It’s that rare Washington business that has served as a spawning ground for other companies and entrepreneurs. America Online, MCI Communications and the Carlyle Group quickly come to mind. You could probably throw LivingSocial in there as well.
Washington entrepreneur Dan Price and his partner and brother, Tim, did their part two decades ago with their funky, failing little baby called Send-A-Song, one of the early pioneers in interactive phone dialing. The original idea was to deliver tunes like Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by telephone to a special someone on Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
Instead of folding Send-A-Song’s tent after getting gobsmacked by recording industry lawsuits, the brothers turned it into Price Interactive. The business revolved around the robotic voice that answers the phone to instruct you which number to press to check your flight status, get a 401(k) balance or to (god forbid) cancel your newspaper.
“Send-A-Song is the ‘trunk of an entrepreneurial tree’ that has created hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of economic value in the D.C. area over the past 25 years,” Dan Price said. In addition to Price Interactive, Send-A-Song’s offspring include Contact Solutions, Helios HR (a major local human resources consulting firm founded by Kathy Albarado, a former senior player at Price) and Xtone, which holds patents on voice technology.
Send-A-Song also spawned a small fortune and allowed Dan — a graduate of Harvard Business School and accomplished accountant — to pursue his commitment to investing and, get this, beekeeping.
The Price brothers sold Price Interactive in 2001 for more than $100 million, including $50 million in cash. I estimate that after they split the proceeds with fellow investors, the brothers each walked away with double-digit millions.
Price used his fortune to become a gentleman farmer. He bought the 14-acre farm an hour west of Washington in Prince William County for $1 million in 2002. He had spied it from a nearby golf course. Price knocked on the door and asked the owner if he was willing to sell. He owned a farm a few months later.
The honey from his beekeeping helps fuel his Sweet Virginia Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2008.
The foundation each year sells about 500 10-ounce jars of honey, packaged in sleek, custom wood boxes.
Customers pay $100 a bottle for the liquid gold. Price said so far the foundation has sent around $100,000 to various charities, including Camp Sunshine in Maine. Children with life-threatening diseases and their families use the camp for recreation and support.
“The idea was to make some good for the world come out of this very special farm,” the former accountant said.
The farm is a menagerie. Thousands of dazzling, yellow sunflowers carpet the grounds down to a 900-acre lake. A birdhouse hotel buzzes with Purple Martins from Brazil. The Purples fly up from the Amazon so they can take advantage of the long Northern Hemisphere daylight to feast on bugs.
“You come out one day in August, and they are gone. Just like that,” Price said.
As we sip water on his porch, a “confusion” (that is the right word) of eight gobbling guinea fowl marches toward the woods. Price bought 40 of them as chicks for $3 each because they eat bugs and ticks. But the foxes have gorged, turning the confusion into a calm.
Price is a bee nut. He can go on about honey bees forever. He told me when I visited last week that bees are the most studied creatures on earth, second only to humans.
“I’m doing this bee thing,” the 59-year-old investor said. “I did it as a quirky lark. Bees are kind of quirky.”
He guided me near — but not too near — one of his 26 hives housing about a million European honey bees.
Price picked out the queen through the glass. (She had a dab of paint on her to make “Her Beeness” easy to spot.)
I asked him if the amber goo that I drip on my fruit and walnuts every morning comes from bee guano. No, he said. It’s the juice from the flowers that the bees constantly visit every day. Then carry it back to the hive where they spit it up into the honeycombs or whatever they are.
Price emailed me bee fun facts. Do you know that honey bees visit 2 million flowers just to make a one pound jar of honey? The European honey bees on his farm are technically named Apis mellifera. They were brought here in the early 17th century by European settlers for their honey and wax production.
Part of Sweet Virginia’s mission is to spread the word on the importance of bees. It has taught more than 10,000 local elementary schoolchildren about honey bees. A subsidiary of the nonprofit, called Community Flowers, has distributed more than 100,000 cut flowers to senior citizens. There is a digital component called Hive Alive! Digital and a mobile classroom may be on the way.
Honey isn’t Price’s sole endeavor. He still has his money sprinkled in various businesses.
Community Flowers led to an acquisition he made last year called Brightstar Care. Brightstar is a high-end, privately owned home health care company that provides nurses and nursing assistants for the ill, elderly and those who need a little help at home or getting to appointments. About half a dozen full-timers run the day-to-day operations from an office in Ashburn, assigning 75 staffers to clients.
Price bought a Virginia franchise in 2016 for about $350,000, including working capital. He expects it to earn around $2 million in revenue this year and double that by 2019, throwing off a 10 percent profit.
The Rockville native gets his entrepreneurial bug from his grandfather, who sold whiskey from a still he had hidden in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
His great-grandfather was an Italian immigrant and roadbuilder who coined the family aphorism that it’s “better to sell apples on the corner than work for The Man.”
Price’s father ran an excavating firm in Washington, where Price worked before attending the University of Maryland. He graduated summa cum laude in 1980 with an accounting degree.
The guy was ambitious. Upon entering Maryland, he set his sights on Harvard. After graduation, he went to work in the Washington office of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that later imploded following the Enron scandal.
He made a name at Arthur Andersen with two big accomplishments: He found that client Marriott had understated earnings by 1 cent per share. He also aced the Certified Public Accounting exam, scoring first in the state and among the best in the country.
He is convinced that his CPA score and excavating background were unique enough to unlock the key to Harvard.
Price turned to investing after Harvard, making a profit on Discovery Channel when it was starting. He took a year off to travel when he was 30, including a passage on a coconut freighter across Polynesia. His investments other than Price Interactive included hits and misses. The hits include Contact Solutions, which delivered 10 times his investment. He also had a nice win with Smart Cells, which treated diabetes patients and was sold to Merck.
The losers include a pizzeria and a biomedical company. Price said the wins have far exceeded his losses.
These days, the investor/beekeeper soaks the view in early evenings from the farmhouse porch, quaffing his Sierra Nevada beer and watching the Purple Martins, guinea fowl, hungry foxes and, of course, his buzzing bees.
“Bees have become politically correct and cool,” he said. “When I started this, people said, ‘You are doing what?’ But there’s something life-affirming and happy about those bees.”
And all spawned by Send-A-Song.