Editor's note: Read more of The Startup, by going to AOL keyword "The Startup" or click here.
What sounded like a novel experiment to a freelance writer, several Entrepreneur editors and a handful of producers at AOL's Small Business programming department must have sounded like a dream come true to a small group of entrepreneurs last year. That's because Entrepreneur and AOL teamed up in April 2004 to launch an online reality series, The Startup. For an entire year, four different startup businesses would be followed, and readers could chart the entrepreneurs' progress.
While this would mean a year's worth of free publicity, the catch, of course, was that the stars of The Startup would be forthright about each and every blunder they made in going about their business. Still, unlike some reality shows, they wouldn't be asked to eat live insects, walk around a beach half-naked, endure countless inane challenges or even have cameras on them every minute of the day.
Here's a look at how they fared.
The Entrepreneur: Margarita Olivares, 30, founder of Glamdora, It's a Girl Thing, a retail store for tweens that sells everything from fashion and accessories to furniture
Location: Corpus Christi, Texas, and San Antonio
Founded: March 2003
Startup costs: $15,000 from credit cards and savings
Employees: Approximately 20, mostly part time
Projected sales for 2005: $750,000
How she got started: Many women find a career and then start a family. Margarita Olivares reversed that. At age 20, she fell in love and quit college to marry her husband, Johnny Olivares, a radio personality, producer, program director and then-26-year-old widower with two children. By 21, Olivares was pregnant, and long before she reached 30, she had four children to care for, including the two from Johnny's previous marriage.
As the youngest kids started going to school, Olivares could have spent her days watching Oprah and shopping, since Johnny does quite well for himself. But Olivares had other ideas. She wanted to start her own business. She conceived of a store that would cater to the tween girl market--consisting of those girls who aren't quite teenagers yet but are well past worshipping Dora the Explorer.
How the company evolved during The Startup: Olivares had a challenging year--her husband's job pulled him to another city, so she found herself trying to grow Glamdora while selling the house and moving the family two hours away. Her teenage staff sometimes seemed to be on the brink of insanity, or at least rampant irresponsibility--talking to boyfriends on the phone at work, gossiping and just doing what teenagers tend to do. But the worst moment of the year came when Olivares' trademark was challenged.
Still, she survived, and during the fall of 2004, she was able to open up a second store in San Antonio, where her new teenage staff continued to cause problems--one employee, for example, fell asleep in a chair at the front of the store. But as 2005 began, Olivares started weeding out the slackers and becoming extremely particular about whom she hires.
What's in a name? Publicity isn't always an entrepreneur's best friend. Back when The Startup began in April 2004, Margarita Olivares' Corpus Christi, Texas, store was called Splendora--It's a Girl Thing. When she opened her store a year earlier, she thought it was a cute, whimsical and completely original name. Later, she learned there was a city in Texas called Splendora, with the word Splendora in many of the local businesses' names, but that didn't bother her. As far as she understood, the state--and country--was big enough to hold plenty of Splendora stores.
But not everybody felt that way. An online retail search engine company with Splendora in its name soon issued a letter to Olivares, suggesting she change her business's name or face them in court. Both the online company and Olivares had pending trademarks on their names, but Olivares eventually acquiesced, making the name switch at some considerable expense. Her pockets, she believed, weren't as deep as the other company's, and she didn't want to find her resources completely drained in a court fight.
Even now, she's sanguine about the experience. "Everything happens for a reason," says Olivares. "I was thrust into the spotlight sooner than I might have been, but I'd rather this have happened now than in five years when I'm more established and have 10 stores."
What's next? Olivares is in the planning stages of opening stores in Houston and McAllen, Texas, and she has been researching the possibility of franchising her stores in other states.
B&B and Beyond
The Entrepreneurs: Keith and AndrÃ© West-Harrison, 33 and 38, respectively, co-founders of Olde Victorian Inn, a bed-and-breakfast; Miss Celie's Spa Orleans, a day spa; and VooBrew Coffee & Tea, a coffeehouse
Location: New Orleans
Founded: March 2003
Startup costs: $17,000 from personal savings and three IRAs
Employees: Roughly 20, mostly contract employees
Projected sales for 2005: Over $500,000
How they got started: Keith and AndrÃ© have actually owned the Olde Victorian Inn since the mid-'90s, but it was in March 2003 that they went from small-business owners to true entrepreneurs. When they started the Olde Victorian Inn, they fancied themselves retired country gentlemen and were able to lead lives of relative leisure while keeping their B&B going without much serious effort. Then 9/11 happened, and the tourism industry was thrown into a blender.
As they found themselves one, then two and finally three months behind on their mortgage, Keith and AndrÃ© quickly realized they needed to do something drastic to keep their business afloat. Using every square foot of extra space in their B&B, they opened a day spa in March 2003--and what's more, they realized they were really enjoying themselves.
Almost a year later and just as The Startup began, the pair added VooBrew Coffee & Tea just a block away. In the course of the last 12 months, they've begun offering consulting services to other B&Bs on how to improve their marketing, and they've also been looking into licensing their day-spa and coffeehouse logos and products to other like-minded businesses.
How the company evolved during The Startup: In the beginning, especially on the surface, Keith and AndrÃ© appeared to be nonchalant entrepreneurs, men moving forward without a plan. The main reason they gave for opening their coffeehouse: There wasn't a cool enough coffee-house around for them, so they started their own. But even if they didn't let on, the pair knew what they were doing--soon, their coffee-house menus were promoting their two other businesses, and likewise, at the B&B and day spa, the staff was talking up the coffeehouse.
Extremely media-savvy, Keith was also quick to recognize the possibilities that would open up to them by having AOL continually spotlighting their businesses. Keith can't put a dollar figure on the exposure, but it has certainly helped them with networking. "It put us in contact with people who wanted to further our cause, whether it be with people hoping to help promote our products or just keeping us in their prayers," says Keith. "It's been like a pipeline into the world market."
What's next? Predicts Keith, "We'll get a couple of book deals out of this."
The Entrepreneurs: Steve and Jeanne Beckley, 42 and 44, respectively, co-founders of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, a mountain-region theme park offering cave tours, sky-tram rides, hiking trails and an upscale restaurant
Location: Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Founded: April 2003
Startup costs: $5 million from a bank loan
Employees: 165 during the summer; 40 during the winter
Projected sales for 2005: More than $4 million
How they got started: For a decade, Steve, an avid spelunker, had been trying to persuade a mountain man to sell him some land with some millennia-old caves on it. In 1999, the man finally relented, and Steve and Jeanne quit their jobs--he owned an unsuccessful oil-production company; she was working in a corporate job--and moved from Denver to Glenwood Springs. They immediately started a small cave-touring business, driving people up the mountain in a van and guiding them through the caverns. But it wasn't until April 2003 that Steve and Jeanne transformed their independent operation into something quite different: an evolving, growing theme park that revolves around their cave tours. Now, a tram carries passengers up the mountain. From there, visitors can tour the caves, hike scenic trails, dine in the restaurant or purchase knickknacks at the gift shop.
How the company evolved during The Startup: The Beckleys' year on The Startup was actually their second year as a full-fledged theme park, and in many ways, their growing pains were over. During that first year, they were hammered by crowds that had to wait hours in line, and they had a restaurant where the food ranged from mediocre to inedible. (Occasionally, hot dogs were delivered to customers--still frozen.) And one day the power went out, stranding their banker, who was en route to the park, on a stuck tram.
During their second year of business, the Beckleys were trying to live down their reputation, and generally, they succeeded, mastering the art of crowd flow and revamping their restaurant to offer classy, yet family-friendly, fare. Customers raved, and Steve was able to persuade the city to let him continue his expansion plans.
But for all the good news, everything wasn't perfect. They had a streaker dart through the crowds one summer day, and a lightning storm once took out the power, shutting off the electric lights strategically placed throughout the caves and leaving one tour in the dark.
What's next? Steve and Jeanne have been working on a detailed plan that involves installing everything from rides--like an Alpine coaster--to an amphitheater, where they'll be able to have concerts. The cave tours are fascinating and an excellent reason to visit, but the Beckleys recognize that to get the public to return, the park needs to grow.
Recipe for Success
The Entrepreneurs: Randi-Kay and Gerald Metivier, 33 and 39, respectively, co-founders of New World Enterprises, a homebased salsa manufacturer
Location: Winooski, Vermont
Founded: March 2003
Startup costs: $10,000 from savings and a loan from Randi-Kay's parents
Employees: None, though they have a handful of people working on commission
Projected sales for 2005: Close to $1 million
How they got started: It's a familiar story: Gerald liked to make salsa, and his family and friends all told him that he should jar the stuff and sell it. That is, everybody but his wife, Randi-Kay, who didn't particularly like salsa and didn't even sample it for the longest time. Finally, to see what all the fuss was about, she tried it, and her taste buds were impressed. She soon realized that her family and friends might be onto something.
With Gerald's blessing, Randi-Kay started making the salsa, putting it in jars and selling it. While Gerald continued working at his full-time day job at a plumbing and heating supply company, Randi-Kay took food-preparation classes and turned their kitchen into something on par with a four-star restaurant's kitchen.
But because Randi-Kay is a full-time mother of two little girls, she ended up packaging the salsa in her spare time and at night. In the months before and after The Startup, she found herself in a tight spot--successful enough that she was spending every free hour on her business, but not successful enough to hire any help. Gerald gladly kept volunteering to quit his day job, but Randi-Kay insisted he stay put to bring in consistent income and to keep the family's health benefits.
How the company evolved during The Startup: Of all the entrepreneurs, the Metiviers arguably benefited the most from being in the AOL spotlight. Their online sales spiked more than 100 percent during the weeks they were featured, forcing the Metiviers to abandon their dream of turning their garage into a commercial kitchen. Instead, they found an existing commercial kitchen to operate out of. Once they had better infrastructure, they were able to keep up with demand.
They also found an exporter, who learned about them by reading The Startup on AOL. And at press time, their product was poised to get into Wal-Mart stores. We don't want to overstate the publicity, of course--all the articles in the world wouldn't have helped if the salsa didn't rock and if the Metiviers hadn't toiled so hard to make their business work.
What's next? The Metiviers are planning on opening their own commercial kitchen, where they can help others grow their businesses by leasing space to them and helping pack their products.
Get Tuned In!
If you missed the series, don't worry. You can still catch up with these entrepreneurs by going to AOL keyword "The Startup" or visiting http://aolsvc.aol.com/small_biz/startup_series. Also, keep an eye out for the second season of The Startup, coming this July on AOL.
Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio.