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Smart Ideas 06/04

Networking pajama parties, biblical bobbles and more

Jammie Sessions

What: "Girls' night out" pajama/spa party events for women
Who: Melody Biringer of Crave Party
Where: Seattle
When: Started in 2000

Women want to network with other women while wearing pajamas, getting spa services and shopping-at least this is what Melody Biringer, 41, found out when she founded Crave Party.

Inspired by a pajama party at a friend's home, Biringer got the idea to create fun business networking events for women on a larger scale-at fancy hotels and ballrooms with champagne and strawberries. She secured local spa professionals (massage therapists, nail techs and so on) and merchants to provide the pampering services and shopping, and charged women a $35 fee to register. Her first three nights of Crave Parties sold out in two weeks.

Thanks to word-of-mouth marketing, her parties have grown in popularity. "[It's] networking in your pajamas in a swanky environment-that makes it even more fun to walk into this place," Biringer says. With parties under her belt in New Orleans; Phoenix; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Biringer would like to bring the concept to every major city-and even create annual parties themed around events such as holiday shopping or the Oscars-to push 2004 sales into the mid- to upper-six-figure range.

In Good Faith

What: A business that manufactures bobblehead dolls of biblical characters
Who: Andy Dabney, Dan and Darren Foote, and Dan Hinckley of Le Jortes Productions Inc. (dba Isaac Bros. Bible Bobbleheads)
Where: Allen, Texas
When: Started in 2002

Why should sports heroes be the only ones revered in bobblehead form? That's what Dan Foote thought while watching a baseball game with his good friend Dan Hinckley in 2002. A Christian cartoonist and children's book author by trade, Foote immediately set upon the notion of biblically themed bobblehead figures-a sort of holy take on the trend. The theme of the line is simple, notes Foote: "We take our faith seriously-not ourselves."

They thought it would be interesting to have bobbleheads based on biblical heroes. The first line included Moses, Noah and Samson. After getting the initial idea, Foote, 44, and Hinckley, 43, brought in Foote's brother Darren, 34, and Darren's brother-in-law Andy Dabney, 33, to iron out the manufacturing details. They marketed the first run of 1,500 bobblehead figures via their Web site, mostly to friends and family, says Foote. A small ad in the back of a Christian magazine drummed up interest and caught the eye of a Louisville, Kentucky, journalist who did a piece on the company. Word then spread like wildfire-and the initial run sold out. "It [grew] into something bigger than we were ready for," says Foote.

In fact, once people realized that the bobbleheads were not meant to mock faith, but rather to encourage it, they were very receptive, says Foote. Still establishing their plans for the future, the founders of Isaac Bros. hope for sales in the mid- to upper-five figures for 2004. And they plan to add new biblical figures to the line, including John the Baptist, Queen Esther and Daniel in the lions' den.

Local Motion

What: E-newsletters that encourage people to patronize local businesses
Who: Michael W. Peterson of ShopCloseBuy Inc.
Where: Minneapolis
When: Started in 2002

It's never easy to get people to try your restaurant or retail store. But Michael W. Peterson, 33, had an epiphany while walking through his Minneapolis neighborhood: Was there a better way to get customers to patronize these businesses? He decided on an opt-in e-newsletter that would tell people about local eateries and shops, and feature specials.

Peterson's first step was persuading some local retailers to buy newsletter space. They liked the idea, especially because Peterson would do all the technical work. "They didn't have to lift a finger, and they'd be [reaching] people within a mile of their location," he says.

The newsletter was successful with the business lunch crowd. They'd get mid-morning e-mails about the day's special, and those establishments would be full. Noticing the response their competitors were getting, other businesses bought into the newsletter, too.

Having built a subscriber base via in-store sign-ups and his Web site, Peterson also offers a newsletter showcasing nighttime destinations in the four Minneapolis neighborhoods ShopCloseBuy represents. With plans to go national, Peterson is perfecting the model and getting a patent on his process. Still, with sales set to hit $400,000 in 2004, it looks like the word is getting out.

On a Shoestring

What: A provider of in-vehicle GPS tracking systems for parents of teen drivers
Who: Sara Rothfeder of Signal Wireless LLC
Where: Atlanta
When: Started in 1998
How much: Less than $5,000

With her passion for technology, it was just a matter of time before Sara Rothfeder found her calling-selling global positioning systems (GPS) for vehicles driven by teenagers. Formerly an executive with BellSouth, Rothfeder, 39, left her corporate digs to find an entrepreneurial endeavor that would appeal to both her technological side and her natural inclination toward sales.

She found GPS technology so intriguing that she started selling GPS systems out of her basement to business fleets. A parent of a teen and young twins, Rothfeder read statistics about teen drivers and thought to apply her technology to that market to help improve teen driver safety. In 2002, she changed the focus and carved out her niche selling peace of mind to parents in the form of GPS tracking systems for teen drivers. She sells the systems via her Web site and a toll-free number to the tune of about $1.4 million in annual sales.

Her startup operating expenses were low, she says, and mostly went to computer equipment. Rothfeder was able to negotiate terms with her vendors so that she wouldn't have to keep inventory on hand; instead, she was able to float the inventory until she got orders.

To further stretch her startup capital, Rothfeder had to get out of the corporate mindset of hiring staff and instead outsource specific duties to independent contractors. Investing in a high-tech phone system, Rothfeder maintains a virtual office where she can transfer calls to her contractors in different states at the push of a button. "Coming from a large corporate environment, it was an exercise in putting aside my ego," she says. "I had to focus myself on what the necessities were to start the business." Now that's what we call finding the right direction.

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This article was originally published in the June 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Smart Ideas 06/04.

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