Blog Posts by Adrienne Burke

  • From inmate to entrepreneur: How a successful ex-con is helping others start businesses

    There aren’t many people as qualified as AJ Ware is to teach entrepreneurship to convicts.

    After serving a four-year sentence for committing robbery with a dangerous weapon at age 25, Ware was on food stamps when he started a house painting company with $25. He grew it to 18 employees generating close to $3 million in annual revenues, and sold it. Now, at 43, he’s the owner-operator of a racetrack in North Carolina with “a nice home, a car, a wife, kids, the whole nine yards,” he says.

    For the past year, he’s also been Executive Director of Inmates to Entrepreneurs. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2008 as the community outreach arm of Raleigh, NC, financial information company Sageworks, and is now a separate organization that Sageworks employees continue to support with time and resources.

    With a mission to reduce recidivism and support small business in the region, Inmates to Entrepreneurs offers business seminars and one-to-one mentoring at state prisons. Ware says, the

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  • No website? Why you should go for a mobile app instead

    Is your small business among the many that still haven’t gotten around to establishing a website? Here’s advice you might not have heard before: forget about it. With consumers increasingly using mobile devices to find businesses and shop online, a mobile app could be a better way to bring in customers than a traditional website.

    Paul Choi, CEO of the design and development firm Worry Free Labs, which has created apps for well-known brands including Disney, says, “Everything is moving to mobile. The trends are enormous, especially for the 18-40 year old market.” Choi sees Mom & Pop shops using mobile apps to engage customers outside of purchasing goods. And smart retailers use apps to create loyalty programs that get customers in the door, but also let the business track users' behaviors, such as how often they’re purchasing which goods, he says.

    Starbucks’s app is one stellar example: “Their loyalty points program gives you a free cup of coffee on your birthday and lets customers store

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  • How a used car salesman closes deals with a mobile app

    Yossi Levi of Dani's Auto Sales

    Without his tech-savvy 20-year-old son's input, it's unlikely that used car salesman Dani Levi would be using a mobile app to move inventory. But that he is.

    Yossi Levi says he practically grew up at his dad's business, Dani's Auto Sales in Philadelphia. And today, in addition to studying finance and marketing at Temple University, he's in charge of "all the marketing and anything to do with advertising" for the family business.

    The younger Levi says the idea for creating a car sales app came to him when he stumbled across a Facebook ad for Conduit, a company that offers DIY tools to enable individuals and businesses to create their own apps and mobile websites. "I always look for new and fresh opportunities, and this was something no other dealers in the area had," Levi says.

    Using the Conduit tools, he built a mobile app that customers can install on their iPhones and Androids. It offers the dealership's entire current inventory, coupons and discounts, a credit application function,

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  • Optimistic business owners will work on vacation

    Hard working and eternally optimistic. Those are the traits that seem to characterize the majority of small business owners we write about here, and they're verified by those who responded to a survey conducted in May by Rocket Lawyer. The online legal services provider polled more than 1,000 of its small business customers nationwide in its 2013 Semiannual Small Business Survey.

    More than half of respondents across all age groups say their businesses have been growing or even "booming" in the first half of 2013. More than one-third say business is still flat and not much has changed since a year ago, but an overwhelming number of respondents—73%—say they expect the second half of this year to be better. Rocket Lawyer's June 2013 survey results show markedly increased optimism since a year ago, when the survey showed that 56% had such sunny outlooks, but a slight drop in optimism since January 2013, when 81% predicted the next 6 months would bring better business.

    Rocket Lawyer infographic

    How do small

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  • Live Stream Small Business Week to Hear Angie Hicks, Jack Dorsey, Fran Tarkenton

    Angie's List founder Angie Hicks is among Small Business Week speakers whose talks will be livestreamed.

    During the 50th annual National Small Business Week, the US Small Business Administration will offer tips, tools, and training on a variety of topics for small business owners. Register to attend live, or stay home and watch it all on your computer screen June 17-21.

    At live events five days next week in Seattle, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and finally Washington, registered participants can attend workshops on topics including how to start a business, exporting, going global, blogging, cyber security, finding capital, supplier diversity, social media, crowdsourcing, small business certifications, and the Affordable Care Act.

    But you don’t need to register or even leave your shop, office, or home to glean all the same information online. All events will be live-streamed at the SBA Small Business Week website.

    SBA will also host daily online Google+ Hangout panel discussions with leading small business vendors and supporters Monday-Thursday starting at 4:00 pm EDT. Participants in

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  • Teen Entrepreneurs Take on Avon

    Brea (l) and Halle Holmes founders and CEOs of Sweet Dream Girlz

    Halle Holmes was 10 years old in 2010 when she came home empty-handed and aggravated after a trip to the local mall. As hostess of an upcoming spa party, she had her heart set on finding all-natural beauty products in fun fragrances that her girlfriends would like and her sensitive skin could tolerate.

    “We didn’t want to smell like lavender and sweet pea. We wanted something youthful smelling,” she says. Downright indignant that no such product existed, Halle says she turned to her teenage sister Brea and said, “Why don’t we start our own?”

    As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The Holmes sisters began researching their idea online, tapped their family dermatologist for advice, and sent their mom out to investigate a few cosmetics manufacturers they identified.

    With $6,000 in startup funding from their parents, Halle and Brea officially launched their beauty products business the same year. Named Sweet Dream Girlz for a favorite Beyonce song, the Holmes’ line of

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  • Datamining isn’t just for Big Brother and big businesses

    Housekeepers, exterminators, landscapers, and other small enterprises that make house calls might not seem like candidates for sophisticated data gathering and analysis efforts. But Jeff Annis says he’s “leveraging the microchip” to run his pest control company, Advanced Services in Augusta, Ga., more efficiently than ever. Mining their own data is enabling Annis and other small business owners to serve more customers and generate more revenue with fewer staff.

    By employing software to analyze and re-direct the routes that his technicians drive, for instance, Annis says he saved about 1,000 gallons of gas in one quarter. It added up to far more than a $4-per-gallon savings: “Our average vehicle is getting 20 miles per gallon. That’s 20,000 miles we didn’t drive at 40 miles per hour. And that’s around 500 hours of labor driving around from house to house that we saved,” Annis says. “If you think about all the ramifications of that, it’s time, rubber, risk to the driver, and wear and

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  • How investing his 401k savings in whiskey made an entrepreneur millions

    Dry Fly Distilling owners Don Poffenroth (r) and Kent Fleischmann

    Dry Fly Distilling owners Don Poffenroth (r) and Kent Fleischmann

    At age 44 Don Poffenroth made what some, including his wife, would consider a dubious decision. He invested all of his 401k retirement savings in shares of the startup business Dry Fly Distilling. But seven years later, he has no regrets. Dry Fly is an award-winning microdistillery with 5 employees and $2 million in annual sales.

    “My retirement savings is way, way better off than if it had sat where it was for the same time. I’m millions of dollars ahead of the equation,” he says.

    What gave Poffenroth such faith in that particular Spokane, Wash., spirits maker? He owns it.

    Rolling your 401k savings into a plan that invests solely in your own privately held corporation is a strategy some say has numerous benefits. “We had the ability to go to a bank and we had potential investors,” Poffenroth says, “but this made it so the money was cheaper, and we didn’t have anybody breathing down our necks. It allowed us to take our time with no immediate payments to the bank or returns to the

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  • Small biz growth streak suffers a reversal

    Small business’s five-month hiring streak ended in May. Small employers reported an average gain of -0.04 workers per firm last month, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. In April, small businesses saw an average increase of 0.14 employees per firm, which was the fifth consecutive month of growth reported by NFIB.

    NFIB’s chief economist, William Dunkelberg, says small business growth “can’t seem to maintain any steam,” and he points to Washington for the reasons why.

    "Owners are still quite pessimistic about economic recovery, though far less so than six months ago,” Dunkelberg says in a statement previewing NFIB’s May jobs survey—to be published in full on June 11. “It will take a marked improvement in sales to convince them to hire more workers and prospects for that are not good."

    NFIB’s survey reveals that most small employers made no staff-size changes over the past few months, 12 percent cut an average of 3 workers and only 9 percent added an average

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  • From $250,000 debt to $40 million sales: A small biz survival story

    CampusBookRentals founder and CEO Alan Martin

    In the years after racking up $250,000 in credit card debt to launch his startup, Alan Martin hit a couple of obstacles that he says “should have sunk us.” But his company, CampusBookRentals, survived and now, five years in business, projects 2013 sales of $40 million.

    His experience is a cautionary tale for any would-be business owner.

    Martin conceived his business idea while working his way through graduate school as a civilian contracts negotiator for the U.S. Air Force. Textbooks for his management classes were expensive, so he bought them used online, and sold them again at semester’s end. It occurred to him, he says, “I’m selling every book online for what I bought it for. If I could rent them out in between, it could be a cool service for students.”

    His wife, some friends, and he began saving credit card offers and set up shop in his Ogden, Utah, basement with a quarter million dollars in cash advances. He quit his job and the master’s degree program to build the company in phases:

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