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This story appears in the December 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

When resounding thuds erupted from the Omaha, Nebraska, offices of online gift-certificate business Inc., I asked owners (and siblings) Doug Nielsen and Julie Mahloch if a midinterview squabble had ensued. They assured me the ruckus in the background was only the construction work being done on their new office, but Nielsen, 32, did admit, "If we don't fight once a day, we know we're not doing much."

Hardly rivaling Jerry Springer dysfunction, this brother/sister team's occasional tension stems from too many brilliant ideas, according to Mahloch, 30. But having been in business together since 1991 with an entertainment-coupon-book-turned-direct-mail venture, they're certainly tuned in to each other's roles. "He's the big-thinker, big-picture guy," she says, "and I jump in, start dialing the phone and talk to retailers."

Because the partners use consumer input to decide how to increase their gift-certificate offerings, from restaurants to apparel stores to airlines, by the time you read this, they will have transformed this 35-employee start-up into an "absolutely gigantic" enterprise. Among the first to sign on for's launch last December were Sharper Image, The Olive Garden, Barnes & Noble and American Eagle Outfitters. Upwards of 300 retailer partnerships are expected by the new year, with expansion to include malls and large discount chains leading the growth.

Described by Nielsen as "the biggest no-brainer of the year," all it took to think up the concept was a zero-results search when the pair tried to buy a gift certificate online for their mother's birthday last summer. By decreasing paperwork for efficiency-minded retail companies and saving anti-queue customers time, the former business students easily filled a wide-open niche with the help of angel financing.

Now, in addition to its reminder service and the option for customers to send virtual gift certificates with free e-greetings or deliver the real-life version to the recipient, has added extra gift stock. Providing an end-to-end solution for retailers that want gift certificates sold from or want to do so from their own sites is also helping strengthen the company's brand.

Nielsen and Mahloch aren't just proud of their success, but also their success in Omaha. Says Mahloch, "We're the Silicon Prairie here."

Clothes Call

Laura Eisman isn't one of those people who "just knew" she'd own her own business one day. A graphic designer by trade, she was busy as senior designer helping develop the look of Marie Claire magazine during its start-up, and later serving as creative director for women's online community It wasn't until she got a little too comfortable with the latter job's pay and security that she decided to take a chance with Girlshop Inc. (known to Net shoppers as, the godsend to girls wanting that New York-hipster look.

Although Eisman was armed with press contacts, her designer connections where nonexistent. To be on the safe side, she designed Web sites on a freelance basis while developing a demo to win over designers like Cynthia Rowley and Pixie Yates, whom she cold-called to pitch her idea. The pay cut Eisman took to pursue the New York City venture pinched a bit, but "once you do it, you realize how little you can live on," she says. "I didn't go shopping for at least a year, [so] I [wore] a lot of vintage clothing when I went to see designers."

Eisman launched last June with just $10,000 of her own money. Immediate hiring wasn't necessary, since she was skilled in HTML. A month later, The New YorkTimes "Style" section gave Eisman her first write-up, and orders flooded in. Soon she had her boyfriend, Todd Richter, design a database system to assist with order fulfillment. He's now her partner.

At press time,'s sales were reaching $150,000 a month, justifying's launch in July 1999. Coming soon are shops offering kids' clothing and home decor. To further solidify her name in fashion, Eisman, 34, provides wardrobes for films and hopes to sponsor fashion shows and have a fashion-based TV show one day.

As for dismissing a business idea with potential just because you think it'd be silly to dismiss stability along with it, Eisman says, "You can always go and get a job. [Starting a business] is a real accomplishment."

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