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Surely these entrepreneurs aren't old enough to be millionaires.
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This story appears in the November 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

This year's 14th annual list of Young Millionaires includes the best and brightest young business owners we could find. These19 enterprising entrepreneurs have some of the best success stories we've come across.

So what does it take to make the list? Entrepreneurs have to be under 40, own a company that makes more than $1 million in sales and have that something extra that causes them to shine amongst their peers. This year, as in years past, our young millionaires run the gamut, but whether they're producing films or offering prison health care, selling bobbleheads or creating designer furniture, their inspirational stories will add fuel to your own entrepreneurial fire.

Young Millionaires 2002

Tanya York, 33: York Entertainment

She produced her first film at 19. So it should be no surprise that Tanya York started her film production company, York Entertainment, at age 21. Since then, Martin Sheen and Ice-T have appeared in her films, and she's been named one of The Hollywood Reporter's 100 most powerful women in entertainment.

Hardly a small feat for the Jamaican-born York, who immigrated to Los Angeles at age 17. She worked as an actress before finding her forte in the film production arena, producing three films for someone else before setting out on her own. "I knew how to make movies and distribute them," says York, "but I was missing the capital to be able to do it."

She tenaciously pursued investors and didn't let rejection sink her efforts. "I just rolled up my sleeves and was very persistent." She ended up making seven films in her first two years. Producing mostly urban-themed movies for the video rental and video sell-through markets has been her bread and butter--and she is a top minority-cast producer.

Initially conceived as a production and distribution movie house, York's Sherman Oaks, California, company has seen some major shifts. A few years into the venture, York Entertainment focused solely on distribution. Then, in 1997, she joined forces with Florida-based Maverick Entertainment to again produce and distribute. The alliance ended amiably last year, according to York. "It was a wonderful four-year run," she says. "But it was time for both of us to move on."

That kind of constant reinvention has kept York Entertainment on the cutting edge of independent filmmaking for 13 years when so many other companies have fallen by the wayside. "Our focus changes, and that's just a part of keeping up with the times," she says. "I like to always have new challenges in front of me. As soon as we have something under control and are doing well, I'll move on to setting up a new part of the business and expanding it." The strategy is working: York expects 2002 sales to hit $20 million.

The most recent expansion took the form of Loose Cannon Film Productions LLC, York's new foray into producing bigger films. It may seem difficult to run two companies at once--but don't tell that to York. She's too busy doing it.

Marc Maiffret, 21, & Firas Bushnaq, 34: eEye Digital Security

Marc Maiffret leads a colorful life. His office walls are dark blue. His hair color varies between black and green. He helped discover the infamous Code Red worm that stormed the Internet in 2001. It's all fitting for the 21-year-old "chief hacking officer" of eEye Digital Security. After all, his teenage hacker handle was "Chameleon."

With the help of co-founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer Firas Bushnaq, Maiffret turned his hacking hobby into a legitimate business. Introduced to Bushnaq by a friend, Maiffret took on hacking-related security work for Bushnaq's e-business solutions provider company, eCompany. They saw a bright future in security and launched Aliso Viejo, California-based eEye in 1998, with funding from eCompany. Not bad for a then-17-year-old who dreaded going to school and turned to nonmalicious exploratory hacking out of sheer boredom.

Maiffret hasn't been bored since. Security is a hot issue today, and eEye provides advanced network security software to the tune of millions in yearly sales. "The thing I'm happy about is that my biggest passion in life, hacking and security, is something that actually makes for a good business," says Maiffret.

You can hear the enthusiasm and Southern California flavor in his voice when you talk to Maiffret. But the young entrepreneur also shows a maturity you'd expect from someone twice his age when he talks about eEye's five branch offices and 50 employees. "You feel the weight of 50 families depending on you," he says. "It can be a scary thing, but at the same time it's a really great feeling to have that much weight on my back."

eEye has separated itself from competitors not only with the strength of award-winning technology, but also with research. Their discovery of vulnerabilities in Microsoft's software products is largely responsible for the current push of "trustworthy computing." That work has helped Maiffret make the leap from being on the wrong side of FBI scrutiny as an at-home hacker to being a trusted FBI consultant.

"It's inspiring that some kid [who] didn't even finish high school actually worked hard enough and believed enough to get where I am today," he says. The color Maiffret and eEye are seeing now is a green light to go for a bright future.

Success Secrets

What has been your greatest accomplishment?
Marc Maiffret: Over the last year, just being where we are. All of our products have won awards and beaten out companies that have been around for [many] years and have much larger marketing budgets. We're profitable, which a lot of other security start-ups aren't.

What sets eEye apart from the competition?
Maiffret: The technology. There are core pieces to the security puzzle: antivirus, intrusion protection, firewall. A lot of these things haven't changed in five years, some in 10. We wanted to get in on security and truly innovate. With [our products], we've definitely gone the extra mile and innovated within the technology.

Chris & Cristina Capoot, both 34: Correctional Healthcare Management Inc.

"From experience, [I] knew Chris and I could start our own company and do it 100 percent better," says Cristina Capoot, once vice president for a prison health-care provider. Cristina and husband Chris took the risk in 1997 and founded Correctional Healthcare Management Inc. (CHM) in their Englewood, Colorado, home--taking a second mortgage, selling a car and maxing out credit cards to get start-up capital.

A year of nail-biting preceded the signing of CHM's first contract with a Colorado county jail. "Literally three weeks away from selling our home and declaring bankruptcy, we landed our first contract," says Chris. Since signing that contract, word has spread about the company, which handles everything from hiring nurses to paying for inmate hospital visits. Today, CHM serves 19 facilities in five states and has over 230 medical professionals on its payroll.

"We took those dice, rolled them, and our numbers came up at the last minute," Chris says. "We got that one opportunity to get our foot in the door to prove the level of service we had promised, and it's been downhill ever since." And with 2003 sales projections of $11.2 million, it should be a sweet ride.

Success Secrets

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting up?
Chris Capoot: I think the hardest thing was our age; it was [trying] to convince these county sheriffs [and] commissioners that a couple kids under the age of 30 could actually take such an important component of their jail operations and manage it. The first place you're going to get sued in jail is the medical department. So the biggest challenge was [getting] the first opportunity to prove that, in fact, we had the appropriate knowledge and background to operate in this industry.

Considering it took a year to get your first contract, what were you doing to stay afloat?
Chris: Living off our second mortgage; living off credit cards.
Cristina Capoot: We started our company with no loans, no cash.
Chris: Other than our second mortgage and our credit cards, we didn't have any working capital. We didn't go out and seek SBA financing; we did it out of our own pocket.

Why did you want to do it that way?
Cristina: Because our company is so unique. We had approached the bank we were doing our personal banking with, [and] they weren't interested in giving us collateral to start doing more marketing.

We didn't need a lot of money to start up because we're in the service industry. We needed that first contract, that first monthly check to start making our payments to our nurses, and once we got that first contract, everything worked out very well. Cash flow was not an issue.

Why didn't you give up?
Cristina: Because we knew enough people in the industry that believed in us and they just kept saying, "It's going to happen, it's going to happen; these things don't just happen overnight." We knew if we could get one contract, that would be our opportunity. And if that bid wouldn't have worked out, we would have said we can't do this anymore.

When did you first feel like this business was going to be a success?
Cristina: Probably a year after we landed that first contract and the phone was ringing with other counties saying, "We want you to do our jail as well." Knowing that we didn't have to bid on some of these contracts, that made us feel very successful. I think we knew [then] we were going to make it.

Mike Becker, 38: Funko Inc

Working in Washington's high-tech hub in 1998, all Mike Becker heard about was high-tech this and future that. So Becker took a look at what his fellow Redmonites were doing--and did exactly the opposite. Inspired by an article in Entrepreneur magazine and having long collected nostalgia-based toys and items from his childhood, Becker surmised "There's got to be people like me out there [who love nostalgia], where I could have a cool little business based on that love." Choosing to resurrect the bobblehead, Becker pulled out his life savings of $35,000 and took a business trip down memory lane.

Becker makes his "Wacky Wobblers" out of plastic rather than the fragile papier-mâché of the classic versions. Focusing on characters and personalities he enjoyed from the past, Becker chose Bob's Big Boy as his first licensing conquest. He convinced the distributor who sold to the gift shops in Bob's Big Boy restaurants it would be a hit, and after a couple thousand sold, he landed a big order for 13,000. Becker then applied his profits toward new licenses, characters and molds.

Becker's second licensing deal came with the help of a business acquaintance who is the licensing director at New Line Cinema. His break took advantage of the afterglow following the first Austin Powers movie, which resulted in shagadelic sales of 80,000 bobbleheads.

Becker's growing line of Wacky Wobblers (recent additions include Bozo the Clown, Lucky Charms and Pink Panther) helped Snohomish, Washington-based Funko Inc. reach $2 million last year without selling to large discount merchants. Opting instead for the small, cool, independent gift and specialty shops, Becker is content with Funko's volume, but has plans to diversify with other products, keeping with the nostalgic vibe he's created. And although he's now the one being approached by companies for licensing about half the time, the self-titled "chairman of fun" hasn't swayed on lucrative deals that didn't fit with his ideology, such as the promotional sports figures his competitors have jumped on. He continues to be the sole decision-maker judging which characters are Funko-worthy and vows to keep his small, eight-employee family-and-friend operation anti-corporate. "My dog's here every day, and we wear shorts and play video games like we wanted to in the beginning," Becker shares. "As long as I'm doing what I want to do and we're making a profit, I can't imagine anything better."

Success Secrets

Why did you choose bobbleheads?
Mike Becker: The product is really secondary to what the company's about, and that's the feeling. That's what we're selling. Everybody thinks back on when they were a kid, when times were great, when there were no worries in the world--or at least that's the way you perceived it. I just had to figure out a product that would fit into that feeling. Bobbleheads were low tech. I figured a guy that had no toy background or experience could get involved. Obviously all this stuff ended up being a lot harder than I ever dreamed it would be.

So you had to learn as you were going along?
Becker: It was kind of by trial and error. [After my first order,] I still didn't understand what the heck I was doing. I didn't have any distribution networks, sales reps, employees, or even a place of business; it was out of my house. The hardest part was dealing with a lot of stuff I hate: the paperwork, details. I kind of like creating of the item and not the accounting. I had to become competent in all those things. My wife, Claudia, took over a lot of those things just by default. My brother quit [working for] Nintendo and joined me in the garage. One by one I started grabbing different family members and friends.

How long does it take you to get licenses for the characters?
Becker: It always works differently. Some of them take years--like the General Mills characters Count Chocula and Frankenberry took two years--and others, one five-minute phone call. Bigger guys like Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema have departments dedicated just to licensing, and luckily I have a licensing background from my former job.

How do you work out the licensing fee?
Becker: It's pretty standard. There's an advance toward future royalties, once the product is made and sold. Then there's a guarantee amount. We negotiate a fee, but I try to set a standard fee for all of them. I know some characters are going to sell more than others, but I want them to feel like and realize that what we're doing is a really good thing for them.

Some of your competitors seem to have gone towards the promotional aspect of bobbleheads. Why haven't you?
Becker: I kind of think we're lucky enough to do what we want to do, so it's kind of "dance with the one that brung you." We don't want to be flavor of the month; we want to do this for a long time.

How do you choose which characters you use?
Becker: It just depends on what I want. We're coming out with Wallygator, Secret Squirrel, some old Hanna-Barbara ones. We're doing Michelin Man, Sprout, Green Giant, Tony the Tiger and Josie and the Pussycats. I really admired Shag's art style, so we just signed a deal doing some Shag bobbing heads.

Andy Wolf, 31: Premier Snowskate

Anyone familiar with snowboarding knows its evolutionary line is shared with skateboarding, with legions of enthusiasts commonly engaging in both sports. One such bi-athlete, Andy Wolf, moved to Salt Lake City in 1994 to snowboard professionally, but found he couldn't indulge in his other passion, skateboarding, because of the snow-covered surroundings. Wolf toyed with the idea of a snowboard/skateboard hybrid that would allow for skate tricks without bindings on snow. Naysayers only fueled Wolf's determination: While finishing his snowboarding career in 1999, he produced the first snowskate in his garage.

Wolf's decade-long involvement with big snowboarding camps in Mount Hood lent itself to R&D, and professional snowboarder friends received coverage in magazines when they gave his snowskate a try. Soon, Wolf was building a roster of big-name snowboarders, like J.P. Walker and Jeremy Jones. Sending out a simple black-and-white promotional video with a one-page catalog and order form, Wolf thought if he sold 1,000, he'd be ecstatic. Premier sold 5,000.

A licensing arrangement with the Yoshida Group in 2000 allowed Premier to tap into Yoshida's existing sales and distribution force. Sales for 2002 are expected to be about $2 million, and Premier's popularity has mountain resorts constructing snowskate parks in response. With plans to introduce an all-season line of products, Wolf, who grew up and now lives in Portland, Oregon, remains introspective of his parlay from world-class athlete to business owner: "I'm pretty damn lucky."

Success Secrets

How did you figure out how to create your snowskate?
Andy Wolf: I went about it a little backwards. Because I wanted to keep the price under $100 retail, that's how I sourced my materials. I went and sourced a bunch of different types of plastic; I had to narrow down from 2,000 types of plastic to find the ones that were really easy to work with, affordable, and still had a glide characteristic.

Where did you get the start-up money?
Wolf: My only investor was a friend of my dad's who gave me some money upfront. I went into it just thinking I'd sell a couple of units, just for the kids as a novelty item. I really believed in it but I didn't know it was going to take off like it did.

Have you had to deal with any copycats?
Wolf: There have been a few knockoffs; we just settled one lawsuit. We set up a fairly aggressive licensing program to license some of the major players in the different categories. Our plan is to have two or three brands in each channel of distribution: specialty or core, sporting goods and then the mass. Carlton Calvin, who spawned the craze of Razor scooters, will probably be handling the whole mass channel because of the connections and experience he's had.

Did being a former professional snowboarder help or hurt you in starting this business?
Wolf: I think it went both ways. I know there was times when people thought, "He was a pro-snowboarder--all he knows how to do is ride a snowboard and play Nintendo." But it was still a job; I had to handle my business, do my own deals, set up my traveling. I also had some experience repping and working with the reps for the companies I was sponsored by, which helped out a ton dealing with shops. I already knew what an order form looked like, how to do credit apps, all that stuff.

More times than not it worked to my advantage because of the connections in the industry. Being associated with all the athletes who are friends and acquaintances never hurts because a lot of these guys are next to impossible to get ahold of. If you were just to start something and you didn't even know them, they're not even going to talk to you.

Eleni Gianopulos, 38: Eleni's NYC

Her gourmet cookies are shaped like baby carriages and Oscar de la Renta gowns, and have been served up at the events of celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas and Robert DeNiro. Her products are also in the Neiman-Marcus catalog. You might say Eleni Gianopulos has made quite an impression with her New York City cookie company, Eleni's NYC.

When she started the business in 1996 out of her apartment, Gianopulos' first product was an oatmeal cookie she made using her mom's recipe. Originally intending to start a catering company, she soon focused on desserts. And her cookies became so popular with clients, she started selling them to local gourmet grocery stores.

Gianopulos developed more cookie recipes--snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, peanut butter--and then branched out into nifty cut-out cookies, which helped her catch the eye of Martha Stewart Living. The magazine did a story on Gianopulos and her husband that mentioned her rabbit cut-out cookies--and word-of-mouth grew as people started coming to Eleni's for specialty cookie creations. Gianopulos helped the buzz factor early on by donating her products to high-profile events.

It wasn't too long before Gianopulos was hired to create an all-cookie replica of Elton John's house for one client. And for designer and good friend Kate Spade, Gianopulos created Kate Spade handbag-shaped cookies.

It's that kind of ingenuity that's made Eleni's cookies a New York City staple--Gianopulos even has cookies shaped like taxi cabs and the Empire State Building. Says Gianopulos, "I really wanted it to be an edgy cookie company." With sales well over a million dollars, it seems Gianopulos certainly has the edge.

Stephen Sullivan, 37: & Brian Cousins, 30, Cloudveil

Talk about a gift that keeps on giving. When Stephen Sullivan received a pair of pants as a gift, he and friend Brian Cousins saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. Working at the same outdoor retail shop and sharing a passion for skiing and climbing, the friends banked on their belief that the pants' comfortable, lightweight Schoeller fabric would be the next big thing in active outdoor apparel. In 1997, they founded Cloudveil, purchasing the fabric from manufacturer Schoeller Textil USA. and starting a new category of stretch woven fabric known as "soft shell."

Cloudveil's location among the mountains surrounding Jackson, Wyoming, presented some unique circumstances. Without many resources nearby, the company had to outsource distribution and pattern-making. Cousins and Sullivan have said no to plans to relocate Cloudveil, however--product development couldn't get any better where lifts, trails and lakes are minutes away from the office. "We can have a sample out the door and tested the same day," Sullivan explains. "That's something the bigger companies just can't do."

With 2001 sales of $2.1 million, Cloudveil's current challenge is becoming a major player in an industry shared with giants like Columbia. But with the tag line "Live close to your dreams," Sullivan and Cousins' dreams are already their reality.

Success Secrets

So were you the first to bring this fabric into the outdoor apparel market?
Stephen Sullivan: One other company I'm aware of, Patagonia, had built a pair of pants out of a similar fabric, but they weren't really pitching it. Once it hit the mainstream level, the big companies were pretty quick to jump on what we were doing. But we were fortunate to have a pretty core little following, that has supported our continued growth. Now it's time to start to capitalize off the brand we built.

How did you and Brian Cousins meet?
Sullivan: We met working at an outdoor retail shop, Skinny Skis, in Jackson. Both of our backgrounds were working primarily in outdoor retail stores as management or buyers. We knew we didn't want to work for someone else and wanted to get into a category that had a lot of potential for growth. I kept coming up to apparel. I knew I could design good apparel.

With a small budget, what did you do to get your name out there?
Sullivan: We took a unique approach to developing our brand. One of the foundations of our business plan was to immediately hire a PR firm, and we chose Backbone Media. They shared the same philosophy--they were all end users: skiers, kayakers, climbers. We were making a unique new product, so it was a perfect marriage. We did grassroots marketing, like getting involved key organizations in the industry to help foster positions, sponsoring outdoor events. We haven't invested a tremendous amount into marketing, but it's done tremendously. We've had over 400 editorial placements in five years; we've been in Men's Journal, Backpackers, Skiing, Climbing, Self, Shape.

If Cloudveil expands even bigger, do you think you'll move operations?
Sullivan: We're pretty adamant about keeping the core of the business here. Sales, marketing and product development are three aspects we'd like to remain in Jackson. Depending on what happens financially, it may change, but we're pretty rooted there. One of the big keys we'd really lose out on is product development.

Robert Tuchman, 31: TSE Sports and Entertainment

Robert Tuchman used to dream about turning his love of sports into a plum sports anchor job. But after college he couldn't break into TV, so he took a position selling advertising for a sports publication. "I was selling advertising, [but] what the client really wanted was these value-added programs and packages," says Tuchman. When he pitched the idea to his company, they weren't interested.

A story in Entrepreneur magazine about a woman who started a sports-related business gave him the urge to set out on his own, and in 1997, he started New York City-based TSE Sports and Entertainment. Self-funded without so much as a computer, and unable to use old contacts because of a two-year noncompete agreement he'd signed with his previous employer, Tuchman began cold-calling companies. "The two years helped me learn patience," says Tuchman. Today, TSE's clients include IBM, Nabisco, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble.

TSE offers travel arrangements and other packages for companies that want to take their clients to major sporting and entertainment events, even bringing in athletes to meet with the groups. The strategy has helped the company reach $10 million this year. And with plans to expand into consumer sweepstakes, sponsorship sales and celebrity and athlete marketing services, Tuchman shows no sign of taking his eye off the ball.

Success Secrets

What's the greatest hurdle you've faced as an entrepreneur?
Robert Tuchman: The constant rejection, whether it's selling rejection or it's hiring employees who leave. There's a lot of rejection from sales, and there's a lot of down periods. You just have to be optimistic and really be that positive person who knows that better things are going to come.

Was your age a factor in your success?
Tuchman: The older you get, the more you realize [what] you don't know. I realize [now] that someone looking at me at 25 may have not given me the opportunity. Now I realize that there were a lot of opportunities missed because of my age.

What aspect of your personality has helped you become successful with your business?
Tuchman: I'm creative, and I've got a great work ethic. That's really what it takes in this world.

Edward Poteat, 29, Robert Horsford, 30, & Alyah Horsford, 32: Horsford and Poteat Realty Corp.

The slowing economy and the attacks on the World Trade Center weren't enough to stop the partners of New York City-based Horsford and Poteat Realty. "There's always going to be a need here in New York City for building more affordable housing," says Edward Poteat, who, along with sibling partners Robert and Alyah Horsford, build, develop and manage affordable housing in New York City.

Poteat and Robert Horsford met their freshman year in college and decided they'd follow the path set by Horsford's grandfather, who'd been in the real estate business in Harlem. So Robert studied civil engineering at Brown and Poteat studied economics at Yale, and when they graduated, they worked in the private sector to save money until they had the skills and finances to start their business in 1995. Alyah joined them with the managing skills she'd picked up working for her grandfather and working at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for New York City. A few years of sweat equity later, the city is their main client, and sales for 2002 are expected to reach $3 million. The trio hope to expand their business throughout the state of New York.

Success Secrets

What prompted you to become an entrepreneur?
Edward Poteat: My father had a factory job for about 40 years, and he lost his job in the recession of the early '90s. So just seeing that and thinking that I didn't want to reach the end of my work years and have someone say "Listen, it's been nice, but you have to go now."

What does it take to make it as an entrepreneur?
Robert Horsford: It's the commitment and the drive to accomplish what you're setting out to accomplish. You have to be open-minded to help--be it partnerships, joint ventures--but you've got to be intelligent in making those decisions on who those partners and joint ventures will be. Sometimes you need the capital and the expertise of someone who's been there before to get to the next step, and sometimes you can't get it accomplished at the pace you'd like to get it accomplished by yourself.

Charlie Lazor, John Christakos & Maurice Blanks, all 37: Blu Dot

As frustrated consumers when it came to buying affordable designer furniture, Charlie Lazor, John Christakos and Maurice Blanks--three former college housemates--often discussed getting together to give consumers a stylish American alternative to expensive European designs. But nothing happened until 1996 when Christakos, having earned an MBA in 1993, decided to take $50,000 he'd saved and leave his consultant job to start Minneapolis-based Blu Dot. He eventually persuaded Lazor and Blanks to join him (by then, each had a master's in architecture), and the trio began to collaborate on designs via fax and during weekend retreats. Lazor and Blanks would fly to Minneapolis once a month, while Christakos worked on the business aspects of the company.

Blu Dot's first line debuted in 1997 at a trade show in New York City and was picked up immediately by retailers. "The blocking and tackling of the business is 80 percent of what we do; design is maybe 20 percent in the end," says Christakos. They've been successful at both, with their designs now available at retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel and Target, and have made their way onto shows like Friends, Saturday Night Live and Will & Grace. The company was recently selected as finalists for a National Design Award from the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum for extraordinary contributions to design. Sales are expected to exceed $3 million by the end of this year.

Success Secrets

What's been your biggest hurdle?
John Christakos: We outsource a lot of our manufacturing, so a big challenge was controlling the quality of what our vendors were producing for us. Our very first batch of product had 1,000 parts all with the holes drilled a quarter of an inch too close together. We're always watching out for things like that.

Did you ever imagine yourself as an entrepreneur?
Charlie Lazor: From my perspective as an architect, it's every architect's goal and dream to get out on their own and start and grow an office. When you get out of school, that's what you're always striving towards.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Christakos: I got some good advice when I was in graduate school from an entrepreneur who asked me what I wanted to do. He said: "You know you don't have to invent Velcro. Just pick something that you really love to do, and do it better than other people, or try to do it better than other people."

Neal Rothermel, 34, & Mandy Moore, 35: Virtual Meeting Strategies

Don't call Neal Rothermel a young millionaire. "I'm not real comfortable with it," says the principal of meeting and event planning company Virtual Meeting Strategies (VMS). He's careful to point out that it's VMS that garnered over $25 million in gross revenue in 2001, not him personally. That kind of attitude from husband and wife co-founders Rothermel and principal Mandy Moore has shaped VMS into the well-grounded business it is today.

VMS has grown from humble beginnings in 1995 in Indianapolis. Rothermel came from a background in the corporate meetings and incentives industry and Moore had been working in large-scale special events. They had each been the other's boss at various points. "The only equitable thing to do was to become fifty-fifty," says Rothermel. One computer, two file cabinets and $1,000 got them up and running, working from their home. They have since added more than 40 employees and moved the business to larger digs.

A focus on Fortune 500 and pharmaceutical companies has kept VMS recession-proof and growing. Though the company offers videoconferencing and other enhancements to a client list that includes Eli Lilly and IBM, the bulk of its business involves old-fashioned face-to-face meetings.

"Company culture" isn't just a catchphrase at VMS, it's a passion. Rothermel calls it their greatest achievement. A written set of core business values that emphasize an entrepreneurial spirit, unshakeable ethics and teamwork permeates everything the business does. "It's not just words on a piece of paper," says Rothermel, "those are things we live by."

Success Secrets

What has been your biggest challenge?
Neal Rothermel: The biggest challenge is momentum and sales. We had the right idea, but getting it off the ground [requires a] combination of the right attitude, the right staying power and also being in the right place at the right time. All of that has to be in alignment.

What has been your greatest accomplishment?
Rothermel: What I'm most proud of is the team atmosphere and the great company culture centered on those core values we've created.

What are your future plans for VMS?
Rothermel: We want to continue our aggressive growth. We want to be the leading full-service meeting planning company in the Midwest.

Amanda C. Kooser, Gisela M. Pedroza, April Y. Pennington, Devlin Smith and Nichole L. Torres contributed to this article.

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