Smart Start-Up Ideas

5 entrepreneurs who prove no matter what your age, no matter what your background, you've got a shot at starting a great business.
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10 min read

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

Inspiration, in the truest sense of the word, is not something quantifiable. In its purest form, it materializes in the rich colors of a painting or in the unspoken message of a finely worded poem. Perhaps this is why it can be so difficult to find inspiration, particularly when you're an . When, say, you're a writer with writer's block, it's generally looked at as a temporary thing. But when you're an entrepreneurial hopeful struggling just to come up with an inkling of a idea, it can feel like there's a black sheet wrapped around your head, with no light coming in and no light going out. But as the entrepreneurs in this article illustrate, when you do finally find a way to tear down that sheet, it can feel like the best "a-ha!" moment of your life.

For the Pampered Pet:Healthy Pet Food Store
From drinking shots of wheatgrass and loading up on multivitamins to following the carb-constricting Atkins diet, it seems we're always coming up with new ways to maintain healthy lifestyles. And we certainly don't hesitate to tell our families, friends and even our Stairmaster-faithful neighbors about the latest crazes for keeping our organs well-oiled. However, it seems that in all the calorie-counting commotion, Kent and Linda Gavel were the only ones who thought to let man's best friend in on our little secrets.

Natural Pet, a 16-month-old Dunedin, Florida, health food store for dogs and cats, turned a practical idea into the city's latest hot spot for our canine companions and feline fellows. Linda, a dog trainer who studied in New England, explains: "When I was giving classes, I would always include a course on pet nutrition, but I was finding out that there were no places in our area where people could purchase the correct products. So I decided to open a store that had natural, organic, human-grade foods, vitamins, herbs and shampoos."

If you think the idea of using such high-class products on animals is intense, get this: Natural Pet's first franchise, opening soon, will feature luxurious bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations so weekend travelers can leave their pets behind without unnecessary guilt. Owners can preorder their pets' main meals, desserts and snacks from a menu that includes homemade ice cream, strawberry shortcake, pizza, quiche and candy, or they can simply arrange for their furry friends to get a relaxing massage, soak in the Jacuzzi or undergo aromatherapy treatment.

Linda guarantees that indulging your pets with organic foods will prevent them from having the problems that animals who eat commercial foods have. Her response to people who don't believe her: "If we can improve our well-being by eating healthful foods rather than junk, the same goes for our pets!" -Joelle Wolstein

For the Indecisive:Two-Team Sports Jerseys
Matt Steichen is good at being a 17-year-old. "I have this thing where I have to be different," he says. "If I'm not different, nobody notices me. I have an orange Trans-Am. Who has an orange car?"

Well, this Carol Stream, Illinois, hotshot got plenty of attention when a makeshift football jersey he spliced together as a joke made it to the stage of this year's XXXV Halftime Show in Tampa, Florida. His big break happened on the Wednesday before the big game when Steichen, wearing one of the jerseys, ran into rap star Nelly at a Tampa-area shopping mall and Nelly wanted to know where Steichen got the jersey. "I said I made it, and he said, 'Is there any way I can get one for the Super Bowl Halftime Show?' I didn't want to pass that up."

That Sunday, Nelly debuted Steichen's creation before a worldwide audience as he jammed with Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, 'NSync and Britney Spears. "It just helped so much," says Steichen. "People were paying millions of dollars for commercials, and we got a free one."

Nelly helped create a whirlwind of attention for the teenager, who's been interviewed some 150 times over the past few years. Since the Super Bowl, Nelly has worn several different jerseys, one of them on the Late Show with David Letterman. The members of 'NSync have been sized for jerseys, and the Dave Matthews Band has shown interest as well.

In the flurry of success, Steichen's father, Craig, even quit his job and started working full time as senior vice president for his son in the company they began, Torn Apparel. Since solidifying their copyright, Craig has been negotiating contracts with sports leagues to sell jerseys other than the Super Bowl ones. They've created combination home/away jerseys of baseball teams, and in 2000's NBA Finals, they successfully sold hybrid Lakers/Sixers jerseys both at the venues and at

Matt isn't resting, though, despite his good fortune. He still holds two part-time jobs, much like any other teenager. Plus, he says any money he makes with Torn Apparel will first go toward college. And he hasn't stopped dreaming up new products. "It's funny how the simplest things are never invented," says Matt. "The other day I thought of nail clippers with little things to catch the clippings. They need to make those." -Mike Besack

For the Fitness Freak:e-Coaching
There are plenty of people who've always wanted to be healthier, but don't think it's affordable or convenient enough. Well, FitnessDesigns may have the 21st century answer to that dilemma: e-coaching. The program makes getting in shape as simple as checking your e-mail. (Well, sort of.)

FitnessDesigns was started back in 1987 in Minneapolis by president and founder Jessica Adlin as a fitness and wellness consulting and personal-training business. "I wanted to develop a service to educate individuals in achieving and sustaining physical well-being while maintaining the highly personalized, one-on-one relationship that is so vital in achieving one's fitness goals," Adlin says. After three years in Minnesota, Adlin decided to move her company to Bellevue, Washington, where she stumbled upon a very timely opportunity. Many of her clients in Minnesota were dismayed by the thought of losing their personal fitness coaches and having to start all over with someone new, so Adlin decided to maintain relations with some of her clients via telephone and mail. And in the early '90s, as the Internet evolved, Adlin's fitness coaching became more accessible than ever.

Here's how it works: FitnessDesigns pairs clients with a highly skilled fitness and wellness expert via e-mail. Clients can ask questions about nutrition, stress management, exercise, positive thinking and just about anything else related to healthy living. Annual membership costs $360, which includes unlimited e-mail access, six sessions of in-person or "t-coaching" (via telephone) at half the normal rate, a regularly sent e-newsletter and a self-assessment "Get Fit" packet.

In a market that's usually limited by location, Adlin is making use of the Internet's increasing popularity. Business in the past year has grown 200 percent, and Adlin now attributes about 80 percent of her business to her e-coaching service. Says Adlin, "Using the Internet as a medium is like having a health and fitness expert at your fingertips, anytime, anywhere." That sure eliminates the excuses, doesn't it? -Jenny Kee

For the Socially Conscious:VC Fund for Nonprofits
Vanessa Kirsch has always been a social entrepreneur, fiercely dedicated to developing innovative solutions for today's social problems. But in 1995, it took a trip around the world to show her the world's predicament: Although there were enough social leaders in the nonprofit sector to solve almost every social problem out there, there simply wasn't enough funding available for those social enterprises.

Says Kirsch, "If you're an entrepreneur, you go to America to start a business because we have angel investors, and consulting firms. We believe in . But we don't have that same entrepreneurial system when it comes to the nonprofit sector."

After interviewing 350 social entrepreneurs in 22 different countries during a year-long trip, Kirsch returned home determined to start a fund for nonprofits. So New Profit Inc. was born in 1997. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with offices in New York, New Profit partners with promising social enterprises backed by "risk-takers who have a vision for big change," Kirsch says.

With 40 current investors, New Profit has invested in nonprofits like the Bell Foundation and Citizens School (both after-school programs) as well as the early-childhood development program Jumpstart. Kirsch and co-founder Kelly Fitzsimmons are also reaping the benefits from the for-profits, which are donating not only their money, but their intellectual capital as well. "To have the major institutional support of for-profit companies and to have the kind of investors we have that have grown the business," says Kirsch, "it just takes us up a whole level of professionalism."

In her quest for entrepreneurial philanthropy, Kirsch hopes to be investing in 15 different nonprofits in the future. She'd also like to have hundreds of investors as well as offices abroad. "We'd really like to build a new capital market for the nonprofit sector that incentivizes success." -P. Kelly Smith

For the Athlete:Portable Fuel
Huff, pant, gasp! Whether you're going out for a jog or competing in a marathon, staying hydrated is a serious factor in your endurance abilities. But while others contemplate the inconvenience of carrying water vs. going thirsty, runners who use Vinu Malik's hydration system, Fuel Belt, are running pretty.

When Malik began training for the Ironman races several years ago, he listened to friends complain about uncomfortable water bottles bouncing behind their backs. A triathlete since 18, Malik knew he couldn't neglect water and borrowed his mom's sewing machine to design his answer to the thirsty athlete. Knowing the concept had potential, he found a good knit-elastics manufacturer and a bottle company and kept improving its design until it evolved into an elastic waist-wrap with the capacity to hold several evenly distributed flasks.

With 34 million U.S. runners alone, Malik knew the opportunity would run right past him if he didn't act fast. Malik gave the first 50 belts to racing professionals, and with the frequency of winners wearing Fuel Belts, it was only a matter of time before it was named the official hydration belt of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship and the USA Triathlon.

Malik and his full-time staff of five work from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Malik now has a full product line with several versions of the belt as well as supplemental products. With sales exceeding $500,000 last year, Fuel Belt can be found in more than 350 retail stores, runners' catalogs and at the Fuel Belt Web site.

Even with a five-year licensing agreement with Ironman, whose logo brands all Fuel Belt products, Malik still remains introspective: "I really feel lucky. I've got my favorite hobby and interest tied right into a business that helps a lot of people and serves a purpose." -April Pennington

You might be ready to roll up your sleeves and start a business, but make sure you get help doing it. Here are some excellent start-up books:

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