Smart Ideas 08/05
What: Portable storage units made from recycled and
restored cargo containers
Who: Rich Whelan of Moveable Cubicle
Where: Raleigh, North Carolina
When: Started in 2000
When Rich Whelan lived in Arizona, he frequently noticed large containers behind retail stores. Upon moving to North Carolina in 1999, Whelan, 40, noted that these same giant steel containers were piling up on the shoreline near U.S. shipping ports.
Historic trade imbalances between the United States and other countries caused the cargo-carrying cubes to stack up at ports, wasting space. This observation, paired with an eco-friendly idea--to purchase retired crates from ports and then lease them, cleaned, painted and restored, to other businesses for their temporary storage needs--inspired Whelan to start his business.
"I wanted to build something on concrete, not sand," Whelan says. Since the containers last between 20 and 30 years, Whelan knew they could be used many times over. After persuading investors that his idea made sense from both a business and an environmental perspective, Whelan set out to become the global leader in portable storage.
Today, Moveable Cubicle has more than 40 locations across the nation. The 20- and 40-foot-long storage units are used by the retail and construction industries, as well as by individuals and institutions, such as hospitals and churches.
In 2004, Moveable Cubicle grossed $4.8 million, and the company expects to grow by 70 percent in 2005. In addition to being earth-friendly, the company is philanthropic, donating part of its proceeds to children's charities. Whelan is proud of his employees and the company's all-around success, saying, "We are very good for the economy. We are good for the end customer. We are good for the country."
What: Single-serving coffee concentrate for making
Who: Candy Palmer-Steele of Javette
When: Started in 1999
When Candy Palmer-Steele's goddaughter went away to music camp for the summer, she remarked how much she would miss the local coffee shops she frequented with her friends. That comment inspired Palmer-Steele to send her a care package--with a twist. Palmer-Steele bought 100 percent Arabica beans, filtered water through the grounds and squeezed out the concentrate a little at a time. Twelve hours and 16 ounces later, Palmer-Steele sent the concentrate to her goddaughter in a glass bottle, with directions to mix one table-spoon with hot water. "I mailed it off with my fingers crossed," Palmer-Steele says of the first incarnation of Javette.
Her goddaughter liked it--inspiring Palmer-Steele to turn her idea into a business. Wanting to perfect her product, she hired several consultants and manufacturers and spent $30,000 on R&D over four years. The end result: a 0.25-ounce single serving of coffee concentrate in pressure-resistant packaging that, when mixed with hot water, provides gourmet coffee on the go.
The product soon gained popularity, thanks to word-of-mouth from happy customers and Palmer-Steele's sponsorships of local charity races, such as the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life. Today, the product can be found on Javette's website, and in one local gourmet-food store. Sales for 2004 surpassed $100,000 and should double this year.
A triathlon participant herself, Palmer-Steele, 49, has tackled Javette with the same drive she applies to all aspects of her life: "Anything that comes before me, I just set my sights and go for it." Next up: Palmer-Steele hopes to get Javette on store shelves nationwide.
What: Networking events that facilitate short-and-sweet
contacts with fellow business professionals
Who: Melissa and Sonia English of 5 Minute Networking
Where: Newport Beach, California
When: Started in August 2004
At a speed-dating event last summer, Melissa English walked away with more business contacts for her sister Sonia's web design company than she did phone numbers for herself. At the same time, Sonia attended a business-networking event hosted by the local chamber of commerce and walked away with nothing. Sensing a perfect match between speed dating and networking mixers, the two sisters launched 5 Minute Networking. Their events give individuals from all industries the chance to meet 20 different professionals, one-on-one, in five-minute increments.
Their idea was an immediate hit-- the first 50-person event, held in Newport Beach in September 2004, filled to capacity within eight days of being announced. The company went national four months later, holding 25 events in 13 cities across the U.S. Melissa and Sonia only host local events; outside event directors are hired for events in other cities. "The response we get from events is absolutely phenomenal," says Melissa, 27, adding that they expect sales to jump from $300,000 in 2005 to $2 million in 2006.
"One of the reasons I think people like 5 Minute Networking is that it works for every personality type," says Sonia, 30, pointing out that many people don't like to initiate introductions or waste time on small talk. "You have your outgoing personality [type], like me, who wouldn't mind walking up to a group of four people already talking at a networking mixer. And then you have your other personality type who goes to [networking] events all gung-ho, but ends up staring at their glass the whole night, not interacting with anyone."
Now in the process of patenting the software they designed to optimize their events, the sisters are also exploring franchising the concept and plan to publish a book with networking tips and stories about high-level professionals in January 2006.
Smoke of Genius
What: A website that sells inexpensive cigar
Who: Dave Sabot of CheapHumidors.com
Where: Miramar, Florida
When: Started in 1997
How much: $45
Dave Sabot, 32, a former internet marketer, knew nothing about cigars when he purchased his first humidor in 1997 to store some cigars he received as a gift. "I didn't even know what a humidor was," Sabot says. A search online and in local cigar shops left him stunned. "Those things were selling for $200 apiece! I was thinking to myself, How can a little wooden box cost so much?"
It doesn't have to. Sabot finally bought one for just $45. After deciding to put it up for sale, Sabot took some pictures and posted them online. Soon, he had a check in the mail for $99-and orders for more humidors.
Before long, Sabot built his own website where he now sells humidors, cigars and cigar accessories. He continued to work up the supply chain and now buys his products from a wholesale distributor owned by a partner, allowing him to sell his products for much less than his competitors.
But Sabot's success isn't all about numbers: "I quickly learned that the people buying from me weren't the seasoned veterans of cigar [smoking]-they were new to the hobby." So he started providing tons of free information on his website "to really help the new guy out."
By teaching novices the same things he didn't know as a rookie cigar enthu-siast, Sabot found his niche within a niche. "Cigar smoking is a niche, and my niche is [marketing to] the guy that's brand-new to the whole thing," he says . Today, his $45 purchase has turned into a half-million-dollar business that expects sales to increase by 30 percent this year.