About to enroll in law school at American University in 1986, Mary Naylor saw an article about a California woman who had started a concierge service for office buildings and had, Mary says, "a lightning bolt moment."
Concierge services seemed like the perfect business for Washington, with its stressed-out professionals. So, at 23, Mary put off law school, moved back in with her parents in McLean (after some convincing), borrowed $2,000 from them and started cold-calling building owners. Her pitch: to offer tenants errand-running services for such things as dry cleaning and theater tickets.
"I never had any plans to go into business, ever," she says. "It was just a fluke."
The company she started, Capitol Concierge, became a major player in the office-building concierge business in the Washington area. It also led to Mary's second venture in the late 1990s, VIPdesk, which offers concierge services to customers of national companies such as MasterCard and luxury automakers. It's that business that has exploded recently, and the companies together gross $23 million in annual sales.
Now, Mary says, she is finally in the position she has worked so hard for: Were she to sell the company, she says, she would likely get a multimillion-dollar payout. "Was I hoping for that someday? Absolutely."
It has taken years of marathon weeks and personal sacrifice. Mary started Capitol Concierge by persuading local building owners to replace their front desk attendants with her concierge staff for an annual fee of about $40,000, which cost the building owners only slightly more but created happier tenants.
Within a few years, Mary presided over concierge services for 85 buildings. She and her employees scrambled around the city picking up dry cleaning, theater tickets and the like. She made $100,000 in a good year, not much for a company president. "But I was having the time of my life," she recalls.
During the tech boom, Mary was intrigued by brand-new businesses raising millions of dollars, and she wanted in. She had inquiries from national companies interested in her concierge services, so she hired someone to run Capitol Concierge, and she raised $12 million from venture capital investors to launch VIPdesk.
At first, Mary built several call centers across the country, with cubicles and low-wage staff. But high-end credit card customers wanted someone more "worldly" to plan their vacations and kids' birthday parties.
So Mary switched to a home-based model, using older, often college-educated concierges who wanted the perks of working from home, anywhere in the country, and could follow strict guidelines, such as no barking dogs. Well-educated women who have stepped away from careers to care for their children and want to work part time from home are common in Mary's workforce of 450.
This model helped the business take off, with 62 current clients. Mary's typical corporate account is $500,000 a year, she says. VIPdesk has also started handling pure customer service calls for clients such as Eddie Bauer. With this home-based concept, "the true benefits are really being picked up and noted out in corporate America," she says.
Mary, who lives in Mount Vernon, would like to sell VIPdesk and do something less consuming than a startup, such as sitting on advisory boards or getting involved with women entrepreneurs.
Of course, at age 44 and married three years, Mary is venturing into the ultimate startup: She is pregnant with her first child.
Did you have a sudden brainstorm that propelled you to change career paths? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.