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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.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.