Passion and persistence a common trait for eight emerging companies
Similar to our Gen XYZ profiles of young professionals making their mark in Colorado business, we set out to unearth companies that project a certain youthful exuberance, entrepreneurial zeal, and a forecaster’s sense of what goods or services will be of value in the marketplace.
The range of what these eight companies offer should serve as an indication that as long as the passion and persistence is there, the enterprise stands a good chance of enduring, and thriving. Among the companies profiled, you’ll find:
• A sculptor-turned-custom cake maker;
• An online seller of discounted medical equipment;
• The creator of an app for restaurant reviews that’s won the following of some award-winning restaurateurs;
• The creator of a fast-growing business contact-management solution;
• A globe-trotting, philanthropy-minded importer of fashion accessories;
• A maker of robot-building kits for kids;
• A luxury sports-suite-sharing enterprise inspired by the fractional-jet business;
• A corporate temporary housing business that has become the largest provider of temporary housing for the U.S. health-care industry.
These companies, different in many ways, share the common trait of vision and determination manifesting itself in the form of products and services that improve the lives of others.
AVA SWEET CAKES
Mande Gabelson is the 35-year-old force of nature behind Ava Sweet Cakes. The Grand Junction-based custom cake-maker went into business in 2009 and hasn’t looked back for a second. "It is crazy," she says, laughing. "The phone rings all of the time. It’s hard to keep up with everything, being just one person."
Gabelson is now making hundreds of custom cakes and thousands of cupcakes a year. Her specialty, thanks in part to her background in sculpting and ceramics, is three-dimensional custom cakes. She’s done cakes shaped like everything from an octopus ("the first wedding cake of its kind") to a classic car that typically costs $1,000 and up.
Something of a newbie dessert artist, Gabelson actually started taking cake-decorating classes the same year she went pro. "I was pretty terrible at it when I was younger," she says. "This is something I never thought I’d do." Her art background "really helped a lot," she adds. "That really helped me develop style and technique. The baking just came together. I do a lot of experimenting." Experimentation often comes in the form of original cake flavors like sweet corn and lavender raspberry that she introduces to customers via six-cupcake samplers.
Named for Gabelson’s 3-year-old daughter, Ava Sweet Cakes uses its Facebook page as its storefront, Gabelson says. "My whole business is on Facebook," she says. "That’s my storefront." Ava Sweet Cakes has nearly 2,000 Likes, enabling Gabelson to market to existing customers via a post or picture. "I’ve got one of those products that’s really visual and people just eat that up on Facebook."
Gabelson mounted a push last year for House Bill 12-1027 to allow people to use their home kitchens for commercial businesses. She wanted to move her business home to save money – renting a commercial kitchen by the hour at the Business Innovation Center in Grand Junction was cutting too deeply into her profits. "I was always in the red," Gabelson says. HB 12-1027 didn’t come to a vote, but a similar bill that originated in the Colorado State Senate passed and was signed into law in March 2012, enabling Gabelson to move into her home. Not that she doesn’t envision having a stand-alone bakery to get some "separation" between career and home life. "Right now, it congeals together into one big mess," Gabelson says. "There is a lot of frosting."
Gabelson thinks her age is a big part of her entrepreneurial spirit. "I think my generation is really out there trying to do the best they can to provide for themselves," she explains. "I never try to borrow money. I always try to stand on my own two feet."
Founded in 2009 by e-commerce veterans (and brothers) Rick, Rob and Tom DeZengrenel, Emed Stores is an Englewood-based company that sells all kinds of medical products, from wheelchairs to beds to fitness gear. The eight-employee firm has a family of related websites including Emedstores.com, Emedscooters.com, and Emedwheelchairs.com.
"We utilize the Internet to provide discounted medical equipment to the general public," says Sales Manager Gianna Luszko, M.D., 40. "We don’t take insurance. We are a very small niche." Luszko says buying discounted products through Emed Stores is typically more affordable than paying the corresponding rental fees with Medicare. "We’re very competitively priced."
Emed Stores has seen significant growth since Luszko came aboard as sales manager in 2010, when sales were about $1 million. "Now we’re on target for $5 million or $6 million for 2012," she says. It’s hard to ignore the fact that this sixfold sales boom came under Luszko’s watch.
But she hasn’t always been a sales pro: Luszko’s background as an orthopedic surgeon has been a primary factor in her success with Emed Stores. A 2006 car accident led to back problems that proved problematic for the long periods of standing involved with the operating room, so she made a change. "I redirected my career into medical sales," she says. Luszko says her back has improved during her tenure at Emed Stores, noting, "I’m planning to go back to medicine because I miss it." She is looking at urgent care as opposed to orthopedic surgery because she won’t have to spend as much time on her feet.
Luszko is a few years younger than the DeZenegrel brothers, and that is something she sees as a plus because she brings a different sales strategy to the table. "What I bring to the table is completely different and it’s not only because of my age. My medical background is probably more of a factor. I put the patient first. I don’t tell anyone I’m a doctor, but I think they can sense it. I gain that trust and close all of our high-end sales."
Forkly is not the first social-networking rodeo for founders Brady Becker and Martin May. The duo started Brightkite in 2007 when they were both 28. Now they’re both 35, and that seven years of life and business lessons definitely has had its benefits. "Being young with no notches on your belt, so to speak, was difficult, especially with potential investors," Becker says of Brightkite, a social, location-based check-in service. "This time, it’s a little bit easier. We’ve proven ourselves in some way."
Becker says Forkly was a response to a personal need for him and May. "Our passion is food," he says. "Basically, we were fed up with the current solutions for finding where to eat and drink. Sifting through reviews and apps, none of the solutions really understood personal taste."
In response, they launched Forkly in September 2011. The gist of the app: "You rate items at restaurants," explains Becker, noting that you can then add a photo and share your ratings on Facebook and Twitter. "It’s an easy way to discover new places to dine. Based on your likes and dislikes, we make recommendations." The revenue model involves selling market information and opportunities to brands and restaurants, he adds. "Unlike Groupon, which casts a really wide net, we’re all about repeat customers."
Forkly is social, allowing users to follow other users, and the company has seen some big culinary names download the app recently, including Alex Seidel of Denver’s award-winning Fruition and Kelly Liken of her eponymous restaurant in Vail, a recent competitor on "Top Chef."
The company now has six employees including the founders and racked up nearly a quarter-million downloads to iPhones and iPads.
As far as age goes, it’s no longer a hurdle for Becker and May; in fact, if anything it’s a positive. "We might actually fall ideologically into the generation below us," says Becker. "I don’t think we fit in with older people." Part of that might have something to do with their industry. "In the tech world, if I was 50, it might be different."
"I’ve been in the software industry since I was eight years old," says Bart Lorang, 33. His first professional foray: selling friends floppy discs of a game he created for the Commodore 64 called "The Great Balloon Chase." In high school, he started a consulting company to develop websites and fix computers.
After graduation, Lorang went to work full-time at Dimensional Technology Solutions (DTS), a provider of enterprise asset management software in Englewood, while he got a degree in computer science from the University of Colorado. After about a decade, "Time came for a change," he says. He enrolled in the executive MBA program at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver in 2009 and was a full-time student for all of one year before catching another entrepreneurial bug.
"Contact management sucks," he says. "It’s so not automated and it’s such a pain point. I was always asking myself, ‘How can I automate this and all of this cutting and pasting?" In August 2010, Lorang "hacked something together" and the resulting contact-management app went viral and evolved into FullContact.
FullContact’s solution "pulls all of your contacts in one place, duplicates and consolidates it, enriches it with photos and other data," says Lorang, noting that it even extracts signatures from emails automatically. "Then you can push that data where you need it."
"There are about 10 billion address books on the planet," he adds. "Our job is to attach to every address book in the world and fix it." The tally as of today: 100,000 down, 9,999,900,000 to go. It might sound daunting, but don’t bet against Lorang. FullContact has 18 employees and is gaining some serious steam. He got loads of national publicity for his vacation policy: FullContact employees not only get paid vacations, they also get $7,500 from the company on the condition they disconnect from email, voicemail, and work in general for the duration. An ABC News story said that Lorang "may be the best boss ever" for the perk. "They come back so refreshed," he says of post-vacation employees.
After graduating from the University of Denver in 2005, Kael Robinson decided to quench her wanderlust in South America. In Brazil, she discovered the traditional good-luck bracelets called fithas. Back in Colorado, she started marketing them as Brazilets in 2008, and by 2009 Robinson was placing monthly orders of 100,000. Soon she started donating $1 from each sale to the Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees (www.plantabillion.com) initiative in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.
"I was really passionate about traveling and fashion," explains Robinson of her entrepreneurial genesis. "I wondered, ‘How can we show people what is going on in the world through fashion?’" After Brazliets took off, she expanded into other Brazilian products and branded the company, Live Brazilian, again giving back to Brazil-focused nonprofits.
In October 2010, a Wall Street Journal article on Robinson’s exploits generated a torrent of inquiries and product samples from around the world, and Live Brazilian became Live Worldly. The catalog includes Brazilets alongside scarves from India, belts from Bolivia and hats from Peru. Last year, Macy’s started carrying Live Worldly’s products in 300 stores, more than doubling the number of stores where they are available.
"The last year has been crazy," says Robinson. "I was just working by myself until a year ago, and now I work with more than 10 other people. It’s been pretty cool to see it grow.
"We’re now importing from about 30 countries around the world and giving back to nonprofits in the countries we import from," she adds. "If we import from Africa, we give back to education in Africa. If we import from India, we give back to clean water in India." Robinson calls her model "a double-sided giveback" in that she generates business for the largely female craftspeople who make the products she sells as well as giving as much as 20 percent of sales to nonprofits.
To date, Live Worldly has raised enough money to plant 8,000 trees in Brazil, not to mention $5,000 to nonprofits focused on India. And Robinson has even rolled up her sleeves and planted trees and dug wells herself. "We’re working in the field more and more," she says. Digging clean-water wells "makes a big impact."
Robinson, now 29, has a lofty goal. She wants Live Worldly to import from and give back to every country on the planet. She says members of her generation are more apt to integrate social consciousness into their business philosophy. "I’m amazed by my generation and how much of a difference we can make," she says. "It’s all about how much we want to do to help others. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve personally been able to help others and make a difference in their lives."
Think of Cubelets as robotic Legos. Instead of coming in different colors and shapes, they do different things: There are Drive Cubelets with wheels and Temperature Cubelets with thermometers, and Flashlight Cubelets, Speaker Cubelets and Knob Cubelets. Plug them together and you get robots that can race, or follow a line, or act as a robotic watchdog, or pretty much anything else the builder can design.
Eric Schweikardt, 36, founded Modular Robotics, the Boulder-based company behind Cubelets, in 2009 with Mark Gross, his Ph.D. adviser at the lauded Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Before they released Cubelets into the world in early 2011, pre-orders were through the roof, and demand far outpaced supply. That hasn’t changed in the ensuing year and a half.
"As soon as we put some online, they sell out in 30 minutes," says Schweikardt. Cubelets "let kids build robots that do all sorts of things without having to know anything about programming or electronics," Schweikardt says. "We’re abstracting things away from the process and making it easier. That’s the great thing about construction kits. We let kids focus on the building." Kits of several Cubelets usually cost $160, and individual Cubelets, of which there are 15 varieties -- and counting -- run about $30.
Modular Robotics currently has 10 employees, and Schweikardt says a recent Series A round of $43 million from the Foundry Group will allow the company to nearly double its staff. But it won’t include any sales or marketing positions. The company has yet to engage in either, because it hasn’t needed to in the face of word of mouth.
While it gets the components from China, Cubelets are made in east Boulder. Noting that minimum wage has doubled three times since Modular Robotics’ founding in 2009, Schweikardt says the savings gap is starting to close. Making Cubelets in Boulder "is the right thing to do," he adds. "It’s more agile and more flexible to manufacture here rather than thousands of miles away."
Schweikardt worked in architecture in Boulder for several years before going into robotics at Carnegie Mellon. "I hated it," he says. "I love architecture, but the job is just awful." His new career is a total reversal: "It’s a lot of fun. We’re making robot toys at a little factory in Boulder."
Does Schweikardt’s age impact his business strategy? "Honestly, you’d have to ask someone else that question," he says. "I don’t know what it would be like if I did this when I was 50, or when I was 18. I have one data point: my own age."
Todd Lindenbaum, 35, has been passionate about sports since he was a kid, but now that he’s been in the industry for more than a decade, he’s not just a fan. "My passion has become the business more than the sports side," he says. "My passion is being an entrepreneur and building the business from scratch."
Fresh out of college, Lindenbaum got his start in sales for the San Francisco Giants. "When we were renewing people’s season tickets and luxury suites, the common objections were, ‘There are too many games,’ ‘There are too many tickets,’ and ‘It’s too hard to manage,’" he says. Baseball suites can be the hardest for a company to handle, Lindenbaum adds. "You have 16 tickets each for 81 home games, and sometimes there are games nine days in a row."
Subsequently, Lindenbaum started Sports Shares’ predecessor, OneSuite Sports, in Atlanta in 2005, then moved it to Denver and merged with nascent Sports Shares in 2007. "Our model is about efficiency and service," he says. "We make it as easy as it can be. We manage the whole process."
Taking cues from the fractional-jet business, Sports Shares buys luxury suites at professional sports venues and then sells them, game by game, to nearly 200 customers, most of which are corporations. (Individuals can buy a $1,000 membership then buy tickets a la carte.) The suite is staffed by a Sports Shares concierge who handles catering and other logistics with "white-glove service," Lindenbaum says.
Sports Shares owns suites "at almost every venue in Denver, Atlanta and Dallas," Lindenbaum says. (One notable exception: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, as the Denver Broncos have gone their own way with an internal suite-sharing program.) Sports Shares also arranges one-off suite sharing at other venues, which have included Yankee Stadium in New York and AT&T Park in San Francisco.
The 25-employee company is now eyeing expansion into a number of new markets. "We’re certainly in growth mode," Lindenbaum says. "This model becomes exponentially more compelling the more markets and geographic diversity we can provide." New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Minneapolis are high on the list.
While the Dallas Cowboys are the hottest ticket for the company, Lindenbaum says the Colorado Rockies defied expectations during an abysmal 2012 season. "We have been more full at Coors Field than ever," he says. "It’s less about team performance and more about the experience. When you’re in a suite, it’s like you’re at a cocktail party and there’s also a game going on."
Lindenbaum believes age has been an asset to his career. "Starting early was a huge advantage," he explains. "I started the business when I was 28, and I think to some degree my youth allowed me to take greater risks."
"Before I started Travelers Haven, I had about six or seven companies," says Elia Wallen, the 29-year-old president of the company. "I kept doing more and more."
Nobody has accused Wallen of being an underachiever. He got his real estate broker license in Florida when he was 20 and launched Travelers Haven, a temporary housing provider, three years later, in 2006. He’d been working with one of his companies in Ohio, and it came time to return to the Sunshine State. "I did not want to go back to Florida at all," he says. "It’s hot and it’s pretty much a retirement community."
It follows that Wallen picked up stakes and moved across the country to Colorado in 2008. That year, Travelers Haven had three employees and took in $1.2 million in revenue. Today the company employs 55 and Wallen expects 2012 revenue will hit $45 million. The company operates in 5,000 cities in all 50 states, as well as Canada and the Caribbean, utilizing proprietary software and an extensive quality assurance process to match workers with temporary abodes.
Wallen says the company’s success stems from its turnkey approach. "We get the furniture going, we set up utilities, we pay the deposits. When they get there, it’s like checking into a hotel." Not only does Travelers Haven dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but the rent is also less expensive than it would be at many hotels, averaging $2,000 a month for a furnished apartment with a kitchen.
Thanks to its user-friendly model, Travelers Haven has quickly emerged as the largest provider of temporary housing for the U.S. health-care industry. Other key markets include construction, government/military and insurance. Energy has emerged as another promising vertical, Wallen says, but it’s tricky. Case in point: In Minot, N.D., near the Bakken shale formation, a serious oil boom is putting a strain on housing. "It’s insane," he says. "We’re renting these 500-square-foot apartments to people for $2,500 or $3,000 -- when you can find them."
Wallen is not resting on his laurels. He launched ShortTermHousing.com earlier this year as an "open-source" alternative to vacation house portal VRBO.com, with free listings for property owners, and HotelEngine.com in August as a business-friendly alternative to Expedia and other booking sites. "We’re taking the same tools as the big players and adding some business-friendly features."
Of his age, "I used to think it was a hurdle," Wallen says, recalling providing housing for employees of the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla. "I’m 22, maybe 23. Those days, I was really concerned with it." Today it is a different story, and the state of the national economy has played just as important a role as Wallen’s age. "We’ve grown up in the recession. I never expected how it could have been. The decisions around growing the business were based on leaner times."