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They are the mad scientists, the game-changers, the contrarians. Whatever you choose to call them, they represent a new economy driven not by products and profits, but rather by people willing to take a chance on a new idea and make it happen. They are the innovators, moguls of the entreprenurial economy.
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.
"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.
Tony Hawk got his first skateboard when he was nine 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.
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.
Inspiration hit Rick Alden on a chairlift, during a snowboarding trip in 2001. The iPod had just been introduced, but none of the headphones were designed to appeal to the iPod-toting action-sports crowd. It was time to change the game. Skullcandy launched in 2003 with a line of headphones and earbuds in bright colors and skater-boy patterns. The demand was immediate, but the production? Not so much. Factories weren't willing to take risks on a newcomer. "The first year, we had to pay 100 percent of our costs upfront," he says. Things got easier after that, and Alden, now 45, is riding high. 2008 revenue topped $86 million, and 2009 was expected to reach $120 million.
Ask Kelly Giard, founder and CEO of Clean Air Lawn Care, how he turned a part-time project into the nation's first sustainable lawn-care franchise, and he'll tell you it had a lot to do with timing: "We landed on the front end of the green movement, and it immediately took off." The idea of tending lawns with organic soil treatment and quiet electric-powered equipment struck a chord with people in his hometown, Fort Collins, Colo., and soon after, points beyond. "At least 5 percent of pollution is caused by gas-powered maintenance equipment," Giard says, "even though this is one of the last dirty frontiers in America that can be easily solved. I think people are seeing that."
The idea for 3SecondReceipts came to Bradley Ericson when he noticed the appalling amount of waste generated by paper receipts on campus. "The average lifespan of a receipt is three seconds, so I wanted to find a way to digitize them." His system is aimed at universities (for now) and will link transactions to a student's ID card, itemize the data and store them on the school server for students to access and download. Revenue was around $50,000 in 2009, with four times that estimated for this year. In 2011, growth could be "exponential." After that? His sights are set on partnering with a credit card, bank or major company to break into the retail market.
Apple may have popularized the app store concept, but the company did not invent it. The pioneers of the application distribution segment include GetJar, an independent app sales portal founded in 2004 by Lithuanian-born serial entrepreneur Ilja Laurs. With roughly 57,000 applications contributed by about 350,000 registered developers, the GetJar catalog yields about 60 million downloads per month, up from 15 million monthly a year ago and second in volume only to the App Store.
James Stewart is a new breed of entrepreneurial winemaker--capitalizing on sudden surpluses of top-quality wines and grapes, producing better wine at lower prices and potentially remaking the California wine industry along the way. "Now we have to watch who else is going to jump," he says. "I adapted early to the changes, but now everyone will come out to take advantage of the opportunities. Really great wine is everywhere."
There's no false modesty about it--Fabrice Penot wanted to start a revolution with Le Labo, the fragrance company he co-founded in 2006. How could he not? For starters, he didn't want the small, boutique brand to do any advertising. Then Penot insisted on limiting distribution to his own stores and a handful of exclusive perfume counters. On top of that, he refused to keep stock on the shelf, instead making each store a kind of chic lab experience: a cool, minimalist space where ingredients are blended together on the spot, poured into plain glass bottles, wrapped in a brown paper package and custom labeled like a science project, with the date, scent and name of the buyer. Today, just four years later, Le Labo has grown into a $4.5 million a year fragrance brand.
Yvon Chouinard has no problem being first. At 26, he made the first ascent of Yosemite Valley's Muir Wall, a 2,900-foot rock face in California that took eight days to conquer with unsecured ropes and some hand-forged pitons. Chouinard takes the same approach with Patagonia, the outdoor gear and clothing business he founded in 1974. The company turned direct-mail catalogs into good reading in the '70s, and last year, began releasing interactive and beautifully photographed online catalogs for its fishing and surf lines. Decades before businesses embraced the green movement, Patagonia spearheaded campaigns to use eco-friendly materials and fabrics in its clothing and pioneered sustainable manufacturing practices. The result? While most of the world was grappling with the Great Recession, Patagonia had its two best years ever. Sales at the 1,265-person company stood at $315 million in 2009, and Chouinard--still the sole owner--says they're still growing. This year they're expected to be near $340 million.
After 15 years in the direct-mail and printing industries in New Orleans, Shawn Burst knew that the most effective direct-mail campaigns have a good offer and a good mailing list. But he also knew that even the best lacked strong customer engagement and truly measurable results. What Burst and his Dukky partners developed is, simply, a souped-up lead-generation device. It makes print advertising trackable, and it lets marketers watch the progress of their campaigns in real time. And by adding social media, it can make the despised coupon-in-the-mailbox a full-on, viral-marketing phenomenon. In January, Dukky launched the first version of its software platform. Within months, it had more than 100 clients, including Chik-fil-A restaurants and Stein Mart department stores. It monitored their campaigns in real time and collected detailed information about their customers (including e-mail address, birthday and gender). It orchestrated one campaign so effectively, the response rate was an unheard-of 280 percent--with no additional investment.
The Ace Hotel brand is so cool, it even has its own special-edition Converse high tops. Alex Calderwood didn't break the bank creating it, either. He financed the first hotel for less than $2 million, through an equal mix of debt and investor and personal money. Four hit hotels later, it's clear Calderwood has discovered a way to engineer the vibe of a lifestyle brand, complete with product collaborations, agreements with local vendors and partnerships with independent artists. Most recently, he collaborated with three independent film directors associated with the social media website Massify, providing the New York Ace as a location for three short films--a genius marketing ploy that cost next to nothing.
In the early '80s, he left his post as director of product marketing at Apple Computers to start Electronic Arts, the video game giant known for mega-hits like Madden NFL, The Sims and Rock Band. In 2003, he rounded up some venture capital ($44 million to date) and founded Digital Chocolate. The private company now employs more than 300 workers around the globe, but compared with EA's thousands, it means Hawkins is back to being one of the little guys. Digital Chocolate's 2010 progress: 50 million-plus iPhone downloads last year, almost 10 million users on Facebook and cracking the top five list of game developers in number of users (alongside Zynga, Playdom, Crowdstar and EA).
If Richard Branson has nine lives, he's on at least his fourth or fifth. He has attempted to navigate the Atlantic in a powerboat, cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon and leap into thin air on a skydiving expedition. The boat sank, the balloon caught on fire and, during his skydiving freefall, Branson pulled the wrong release tag, jettisoning his parachute. He's a high roller gambling with the biggest stake of all: his life. Yet somehow he always comes out alive -- and ahead. He's not only the closest thing we have to a real James Bond, he's also living proof that big risks do pay off. Parlaying his daredevil approach for life to the business world, he's built the Virgin brand to encompass approximately 200 companies spanning dozens of countries and industries, and a net worth valued at $5 billion.