman took to it at a young age, opening a fitness-training business in his house at age 16. He got his brokerage license at 19 and headed the VC investment division of Q Investments before putting his money where his mouth was and starting Handango in 1999 at age 23, with $18 million that he'd raised. "Going on business trips, I couldn't even rent a car. I was too young," he recalls. The tech downturn could have taken Handango out of the game like so many of its competitors, but Eisenman led the company through with financial discipline (including working on $39 card tables) and hard work, mixed with a dedication to fun.

That determination has helped Handango partner with industry heavyweights Microsoft, Nokia and Palm and create a growing international presence. Says Eisenman, "We live and breathe our mission, which is to create and shape and dominate this industry and to have fun doing it." -A.C.K.

Success Secrets
Entrepreneur: Where did Handango get its name?
Randy Eisenman: After running the business for about a year, I hired a professional management team. We had been doing business under the name of GoPDA and PalmCentral, so we decided that we needed to unify under one brand. We literally had presentations from six or seven marketing firms and probably looked at over 2,000 different names. When Handango was presented to us, we said that's the one. We thought it was a fun-sounding name and it implied something in the handheld market.

Entrepreneur: What is the work environment like at Handango?
Eisenman: You've never seen anything like it. It is a blast. It is completely open so the 70 or so employees all sit out in a giant room together. There are no offices. I sit out in the middle. It is intense and laid back at the same time; it is very collaborative and team-oriented. It is very fun. There's the ping-pong table, there's the foosball table, there's the masseuse that comes to the office on Fridays to give everybody a massages that wants one. I'm in jeans and a T-shirt today.

Entrepreneur: Who are your entrepreneurial role models?
Eisenman: My parents have been running a family business that was started in 1950. I look up to them for the kinds of people they are and the way they live their lives and their values and priorities. Business-wise the thing I admire most about my parents is how they treat their employees. It's an absolute family in their business, and they have unbelievable loyalty with their employees. That is what sets their business apart, and hopefully a little of that has rubbed off on me.

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This article was originally published in the November 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beyond Their Years.

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