Joel Boblit, 29
Projected 2005 Sales: Over $4 million
Description: Online toy retailer specializing in collectible action figures
Robo-Biz: Joel Boblit parlayed nostalgia for his childhood toys into big-time business when he discovered how much Transformers--robot action figures whose popularity has continued since the 1980s--were being sold for online. He launched BigBadToyStore.com in 1999 shortly after graduating college, while he was reliving fond memories of trading his favorite childhood toys--GI Joe, Masters of the Universe and Transformers. The biggest challenge in those early days? Boblit admits: "Being teased by my friends."
Parental Guidance: While in college, Boblit sold action figures as a hobby for extra money, but when he decided to turn his hobby into a business, his parents supported him on all levels. They went heavily into debt to finance the business, and worked 100-plus-hour weeks alongside him for BigBadToyStore. Housing his inventory at one point, his parents had to create aisles in their home to navigate around the ceiling-high boxes. Says Boblit, "They have been instrumental throughout all this and worked just as hard as I did to keep it all together during the tough early years."
Grade A Service: BigBadToyStore caters to specialty toy buyers with vintage favorites like Star Wars figurines and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Boblit also branched out to comic- and movie-related items, earning loyal customers around the world. Serious collectors prize mint-condition toy packaging, so Boblit guarantees his toys by using a grading system to distinguish "standard grade" (mint or near-mint condition) from "substandard grade" packages. He also offers a premium packing service that ensures an item is in tiptop condition and handled with extra care when it's shipped. Another big draw is the "Pile of Loot" function, which allows customers to stockpile items they've already paid for in a virtual storage bin. Upon the customer's choosing, the company will ship out all the items at once, reducing shipping costs. Future plans include distribution to approved retailers, who can view volume pricing online. Boblit says, "We've got the competitive edge for convenience." --April Y. Pennington
Darrin King, 34, & Jeff King, 38
Charlotte, North Carolina
Projected 2005 Sales: Over $5 million
Description: Online retailer of high-quality, upholstered furniture and accessories handcrafted in North Carolina
Model Example: When brothers Darrin and Jeff King decided to open an online furniture retail business in 1998, they were so confident in the power of the internet that they established their business in North Carolina, the furniture capital of the world. Previously working at manufacturing companies, the two had noticed inefficiencies in the supply chains and calculated that the internet, if used correctly, could bring down costs and streamline their operations.
Cushy Business: The Clubfurniture.com website offers a full line of fabric and leather furniture handcrafted by nearly 100 North Carolina artisans, but offering their goods solely online initially posed quite a challenge for the brothers. To convince manufacturers to supply them with furniture, the Kings had to pay for the initial product development and marketing. Since then, they have gained customers' trust by mailing them swatches and samples, producing a high-quality catalog biannually and taking advantage of their low overhead costs to keep prices competitive.
Sit Back and Relax: Clubfurniture.com didn't join the statistics as yet another dotcom failure thanks to the Kings' effort to maintain a slow but steady growth pattern and to build a solid infrastructure. In addition, they are able to compete with mass-produced overseas imports by offering customers the opportunity to partially customize their furniture. "We're going for sophisticated consumers who want to have some say in their products," says Jeff. "We compete mainly on quality, style and turnaround [time]."
Dynamic Duo: For the first three years, Darrin and Jeff were a two-man show, which they now recognize as being one of the biggest mistakes they made early on. "As entrepreneurs, we took a lot on ourselves, put a lot of pressure on ourselves and tried to wear too many hats," says Darrin. Now they have eight employees and can step back to see the bigger picture, which will eventually include new furniture lines specifically targeted to kids and teens. --Sara Wilson
Emily Mange, 39, & Doug Zell, 39
Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Inc.
Projected 2005 Sales: $12 million
Description: Coffee roaster, retailer and wholesaler
Picture Perfect: Order a latte at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, and you've just ordered a work of art. Preparing your beverage is a team of professional espresso makers, or baristas, who have mastered "latte art" and deliver each cup topped with a rosette design so beautifully formed that it's a shame to spoil it with a sip. At Intelligentsia, employees must complete a two-month barista certification program. Consequently, the company is home to some of the finest espresso makers in the nation, three of whom placed in this year's United States Barista Championship finals. Says Doug Zell, "Having this whole latte art presentation and the craft of the barista is something I think is hard to instill across 5,000 stores and is really something that helps to distinguish us from our competitors."
Coffee 101: In a hot market like coffee, competition practically sizzles. But while entering such an industry might be intimidating for some, it didn't keep Zell and wife Emily Mange awake at night. To prepare, Zell worked for several San Francisco-based coffee roasters, moving up from coffee brewer to manager and learning the ins and outs along the way. Driven by a vision of delivering quality coffee in Chicago--a market they felt was overlooked--the couple headed east, where they disappeared into the basement of Zell's parents' house, emerging a month later with their first business plan. Founded in 1995, Intelligentsia has grown to two retail stores with a third set to open early next year, and will eventually expand to other major markets outside Chicago.
Lasting Impression: Breathe deeply, and the scent alone will transport you to another world. Intelligentsia's team of coffee buyers will travel to more than 10 countries this year to meet with local farmers in an effort to create an unforgettable cup of java. With loyal customers and more than 700 restaurants, gourmet food stores and espresso bars carrying Intelligentsia's products, they must have made an impression. Why the obsession with quality? Explains Zell, "For me, the notion of quality has always been easier to defend than something like price." --Sara Wilson
Amanda C. Kooser is Entrepreneur's assistant technology editor. April Y. Pennington, Nichole L. Torres and Sara Wilson are staff writers. Additional research was compiled by Steve Cooper, James Park and Lori Kozlowski.