A "hot" startup company isn't the entrepreneurial equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Probe a bit beneath the surface, and what you'll find is a combination of creativity, determination, hard work, great products and services — not to mention a strategy that produces rapid growth. They are the companies that capture the hearts and minds of their potential customers and, with them, that indispensable thing called market share. They're invariably run by men or women with an eye for sustainability — and expansion. The list runs the gamut of sectors. Some have venture capital money behind them; most were bootstrapped. Some are service companies. A few are manufacturers. Others are retailers. And while we routinely receive news of hot startups, and it's usually impossible to compare apples to oranges — or in the case of this list, apps to beer — these 10 independents, with their fast-paced success and future potential, are the ones that made even our seasoned staff and contributors say, "Wow!"
1. Cigar City Brewery
Self-described "beer geek and home brewer" Joey Redner had been around craft breweries for years. He had worked for both a craft beer brewery and an importer. He wrote a column about craft beer for the St. Petersburg Times. And, all the while, he thought about what it would be like to run his own enterprise. In a city the size of Tampa, it was only a matter of time before someone opened up a local craft brewery — and in 2007, he decided to be the one to do so. Using local flavors like guava and high-end ingredients, Cigar City Brewery's brews are more expensive, but have caught on far beyond the Tampa city limits. "We have a great demand in the northeast. People from Philadelphia were calling their relatives in Tampa and asking them to get our beer," says Redner. Launching a beer company is no easy task, but those thirsty customers have driven up brewing volume tremendously: The company sold about 1,000 barrels in 2009. By the end of the first quarter of 2010, it had already exceeded that threshold and was on pace to sell more than that per quarter throughout the year, marking more than a 400 percent growth in 12 months.
Whenever first-grade teacher Meri Zeiff saw one of her students wearing a shirt that said, "Spoiled Brat" or something similarly negative, it bothered her. After years of listening to her daughter gripe about the same pet peeve — and her desire to start her own company with positive T-shirts for kids — her mother handed over $2,500 and told her to do something about it. That something was the launch of her T-shirt company, VeryMeri. In addition to creating kid-power T-shirts — sentiments include "Peace, Dude," "I'm a lucky ducky," and "Imagine" — she also donates a percentage of her profits to charity. Now, the company takes submissions for T-shirt designs to be voted on by the public. Each winning designer has his or her T-shirt produced and 3 percent of profits from the sales of those shirts go to a designer-chosen nonprofit. More than $50,000 has been donated to various charities so far. Do the math.
Palo Alto, Calif.
As the app world explodes, one of its perennial hit-makers is Smule (aka Sonic Mule), the iPhone application developer responsible for popular mobile phone apps like "I am T-Pain." "Ocarina," and "Magic Piano." Founders Jeff Smith and Ge Wang, both tech company veterans, have grown the company fast, landing nearly $12 million in hard-to-get venture capital in two rounds over the past year, allowing them to invest in more people, more infrastructure and more app development. Smith says Smule has "three gigantic things in the hopper now," presumably apps, although he declines to specify. The company is also building the "Sonic Network," a cloud network of its application users, which allows users to connect with each other through the network. Smith suspects it will ultimately be a building block for the company, uniting users.
4. Sevans Strategy
When Vanity Fair magazine calls and wants to feature you as a leader in your field of expertise, it's a good day. That's what happened to Sarah Evans, founder of Sevans Strategy, a new media and public relations consultancy. In the six months since she founded her business, Sarah has landed a beefy six-figure client roster that includes Fox News Chicago, Fox Corporate, Qmobius and Radio Shack. Evans is a highly prolific tweeter and Facebook participant, using social media and public relations as part of the counsel she provides to her clients. In addition, she's become a prolific speaker on social media topics, boosting her notoriety and spurring her projected 120 percent growth in 2010 alone, including the hire of three full-time employees.
Vancouver, BC and Seattle
After Doug Burgoyne had moved several times, schlepping his family's stuff in flimsy cardboard boxes, his frustration told him there had to be a better way. In addition to breaking apart, the cardboard boxes were wasteful and a drain on resources even when recycled. His wife, who worked in retail, mentioned that her company transported its wares in reusable plastic boxes. Bingo. Burgoyne realized he could rent the boxes to movers, providing an eco-friendly alternative. The idea has caught on and the firm plans to crack the $1 million revenue mark this year, with aggressive expansion plans to be in the top 30 cities in North America within five years. An international marketing award bestowed by advertising giant Leo Burnett, which includes $250,000 in marketing services, may help Frogbox do just that.
You may not be ruler of all you survey, but you could be mayor of your favorite coffee shop. Foursquare can best be described as a convergence of traditional social media like Facebook and Twitter and real-life meet-ups. Users "check in" from their locations and can also see where other Foursquare contacts are to join forces. This game-like aspect of Foursquare, especially the mayoral designation, has fostered good-natured competition among customers, who may stop by the shop and check in via smartphone two or three times a day to keep top-visitor status. The person who checks in the most from any given location is named "mayor" of that location, and endowed with bragging rights and, sometimes, prizes. At press time, there were rumors that Yahoo! was considering buying the upstart, co-founded by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai in 2009, for $100 million.
7. Consult A Doctor
Whatever happens with health-care reform there will be one constant: The need to cut costs. And that is what entrepreneur Wolf Shlagman is banking on with Consult A Doctor, a telemedicine company that offers the clients of health plans, self-insured groups, third-party administrators and other benefits providers round-the-clock remote access to physicians via phone and e-mail, making expensive, inconvenient medical office visits unnecessary for non-emergency situations. Shlagman was working with a startup internet company in 2002 when he saw that the same remote advantages found in the tech sector could apply to medicine. He spent a few years developing his idea and then teamed up with former co-worker Elan Shanker for the company launch. The year of their launch, the National Center for Policy Analysis reported that nearly 55 percent of all emergency room visits were non emergencies. The center found that people were using emergency rooms for primary care access because physicians weren't available by phone or e-mail outside of the office. Shlagman says these core problems are exactly the type of issues his company solves.
8. Game Truck Party
It was 2006 and Scott Novis was frustrated with the pizza arcade experience at his son's 4th birthday party. Children were running around unmonitored, and the games were boring and static; most of the kids had better games and graphics on their home game boxes than what was being offered at the party. So not long afterward, he went home and, in his garage, retrofitted a truck with gaming consoles, flat-screen monitors and cool interiors, creating the first GameTruck portable gaming party. He threw a birthday party for a friend and, soon, GameTruck was a thriving weekend business. Since then, the company has grown to nearly $2 million in revenue, and is thriving with nearly 40 trucks in 20 locations across the country and 12 employees in its home office. The company also offers franchise opportunities.
The Census bureau estimates that the number of people age 65-plus will shoot from 40.2 million in 2010 to 88.5 million in 2050, and some estimates put the eldercare market at nearly $200 billion. At 26, Meagan Shea isn't anywhere near that demographic, but she's serving it well with RetireLife.net, which helps aging adults and their caregiver children more easily find care solutions. Shea came up with the idea after going through the onerous process of relocating an aging relative across the country, trying to find appropriate medical and care facilities and services. It inspired her to make an online information and content center for caregivers of aging relatives. RetireLife.net was one of 15 of 42 businesses selected for development by Shea's business school peers as she was finishing her MBA at Babson College. Using $79,000 from family and friends, she launched last July and now has a database of more than 5,800 services. Two of her classmates have joined the company, and they will be rolling out nationally in late 2010.
East Lansing, Mich.
In 2008, then-MBA student Sam Hogg opened his wallet and stared at one of several plastic gift cards he had received for Christmas, thinking how wasteful the cards were. So, instead of paying attention in class, he began to form a business model. Later that year, he launched East Lansing-based GiftZip.com, an electronic gift-card aggregation site that has the potential to dramatically downsize a wasteful supply chain of tiny plastic cards. "I looked at gift cards and saw that 75 million pounds of them go into landfills every year," Hogg says. "If people heard that, they would never buy another plastic gift card." And the site is catching on. Since Giftzip.com's founding, use has increased 2,100 percent and has grown from 120 to 275 retailers. Hogg created his own website, which places competing retailers next to one another — a model outlined by a college marketing professor who suggested consumers are more likely to buy a product when given multiple choices, even if those choices sit next to competing brands. He gets ongoing support from the professors and classmates at his alma mater, Michigan State University. "You don't need an MBA to start a business, but I couldn't have gotten that from scratching my head in a basement," he says.