Sunday, September 28, 2008

A San Diego entrepreneur has found a perfect business for frustrating times: Selling customers breakables to fling against walls.

Link of the day - How Changed The Domain Game For Good

When Sarah Lavely gets angry, she likes to break things. Not all the time, but on days when everything seems to be going wrong, she has been known to throw some plates against a wall. Fortunately, she has an easy outlet: Lavely is the founder of Sarah's Smash Shack, a San Diego shop where customers pay to smash tableware like dinner plates, wine glasses, intricately lined sashimi plates, brightly colored vases and goblets.

The store's pristine white shelves are filled with china just waiting to be broken.

"I picked pretty things because people are coming in here to do something they aren't supposed to do," Lavely says. "And breaking stuff like this is a little taboo."

The smashing is done in special soundproofed "break rooms" where customers - outfitted in coveralls, boots, gloves and a helmet - stand behind a chest-high barrier and hurl breakables at a stainless steel-covered wall. All the broken glass is donated to schools and art programs throughout the region.

Lavely, 38, is a former veterinarian. She began venting her frustrations on breakables as a child - she started with Christmas ornaments, then escalated to potted plants. As an angst-ridden teenager she targeted telephones and, once, a window.

"During my divorce," she says, "I broke a lot of stuff on my driveway."

That was when the idea for the Smash Shack came to her. Lavely hit an emotional rock bottom and woke up one day thinking: I really want to go break some stuff.

"I wished there was someplace I could go and just do that, just go nuts," she says. "I was sure other people felt like that at times, and I thought I should open a shop where you could do that."

Last November Lavely approached her friend Ed King, 34, a former veterinary technician, about partnering with her to start the business. After start-up costs of around $200,000, the store opened August 1.

As pioneers in the smash-for-cash business, Lavely and King have had to start completely from scratch. Greek restaurants aside, there are few if any places like Lavely's in the U.S.

"We had no business model to follow, no precedent, no place where you come only to smash things," she says. "We had to figure out what we needed - a room big enough to contain broken glass - how far is a safe distance from the smash wall, and what kind of safety equipment we would need."

In February, Lavely signed a lease for a two-story building in San Diego's trendy Gaslamp district. With the help of her husband Teague Hunziker, 35, a professional photographer and graphic designer, she and King sound-and-safety-proofed the break rooms, researched how different kinds of glass break, and installed sheets of heavy gauge stainless steel on the smash walls. The rooms are also equipped with sound systems that allow customers to hook up their iPod or MP3 player.

Ceramic white dinner plates are Lavely's biggest seller, because they require a strong toss and break violently against the wall. Patrons order from a menu that includes items like The House Special (15 plates in 15 minutes for $45), the Six Shooter (six rapid-fire wine glasses for $12) or the Juggernaut (two large jugs for $12.) Value seekers can opt for the Mystery Box: 10 assorted smashables for $25. If you'd like to smash a person, Lavely allows the next best thing - a photo inserted into a very breakable glass frame.

Since the shop opened business has been steadily increasing, with each night, on average, busier than the last. Despite consumers' tendency to be budget conscious in a down economy, Lavely is getting calls from groups of people who want to come to her shop from as far away as Los Angeles. Economic uncertainty might actually be driving business, as customers smash their way through the frustrations of high gas prices, a slumping housing market and rising unemployment.

"We leave Sharpies in the break rooms and people will write on a plate before they throw it. I don't read what they write, but when those customers are finished you can see they feel pretty emotional," Lavely says. "But that's why they came, to throw their frustrations against a wall and walk out the door feeling good."

On a recent Wednesday night, four middle-aged women came in to celebrate several birthdays at once. As they filed into the largest break room, where several piles of white plates sat waiting to be destroyed, they were giggly and nervous. But once the music started, the women began throwing plates - on which they had scribbled angry notes about home lives, work frustrations and teenage children - like Frisbees. They screeched with delight at each satisfying crack and splatter.

When they emerged from the room, breathless and exhilarated, participant Beth Daugh said, "That was intense, really cathartic."

She took off her helmet and shook out her hair, her face red and damp. "Writing message on the plates was the best part. Great therapy."

Rent-A-Kitchen Business Model Proves To Be Big Success

A well-heeled business

Try A Mag Business Idea

Weird Online Businesses - Lightning Photography

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A well-heeled business

Link of the day - 10 weird facts about sleep and sleep disorders

In fall 2006, Monica Murphy of Old Greenwich and Becca Brown had everything going for them.

The respective Georgetown and Harvard University alumnae were in their last year of business school at Columbia University, with jobs lined up at Goldman Sachs upon graduation.

There was just one problem: Their stilettos kept sinking into grass and getting caught in subway grates. So the friends launched SoleMates High Heelers and never looked back.

SoleMates resemble upside-down golf tees and attach to the bottom of each heel, increasing its surface area and thus decreasing a woman's chance of sinking, sticking and slipping on tricky terrain.

Their Web site,, launched July 4 and the plastic marvels are already sold in more than 10 boutiques across the country at $11.95 a pair. A "mini" style for skinny heels will debut within the next few weeks.

"My high school prom was the first time I thought about it," Brown said at Murphy's childhood home off Maple Avenue. "My heels were getting stuck in the ground when we went outside to take photos. It was pretty awkward, and I realized that it was this ongoing frustration."

It wasn't until the Philadelphia native took a graduate course in business enterprise, however, that she and Murphy channeled their frustration into a business plan for SoleMates.

"It was our final exam," said Murphy. "You could either take the final or design a business plan."

Brown said the experience forced her to critically examine her long-standing idea and, once it was all down on paper, the "whys" outweighed the "why nots" -- even if it meant eventually resigning from Goldman Sachs. "We weren't taking the decision lightly," she said.

"Clearly, there are great risks associated with giving up great jobs," added Murphy. "But it never really occurred to us that we wouldn't succeed."

The pair did encounter roadblocks, however -- like soliciting engineering advice from the male-dominated industry.

"A lot of the people we encountered were really supportive," said Brown, "but they'd never experienced the problem first-hand. They'd never worn heels."

It took the partners about a year to find the help they needed, as well as an industrial plastics firm that wasn't looking to take advantage of them.

"Some of the quotes we got from injection plastics were ridiculous," said Murphy.

Now that they've got a solid product, Murphy, who recently moved back to Old Greenwich from New York, and Brown, who lives in Chelsea, are spending their days marketing SoleMates.

"We're pretty much glued to our computers," Murphy said, "answering e-mails."

"Pounding the pavement," said Brown, who is often stopped in Manhattan by women wanting to know about her "New York City heel protectors."

"I've given them away on the street," she said of SoleMates, which can last up to several months.

Abigail Fox, owner of Abigail DeG. Fox Designs at 187 Sound Beach Ave., said she has sold SoleMates right out of her bag to curious strangers, though her store is Greenwich's exclusive carrier.

"We've already sold out three times," said Fox. "People have ordered them for weddings and a lot of people from yacht clubs have come in and said they're good for avoiding getting stuck in the grates in the dock."

"We're so happy," said Brown, who hopes that someday SoleMates will come with every new pair of shoes.

How two brothers founded more than a dozen companies and made hundreds of millions along the way

Freeshipping.Org Success Story

Buying and selling usused brands

10 Books You Have To Read If You Believe Humans Are Rational

Digital animation entrepreneurs make a legal killing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Weird Businesses - Lightning Photography

Link of the day - 10 weird facts about sleep and sleep disorders

When a cool breeze breaks the desert heat and the faint scent of mesquite wafts through Tucson, photographers Jeff Smith and Tom Willett hit the road to chase lightning. The duo drive their pickup beneath dark thunderheads, shooting hundreds of photos during the summer monsoons that rumble over Arizona's Sonoran Desert and reach their climax in September.

"Super-close bolts of lightning will give you a reality check," says Willett. "When the antenna on your car starts to sizzle, that's when you know it's time to get out of there as fast as you can."

Smith, 44, and Willett, 49, operate independent photography businesses in Tucson, but they merged their interest in weather imagery to form a stock-photography company called Lightningsmiths. They pool resources for their Web site and marketing campaigns, and they offer an extensive portfolio of images to clients that include Omega watches, Timberland, the Weather Channel, and the Swiss and British postal services, which have used Lightningsmiths images on stamps and posters.

How two brothers founded more than a dozen companies and made hundreds of millions along the way

Freeshipping.Org Success Story

Buying and selling usused brands

10 Books You Have To Read If You Believe Humans Are Rational

Digital animation entrepreneurs make a legal killing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How two brothers founded more than a dozen companies and made hundreds of millions along the way

Link of the day - Free $500 Sears Gift Card

Two of Chicago's leading entrepreneurs happen to be brothers. But it's a good thing they didn't actually grow up together. Howard Tullman, 14 years older, already had left the nest when Glen, the baby of the family, persuaded their mother to let him cut a hole in the roof of the family's New Providence (N.J.) home to test his ideas on solar energy. Mom never said no. But Howard, born bossy, wouldn't have let Glen experiment on his own. "He would have wanted a bigger hole," says Glen. Admits Howard: "I was an overpowering presence."

These days, the brothers communicate regularly, often e-mailing each other in the wee hours, when they're not focused on running their own businesses—Glen at Allscripts Healthcare Solutions (MDRX), an electronic records and medical software outfit, and Howard at Flashpoint, The Academy of Media Arts & Sciences, a for-profit digital arts school in Chicago. The two share more than chief executive titles. They're creative and competitive, and in their off hours both have developed a love of magic.

Anyone who wonders how entrepreneurs come to be should consider the Tullmans. The same ambition that drove Howard to start CCC Information Services in 1980 and later head 11 other companies rubbed off on Glen, who grew up hearing nonstop about Howard's successes at college, law school, and in business, and went on to run three companies himself after working for Howard. "If you've ever played a simple game with either of these guys, you would think it's life and death—and it is for them," says Warren, their brother, who works in Denver as Allscripts senior vice-president for sales. "At a recent Thanksgiving, they were competing on carving the turkey."

Those who've known Howard for years say that actually, he's mellowed. But his hard edge still surfaces, even in his uniform of T-shirt and jeans, and he's known to bark orders to get things done his way. It's his ability to think strategically and make myriad decisions quickly that make him ideally suited to startups. "He is very passionate and decisive. That's what makes him successful," says T. Scott Leisher, executive vice-president at Allscripts, who worked with both Tullmans at CCC.

Glen, who prefers a traditional charcoal gray suit, has a gentler approach. "Glen is a strong decision maker, but the people feel they have a voice and they have an impact on the decisions," Leisher says. "He listens."

Both brothers have prospered. Glen, 48, is merging 1,155-employee Allscripts with Misys, a London multinational. Misys will offer its health-care division plus $330 million in cash for a 54.5% stake in the united company, with Glen at the helm. Howard, 63, who sold CCC for almost $100 million, is CEO of Flashpoint Academy, which opened last September. "The energy is incredible with both of them," says David Mullen, the chief financial officer of Navteq (NVT), who knows them from their CCC days. "Self-confidence is not lacking in them, either."

The Tullmans credit each other. Glen learned strategy from Howard, while inspiring him to work harder on consensus building and empowering employees. Howard is trying to do that at his new school, which will have a staff of more than 40 and enroll 250 to 300 students this fall. That's double last year's figures. Howard is targeting revenue of $8 million to $10 million for the 2008-09 year, up from $2 million to $3 million in its inaugural year.

Neither brother set out to become an entrepreneur. Howard started off as an attorney in a law firm but after ten years didn't think he was learning anything new. But he had made a boatload of money and thought computers could transform auto-insurance claims processing. He rented an 8-by-10-foot office and started writing the system diagrams that got CCC off the ground. "Building your dream and your vision into a reality is an incomparable sensation," he says.

Glen became involved in startups at his brother's urging. Howard invited Glen to Chicago in 1983, ostensibly to hang with family. But Glen, who had recently returned from a fellowship at Oxford University in England, soon discovered that Howard had set up meetings with CCC's directors about his coming on board. Glen did so, and the experience whetted his appetite for a management career. It also brought the brothers closer together. "We were a great complement," Glen says. "Howard didn't have a lot of patience and wasn't as focused on execution as I was. It made for a great working relationship."

Both men were born in St. Louis, to a women's apparel salesman and a stay-at-home mother. In 1959, when Glen was an infant and Howard a high school sophomore, parents Ervin and Jeanette packed up the kids and moved to Highland Park, Ill. Nine years later, Dad got promoted and the family moved to the suburbs of New York. The brothers say their father's enterprising spirit and mother's can-do attitude and perseverance explain their career paths. Warren recalls that when they lived in a heavily Republican part of New Jersey, their mother repeatedly ran as a Democrat for city council in New Providence. "She lost every time but never gave up," he says.

Meanwhile, with Howard at college, Glen had inherited his oldest brother's magic kit. The two say that performing magic showed them how to deal with business mistakes, as some of their tricks invariably flopped. The practice also taught them the art of salesmanship and public presentations.

After founding CCC in 1980, Howard took it public in 1983 and left in 1989, when he sold it to a private company. Since leaving CCC, Howard has dashed from founding a venture capital firm, a CD-ROM video game maker, a marketing company, and an online music site, among others. In 2003 he raised $60 million in 90 days to relocate and rejuvenate an ailing Kendall College, turning it into a state-of-the-art culinary school in Chicago by cutting out noncore programs such as athletics and law enforcement. Then, while still Kendall's chairman, he launched Experiencia, a for-profit outfit that introduces disadvantaged school kids to careers.

After the sale, Glen stayed on at CCC, moved up to president and chief operating officer, and helped lift sales to $100 million in 1994. He then become CEO of another startup, Enterprise Systems. When he came on board, the health-care information management company had revenue of $20 million and 150 employees. Three years later, with sales of $70 million and a staff of 250, Glen sold Enterprise to a rival for $250 million.

Glen's next CEO gig was at Allscripts, which was then a 10-year-old company in a rough patch. The turnaround took several years. But in 2007, after a series of acquisitions, Allscripts netted $20.6 million on $281.9 million in revenue. The merger with Misys Healthcare Systems should keep Glen on the fast track. Based on 2007 figures, the combined companies would have had roughly $85 million in earnings on sales of $720 million and 3,600 employees, triple Allscript's current headcount. The deal is expected to close before fall.

Howard gives himself seven years, max, at Flashpoint, whose 75,000 square feet of soundproof taping rooms, movie sets, and computer labs excite even the most disengaged students. "I like to stay through the point when the day-to-day management can be turned over to people who are better suited at it temperamentally," he says.

Glen hasn't lost the entrepreneurial bug, either. His mother, who died in 2006, would be proud to know that the hole he cut in the roof 35 years ago for a solar water heater wasn't for naught. Moonlighting from his day job, Glen launched SoCore Energy in January to provide solar energy to businesses. As he put it: "Some ideas take time to incubate."

Digital animation entrepreneurs make a legal killing.

Sneaker Art As A Business

Green School As A Business

Paper Clip Profiteer Story

Pickup service for composting

Becoming Antipreneur

Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital animation entrepreneurs make a legal killing.

Link of the day - How Changed The Domain Game For Good

An animated video shows a woman jogging by the side of a road - until a wayward car sends her flying into the grass. In another, a motorcycle crashes into a truck parked in the bicycle lane at twilight. In a third, the pipes in an attic tilt, causing moisture to collect and creating mold that spreads spores through the house and into the inhabitants' lungs.

You won't be seeing those cheery flicks at your local multiplex, but you might in a courtroom. Legal Art Works, based in Jacksonville, produced them to help its clients win - or stave off - multimillion-dollar litigation payouts.

Animation has long served as a powerful tool in the courtroom. What better way to explain a complex series of events to a jury? The cost, however, used to be prohibitive for all but the most high-profile firms. Now cheaper, faster computing power has led to a litigation-animation boom.

According to the American Bar Association, 25% of firms with 50 to 99 attorneys used the technology in 2007, vs. 4% in 2006. More than 20 small businesses currently provide one-stop shopping for accident reconstruction, medical illustration, and animation services. Legal Art Works charges between $5,000 and $20,000 for its videos, 25% of which is pure profit. Founded in 2003 by Jeff Davis, a former medical illustrator, the company's revenues have doubled every year, hitting $500,000 in 2007.

Today's legal animations are extraordinarily sophisticated compared with their predecessors.

"A red rectangle sliding across the screen used to represent a fire truck," says Davis, 36. The latest works feature 3-D computer graphics that rival those in Shrek (if Shrek were under indictment). Typical subjects include patent-infringement cases, medical malpractice claims, and serious highway accidents.

"Fender-benders don't really make it to our door," says Davis. "Our assignments tend to be more interesting - a guy falling from the balcony of a million-dollar high-rise, a car flying off a racetrack."

The fun factor aside, legal animation is a serious business. Get the slightest detail wrong and your movie could be thrown out of court - or even lose your client's case. Courts scrutinize all video evidence, and if your animation claims to simulate an actual event rather than a generic process, it will be held to an even higher standard. Says Elan Weinreb, a litigation associate at the Kaye Scholer firm in New York: "You have to go to the accident scene and measure the tire marks."

To ensure precision, legal-animation producers hire experts from a variety of fields, including physics, architecture, and mathematics. Demonstratives, a $3-million-a-year legal-animation business based in Ames, Iowa, is the brainchild of a group of scientists.

"Everyone here has a technical bent," says co-founder Dan Krueger, a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. To recreate accidents, staff analysts painstakingly sift the evidence, then pass their instructions on to animators and medical illustrators, who produce the video. The process can take anywhere from a week to a couple of months.

Emotional weight

Experience has shown that juries can be influenced by subtle visual cues.

"If we're representing a fracture for the plaintiff, we might add texture and reddishness, to represent pain," says Davis. "But if we're defending a doctor against a similar malpractice, we'd use more sterile hues."

Adding audio of taped depositions also boosts the emotional weight of the animations. "The jury steps into your client's shoes," says Weinreb. "Once they do that, you have them eating out of your hand."

Still, experts such as Weinreb advise businesses to avoid creating works that are overtly manipulative. According to the Federal Rules of Evidence, visual aids with certain emotional impact - crime scene photos, bloody images - carry a "danger of unfair prejudice" and may be thrown out of court.

In some instances an entire case may be lost over an animation. Last April an appeals court in Chicago threw out a $17 million verdict granted in 2006 to the husband of Dorota Spyrka, who had suffered a fatal blood clot. The judges ruled that an animation had been admitted into evidence that claimed to be an exact simulation of what had happened to Spyrka. In fact, they wrote, it was an animation of a generic pulmonary embolism.

Opposing lawyers will do whatever they can to discredit video evidence, of course. Demonstratives' science-savvy employees are called regularly to testify in court as to the accuracy of animations by other companies, and they have caused several videos to be thrown out.

"One showed a car with locked brakes skidding around a curve," recalls Krueger. That one was easy to dismiss, he says: "Such a car would skid in a straight line." And if having work thrown out because of the testimony of rival animators isn't humiliating enough, there's the possibility of defeat by imitation.

"The other side can introduce a counter-animation to disprove you," Weinreb says.

Despite such risks, the rewards can be great. In Sprint-Nextel's (S, Fortune 500) 2005 lawsuit against Vonage, Demonstratives created an animation explaining how Vonage's (VG) VoIP technology infringed on Sprint's patents. That trial yielded an $80 million verdict for Sprint. Jurors said afterward that without the animation, they would never have understood the technical issues in question.

"Animation is a growing market," says Mark McGory, Demonstratives' general counsel. "More and more lawyers appreciate that they need this tool to persuade a judge and jury."

The vast majority of Legal Art Works animations never see a courtroom. Instead, a settlement is reached, usually in favor of Davis's clients.

"When we show those on the other side a good animation, they'll say, 'I don't want the jury to see that,'" says Davis.

As the technology becomes more pervasive, he believes that both sides of every case will bring animations to the table and that more legal-animation companies will spring up. But with a market of more than a million lawyers practicing in the U.S., Davis isn't afraid of the competition, as long as Legal Arts' work is the better of every double feature.

Buying and selling usused brands

Sneaker Art As A Business

Young Millionaires Success Stories

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Buying and selling usused brands

Link of the day - Free $500 Sears Gift Card

In a standard custom logo assignment, the average graphic designer develops six concepts for evaluation by the business owner client. Only one of those will be used, leaving five creative logos to be stored away—and probably never seen again. Enter IncSpring, a beta site that aims to help designers with ideas and business owners seeking same find each other for mutual gain.

Launched last month, Texas-based IncSpring is a virtual marketplace linking graphic designers and businesses interested in corporate logos, brands and corporate identities. Designers can upload brand concepts onto the site for the perusal of entrepreneurs, corporations and businesses without middlemen or agency fees; they also retain complete control over their pricing. Potential buyers, on the other hand, can search by industry, colour or name, evaluating and even assessing market reactions to the designs they see via IncSpring's social network, which lets users rate and provide public feedback on submitted ideas. Potential customers can also request minor changes to shape a particular design to their individual specifications. When a purchase is made, IncSpring charges a commission of 15 percent, the artist receives the rest and the buyer receives the brand in a ready-to-use digital format. As part of its site launch, IncSpring is currently holding a contest—with a deadline of Sept. 19—offering USD 2,000 in cash and other prizes for designers who submit ideas to the site. Membership on IncSpring is free.

In an industry where only a small proportion of ideas make it through to the finish, IncSpring will undoubtedly give designers a welcome way to capitalize at last on the many hours they put in, whether or not originally for a paying client. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, gain access to a wealth of ideas that wouldn't ordinarily be available. It's a win-win for everyone involved and one to try out—particularly if you happen to be an enterprising Springwise reader on the brink of launching the next big thing! ;-)

Green School As A Business

Paper Clip Profiteer Story

Pickup service for composting

Becoming Antipreneur

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

David Oreck explains how he built a small distribution firm into a vacuum cleaner empire.

Link of the day - How the World's Greatest Salespeople Develop Winning Careers

When the U.S. entered World War II, David Oreck quit college to enlist in the Army Air Corps. At war's end, the idea of returning to class - and Minnesota, his home state - seemed too tame for a young man used to flying B-29 bombers. Instead, he took the first job he was offered: salesman at a Manhattan appliance distributorship.

Sixty years later he is still selling appliances - about $350 million worth each year. The Oreck Corp., which he founded in 1963, has grown to 1,500 employees and 100 company-owned stores - and is profitable. Although Oreck, 84, handed off the CEO title to his son Tom in 1999, he visits the office almost daily to suggest new products and marketing strategies. FSB caught up with him at the original Oreck store near New Orleans, and he told us, in the account that follows, how he became a household name.

When I left the military, the only thing I had ever sold was Saturday Evening Post subscriptions. But in 1946, I managed to land a job in Manhattan with Bruno-New York, then one of the nation's largest appliance distributors. Bruno carried the first automatic washing machine and the first TV sets and was RCA's largest wholesale distributor. The firm also handled Whirlpool (WHR, Fortune 500), which manufactured its own line of vacuums.

After 17 years of working for Bruno, I became head of sales. Then I turned 40 and decided it was time to be my own boss. I was selling the heck out of Whirlpool's vacuums in New York City - at one point our distributorship represented about 30% of the company's vacuum sales. When the president of Whirlpool heard I was looking for the right opportunity, he asked me to be his sole vacuum distributor nationwide, allowing me to run my own independent business.

Of course I accepted, but I quickly realized that the reason Manhattan made up such a big percentage of Whirlpool's sales was that the vacuums weren't doing well anywhere else. It made models for Sears (SHLD, Fortune 500) Roebuck to sell under the Sears label, and didn't want to upset their biggest customer by competing with it. So I suggested that we sell vacuums under another name, and I used my connections with RCA to get permission to brand them as RCA-Whirlpool.

In those days upright vacuums weighed about 20 pounds and filled from the bottom, which meant they had to lift up yesterday's dirt to make room for today's. To combat the problem, Whirlpool tried developing a lighter model that filled from the top.

The idea seemed as if it could be a real competitive advantage. But the pipe clogged and sent dirt everywhere except into the bag. I met with the engineers at Whirlpool, brainstorming ways to fix it. We came up with a solution that worked so well that today my vacuums work on the same principle: The pipe enters the bag via the handle, which is hollow. The result: a vacuum that weighed eight pounds! Whirlpool started manufacturing them just for me.

It didn't take long for competitiors such as Hoover to start swinging. Its salespeople told customers that a lightweight vacuum such as ours would be flimsy - poorly made. Instead of pursuing consumers, I decided to target hotels, which clean miles of carpet a day. That would prove my product was powerful enough for the home.

Around the same time, I heard that a Chicago company, Ozite, had recently invented indoor-outdoor carpet. It had a very low pile and was glued to the floor, which made it durable but nearly impossible to clean. I decided to fly out there unannounced, where I introduced myself to the receptionist. Her desk sat on dirty Ozite carpet.

I had two vacuums under my arm and asked if I could see the president. "Do you have an appointment?" she asked. "If not, you can't see him." I then asked to see the sales manager, and when she refused again, I asked in desperation, "Can I show you my vacuum cleaner?" At that point she just wanted me gone, so she told me to plug it in.

It took me less than a minute to clean the carpet. She wasted no time in paging the president and sales manager! I showed them the clean carpet, and they were astounded - they had been struggling to figure out how to clean it. They asked if I would create a pamphlet to send to dealers. (Today our company does about half its business by mail, online, and phone.)

After a year or so of selling to hotels, I wasn't making enough money to support my family. I had been trying - to no avail - to get my vacuums into Marshall Field's to tap into the consumer market. That's when RCA called and asked if I wanted its New Orleans operation - running an independent distributorship selling radios, records, and TV sets.

At first I thought, "I'm a big shot in New York trying to build my own company. Why would I go anywhere else?" I went to the airport in my heavy coat to catch a flight.

After three or four days of looking at the situation and enjoying the gorgeous weather, it was obvious that I couldn't do any worse than the guy I was replacing - he had the worst performance of any RCA distributorship in the country. I called my wife and kids and said we were moving. My brother managed my vacuum startup in New York City for two years until I could move it to New Orleans.

So then I was dealing with two businesses at once - distributing RCA products while growing my vacuum venture - when I ran into a snag in 1963. The president of Sears Roebuck, who sat on the board of directors at Whirlpool, decided my mail-order venture was cutting into Sears's business. He persuaded Whirlpool to stop making vacuums for me. It was a huge disappointment - the previous year I had sold about 100,000 RCA-Whirlpool vacuums. But at least I could finally put my own name on the product! I quit distributing RCA products and launched the Oreck Corp.

After I found a manufacturer in Germany that could build my product, I started to think seriously about marketing. We did well with mail order, but our customers wanted to try before buying. Selling through distributors wasn't an option - there wasn't a way to guarantee uniform-quality customer service. In the early 1970s I opened the store we're sitting in now.

Today we do about half our business through 500 Oreck stores, 80% of which are franchises. We opened the stores to shorten the lines of communication between us and customers, observing what they liked and didn't like. I call myself a "screwdriver engineer." I have no formal training, but I consider myself mechanically minded. I'm always trying to come up with ways to fix things. For example, when folks complained about not being able to clean well in corners, I thought up "whiskers" on the ends of the roller brushes that could reach into tight spots, loosening dirt.

If we couldn't fix your broken Oreck vacuum while you waited, we'd send you home with a loaner. But we also serviced other brands, and if we couldn't fix them on the spot, we'd give out a loaner - an Oreck loaner. And often customers liked it so much that they didn't want the old one back!

That's when our brand really started to stand for something. I wanted happy customers, and if that meant giving them their money back, so be it. Folks can still try our vacuum for a month, and if they don't like it, we'll take it back. We don't sell the cheapest product on the market - you pay $300 for a basic upright, compared with the $200 you'd spend on a Eureka - but price is only one component of value. Customers want value. If they have confidence in your brand, they'll pay a premium for it.

It's important to me to know I'm doing the right thing not only for customers, but for employees also. When Hurricane Katrina hit our factory in Long Beach, Miss., we brought in temporary housing, doctors, and nurses. Nobody missed a paycheck.

Unfortunately we weren't able to rebuild the facility - the location was vulnerable to another catastrophic storm. In 2006 we moved to a new site in Cookville, Tenn. It was an unhappy decision, but it was the most prudent one.

I'm no longer a company officer, but Oreck is still my hobby, my work, my everything. Besides, I like to vacuum! I use my own product almost every day. And you know, I still notice little things that could be changed or improved.

Grilling on your backyard dragon

Oyster Bamboo's Fly Rods Success Story

Have Knife, Will Travel

Sneaker Art As A Business

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Beat The Slump

Link of the day - Who Is Shawn Casey? Is He For Real?

Move faster and take more risks. Those are lessons that Vibrant Technologies CEO Jennifer Larson learned during the dotcom bust. So when she saw the beginnings of an economic slowdown last year, Larson was ready to pounce by acquiring new inventory for her company, which sells used IT equipment.

The Minnetonka, Minn., firm earmarked $1 million for a buying spree, scooping up used routers and servers on the cheap as companies began downsizing and selling off unneeded equipment. Increasing her stockpile of goods from $3.5 million to $4.5 million leaves Larson prepared for the crush of IT brokers and other firms looking for refurbished units to outfit their offices at a discount. She is also bolstering staff to 50 from 40 to handle the rising volume of orders and boosting the marketing budget 25%, to $500,000.

As a result, Larson anticipates 2008 revenue of $52 million, up from $45 million last year, and expects sales to explode 40% in 2009.

"I believe our strategy is going to work because I know what our clients are looking for this time," says Larson, 36.

Larson knows that her situation is unique because demand for her products spikes during downturns. But she also knows that just like other small-business owners, if she doesn't innovate and implement smart growth strategies, the slumping economy could crush her. In 2001, Vibrant was inundated with customers but struggled to manage its growth, and the company failed to gain as much as it should have in sales and profit margins.

"I don't want that to happen again, where I feel we are scrambling to help people and working 80 hours a week," Larson says. "I'm too old for that now."

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Sneaker Art As A Business

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Still in beta, UK-based Sneakart offers users the opportunity to customize their sneakers via Sneakskin, a super-thin, flexible, durable and waterproof graphic film that can be applied to white, light-coloured and metallic shoes. Printed with non-toxic ink in the UK, Sneakskin is 100 percent PVC-free and can be peeled off and replaced at will. It's available either in sheets of individual stickers or in 22-by-29-cm sheets of patterns that the user can cut to fit the areas to be covered; either way, one or two sheets is typically enough to customize one pair of shoes, Sneakart says. Sneakart offers a wide variety of patterns and designs ranging in price from about GBP 4.95 to 5.95 per sheet, but users can also create their own artwork and upload it to the site. They can choose either to keep their design private, for their use only, or to make it public and offer it up for the use of others as well. The motivation to go public is considerable: each time a public design is purchased, Sneakart credits the designer's account with 10 percent of the sale price, available either as a credit toward further Sneakart purchases or via direct payment. Sneakskin peels easily off its backing paper for application, and sticks on shoes with regular daily wear for a few months. Sneakart donates 10p from every order it receives to Street Kids International, and it has also offset its 2008 carbon footprint twice over through PURE's renewable energy projects in India, Brazil and China.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Entrepreneurs Find Ways to Make Technology Work With Jewish Sabbath

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The rabbis, scientists and engineers of the Zomet Institute are trying to solve the problems that arise when technology and the Torah collide.

Working from their research facility in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, they create electronic devices — from phones to alarm systems to motorized vehicles — that obey Orthodox Jewish laws about the Sabbath, when even turning an electric current on or off is forbidden.

“We’re trying to combine making a modern Jewish state with age-old Jewish law,” said Dan Marans, executive director of Zomet. That requires both a deep knowledge of Judaism’s legal code, or halacha, and a bit of ingenuity.

“Every day, God gives us things to take advantage of,” Mr. Marans said. “We just have to know how.”

For decades, research groups like Zomet enjoyed a near-monopoly on the kosher gadget industry. They sold most of their inventions to the Israeli government and military.

Now multinationals, Orthodox entrepreneurs and small businesses across the globe are creating rabbinically approved products.

The inventions, which help the world’s more than 1.5 million Orthodox Jews use the conveniences of modern life, are gaining in popularity as manufacturing in Asia keeps prices low and the Internet makes it easier to shop for niche products.

Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, president of Kosher Innovations, based in Toronto, is just one of the entrepreneurs who has benefited. In 2004, Mr. Veffer invented the Kosher Lamp, with a shade that can be twisted to block out the bulb’s light but that does not turn it off.

Mr. Veffer said he has sold “tens of thousands” of the lamps, including a more expensive model and a children’s version shaped like a teddy bear. All of the lamps are manufactured in China.

Kosher Innovations now sells a dozen products, including a lighting device to check produce for insects and a Sabbath-observant alarm clock, in nearly 400 stores from New York to London to Sydney. Mr. Veffer made sure to receive religious certification from prominent rabbinical authorities in each country where his products are sold.

“The Orthodox world is a closely knit community, so if you have something people like, very quickly word spreads like wildfire,” Mr. Veffer said.

But, “the kosher consumer has an influence in the marketplace that goes way beyond actual numbers,” said Dr. Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, based in Baltimore, which certifies as kosher everything from major appliances to food, alcohol and some prescriptions.

For example, Dr. Pollak said, Orthodox Jewish households spend a lot more time, attention and money on their kitchens than other American consumers, which is why 14 major home appliance brands have sought kosher certification from Star-K.

Star-K also monitors some Chinese factories that make kosher products to insure they are complying with Jewish law.

While modern technology was intended to make the chores of daily life less difficult, the proliferation of automatic motors, sensors and lights into more household items has become a growing problem for the strictly observant.

For decades, Orthodox Jews trudged through their houses in a pre-Sabbath ritual of turning off home security systems, taping down the button that turns on the light inside the refrigerator when the door is opened, and lighting a flame to leave burning on the stove so food can be heated.

In the last 10 years, manufacturers like Whirlpool and Viking have put Sabbath mode settings on most of their ovens, refrigerators, and even wine cellars. General Electric introduced its Sabbath mode in 2000, and said the special setting is featured on more than 150 of its wall ovens, ranges and other cooking appliances.

These modes either turn off certain lights, fans and alarms, or use a Jewish legal concept known as “gramma,” or indirect action, to operate the appliance on holy days.

In refrigerators, for example, a built-in delay prevents the compressor from turning on immediately after the door is opened.

Over 750,000 modern and ultra Orthodox Jews live in the United States, mostly in the Northeast, California and Illinois. Israel is home to more than 800,000 modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, with 31 percent of adults over 20 identifying as Orthodox, according to the Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

The community wields considerable political and economic clout, as does Eliyahu Yishai, deputy prime minister and the minister of industry, trade, and labor, who is Orthodox. Last year, the ministry collaborated with religious scholars and the Manufacturers Association of Israel to market Sabbath-friendly products to the global Orthodox community.

The association estimates that the annual potential for worldwide sales of such products is $10 million.

“To be Orthodox today has to be a bit easier than a couple of years ago,” said Yair Shiran, Israel’s Economic Minister to North America, who noted that over 20 products have been developed for the Orthodox consumer, including a Sabbath air-conditioner, coffee machine and alarm system.

“The technology is available, the idea is to just commercialize it for uses in specific communities,” Mr. Shiran said.

Zomet created the metal detectors used to screen worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in a manner that uses electricity in a way not prohibited on the Sabbath. It also developed pens that use ink that disappears after a few days, based on a rabbinic interpretation that only forbids permanent writing, and Sabbath phones, which are dialed in an indirect manner with special buttons and a microprocessor.

According to Mr. Marans, the Israeli army bought 1,000 of these phones in 2007, so that Orthodox soldiers can take part in military operations on the Sabbath and holidays. Hospitals and medical personnel also use these technologies. “Obviously they are needed to protect the country, but we want to limit the desecration of Shabbat as much as possible,” Mr. Marans said.

Mechanized vehicles present similar problems. In the past, religious Jews who were disabled were largely cut off from their community, unable to walk to synagogue or hear prayers.

But Zomet has invented Sabbath-friendly wheelchairs, sound systems and elevators that stop on each floor, and developed a Shabbat scooter with Michigan-based Amigo Mobility International.

Rabbi Herschel Schachter, the head of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in New York City and a Jewish legal expert for the Kosher division of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said that there have been disagreements between Israeli and American rabbis over the permissibility of some Sabbath devices.

He said he has rejected certain inventions because the interpretations of religious law supporting them were too murky, and the products did not address a great need.

Still, he said, “if you make the burden slightly lighter, it’s O.K. The Torah doesn’t want to make life impossible.”

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