3rd Annual 10 Under 30

When failure is just fuel to press on and success is never taken for granted, good things are bound to happen. For these million-dollar businesses, make that very good things.
15 min read

This story appears in the April 2001 issue of . Subscribe »

It's true that good things come to those who wait. But it's also true that good things come to those who get up off their duffs and seek out opportunities. The millionaires-by the way, they're all under age 30-we talked to for this piece are evidence enough that a nice balance between patience and enthusiasm is arguably the best formula for business success today, no matter what kind of business you start. (And yes, it's still possible to start a successful dotcom.)

Lara Shriftman, 28

Company: Harrison & Shriftman, a New York City public relations, special events and marketing firm
2000 sales: $3 million
2001 projections: $5 million

Even in college, something set Shriftman apart from other students. As her New York University classmates struggled through marketing exams, she hobnobbed backstage at the CFDA (Council on Fashion Designers of America) with Audrey Hepburn and Claudia Schiffer. While other students got wasted at keggers, she hosted dinner parties that landed in W magazine, interned for Perry Ellis, and deftly built relationships with editors, models and key New York image-makers.

Back in 1995, after several fashion editors recommended she start her own company, Shriftman and her current partner, Elizabeth Harrison, rented office space from a friend for $500 a month on 42nd Street and Madison Avenue and launched Harrison & Shriftman. With Gucci Timepieces and Mirabella magazine as initial clients, the partners kept their costs low by handling the little stuff themselves, including stuffing envelopes, ordering supplies and answering the phones. But it was the 1998 grand opening of the Van Damme restaurant-when a Los Angeles agent unexpectedly brought along two of his clients, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon-that really put Harrison & Shriftman on the map for its publicity efforts.

This much is clear: Harrison & Shriftman is not just a PR firm, and it's not the type of company that just sends out a press release or a postcard. When shoe store Jimmy Choo opened in New York City, the partners sent out a chocolate shoe. "We're not just about getting a shoe in a magazine," Shriftman explains. "We're about an overall strategy." She describes the company as a "midsized agency with a boutique sensibility," even though it expanded to offices in Los Angeles in 1999 and, at press time, had plans to hit Miami this month.

With a client list that includes Hugo Boss, Dooney & Bourke and Cartier, Shriftman stays on the cutting edge of what's hip in fashion. She also chooses her clients carefully. "I couldn't take on a shoe company that didn't have great shoes," Shriftman says. "I couldn't tell my editors to wear these shoes if I wouldn't wear them [or] if I knew the shoes weren't good. I couldn't take on a line of clothing that's ugly." -Eryn Gable

Weston Lemos, 25

Company:Stock Exposure Inc., a San Luis Obispo, California, online IR/PR (investor relations/public relations) firm specializing in promotion of publicly traded companies
2000 sales: $2 million
2001 projections: $2 million-plus

As the son of missionaries in Brazil, Lemos wasn't your typical American teenager. "I've always been an entrepreneur," he says. "I had a lot of plans-trying to figure out products that were cheaper in Brazil but more expensive in the United States. When I moved to the U.S., a friend and I even tried selling auctioned used cars."

Luckily for Lemos, his career as a used-car salesman was short-lived. In 2000, Stock Exposure, his first major venture, grossed $2 million at a time when scores of Internet companies were going under. Lemos, who started the company in 1998, cites the camaraderie between his 14 employees (none of whom are over age 26) as the key to Stock Exposure's success. "Our edge is that we're young and creative," he says. "We're friends in and outside of the company, and we all take pretty mild salaries-myself included. We know that when we make it big, we'll do it together."

Unlike most netpreneurs, Lemos funded Stock Exposure out of his own pocket. "You have to think your business can be successful without venture capital," he explains. "Since we didn't have any, we had to focus on turning a profit." -Peter Kooiman

Michael Branson and Scot Johnson, both 29

Company:i3solutions inc., a Sterling, Virginia, technology consulting firm
2000 sales: $7.5 million
2001 projections: $11.7 million

Just months after Johnson, the new kid his senior year of high school, took a classroom seat next to Branson, the duo began comparing visions for their perfect company. Rooming together in college helped reveal their individual strengths and weaknesses, so by the time the then-Internet consultant Johnson pitched Branson, an employee of technical product and service organizations, with his idea for i3solutions, the "synergy" was a-flowin'.

While consulting for a multimillion-dollar system integrator, Johnson felt neither its consultants nor clients were treated properly. So in 1997, he and Branson invested personal savings to build an organization with better everything: technology, consulting, and career development for employees working their way up in the company.

To cut expenses, i3solutions ran from a virtual office for 10 months. That didn't stop first client Verizon (then Bell Atlantic) from signing on. Any fears the telecommunications giant had about i3solutions' reputation were quelled by the latter's willingness to map out every detail of the job and create "a lot of safety valves in case something went astray."

Johnson jokes that i3solutions' future involves "world domination," but he and Branson are starting with expansion of the 51-employee company to New York. And as for the unstable New Economy, Johnson admits, "Every consulting company in our space wears the scars of a couple dotcoms that have gone away." But between getting jobs "by the proofs of merit" and the fact that the majority of i3solutions' business comes from existing enterprise clients like hospitals, hotels, financial institutions and telecommunications concerns, these two only have more work to worry about. -Michelle Prather

Katie Lukas, 24

Company:StickyData LLC, a New York City online custom design and development firm
2000 sales: $1.3 million
2001 projections: $2 million

At an age when most people are just getting their feet wet in entry-level jobs, Katie Lukas, CEO and founder of StickyData LLC, is kicking up her heels in the deep end. Drawing from her previous experience as an interface designer and creative director, Lukas founded her firm in 1999. "At other companies [I had worked for], I felt like people were getting in the way of me being able to do my best work for my clients," explains the entrepreneur. "I wanted the freedom and the responsibility to be able to make my own mistakes and at least be able to blame myself for them. I frequently felt like I was part of a Dilbert cartoon, and I really wanted [StickyData] to be the antithesis of that."

StickyData has achieved steady success, despite the dotcom slowdown and early growing pains. "A significant portion of our team came on in the beginning of 2000, and it really took time for them to solidify as a team," she says. "While I understood that there are perils to growth, I don't think I realized how long it takes even for smart, responsible people to work together as a team."

Staff cohesion hasn't been Lukas' only difficulty. As a young CEO, she admits some women clients feel threatened by her position. "I have to make sure I'm never patronizing, that I always make people feel intelligent and that I always give them the benefit of the doubt," she says. "As a woman, and especially a young woman, I have to prove myself much more forcefully than I do otherwise. When I walk into a room, I can't be mediocre. I have to make sure everybody walks away saying, 'Wow.' " Our thoughts exactly.-Talicia A. Flint

Waly Rizza, 27, and Ali Rizza, 21

Company: Rizza & Associates Inc., a Newport Beach, California, company selling sunglasses, cigars, jewelry and other paraphernalia via carts stationed at retail locations throughout Southern California
2000 sales: $1.1 million
2001 projections: $1.5 million

It became apparent to Waly at a young age that working for other people often proves to be boring and unchallenging, so he actively sought opportunity. Since he took it upon himself to survey retail stores about their most successful products, by the time he heard there was a cart for lease at the Irvine Spectrum, a local shopping mega-center, he already knew what he'd stock it with.

Waly didn't want to hear family and friends' concerns about the risks involved with a start-up, so he just went into business without telling them. (He didn't even tell brother and now partner Ali until three days after the fact.) "That's how it should be in life," says Waly. "You shouldn't just accept everything people tell you. You should research things yourself and make your own judgment."

Apparently, Ali's the human resources/people person and Waly's the negotiator. ("I blow up at small things like someone not coming in on time," admits the latter.) Together, they find balance. Big brother often stresses being "really down to earth" as the key to success.

Aside from the carts, the Rizzas are getting into wholesaling with their new business Elusion Technology, purveyor of eBodyLights.com T-shirts and belly lights. Exploring new business models is how the brothers avoid monotony, but aspiring to match the success of role models works, too: "Richard Branson of Virgin is one of my inspirations," says Waly. "I like how he's done business. Hopefully I can be where he is in 20 years."-Michelle Prather

Ravi Agarwal, 27

Company:BizLand Inc., an online small-business Internet hub based in Burlington, Massachusetts
2000 sales: $1 million-plus
2001 projections: $6 million to $10 million

You can't blame Agarwal for wanting to gloat after one of his closest competitors changed its business model and subsequently had to lay off more than half its staff-considering the run-in he had a couple years ago with the smug venture capitalist that funded the competitor. "[The VC] was very cocky and was saying we were going to lose the war," recalls Agarwal, who founded BizLand in 1997. "It was very satisfying to see that they weren't able to sustain themselves. I'd love to go back to him and just say, 'So, what happened?' "

It's not that Agarwal takes some sort of demented delight in seeing his competitor struggle, but there's a certain satisfaction in knowing his company is growing strong. "We've done a lot more with a lot less," Agarwal says. "We've always been leaner."

Things are looking up for this 4-year-old business, given its sales projections-but evidently, it's not all about revenue. "When building a company, the primary objective is not to make money or just to build something, but to have fun," says Agarwal, who is currently seeking BizLand's third round of funding. "Entrepreneurship is all about persistence, having the hunger. And hunger and persistence equals success." Can someone get that VC on the phone?-Kimiko L. Martinez

Laura Tidwell, 28

Company:Enginehouse Media, an interactive ad agency, and AdOctane, a media buying company, both in Troy, Alabama
2000 sales: approximately $10 million (combined sales)
2001 projections: $25 million (combined sales)

Dedication is working down to the wire to finish an important project. Sheer tenacity is closing an important deal in between contractions. Just ask Tidwell-she did just that in the early days of Enginehouse Media. "You do what you need to do," she says. "Even if that meant making that phone call to the client just minutes after I had my baby, that's what I had to do to make it work."

Making it work is what Tidwell's been doing since she started Enginehouse Media (formerly Advantage Advertising) in 1996. Operating out of her one-bedroom apartment proved to be challenging, but Tidwell managed to project the image of being a larger company. "Image was a hard [obstacle] to overcome," she says. "As a 22-year-old woman, I had to make the world think I was a huge company.without being dishonest."

Landing a few big accounts in the early days-among them Thomas Register of American Manufacturers and Encyclopedia Britannica-proved invaluable. Now 30 employees strong and with six remote offices, Enginehouse is growing solely with revenues, not with the help of venture capital. What's next for the CEO? Besides selling a projected $25 million worth of services this year-with the help of AdOctane, an automated system for media buying that Tidwell spun off into a separate company last year-Tidwell is expanding to include both online and offline media.

Even with her success, Tidwell has one regret: "I wish I would have known I could do it! I think fear slowed me down considerably in my first two years," she says. "Being able to visualize my success as an entrepreneur was the catapult that helped me take the company to the next level." -Nichole L. Torres

Lief C. Larson, 25

Company:Voyagi Inc., a Minneapolis-based provider of media and information services to the interactive kiosk industry
2000 sales: $1 million
2001 projections: $2.5 million

There are a ton of hectic things to take care of during graduation: gown rental, parties, lazing about...starting a business? That's what Larson was doing during his high school graduation. "Literally, I graduated from high school on a Thursday and started [Voyagi] on a Friday," he says.

Being an entrepreneur is never easy-but being a young entrepreneur? "A lot of people don't take you seriously," says Larson. "Their natural tendency is to think you don't know anything." He knew enough to get into this booming industry back in 1994-where kiosks are now everything from informational tools to communication devices. Kiosks that provide Internet access in public places are the next wave on the horizon, and Larson says he's ready to serve that new business sector. His Kiosk Magazine, published since 1999, is just one of the ways he keeps the kiosk constituency appraised of news.

Since entrepreneurship is in his blood-his mom owned a company for 30 years-Larson feels compelled to make each one of his nine employees feel like entrepreneurs themselves. "Everyone takes an entrepreneurial [attitude toward] the company," he says. And with sales set to hit $2.5 million this year, who wouldn't want a piece of that pie? -Nichole L. Torres

Nathan Miller, 20

Company:PocketGear.com, a PDA portal based in Huntington Woods, Michigan, that distributes software for handheld devices
2000 sales: $1 million
2001 projections: $1.4 million

"Keep an open mind, and have an imaginative outlook. It's the little surprises, the twists and turns your plans take, that make life interesting." Words of wisdom from a young entrepreneur who has seen his share of interesting twists. Indeed, Miller never imagined he could transform his Yahoo! Storefront into PocketGear.com, a major Windows CE and Palm software distributor that he launched in July 2000.

After all, Miller's reseller permits to sell PDAs sometimes don't even provide him with enough product to fill orders. But that hasn't prevented him from fulfilling his customers' requests for the trendy little gadgets-he's been known to wipe out the stock at local electronic stores just to meet their needs. His "imaginative outlook" has also prompted him to take a creative approach to his marketing efforts, relying heavily on viral marketing at developer conferences and banner ad exchanges with other PDA-lover sites.

Even the lack of a degree doesn't seem to be a problem for Miller, who recently decided to postpone completing his degree at the University of Michigan to pour all his efforts into growing his business. Says Miller, "I know exactly who, where and what I want to be 20 years from now." -Gisela M. Pedroza

Deborah Wainstein, 27

Company:Priority Staffing Solutions Inc., a New York City employment agency
2000 sales: $2 million-plus
2001 projections: $4 million

Wainstein sums up her life in two words: "It's crazy." Since starting Priority Staffing Solutions, she's seen many late nights as president and CEO. "I work probably 70 hours a week," she says. "I'm here at 8 o'clock in the morning and I don't leave until...well, let's just say 9 p.m. is an early night."

But Wainstein's not complaining. Employing more than 600 last year, the entrepreneur is proud of her efforts. Since launching Priority Staffing in 1999, Wainstein, fluent in Spanish, has implemented a bilingual program to meet the needs of companies seeking a diverse employee roster. And besides flexible hours, she also offers benefits to her employees, something that's been a great retention factor.

Even with all her success, Wainstein admits there's a new obstacle to overcome every day. But it's just par for the course. "It think it's different for everyone," she says. "But if you want to do something and have it be a success, whether it's to be a $60 million company or a $1 million company, you need to realize it's not something you walk away from. It's like a child you need to nurture." -P. Kelly Smith

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