Get your business on the cutting edge with lessons from these 16 small-business pioneers.
Chad Troutwine and Markus Moberg
Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen
Brendan and Tim Sexton, and Matt Walden
They are the game changers and the innovators. They make their own rules and break the molds. They sought to either plug a hole in the market or create a better mousetrap. They are 20 of the small-business world's premier innovators.
Anyone can create a professional-looking video with Animoto's video creation platform. Upload your photos, select a song, click "Create Video" and voila!--out pops a 30-second video with a serious wow factor. The company inspired from watching too many boring slideshows of friends' trips has more than 300,000 users in more than 200 countries registered, more than 2 million Facebook users signed up and more than 4 million videos under its belt. The quality of their video was even good enough for Jason Hsiao, one of Animoto's founders, to propose to his girlfriend with.
Until two years ago, they had spent most of their lives making Flash a success. Now self-proclaimed tech geeks Gary Grossman, Robert Tatsumi, Peter Santangeli, Jonathan Gay and Matthew Smith are devoted to solving this riddle: "How do you get [homeowners] more engaged with how, where and when they use energy and give them the tools to make better decisions?" Greenbox's solution is much like a game, meant to help consumers understand their energy usage and how they can save money through a simple user interface at getgreenbox.com that feeds them real-time data. "When you're 50, you want your kids to look at you and say, 18Dad, you did good,'" says Santangeli.
Co-founders, Veritas Prep Veritas Prep started off as a project for an entrepreneurship class by two students attending the Yale School of Management. In 2008 the test prep company raked in about $10 million in sales in 2008. At $1,500 for a GMAT course, their price point rivals their largest competitors Kaplan and Princeton Review (Veritas Prep ranks second in GMAT prep, behind Kaplan and ahead of Princeton Review). The twist? Veritas Prep offers about 50 percent more class time. With the advanced-degree market hitting 50-year record highs, co-founder Chad Troutwine's outlook on Prep's future is bright. "We're just a rare business that will continue to do well in this economy."
Co-founders, CollegeHumor Childhood friends Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen launched CollegeHumor in 1999 as a way to earn money for beer and clothing. Fast forward 15 years and the TV-network-like empire of hilarious web series, games, blogs, columns, a production company and a show on MTV is raking in millions a year. But there were some blips. When YouTube exploded on the scene, CollegeHumor was forced to reinvent itself. Instead of relying solely on user-generated material, Abramson and Van Veen decided to produce their own content. Months after the rise of YouTube, web media conglomerate InterActive Corp bought 51 percent ownership of the company. That same year, the duo brought in $6 million.
Vice President and Founder, Affliction Clothing Affliction Clothing is the brainchild of Tom Atencio, a professional mixed martial arts fighter turned entrepreneur. It wasn't until Affliction partnered with Donald Trump and Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions that the clothing line took off. With competition such as Ultimate Fighting Championship--which is to MMA what NFL is to football--and TapouT, Affliction is primed for a high-profile business showdown.
CEO & President, POC Ski USA Stefan Ytterborn couldn't get his mind off his kids' flimsy head gear while they ski raced. So the Swedish industrial designer, who has worked for Volvo and Ikea, consulted a spinal cord injuries doctor and built POC's first super-safe, but stylish, helmet. Things snowballed after photogenic U.S. Olympic star Julia Mancuso was shot celebrating her gold medal win wearing a POC lid. Today, POC has moved below the neck and is producing other high-quality protective gear like shin guards and chest plates for mountain bikers and BMX racers, and distributes its gear to 27 countries.
Vice President of PR and Marketing, Bethesda Softworks While other game houses crank out one adventure after another, Softworks releases a single obsessively detailed title every few years. Fallout 3, a single-player role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C., launched with 4.7 million copies and brought in $300 million in sales. And they're not even finished. Extension packs to Fallout 3 with new maps and content are being rolled out every few months, generating a nice revenue stream at roughly $10 per download. "Our games encourage people to sink huge chunks of time into their characters," says Peter Hines, vice president of PR and marketing. But Fallout isn't the only arrow in Bethesda's quiver: Rogue Warrior is due out in the fall.
CEO, Jitterbug It took two veterans of the wireless world, Jitterbug founders Arlene Harris (creator of the SOS phone) and her husband Martin Cooper (he built the first handheld cell phone for Motorola in 1973) to recognize that calculators with giant buttons and The Clapper weren't going to cut it as 78 million baby boomers cross the senior threshold. Their solution to a boomer-friendly phone? A Samsung-built phone with a bigger keyboard and industry-leading background-noise reduction, which also happens to offer 24-hour roadside assistance and a Live Nurse function. But as David Inns, CEO of Jitterbug, explains, "It doesn't have to do with age; it has to do with lifestyle."
Co-founder and CEO, Rockcorps Who says teens are lethargic? Not Stephen Greene, 42, co-founder and CEO of RockCorps. The pro-social production company grants concertgoers entry to coveted shows that feature artists like Kanye West and Panic! at the Disco in exchange for four hours of local nonprofit volunteer work. Sounds like a great nonprofit--only, it's not. Funding comes from companies that gain positive association with the youth market via nontraditional advertising. Green is currently partnering with 2010 World Cup in South Africa and offering passes to marquee matches to kids who volunteer.
Co-founder and CEO, Freshbooks Invoicing has never been more personal. A former freelance website developer, Mike McDerment created FreshBooks, a company that offers a subscription invoicing and time-tracking service with industry comparative snapshot capabilities to freelancers, independent service providers and small businesses. Although his business is 100 percent online, they spend countless hours away from their Toronto offices, taking paid subscribers out to dinner in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. "No one takes care of people in the client-service business," McDerment says. "Taking a customer who pays just $14 a month out to dinner is our way of doing that."
Founder, Roofscapes Inc. Charlie Miller spent much of his career as a civil engineer specializing in storm-water management. But when he discovered that much of the dangerous runoff that erodes streambeds and carries a stew of contaminants into water supplies is caused by traditional roof construction, he dropped everything for the green roof industry. The founder of Roofscapes collaborated with a Swiss company in 1997 to install a green roof on Chicago's City Hall. To date, Roofscapes has installed 124 roofs, including a 230,000-square-foot roof on the Howard Hughes medical building in Dulles, Va. His roofs have even held up in the recession; this year's sales are projected at $800,000.
Co-founders and Senior Partner, The Sexton Company A little-known consulting business with a grass-roots mission has spurred the Philadelphia Eagles to serve beer in corn-based cups and plant a forest in the middle of Philly. The Los Angeles-based The Sexton Company, which specializes in helping companies find the most marketable ways to advertise their socially conscious initiatives, is now turning to their biggest project yet -- morphing the second-largest utility company in the world, National Grid, into a green machine. "We work with companies that have the opportunity to really move the needle in our culture," says co-founder Tim Sexton.
Founder, Satori Medical Steven Lash set up San Diego-based Satori Medical International Centers of Excellence in 7 countries including Costa Rica, India and Turkey. The epiphany for outsourcing cost-effective health care came to Lash when he learned roughly 17 percent of employers now offered health reimbursement accounts, which lets employees pay into a tax-deductible fund that employees can tap to pay for health-care costs. According to Lash, "If they decided to have the operation at a Satori Center, they can travel with a partner and have no co-pay. Turns out to be $40,000 in savings. Everybody wins."
Co-founder, Namaste Solar When Colorado passed a sweeping energy bill that called for a massive investment in alternatives, Blake Jones, a 35-year-old engineer, saw it as his calling to return to the U.S. after relocating to Nepal for work. Namaste Solar, which Jones co-founded with Ray Tuomey (pictures), is now Colorado's leading installer of solar photovoltaic systems. The company's impressive resume now boasts 700 installations including units for the governor, a senator and a congressman and revenue boosts by 100 percent every year of operation. Jones also had the honor of introducing President Obama last February, when he signed the Economic Recovery Plan.
CEO, Plastic Logic The way we read may change by 2010 thanks to Plastic Logic founders Henning Sirringhaus and Sir Richard Friend. The two Cambridge University professors have developed an innovative touchscreen that have some media outlets calling their Plastic Logic Reader a killer to Amazon's Kindle. The wireless device will be able to link your Reader to PDFs, Microsoft Word and its partners USA Today, Financial Times and Zinio with up-to-date articles on a durable plastic screen and high contrast reflective display. In the future, Plastic Logic hopes to add a color screen and video capabilities to the Reader, but for now, they're content to just lighten everyone's briefcase.
Founder, Firewire Sufboards Firewire Surfboards is hoping to have carved out a niche with a board that suggests new ways of riding waves. The featherweight product is made of bamboo and carbon, and uses a computer-aided, eco-friendly lamination process that owner and founder Mark Price says is 50 times less toxic than the traditional board. "When Firewire came on the scene, it was disruptive to technology," Price says. Its capabilities were on display when teen surfing sensation Dusty Payne won the Kustom Aire Strike best-aerial contest after shooting off a wave and spinning 360 degrees in the air while riding a Firewire board, and when Firewire's signature rider Taj Burrow rode his Firewire to a No. 2 world ranking in 2007.
Founder, Pet Holdings, Inc. "Pet Holdings basically makes people happy for five minutes every day," says Ben Huh, founder of Pet Holdings, Inc. Not a humble goal for a company that boasts network-wide totals of 170 million page views a month and annual revenue in the millions. As you might expect from a guy who saw opportunity in posting silly pictures of cats with misspelled captions on URLs like icanhascheezeburger.com, he has a nontraditional view of how to run a business. But some things do remain traditional. "I learned how to keep costs low and make sure that whatever commitment you make to employees, you keep," says Huh. "No matter how strange or ridiculous a business looks, those fundamentals still need to be there."
Russell Simmons made his mark as the inventor of hip-hop entrepreneurialism and by identifying woefully underserved markets--in music, film, television, jewelry, fashion and even banking--and then creating businesses precisely tailored to those needs. Now he's targeting what he calls "the urban graduate"; educated members of the hip-hop generation who are officially too mature for Rocawear or even Phat Farm, which Simmons sold in 2004 for $114 million. Simmons is a serial entrepreneur in the truest sense--with both failed and successful ventures. His model has been followed by many others, including Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z.
Founder and CEO, Tony Hawk, Inc. Tony Hawk got his first skateboard when he was 9-years-old, turned pro at 14 and launched his first business in 1999. With Tony Hawk branded skateboards, clothes, shoes, bicycles, video games and a best-selling biography, Hawk has become the highest paid action sports athlete in the world.
Founder and CEO, New Belgium Kim Jordan started New Belgium 18 years ago in her basement. Now the Colorado-based microbrewery grosses nearly $100 million annually. Jordan believes the secret to New Belgium's success is maintaining the heart of a startup, a company culture centered on sustainability, collaboration and employees being emotionally vested. Based on a 13.4 percent growth rate over the past five years, New Belgium's strategy seems to be working and has made it arguably one of the biggest microbreweries in the U.S.