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Business Rx: Checking up on last year's entrepreneurs

Monday, January 10, 2011; 30

With the new year under way, we decided to check in with a few of the entrepreneurs we talked to in 2010 to see how their businesses are faring. Some entrepreneurs are building on with their business ideas and others have moved on to different ventures. Here is what they had to say:

The business: YourTensils, reusable flatware to keep in your pocket and bring to casual restaurants instead of relying on throwaway plastic.

The original question: How do I make a product from my idea?

The advice: Test the market by getting your friends to try it out.

Since we talked to Alison Willman in April: "I've put YourTensils on hold for now because college students didn't want to spend money on the product, even though they liked the concept. I think YourTensils still has a lot of potential, and I continue to use my set of YourTensils and pitch my idea to anyone who asks about them."

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The business: FanMobilizer, a marketing agency for musicians that specializes in grass-roots campaigns in which "street teams" of promoters pound the pavement distributing fliers, postcards, etc. to spread the word. Alan VanToai said the inspiration for the agency came from a previous employer.

The original question: I like my employer's idea and would like to use it for a start-up in the D.C. area. What do I tell my boss?

The advice: Be very upfront with your mentor so you can maintain a good working relationship.

Since we talked to Alan VanToai in May: "FanMobilizer is going mobile. Using smartphone connectivity, we're working to develop and market a mobile app for street team promoters to immediately upload photos or videos of marketing work in progress. Managers and clients can then log into a secure Web site where they can verify the promotion work with reports, pictures and videos uploaded by the street teams. It's a completely different model from what we had before. Instead of managing campaigns and creating marketing teams ourselves, we're going to be developing and selling a product that makes it easier for others. Companies that used to be our direct and indirect competitors will now be potential customers."

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The business: Skincando Inc., an organic skin-care company that created the Combat-Ready Balm. Combat-Ready Balm is used by both civilians and many in the military to combat dry itching skin, eczema, bug bites and sunburn. Skincando allows customers to go online and donate the product to a member of the military.

The original question: How do you get more exposure and distribution on a large scale?

The advice: Embrace Combat-Ready in a much stronger and more focused way. Brand authenticity in today's marketplace is irreplaceable, and the fact that this is tested in combat and you're supplying and helping people donate to the troops really resonates.

Since we talked to Sara Damelio in May: "Since the Business Rx column, Skincando has grown exponentially. We are receiving a lot of national exposure, including press hits in Oprah Magazine, Details Magazine, the New York Times and Organic Spa Magazine. We were listed as No. 1 on Oprah's list of philanthropic campaigns in the beauty industry -- the Oprah effect is real and Skincando is excited by the tremendous response and support from readers nationwide. Per the Business Rx advice, my donation campaign information is on each product and every product is available to be donated on my Web site."

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The business: Inspired Office, an office-organizing consulting business.

The original question: How do I leverage my time and move away from "hours for dollars"?

The advice: Focus more on developing a monthly package strategy and selling to a targeted geographic area.

Since we talked to Kacy Paide in May: "Since participating in the column, I've designed a virtual organizing package that allows me to work with long-distance clients via Skype and I have successfully worked with clients in Ohio, the U.K. and Finland. Another new package is the 'Quick Start,' coming in at a third of the cost of my previous intro level package. This package is both in-person and virtual. I work face to face with the client for three hours, and follow up with an 'accountability' morning or afternoon where I call them several times to check in with their progress on tasks we set aside for them to do during this time."

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The business: Payment Partners Inc., a Web-based payment tool used to eliminate check-writing for community organization fees and payments.

The original question: How do we take this concept that we've proven works and scale it up?

The advice: Focus on one or two primary markets where the risk-reward is proportionate.

Since we talked to Jay Bass and Don Segal in May: "In the four months of our second year, we've increased our revenues by fivefold -- [over] the entire first year's revenues -- and we've added staff," said Bass. "The Web site itself has been expanded to include features which help to make it a full-service payment, as well as information, management tool. Coordinators of schools, PTAs and Booster Clubs can now collect information from parents without cost to help assemble directories, rosters, class lists."

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The business: Massage Off Broadway, a massage service for those in the performing arts.

The original question: What type of marketing will help persuade producers to include massage therapy as a service for their cast?

The advice: Companies typically spend money to reduce their expenses, so build your value proposition around how massage helps save on expenses: Happy employees mean lower turnover, fewer sick days, fewer missed performances, etc.

Since we talked to Fanny Mandelberger in June: "Massage Off Broadway has expanded its talent of independent contractors nationwide in most of the major metropolitan cities. Most recently, I had the opportunity to be part of a televised documentary series about massage therapy."

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us as capbiznews@washpost.com.

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