These four small business owners are still making their mark.
Since 2003, NFIB has recognized outstanding upstarts as NFIB Young Entrepreneur Award winners —young men and women who have shown energy, enthusiasm and, above all, business prowess. We caught up with four past winners to see what they’ve learned since their earliest days in the fray.
Andrew Varghese’s business, Awareness, took home NFIB’s Young Entrepreneur award in 2010. Based in Atlanta, the company sold clothing in support of charitable causes. Varghese closed up shop when he left for Georgia Tech, as many of our winners do when they pursue college. But at age 20, he hasn’t stopped toiling in entrepreneurial fields.
Working with student peers, Varghese is in the midst of launching Crutches. “Patients are always complaining about how much of a pain it use to use crutches, and we are of the mindset that if you already have a broken leg you shouldn’t be uncomfortable on your crutches as well. It shouldn’t hurt to get around,” he says.
The team has won $150,000 in seed money from Memphis-based incubator Zeroto510K. In working to launch the firm, Varghese has learned a lot about how to spend that initial funding wisely. (See tips on venture capital funding.)
It’s a balancing act, he says. “There is this give-and-take between sales and marketing, on the one hand, and product development on the other hand,” he says.
“You have to spend all your time just evaluating what people need, what the world wants you to build, so you do a little bit of marketing,” he says. “Then you spend something on research and development, and then you go back to the marketplace asking: Is this what you want? Is this what you need?”
In the end, all this back and forth serves a greater ambition: to make those dollars last. “With medical devices, you can’t really bootstrap it like with software where you are just writing code,” he says. “You actually have to buy things, and so you have to prepare yourself to stay viable for years.”
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When Jennifer Goebel won NFIB’s Young Entrepreneur distinction in 2009, her All-American Dance Company in Plano, Texas, was teaching dance in private daycare centers. When school in Mississippi drew her away, she decided to sell. But she did so with care.
“I didn’t want to hurt what I had promised my clients,” says Goebel, 22. “I wanted to know it would be taken over by a company that would provide just as much quality as I had provided.”
Finding that fit took some effort. She met with local dance-company owners, of course, but she also learned to dig deeper. She pored over mission statements and vision statements, tapping into the core values of potential buyers. While some may see these documents as boilerplate, “they really can tell you a lot about a company,” she says.
Price was less of a factor. “I took into consideration the work I had already put in, I took an average of the number of clients averaged over a few years. But for me it ultimately wasn’t about the money. I had already made more than what I ever thought I would make, so my real concern was that my clients would continue with a quality product.”
Lesson learned: If you care what happens to the business after you’re gone, dig deep into potential buyers.
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Ben Seidel’s Igniting Business in Columbia, Missouri, provides web solutions. It also delivers technology services to small businesses, and offers marketing consulting services. That’s a lot to manage, but Seidel, who was honored by NFIB in 2009, has learned over the years how to juggle.
“Prioritization is the biggest thing I learned. When I was going to college and starting the business at the same time, I was very stressed. I would have a test on Friday to study for, and I’d also have two proposals to get out,” he says.
“The lessons have come down to taking a look at the tasks and deciding which are the most important, and also deciding which tasks can be handled by someone else in the company,” he says.
Which tasks take precedence? “It’s a matter of looking at the overall impact it can have in the intermediate and long term, and who it is impacting. If it’s a minor inconvenience to myself versus if it’s a major inconvenience to my clients, I am going to take care of the clients first.”
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Ilan Regenbaum scored a Young Entrepreneur distinction in 2009 for Flash Foto Events, a photography studio in Atlanta. He went on to launch Discount Optical in New York City (the name recently changed to Optik). The company started selling prescription eyewear in Israel earlier this year, and Regenbaum plans a global expansion.
His lesson learned? When exiting a business, keep it close to home. “When I graduated high school, the business was very successful, but I was doing a year of study abroad, and it was not possible to keep running the business full-time,” he says. “My biggest concern was that I would see the company die.”
Worried that any new owner would not share his vision, he sold the enterprise to his sister, who knew what his idea was all about. “I knew that as long the person running the business had a sense of the history of the company and what it is about, then the business would succeed,” he says.
To steer clear of common family-business rancor, Regenbaum made it clear that he would be backing off. “We were all clear going forward that it is no longer my company. It was my sister’s right to do as she saw fit. I was there to help her out, but it was her business to run.”
Bottom line: Put it all in writing. “We had informal discussions, but we did sign a contract making the sale official. It was a technicality, my siblings and I are very close, but in the end business is business. If they wanted to sell it to someone else, having that paper trail would be a valuable thing.”
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Supporters of Youth Entrepreneurship:
You can also sponsor one of the Young Entrepreneur Award scholarships. Each $1,000 donation will provide a scholarship for one young entrepreneur specifically in the state of your choosing. With a $1,000 donation, the Award will be named after you or your business which will be recognized both on the NFIB website and in NFIB’s MyBusiness Magazine. A Young Entrepreneur Award is not a direct investment in a student’s business. Rather, it provides financial assistance for a student to attend post-secondary schooling, to continue their entrepreneurial education. Fill out the Donation form with your tax deductible contribution today!