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Smart Ideas 07/05

Pet manikins, celebrity access and more

What: Life-size animal models used for veterinary training
Who: Craig Jones and Jacqui Pruneda of Rescue Critters LLC
Where: Van Nuys, California
When: Started in 1998

To many people in his inner circle, creating life-size models of pets seemed like a silly business for Craig Jones to start. But to him, it made perfect sense.

Jones, 41, sensed a business opportunity after completing a pet first-aid class with the American Red Cross. He discovered that the unrealistic dog manikin they used for training was offered by only one company in the U.S.

Jones, a former emergency response instructor, knew that his background in emergency medicine for humans, coupled with his contacts in the special-effects industry, were the resources he needed to create lifelike animal manikins. Together with his wife and co-founder, Jacqui Pruneda, 39, Jones began designing a true-to-life dog manikin that would fit the training needs of veterinary professionals. "We didn't want it to look like a stuffed animal you would buy at a toy store," he says. "We wanted it to look realistic."

In 1998, Jerry, Rescue Critters' first dog manikin, was born in the couple's garage. The American Red Cross became their first customer, and response to Jerry was so positive that word soon spread throughout the veterinary field. Other manikins quickly followed: Fluffy the cat; Lucky, a life-size rescue training horse; and Critical Care Jerry and Fluffy, more advanced versions of the originals that train students in life-saving techniques such as IV insertion, suturing wounds, intubation, and listening for heart and breath sounds. Primate manikins, birds with real feathers for trimming, and manikins that let users draw blood are in the works.

Rescue Critters has since moved from its garage location to a storefront and now sells its manikins to customers worldwide, including veterinary technician programs, fire departments, U.S. Army canine hospital units and police department K-9 units. Each animal model is made to order, and customers can add features to base-priced models according to their needs. With 20 to 25 requests per year for manikins and projected 2005 sales of $1.3 million, it seems like Jones' idea wasn't so silly after all.

--Sarah Pierce

Better Half

What: An online marketing company that sells gift certificates at half price
Who: Eric Diamond of SalesOffline.com
Where: New York City
When: Started in 2004

Gift certificates have always been ideal for gift giving, but now they're becoming even better for self-indulgence--at half the price. Eric Diamond, 33, spent a decade working tech-related jobs before figuring out a way to combine his tech skills with his family connections in the fashion industry. His brainstorm was SalesOffline.com, a website he originally built to advertise local retail sales that has since evolved into a provider of discounted gift certificates to independent fashion retailers in the New York City area.

Confidence, coupled with approximately $60,000 collected from personal savings, family and friends, provided Diamond the opportunity to develop the website and a business model that brings profits not only to him, but to all involved--even retailers. How does it work? Customers buy gift certificates but pay for only half their values; retailers give SalesOffline.com an average of 30 certificates per month and, in the process, win new customers who help drive sales; and Diamond strategically coordinates the two. Says Diamond, "Our goal, overall, is to show that this is a win-win situation for all parties."

Diamond spreads the word through reciprocal links with other websites, via newspaper advertisements and by sponsoring events where he gives away free gift certificates. The idea has caught on big in New York City, where Diamond has developed partnerships with more than 100 clothing, home furnishing and optical retailers.

Sales for 2005 are expected to reach $700,000. But Diamond says this is just the beginning. He's working on expanding into categories ranging from spas to airlines, as well as establishing a presence in many more cities. Next stop? Los Angeles.

--Sara Wilson

Party Time

What: A service that provides celebrity-like access to popular clubs
Who: James King and Jason Roefaro of PartyBuddys
Where: Union City, New Jersey
When: Started in July 2004

For people who long to party like P. Diddy, but don't have quite the celeb status needed to bypass the velvet ropes, PartyBuddys is a lifesaver and, according to co-founder James King, "like a traveling VIP party."

Founded by two longtime friends, the idea is that, for a fee (the average cost is $2,500 for four people), PartyBuddys will provide you with your own posse--a guide to take you to all the clubs you want to hit, a trained bodyguard, paparazzi-like photographers to take your picture as you exit your limo, and bottle service at your VIP table--for a fabulous night on the town. The pair also arranges luxury car rentals, spa services and even personal shopping for their clients.

King and Roefaro, both 30, got the idea after spending countless nights out on the town in their 20s. They felt that as people got older and had more money, they'd pay to bypass lines and get first-class service in the club scene.

After talking to the New York City club owners they knew well, says Roefaro, "They bought into our idea as being the next step in corporate entertaining." With set relationships in place, the pair started marketing their PartyBuddys service by handing out fliers and business cards in front of clubs, and the buzz grew.

Press mentions in The New York Times and The London Times boosted their brand awareness, and sales are expected to hit about $300,000 in 2005. King and Roefaro are in talks to feature their service in a new reality TV show and may even franchise Party-Buddys in cities like Los Angeles and Miami. "We sell celebrity," says Roefaro. "[Our clients] are celebrities for the night."

--Nichole L. Torres

Solid Gold

What: Creative services firm that offers image consultation, graphic design, product development and more
Who: DL Warfield of Goldfinger C.S.
Where: Atlanta
When: Started in 2000
How much: $5,000

For DL Warfield's creative services business, creativity has been integral to its success and startup. Back when he was creative director of R&B and rap label LaFace Records, Warfield knew he wanted to strike out on his own by 30. "I wanted the freedom to be able to work with a variety of different clients on a variety of different projects," he says.

During startup, Warfield used his personal savings to buy the design software he'd need to create promotional pieces. To save money, he spent a month working from his home office, and he bartered for photography and print services in exchange for design work. His wife, an account manager, handled bookkeeping and deal negotiations, while he handled the rest.

To minimize overhead costs, Goldfinger now shares a two-suite office with an upstart clothing company and a clothing design company. Warfield's customers include artists, corporations, apparel companies and advertising agencies. Warfield also helped start the Georgia Department of Creatives, a consortium with a local recording studio and a video and film company to market their businesses and other like-minded ventures.

With three full-time employees and 2005 sales projected to reach $400,000 to $550,000, Warfield, 36, keeps operations lean. "Like a marathon runner, if you have too much excess weight, you won't be able to compete," he says. With that in mind, Goldfinger still aims high, with clients like Earth Wind & Fire and Usher.

--April Y. Pennington

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This article was originally published in the July 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Smart Ideas 07/05.

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