Posted: October 01, 2012
Passion and persistence a common trait for eight emerging companiesBy Eric Peterson
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."
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com