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Smart Ideas 04/05

Getting kids cooking, non-violent computer games and more

What: Online and retail "brokerage house" for used cardboard boxes and plastic bins
Who: Marty Metro, founder of BoomerangBoxes.com
Where: Los Angeles
When: Started in 2003

When Marty Metro and his wife added up the number of times each of them had moved over the years, it came out to an astounding 29 times. Metro, 34, knew they weren't alone in using massive amounts of cardboard boxes and was convinced he could help movers, businesses and the environment by creating a solution to the cardboard quandary. Says Metro, "I'm a systems guy; my life revolves around using technology to enable business processes."

With a decade of experience working and consulting on large-scale business technology, Metro made it his goal to build an online marketplace that would allow big companies to get rid of their used boxes and scraps in an earth-friendly way, as well as offer companies and individuals the opportunity to buy used cardboard boxes at roughly half the price of new ones. Leaving the lucrative corporate life he had known, Metro traded in his BMW for a delivery truck and developed the web-based infrastructure that would help him fulfill his earth-friendly goals.

BoomerangBoxes.com, a U-Haul authorized dealer, has also netted contracts with large booksellers, clothing importers, manufacturers and even some real estate firms to pick up unwanted cardboard. Local deliveries are made to those who purchase cardboard boxes (the company also sells moving supplies), and when the move is done, BoomerangBoxes.com will pick up the used boxes.

Currently covering the area between Los Angeles and San Diego, the company plans to expand by franchising in the top 50 cities in the United States in the next three to five years. For now, BoomerangBoxes.com offers an online exchange for those outside the delivery area to link up and exchange boxes with others for a nomi-nal fee. With 2005 sales projections exceeding $750,000, the company boasts 75 percent-plus gross margins. "It makes me feel great," says Metro. "We have created a win-win environment."
--April Y. Pennington

Healthy Returns

What: A service that acts as an advocate between patients and their insurance companies and doctors
Who: Michael J. Cardillo, Dr. Abbie Leibowitz, Tom Masci, David Rocchino and Martin Rosen, co-founders of Health Advocate Inc.
Where: Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
When: Started in 2001

Navigating through myriad health claims, insurance companies and doctors' offices can truly make people crazy. Knowing that the typical employee usually doesn't have the extensive medical or insurance know-how to get the services they need, these five entrepreneurs created Health Advocate Inc. The company provides a wide range of services, from recommending doctors and negotiating claims to coordinating medical administrative tasks and finding second opinions.

The company's founders--five former Aetna U.S. Healthcare employees, including Cardillo, 61; Leibowitz, 58; Masci, 59; Rocchino, 46; and Rosen, 58--knew that a service offering impartial information to ensure top-quality health care was needed. Says Rosen, "The issue wasn't, Does this make sense? It was, Can you make any money at it?" To find out, they did a beta test in the summer of 2001.

The overwhelming response from their research was yes, people absolutely needed their services, and yes, they'd find a way to pay for them. So the team started selling the service, which costs between $1.25 and $3.95 per month, per employee, to employers as a time- and money-saving health benefit for their employees and covered dependents. Health Advocate's services save employees the headaches of dealing with health-care snafus, which often distract them during work hours. In turn, employers are provided with a more focused crew.

Today, having contracted with companies all over the United States, Health Advocate supports more than 3 million people and saw sales exceed $4.5 million in 2004.
--Nichole L. Torres

Now They're Cooking

What: Business offering hands-on cooking parties, classes and after-school programs for children ages 4 to 14
Who: Helane Cohen of Le Petit Cookery Inc.
Where: Irvine, California
When: Started in 2001

After Helane Cohen lost her mother in 2000, the time she spent alone helped her identify the two things she loved most: children and cooking. It was then that this tech executive decided to leave behind a six-figure salary and launch Le Petit Cookery, a cooking school for children. Three months later, Cohen, 40, brought in good friend Steven Soto, 42, as her chief advisor--having worked with him in the past, she knew he could offer invaluable small-business skills.

Le Petit Cookery teaches children everything from how to use cutlery to healthy eating and proper etiquette. Today, the business consists of three branches: after-school programs for elementary-school children; private cooking parties, special events and classes at requested locations; and a website that sells cooking products for children. While the programs teach children how to cook, they also encourage safety, fun, teamwork and healthy nutrition. Le Petit Cookery's "Around the Globe We Go" after-school program, for example, highlights international foods and ingredients, such as Polish pirogis, dumplings filled with cheese or meat that the kids make by themselves--with some help from assistants, of course.

Le Petit Cookery now serves more than 18 public schools in the Orange County, California, area and five to six private schools per semester, with multiple classes at some schools. Thanks to word-of-mouth, presence at community events and advertising in local children-focused publications as well as on search engines, Le Petit Cookery has experienced 75 percent growth over the past year.

As Cohen settles comfortably into growing her business, she shares one of the sweeter sides of success: "The kids will make the exact same thing and follow the exact same recipe. What's hysterical is that each batch will always look completely different."
--Esther Nguonly

Game of Life

What: Nonviolent computer games that challenge kids with real-life obstacles rather than shootings and explosions
Who: Victoria Gatling of MVG Christian Entertainment Inc.
Where: Chicago
When: Started in 2003

Victoria Gatling, 36, started to notice a disturbing trend in her family's funeral-home business: "They were burying more and more young people, [victims] of so many violent, senseless crimes." Believing there was a connection between those violent crimes and today's video games, this mother of game-loving children decided to take matters into her own hands.

Starting with $50,000 from friends, family and personal savings, Gatling, a former marketing representative, developed software without high-octane explosions, vulgarity or murder. Her pioneer game, Obstacles of Life, features David, a character facing moral stumbling blocks. The deceptive characters wear street clothes "because I want the kids to know that the devil is not a man in a red suit with horns," says Gatling, who's since authored more than 35 games.

When high programmer fees broke her budget, Gatling and her daughter Latrece, 18, took on the task, learning to program from home. Help also came from Kameakea Longmire, a friend who assisted with the programming. Pregnant with twins at the time, Gatling relied on her husband, Marcus, 35, and Latrece for support.

Gatling persuaded pastors to let her present the games to their congregations. Many parents, unaware of the violent content of games prior to her presentations, jumped to try the $14.99 alternatives, which are currently sold nationwide via phone and online orders, as well as regionally at church conventions. Year-end 2005 sales are expected to range between $500,000 and $600,000--Gatling is in talks with Wal-Mart stores and plans to pitch electronics boutiques and game shops later this year.
--Jessica Hong

Garden State

What: Online retailer of environmentally friendly lawn-care and gardening products
Who: Lars Hundley, founder of CleanAirGardening.com
Where: Dallas
When: Started in 1998
How much: Approximately $700

While caring for his own garden, Lars Hundley had a vision of protecting the world's gardens as well. So this former freelance writer put down his pen, bought six push lawn mowers for $100 each and began CleanAirGardening.com, which sells environmentally friendly gardening products, such as gas-free push mowers, organic fertilizers and electric trimmers/weed-eaters.

To cut costs, Hundley used his cell phone as a business line, built his own website and sold mowers from his apartment. He made his share of mistakes along the way, from overspending on ineffective advertising to stocking too many mowers in his apartment. When CleanAirGardening.com began to take off, the business initially suffered because it wasn't set up to accept credit cards. Hundley solved that problem by hosting his site through Yahoo! Stores and letting them handle the secure credit card transactions.

Hundley, who now works from an office in his three-bedroom home, expects 2005 sales to hit $1 million. Yet his focus is less on profits and more on finding new environmentally safe products and educating customers about the importance of conservation. In addition to promoting eco-friendly products such as rain barrels and reel mowers, his site offers a comprehensive list of websites that teach people about healthy gardening practices.

"I don't know how many of my customers I am converting to an environmentally friendly lifestyle," says Hundley, 35. "But judging by how many questions I answer from people who have never composted, collected rainwater or used a reel mower before, I think I am certainly making a difference."
--E.N.

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This article was originally published in the April 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Smart Ideas 04/05.

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