Thursday, July 3, 2008

Business Ideas

Service Lets Drivers Lock In Gas Prices

The high price of gasoline has some U.S. drivers looking to the future.

A recently introduced service called allows drivers to fill up their tanks sometime in the future but at current prices, using a debit-like card which banks gallons rather than dollars.

“The price of gasoline was changing all the time. It seemed unpredictable,” Steven Verona, founder and owner of the Miami-based company, said on Monday.

“It seemed there had to be a way to fix the price,” he said.

Working on the assumption that the price of gasoline will continue to rise, Verona started about two and a half years ago to put together the company which gives the driver some measure of control of what he pays for gasoline.

Since a soft launch in January, about 2,000 people representing a cross-section of regions across the U.S. have signed up with to be able to help them find ways to cope with the rapidly rising price of gasoline, Verona said.

Verona said that new customers generally begin by purchasing 25 to 50 gallons of gasoline.

“Once they are comfortable with how MyGallons work, they are buying 100 to 200 gallons at a time,” Verona said.

Using regular unleaded gasoline as the benchmark, drivers pre-buy gasoline based on their zip code. determines what that price is based using established providers of oil prices.

“We don’t sell futures. It’s prepurchased gas,” said Verona, who said uses a sophisticated hedging strategy to protect and meet obligations to members.

The risk to the consumer is if price of gasoline in the future becomes cheaper rather than more expensive. But if members are dissatisfied, they can drop out of the program and receive a lesser of the current price or what they paid as a refund.

“There is that risk that the price could fall significantly,” said Verona.

Here is a brilliant idea - clothing rentals for people who are losing weight

For dieters working to lose weight, maintaining a decent wardrobe of clothes that fit can be an ongoing—and expensive—challenge on the way to a target size. With just that situation in mind, Transitional Sizes rents out name-brand clothing for temporary use while the pounds come off.

Maryland-based Transitional Sizes, which just recently launched, offers women's and maternity clothing in a range of sizes for monthly rental fees ranging from about USD 3 to USD 25. (Men's clothes are coming soon, the site says.) Customers order items in the sizes they need and keep them for as long as they want; once they're done, they clean them per the instructions provided by Transitional Sizes and send them back in the original box. Customers needn't be members to order from the site, but membership packages ranging from USD 10 to USD 40 per year are designed to give dieters a range of extra perks, including coupons, discounts, email alerts and weight-loss incentives.

Transitional Sizes' inventory is still very limited, and its site feels rough around the edges. Nevertheless, the concept is a good one, and could be enhanced by personal features such as automatically sending a smaller set of clothes when a customer is scheduled to have dropped to the next size, for example. And how about a partnership with Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig? Either way, dieters are just one group among the legions of transumers out there, eager to be free from the bonds of (unnecessary) ownership. Which creates lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs who can support the new leasing lifestyle!

Millions While You Are Still Young

They're younger than 40, raking in more than $3 million a year in franchisor revenue and living the good life. They're three of today's youngest franchisors, and they've made it big by building businesses around some of life's basic necessities: health-care staffing, Buffalo wings and junk removal.

As youths armed with a vision, they wasted no time in tackling life--and business. Now, after years and even decades of dedication and commitment, they stand tall at the helms of their empires. Wise beyond their years, they're savvy, feisty and have overcome all obstacles to prove that they're forces to be reckoned with. And best of all, they let us take a look at how they grew their businesses into franchises and how they plan to continue making an impact in their respective industries. Success is sweet--especially when you're still young enough to enjoy it.

Shelly Sun, 37, and JD Sun, 38
BrightStar Healthcare Shelly Sun and her husband, JD, started BrightStar Healthcare in 2002 and began franchising less than three years ago, but already the Chicago-based, full-service health-care staffing agency has grown to 45 locations across the U.S. and is expected to have 400 locations by the end of 2010. In addition, Shelly adds nonchalantly, they will be entering Canada later this year, and they foresee expansion into Asia, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe in the near future.

Such aggressive growth plans right off the bat would throw some entrepreneurs off course, but major growth was always part of the company's plans. And because Shelly was already a franchisee of Choice Hotels and Carlton Hotels, franchising seemed like the most natural route to grow the business. So when the timing felt right, she and JD took the big leap. "We had the model perfected, we had put $1 million into our technology, and we had a patent filed on our technology," says Shelly, who expects franchisor revenue and company-owned unit sales to total $11 million this year. "Everything was foundationally in place to begin to expand."

The Suns still own their hotel franchises; however, the couple was inspired to start BrightStar Healthcare and provide assistance to the families of loved ones needing in-home care when JD's grandmother fell ill and they were unable to find a satisfactory service. Says Shelly, "It was through [the] very personal experience of seeing the quality out there and the challenges we went through looking for health care that we really got inspired to make a difference in people's lives, one family at a time."

To move the franchise forward in the best way possible, Shelly has assembled a board of advisors that includes several franchisors, a franchise attorney and a franchisee. Whether it was by tapping into the network of local franchisors, approaching individuals at a franchise function or targeting one of the speakers at an educational forum, Shelly handpicked who she wanted on her board and simply asked if they would be willing to help. They all accepted, and now they meet quarterly to discuss the direction of the franchise. She also talks to about 15 other mentors over the phone every month. "Every day, I learn something about being a great franchisor," says Shelly. "I learn because I ask. Find those you look up to, find those who say something at an International Franchise Association conference that you consider insightful and ask them if they'd be willing to spend a half hour a month with you on the phone until you've developed that level of confidence."

Matt Friedman, 37, and Adam Scott, 34
Wing Zone
There's no better place to test a Buffalo wing business concept than on a college campus. And there's probably no one more in tune with the product and the needs of its principal consumers than a couple of frat boys. In 1991, Matt Friedman and Adam Scott were attending the University of Florida when they came up with the idea for a Buffalo wing business. They themselves had nowhere to go to satisfy their Buffalo wing cravings and were willing to bet big that there were many other wing fans on campus.

Setting up operations in the kitchen of their fraternity house with $600 in startup capital, they established a late-night delivery service. But after just a couple of months, university authorities caught wind of it, and Friedman and Scott were forced to shut down--but it was enough to whet their appetites.

Still in school thanks to financial assistance from their parents, Friedman and Scott took a second shot and opened a storefront in Gainesville, Florida, in 1993. Before long, sales reached nearly $10,000 a week. "Our humble beginning was probably one of the keys to our long-term success," says Friedman.

By 1999, the duo was ready for the next challenge: franchising. They had opened six more locations in college markets around the Southeast and knew there were many more hungry mouths to feed. Alone, they figured they could only open one or two additional locations a year. But with franchisees on board, nationwide growth would be much faster. Today, they have nearly 100 franchise locations, four company-owned stores and projections of opening nearly 30 more locations by year-end. And with $3 million-plus projected in franchisor revenue for 2008, long gone are the days when they lived off meager $200-a-week salaries.

While the franchise is going strong, Friedman and Scott are the first to admit that it involved a huge learning curve--made even steeper by their ages. Not only did they have to learn how to be franchisors, but they had to work extra hard to convince others, namely landlords, that they had the experience to compensate for their youth. They overcame the struggle, but it has left a lasting impact on their corporate culture. "Our entire organization is on the young side. We try to make sure we don't discriminate based on others' ages [as we were discriminated against]," says Scott. "We had to work harder and be better because of our age. But it made us stronger."

And knowing that wisdom comes with age, they are always open to learning new things. "The day you take the approach that you know everything and have nothing to learn," says Scott, "is the day your struggles are going to come quicker."

Brian Scudamore, 38
When Brian Scudamore dropped out of high school, it wasn't because he was a delinquent, but because he had better things to do with his life--like remove other people's junk. In 1989, 19-year-old Scudamore was sitting in a McDonald's drive-thru when he saw a rubbish truck ahead of him. This brief sighting was enough to inspire him to withdraw all the money from his bank account, buy a pickup truck and start The Rubbish Boys, a junk removal venture. Scudamore soon found that a lot of people had a lot of trash. When he went to college, his revenue paid for his tuition--at least until he realized that he was learning more from the real world than from his business courses. At that point, he dropped out of college, too.

In 1997, Scudamore changed the name of his Vancouver, British Columbia-based business to 1-800-Got-Junk?, and in 1999, after growing the business to approximately $1 million in revenue and feeling secure that all the systems were in place, he decided to franchise his business. Scudamore sought advice from mentors who had grown their businesses through franchising, hired a franchise lawyer to make sure all the legal documentation was set, and created an operations manual to make the business easily replicable in other locations. Says Scudamore, "We wanted to have every component of our business detailed in writing so franchise partners knew what to do."

Today, thanks to the help of a network of franchisees, 1-800-Got-Junk? is in more than 340 locations in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Last year, systemwide revenue hit $125.7 million. But as far as Scuda-more is concerned, there's still a lot more junk to collect. He predicts hypergrowth for the company over the next five years, during which he hopes to get closer to his ultimate goal of turning 1-800-Got-Junk? into a $1 billion, globally admired brand. "We want to be in China, in Japan and throughout Europe one day," he says. "Everybody's got junk. And it's a simple business model we know we can scale throughout the world."

Having devoted a lifetime to his business, Scudamore remains as passionate about and involved in the company as he was in the early days when he was singlehandedly carting away the junk. And even though a lot has happened in the nearly two decades since he started the company, he rarely looks back at the path he has paved. At a recent event, though, Scudamore was forced to stop and reflect. Presented with the International Franchise Association's Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2008, Scudamore couldn't help but remember the people who helped along the way and the hurdles he had to overcome. Says Scudamore, "It felt very surreal."

Words Of Wisdom
Advice from the franchisors who've been there
Our young, successful franchisors may be lacking in years, but they're overflowing with knowledge. Here's the wisdom they have to share with other entrepreneurs who want to take on the world through franchising before they've even hit age 40.

Read a good book. Brian Scudamore, founder of 1-800-Got-Junk?, recommends reading The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber. "It [offers a] simple process of what a franchise organization should look like and what the systems should look like," says Scudamore. "[My] business wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for that book."
Be realistic about money. Both BrightStar Healthcare and Wing Zone's founders experienced growing pains to come out ahead. While Shelly Sun of BrightStar budgeted $300,000 to get the franchise underway and ended up spending $600,000 to $700,000, Matt Friedman and Adam Scott endured some lean years early on. Says Friedman, "It probably took us three years to be profitable as a franchise organization, so franchising is not a get-rich-quick type of plan."

Get involved with the International Franchise Association. "That partnership and affiliation is critical," says Shelly. "Six to 12 months before you even begin franchising, go to a conference and learn what it takes to become a good franchisor."

Money In Composting

Many Montrealers know that composting their organic waste could reduce the amount of garbage they send to the dump by about one-third.

And many of us are ready and willing to separate our food and garden waste from other garbage, but Montreal still does not offer an organic waste collection program. You can do it yourself, of course, but many residents don't have backyards and gardens in which to store the waste and spread the resulting compost.

That's why Stephen McLeod decided to take the organic matter into his own hands.

Last summer, McLeod started an organic waste pickup service, charging clients $5 a week to pick up and properly dispose of their table scraps and garden wastes. The service, called Compost Montreal, has almost 100 clients in St. Henri, the Plateau and Notre Dame de Grâce.

McLeod, who also runs an eco-friendly messenger service, realized there might be a demand for a composting service when he moved from Ontario to St. Henri and was looking for a way to dispose of his own organic waste. He found out there was a community compost bin at his neighbourhood Éco-quartier.

(Éco-quartiers are local environment groups commissioned by the city of Montreal to promote recycling, composting, lane cleanup operations and other embellishment campaigns. Several of them run small composting operations.)

But after making a few trips to the Louis Cyr Éco-quartier to dump his bucket of organic waste, McLeod realized it made no environmental or economic sense to have all these people driving their small quantities of waste to Éco-quartiers all around the city.

"I did that a few times before I said to myself, 'This is crazy. How many people are going to do this? I'm sure there are a lot of people who want to compost, but not very many who are willing to do this.' "

So McLeod asked around and quickly found several environmentally conscious neighbours willing to pay him $5 a week to cart off their compostable waste. McLeod bought himself a trailer for his bicycle and a big garbage can in which to collect the waste, and began his door-to-door pick-up service last July.

He got used food containers with sealable lids from the Dawson College cafeteria and distributed them to his customers, to whom he also gave compostable cornstarch bags to line the bins.

Within a few weeks, he had 18 customers, enough to fill his garbage can weekly. With winter coming and word getting out about the service, McLeod decided he had to expand his service. He got a partner and a pickup truck, and worked out an arrangement with the city's parks and horticultural department to dump organic waste at its compost facility in the Southwest borough.

Now he is looking into trading the pickup for a truck equipped to use diesel fuel, which can then be adapted to run on vegetable oil.

He's not making a lot of money with the business, but McLeod said he enjoys it and hopes he can make it work for a while, at least until the city gets a program going.

"It's a very pleasant kind of business because you are dealing with individuals who are doing this because they have an environmental conscience," he said.

"They feel responsible for disposing of the waste they create, and they're doing it happily. People are constantly saying thank you to us."

McLeod isn't doing this to embarrass the city administration, but if it puts pressure on them to get moving on the composting issue, all the better, he said.

Alan deSousa, the city of Montreal executive committee member responsible for environmental issues, applauds McLeod's initiative.

DeSousa says the city administration is chomping at the bit to get a compost collection program going, but a full-scale program costs a lot of money and takes time to plan.

The Montreal Metropolitan Community, the regional body responsible for waste management planning for Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and North and South Shore municipalities, has proposed a $170-million organic waste collection and composting program for the region. The region wants the province to cover 85 per cent of the cost, while municipalities pick up the rest.

Besides the cost, there is also the thorny question of where to build compost facilities.

"I can't launch into something for 400,000 people unless I know where (the waste) is going to go," DeSousa said.

He said the city has no problem with entrepreneurs filling the service gap in the meantime.

"When the city is ready to offer this service, it will do so, but in the meantime if this responds to people's needs and their concerns for the environment, it's fantastic," he said.

Janet Lau's attempt to keep files organized resulted in a paper clip evolution.

What: Paper clip with a sticky note
Who: Janet Lau of Clip-rite Inc.
Where: Hayward, California
When: Started in 2007
Startup costs: $100,000

For years, Janet Lau organized her papers with sticky notes and paper clips but was constantly frustrated by the messiness that would ensue. Then, in 2004, she decided to fuse the two office supplies together, and Clip-Tabs were born. "You think about it for days and months, and that's when it hits you and you wake up," recalls Lau of the moment her idea came to life.

Her brother Max, who was living in China at the time, was able to help her search for potential manufacturers while she lined up deals in the U.S. with buyers such as Office Depot, Office Max and Staples. The paper clips, which are attached to a durable, double-sided note and come in a variety of bright colors, hit stores last year and sell for about $3 a package.

Clip-rite Inc. isn't Lau's first entrepreneurial endeavor, however. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with an engineering degree, she spent some time working at Intel before launching Ficcare, a line of high-end hair accessories that she still manages today.

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