Company description: Online referral source for automobiles, real estate, home improvement and financing
Founders: Behnam Behrouzi, 23, John Truchard, 32, and Payam Zamani, 33
Location: Walnut Creek, California
Projected 2004 sales: $20 million
Coming to America: The story of how Reply.com was founded has more twists and turns than a Hollywood movie. It begins with how Payam Zamani got from his home country of Iran to the United States. At age 16, Zamani was smuggled out of Iran to escape the extreme religious persecution that members of the Bahai Faith were subjected to. He came to America in 1988 with $75 and no knowledge of English.
Paint the Town: The entrepreneurial bug first bit Zamani during a summer as general manager of Student Works Program, a student-run painting franchise at the University of California, Davis, where he met fellow student (and future vice president of sales) John Truchard in 1992. "Since Payam and I both enjoyed the experience, it was natural for us to talk about future opportunities," says Truchard.
A Portal Is Born: Remember AutoWeb.com? A co-founder, Zamani left AutoWeb six months after taking it public in 1999. "I always felt that there was a lot left undone," he says. "I wanted to get back in there and rebuild that concept." And that's just what Zamani and his team did.
Next Step: In 2001, Next Phase Media was launched and later became Reply.com. Besides automobiles, Reply.com is a gateway for real estate, home improvement and financing. All the content is free to the consumer. Since Zamani's nephew, Behnam Behrouzi, had been an entrepreneur since high school, Zamani pulled him in. As CTO, Behrouzi played a pivotal role in building up the technology to power the new venture. "Our vision was to eventually do with services what Amazon did with products," says Behrouzi.
Going Public: The co-founders made the decision to not touch any VC financing, instead opting to bootstrap the business. That has paid off. Behrouzi, Truchard and Zamani have big plans for Reply.com. An IPO could be in the works early next year. "Five years from now, Reply.com [will] be a household name," says Truchard. At the rate they're growing, you can expect it to be even sooner. -A.C.K.
Company description: Wholesaler and distribution of cell phones and accessories
Founder: Art Alaniz, 33
Location: Edinburg, Texas
Projected 2004 sales: $60 million plus
Mother Knows Best: Many successful businesses have been started in a spare room. Art Alaniz launched Progressive Telecom from a room in his mother's house in 1997, even while he was living in another city and working a full-time job. "She was fine with it," says Alaniz. "She knows I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit." The room was home to shelves full of used cell phones, a desk, a phone and a fax machine.
Quit Your Day Job: "When I opened the company, it was just a way to make a little extra money," Alaniz explains. Business in reselling used mobile phones, particularly in the underserved Mexican market, was booming. And Alaniz was soon faced with taking the next leap of quitting his well-paying day job and becoming a dedicated entrepreneur. He took a 50 percent pay cut and moved in with his mother to get the business going-quite a change for the young bachelor. But it paid off. Progressive Telecom now thrives in larger digs with 140 employees and five locations-two in the United States and another three in Mexico. And, of course, Alaniz has his own place these days.
You Say You Want an Evolution? What began as a newspaper ad offering to buy used cell phones has evolved into a business that specializes in new phones and refurbished mobiles. Though the Latin American market was key in getting Progressive Telecom off the ground, the company now does about half of its business in the United States and half in Latin America. But Alaniz isn't stopping there: He has his eye on the Asian market. "We're not even at the tip of the iceberg," says Alaniz. "This could be a billion-dollar company." -A.C.K.
Company description: Multimedia publishing company specializing in English-language "manga"-Japanese comic books
Founder: Stuart Levy, 37
Location: Los Angeles
Projected 2004 sales: $60 million plus
Well-Read: While working in Japan, Stuart Levy-fluent in Japanese-initially rebuffed friends there who urged him to read manga. Once he relented, he was bowled over by the movielike experience. He thought, "There are tons of people back at home who would dig this if they could read it in English." He was right: Today, in addition to Tokyopop's 40 manga titles, there's Cine-Manga, Tokyopop's line of books based on movies, TV shows or sports; anime TV shows; DVDs; and other books supporting products. Titles on Star Trek and the NBA are in the works.
The Producer: Levy doesn't relegate himself to just one aspect of the business-he enjoys both the business and creative sides, writing stories and composing music for some projects. Ultimately, he considers himself a producer. "A producer gets the team together, handles the finances, but is also totally involved in the creative [process]."
Pay Up: "I don't mean to sound too old school or anything, but in my opinion, you've got to pay dues," says Levy. He scoffs at the notion that starting a business is as simple as deciding on a concept and easily raising millions. Instead, he urges a realistic approach to what entrepreneurs must go through to achieve their dreams. "You can't go out and buy a home, have a kid, and do all those things and start a business. You should do it and understand you have to sacrifice everything of your own private life-[you have to] live, sleep, eat, breathe it. You're not going to have a life."
Firmly Rooted: Regarded as everything from foolish in the beginning to a genius now, Levy remains grounded-even though his company comprises a sizable chunk of the U.S. manga industry, estimated at $90 million to $110 million last year: "You should try to stay focused on your goal and not be swayed either way by people giving you too much props or too many insults." -A.Y.P.