Name: Ashley Bodi, 27
Founded: BusinessBeware.biz, 2008
Business: Website allowing businesses to warn each other about problem customers
Location: Sarasota, Fla.
Sometimes clients are rude. Other times they don’t pay their bills. According to Ashley Bodi, the old adage that "the customer is always right" isn’t always a reality -- and she set out to create a sounding board for business owners dealing with unruly customers.
Bodi’s inspiration came at age 24, while working for her father’s Venice, Fla.-based irrigation and landscaping business. It was there that she encountered her first true problem customer -- an "older" man who frequently belittled her because of her young age. When the man finally demanded that she "cut him a break" on his bill, Bodi told him that his business was no longer wanted.
"Good for you, kid," Bodi’s father told her later. "I can’t believe it took you that long to fire him."
The incident got Bodi and her father talking about how businesses all over the country deal with difficult clients. In 2008, without any experience operating a website, the pair launched BusinessBeware.biz, a site that allows businesses to warn each other about bully customers whose business is not worth the headaches they bring.
In addition to charging a membership fee and selling advertising for a radio program it produces, BusinessBeware drives revenue by selling "beware letters." Members pay a tiered rate ($10 for eight letters, $20 for 15 letters and $25 for 20 letters, with bulk packages available for larger orders) to have a letter sent to delinquent customers with a warning that if they don’t pay up they risk being listed on BusinessBeware.biz as a "no-pay" customer.
While technically not a collection agency, BusinessBeware says its warning letters have prompted 96 percent of the problem customers to make good on their debts. Today, BusinessBeware.biz has roughly 20,000 members, Bodi says.
Launching a niche web-based business with no tech expertise or experience comes with a unique set of obstacles, of course. Here, Bodi shares her top three startup challenges and how she overcame them.
Challenge No. 1: How to build the Website.
I had no idea how to build a website or database. We also didn’t have a lot of money at the time to make it happen.
Solution: We knew we wanted to build a database that could manage user-submitted complaints and rebuttals. So, I spent many nights devouring 10 or more books on web design techniques and applications like Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Illustrator and PHP -- a pretty widely-used scripting language. I’m a visual person, so I’d map out my ideas for the database on whiteboards, which were all over my condo. After three months, I built the site myself, and spent about $800 purchasing the domain, on hosting and the various programs I used.
Challenge No. 2: Attracting a membership community.
They say "if you build it they will come," right? Wrong. When you launch something you can't expect to have an automatic user-base.
Solution: We spoke to our friends that owned businesses and gave them memberships to the site so they could try it out and use it. I read up on networking and found out that posting comments related to your business on relevant blogs can help. I soon started chatting with Mike Michalowicz and Sarah Shaw on their blogs and was introduced new audiences who were seeking information on how to pre-qualify customers and how to handle bully customers. From that point, I started to tap into every outlet possible, reminding business owners that it’s okay to fire customers.
Challenge No. 3: How to target users "offline."
We determined that a potentially large portion of our audience is made up of small business owners who operate mostly offline. We had to come up with alternative ways to connect with them.
Solution: We went to trade shows, visited local businesses and handed out branded t-shirts everywhere we went. A lot of small business owners appreciated the face-to-face time. We also went to organizations like Diggerslist, Construction Deal, Contractor Associations and HomeTalkUSA. The businesses at these events and organizations are in the service industry and deal with a ton of problem customers. Eventually, we also attracted a number of freelancers, web designers, wedding planners, caterers who wanted to become members.
We attribute our current member list and online traffic to our word-of-mouth efforts. In our first year, the site averaged 25,000 monthly pageviews. Now we average about 160,000 a month.
The Young Entrepreneur Council is an advocacy group dedicated to fighting youth unemployment and underemployment by helping young people build successful businesses and offering alternatives to traditional career paths . Its members include successful young entrepreneurs, business owners and thought leaders. It was founded in New York in 2010 by serial entrepreneur Scott Gerber, author of the forthcoming book, Never Get a 'Real' Job.