Smart Ideas 10/04

Wedding insurance, massage chairs and more
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What: a provider of wedding insurance
Who: Karen and Roger Sandau of WedSafe
Where: Beverly Hills, California
When: started in 2000

When planning their wedding in late 1999, Karen and Roger Sandau were struck by how risky it was to give large, nonrefundable cash deposits to vendors without any protection if something were to go away on the wedding day. From a vendor going out of business to an important family member being stricken ill and unable to attend, the Sandaus thought of all the things that could possibly go wrong on their wedding day and wished they could find some way to protect their investment.

Finding wedding insurance available overseas but not in the United States gave the couple a great idea-they figured there were many people like themselves who would feel much more calm before the big day if they knew they were covered for unforeseen circumstances. Karen, 37, had a background in catering and event planning, and had heard of event cancellation insurance; and Roger, 38, had a background as an entertainment attorney, so he knew the ins and outs of events in general.

The newlyweds combined their expertise and started detailing the types of things the insurance would cover, such as severe weather emergencies on the wedding day, a damaged or stolen wedding gown, and lost or damaged wedding rings, to name just a few. They also decided to offer liability insurance for any damages incurred at the wedding site (something many venues require).

They went about finding an underwriter for the policy as well as developing software that would enable them to organize and sell their insurance cheaply. Their product has resonated with couples and especially wedding planners.

In fact, marketing to wedding professionals has helped the Sandaus grow their business to between $2.25 million and $2.5 million in 2004 sales. "Everyone has heard of a wedding story gone awry," Roger says. But now, with WedSafe at the helm, mishaps don't have to spell catastrophe.

On a Roll

What: manufacturer of small wall and ground attachments to prevent skateboarding in front of private property
Who: Chris Loarie of Intellicept dba Skatestoppers
Where: El Cajon, California
When: started in 1998

It's not easy stopping a herd of determined skateboarders from practicing where they're not wanted, but Chris Loarie invented a way to do just that when he came up with Skatestoppers. When these small brackets are attached to exterior walls, benches, curbs and more-the very places skaters seek out-skaters are prevented from practicing in those areas, and private property is protected from damage.

Loarie, 34, got the idea after hearing his police officer brother discuss all the complaints he had received from business owners about disruptive skateboarders in front of their establishments. Loarie designed the first prototypes in 1996, and throughout 1997, he focused on refining them to make them stronger and less likely to be broken by disgruntled skaters.

As he perfected the design and started getting rave reviews from business owners, city parks and school districts, Loarie added an artistic line with seashell designs and the like to make the practical product aesthetically pleasing as well.

Still, Loarie realized that although he was very popular with property owners, rebuffed skateboarders were hardly fans. "The skateboarders will say, 'Why can't I just skate anywhere? You're taking our rights away,'" Loarie explains. "To me, it's fairly straightforward: Somebody has a piece of property, and they don't want you there. It's within their rights to ask you to leave, especially if you're doing something that's disruptive or destructive."

Loarie is working with contractors to incorporate Skatestoppers into the design of new building areas. Now that company revenues are expected to hit about half a million dollars for 2004, it seems there's no stopping this entrepreneur.

Take a Seat

What: automated, cash-operated massage chairs in public spaces
Who: Mark Eberhardt of First Class Seats
Where: Racine, Wisconsin
When: started in 1994

Spending an uncomfortable afternoon in an airport inspired Mark Eberhardt, 51, to come up with a relaxing way to wait for a flight-he imagined how nice it would be to sit in one of those fancy massage chairs he'd seen before in high-end stores.

With a background as a stockbroker, however, it was a challenge for him to modify the chair to accept cash-not to mention the hurdle of getting it into malls and airports. Many people, without really understanding the concept of the chair, recoiled at the word massage, thinking it was something illicit. And getting a foothold in airport concourses is not generally an easy prospect for any company-let alone a new business. Eberhardt had to meet with people face to face and actually show them the chair to get them to appreciate his idea.

In 1996, Eberhardt got the chair into Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. To date, First Class Seats are in 125 shopping malls, and Eberhardt has plans to expand into more airports and malls around the country. With 2004 sales expected to hit $4 million, it seems like relaxing is the way of the future.

On a Shoestring

What: a computer and network services provider
Who: Sarah Byrne Ducharme of New England Network Group
Where: Everett, Massachusetts
When: started in 1995
How much: $3,000 to $4,000

Starting with less than $4,000, Sarah Byrne Ducharme, 40, initially sold off-lease computer systems to college students. But realizing quickly that college students were generally low on cash, she shifted her focus and began selling off-lease computers to other small businesses. As computer equipment started becoming more and more affordable across the board, however, Ducharme saw that the real longevity would be in services, so she changed her focus again to being the outsourced provider of computer and networking services to businesses in her local area. It wasn't easy in those early days of startup, she notes. Ducharme recalls house-sitting to save money on rent, and bartering services with local vendors. "You have to be a penny pincher," she says. "I would definitely bargain for things-they'd need computer services, and I'd need office supplies. That doesn't always work, but there are times when you have something that someone else needs."

She started small, renting a tiny one-room office. As her business started to grow, she added the next office down the hall and then the next. But even then, Ducharme notes it was still about the bootstrap mentality. From printing on both sides of the paper to working 18-hour days to keep things running, Ducharme did it.

"The biggest challenge," she says, "was getting great people to work for me-and telling them there was a really big future in this company." Her persuasion worked-she's retained most of those early employees to this day. And the great future she promised has come to pass, with close to $5 million in sales expected for 2004.


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