Beyond Their Years

Chicken Fingers, Creative Talent & Ring Shopping for Men

Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers
Company description: Restaurant chain
Founder: Todd Graves, 31
Year started: 1996
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
2002 sales: Nearly $20 million

Todd Graves went fishing to start his Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers restaurant locations. No, he wasn't lounging on a lake-he and co-founder Greg Silvey, now 31, were working 20-hour days on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska to raise money to open their first Baton Rouge, Louisiana, restaurant. It was lucrative, though dangerous, work. "It was insane," recalls Graves. "But it was incredible because we were up there for our dream."

That dream was to build a quick-service restaurant near Louisiana State University that would specialize in chicken fingers with a signature sauce and sides. A college student at the time, Graves knew how popular chicken fingers were in other restaurants, and he saw a niche to bring chicken fingers off the appetizer menu and into the main course.

Today, Raising Cane's grosses nearly $20 million in annual sales, but in 1994, Graves and Silvey, now the company's vice president of IT, listened to a business professor dismiss the idea. "He said, 'This is South Louisiana. We're known all the world over for our quality food: Creole, Cajun, seafood. Just chicken fingers will never work here,'" recalls Graves.

Their first stabs at getting start-up capital elicited the same responses from investors-and that's when Graves and Silvey went to Alaska to earn some start-up cash. Their summer earnings weren't enough to open the first restaurant, "but [it was] enough to get some private investors interested," says Graves. "They said, 'If these guys are this passionate about doing this chicken finger restaurant, we might as well take a chance on them.'"

Taking a chance paid off. Graves opened the first Raising Cane's restaurant in 1996 and has since opened 14 more, all in Louisiana. With role models like McDonald's founder Ray Croc and Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, it's no surprise Graves envisions turning Raising Cane's into an international franchise giant. Indeed, when people ask him about his long-term goal, Graves doesn't hesitate: "It's to grow something truly great." -N.L.T.

Success Secrets
Entrepreneur: Once you opened the doors, did you still deal with skepticism from the public?
Todd Graves: Everybody that came in was like, "Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers? You've got to be kidding me. What else do you have?" And I said, "Just try it." And at Cane's to this day, [whenever] we go into a new market, it is, "Just try it!"

Entrepreneur: What has been your biggest reward in starting Raising Cane's?
Graves: I can tell you this so quickly because I think about it so much. My biggest reward is I'm living my dream every day. And my dream, [which] I say has turned into passion, is to grow this. People ask me, "Why do you want to grow? What is your end game?" I say, "I don't have an end game." Ray Croc didn't have an end game. Do you know how much stock he died with? Dave Thomas didn't have an end game. It's to grow something that's truly great. It's recognizing your potential and your potential in the organization to do something and do it for the right reasons, because it's special.

Aquent
Company description: Temporary placement agency and creative talent outsourcer
Founder: John Chuang, 38
Location: Boston
2003 projected sales: $280 million

No stranger to the entrepreneurial limelight, John Chuang makes his second appearance as a Young Millionaire this year, after debuting in 1998 at the tender age of 33 with staffing and placement services firm MacTemps Inc. Since then, Chuang and his business have matured.

Capitalizing on the Internet and technology boom of the late 1990s, Chuang's Boston-based temporary placement agency expanded from providing creative, Web-authoring, and Mac- and PC-trained personnel to include Web designers, a hot commodity at the time. When the bust came, Chuang began acquiring struggling companies, often for purchase prices far below the asking prices. MacTemps' growth and diversification prompted Chuang to change the company's name to Aquent, a word created with Greek and Latin roots that means "not a follower."

"We tend to enter markets where we're the leaders and offer lots of new services to our clients and our talent," Chuang says. Indeed, Aquent has become a major player in outsourcing creative teams, running the creative service departments for several Fortune 500 companies, such as Campbell Soup Co. and Capital One. Companies also use Aquent's technology and consulting services in systems integration projects. Changes in the economy and employment could have easily crippled Aquent, but adjusting to the climate and desired skill sets has allowed Aquent to rise above the competition and project 2003 sales of $280 million. Or, as Chuang puts it, "We decided to make lemonade from lemons."

Chuang can still be seen driving around Boston in the same old car he's had since college, a trusty 1987 Toyota Corolla-a clear testament to his modest ways. In fact, employees were once required to supply their own pens and stay at Motel 6 hotels while on business trips. And there are still no private offices at Aquent, not even for "the frugal mogul," as Chuang was dubbed by close friends and colleagues. "It's easy to spend money; the trick is earning it," says Chuang. "Spending money is not very impressive." Cheap has never looked so rich. -A.Y.P.

Success Stories
Entrepreneur: You staff a couple thousand people a day in 17 countries. How did Aquent expand internationally?
John Chuang: We essentially just go out there. We have confidence that our products and services are valuable worldwide, and we have always thought of ourselves as global, even when we were small.

Entrepreneur: With all you've accomplished, what do foresee in the future?
Chuang: Our company will be the number-one creative services company, with a significant amount of Fortune 500 companies as clients. We'll also be the number-one business in IT staffing. We are in two really great spaces right now. We're continually adapting to our marketplace.

Blue Nile Inc.
Company description: Online jewelry retailer
Founder: Mark Vadon, 33
Year started: 1998
Location: Santa Clarita, California
2003 projected sales: $120 million

"Most men don't know anything about jewelry," quips Mark Vadon, who ought to know: Searching for an engagement ring for his fiancée in 1998 was like looking for a needle in a haystack-a needle that costs about as much as a compact car.

Maybe that's why Vadon turned to the Internet-where no one could peer snootily at him or talk him into buying a $17,000 ring. The Web site where he found his ring belonged to a brick-and-mortar jewelry store in Seattle. Though rudimentary, the site gave Vadon what he needed: "straight talk, like how a jeweler would tell his friends what to buy," he says.

After the experience, Vadon made it his mission to assist guys everywhere standing before a glass case, scratching their heads in dismay. How? Develop an e-commerce site where men could get not just a chunk of jewelry, but also some help in making a purchase. In 1999, Vadon took the jewelry store owner to dinner and made him an offer to buy his business, "and that's how we got Blue Nile," says the former Bain & Co. executive.

That's also how he assembled a throng of loyal employees-many of them men jaded by the ring-buying process-as well as venture capital: "This storefront was doing a quarter million a month with this basic Web site," says Vadon. "We went to VCs with this information, and [they] loved it; they all wanted in on the deal."

With an average order price exceeding $1,000 and a lightweight product, the $72 million company can afford to offer free shipping-something that kept Vadon from joining the wasteland of dotcoms shipping 20-pound bags of dog food.

It's powerful word-of-mouth that makes Blue Nile the envy of the industry. "Other jewelers get upset because they say we're giving too much information out [about the jewelry]," says Vadon, who expects sales of $120 million in 2003. "We're pulling back the curtain and showing the wizard." -K.E.S.

Success Secrets
Entrepreneur: Why did you decide to buy an existing business?
Mark Vadon: The good reason to buy rather than start from scratch is that it had an existing supplier base and experts, and we added experts over time. We went out and hired phenomenal merchants in the industry who had 10 to 20 [years of experience]; they had the knowledge and contacts. Most of those people are still here-we've had incredible retention. I took this business very personally, and a lot of people we've hired are the same way.

Entrepreneur: How did you get the name Blue Nile?
Vadon: The original business was Internet Diamonds-that was too brown-paper wrapper. A guy would not want to buy a diamond and say he bought it from Internet Diamonds.com. We were looking for a name that was somewhat flexible, simple to spell and, most important, somewhat sticky in consumers' minds. We hired a naming firm, and "Blue Nile" tested higher [with consumers] than any of the other names.

Entrepreneur: Do you think you're successful?
Vadon: Every day we come in here and feel like we haven't done enough. That's part of the dysfunction of being a good entrepreneur-you're never satisfied. I don't think we're ever going to be done.

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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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