Smart Ideas 03/05
Wheels of Fortune
What: bicycle extension that can carry passengers and
Who: Ross Evans and Kipchoge Spencer of Xtracycle
Where: North San Juan, California
When: started in 1998
By working in a medical clinic in Burma to help care for the patients, Ross Evans has dedicated years of his life to helping others. However, it was during a trip to Nicaragua in 1995 to teach disabled men how to fix bikes that his humanitarian efforts changed his own life.
While attaching cargo trailers to bikes certainly helped the villagers carry products and children, Evans figured the trailers would also be tremendously useful for similar purposes elsewhere. So, with a $16,000 grant for inventors that he received from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, Evans, 30, and his friend Kipchoge Spencer, 32, launched Xtracycle.
Xtracycle's primary product is the FreeRadical Kit, an extension for a traditional bicycle featuring modular racks and accessories that enable the rider to carry up to 200 extra pounds. From carrying groceries and surfboards to carting smoothies for sale in China, Xtracycle's products have been used for a variety of purposes. In industrialized countries where the bicycle is no longer a hot commodity, one of the company's challenges is to make cycling "sexy" again.
With sales in the mid-six figures, Xtracycle's products are sold online and in more than 100 bike shops nationwide. Thanks to growing interest and exposure, sales for this year are projected to increase by 300 percent.
Evans believes Xtracycle's products will eventually change the lives of those who use them. Says Evans, "Our passion and mission is to get more people riding bikes, because they're going to be happier, healthier and more in touch with their neighbors, community and environment."
What: website that matches prospective employees to
hourly positions in their areas
Who: Shawn Boyer, co-founder and CEO of SnagAJob.com Inc.
Where: Richmond, Virginia
When: started in 2000
Searching for a decent job can get the best of us. Shawn Boyer, a former lawyer, realized this when his girlfriend solicited his help in finding an internship. When it came to looking for part-time work, it seemed as if sifting through newspapers or wandering door-to-door were the only options.
"I started to do the research," says Boyer, 33, "and there really wasn't anything out there [for nonsalaried jobs]. You had the bigger career boards like Monster.com, but they didn't focus on it."
Boyer followed up with nine months of research, calling big companies like Bed Bath & Beyond, Boston Market, Chuck E. Cheese's and 7-Eleven, as well as high school and college campuses, to see where recruiters searched. Investors jumped on his pitch for SnagAJob.com--a site where hourly job-seekers can search for free while companies receive applicants' profiles at a monthly fee--and pooled several million dollars for the venture.
However, selling his idea to companies was more difficult. "You have to prove to them that you are actually going to have job-seeker traffic," says Boyer. So he began building a client base by advertising on college websites, online search portals, and at the YMCA and military bases. For his first eight months in business, he also offered companies a free 60-day trial of the service.
Each day, new candidates sign up with the site. Sales, which are now in the millions, soared 200 percent in 2001 and 2002, and 120 percent in 2004. "We consider ourselves to be brokers, basically," Boyer explains. "It's funny because you talk to individuals who are desperately looking for jobs, and then you talk to companies that are desperately looking for good people, and you think, 'Hey! We have what you need.'"
What: staffing services for the apartment industry
Who: Crystal Belt and James Weathered of Apartment Personnel
Where: Fort Worth, Texas
When: started in 2003
How much: $3,500
Crystal Belt, 23, and her husband, James Weathered, 33, knew that if they could keep their boss's constantly struggling apartment-staffing business afloat, then nothing could stop them from starting their own business. Even though the couple could barely afford to put gas in their truck and had three children to feed and a fourth on the way, Belt and Weathered realized it was now or never, so they quit their jobs, combined their last paychecks and invested about $3,500 into an 1,800-square-foot Fort Worth office.
In the startup's early days, they spent late nights faxing fliers and creating forms. To cut costs, they purchased secondhand furniture and went bargain shopping for supplies and equipment. Their determination paid off: Within the first month, Belt and Weathered were collecting $15,000 per week in billings and have since added additional offices in Atlanta and Houston. They've even hired a CPA and a bookkeeper to keep track of finances now that they bring in $60,000 per week.
"We worked hard, and we always knew we were going to have better," says Belt, who projects 2005 sales of about $3.8 million for the company, which provides apartment buildings with all the staff they need, from maintenance people to front-desk workers.
While being a young entrepreneur has its challenges, Belt hasn't let that stop her. "I hate it when people ask me my age, because it doesn't matter," she says. "I know what I'm talking about. I'm glad I'm young and I have drive. I want to do it now so when I'm older, I can just relax."