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Editor’s Pick: Profiles of Small Businesses and How They Grew

An archive of the small businesses we’ve profiled, from our database of over 600 companies

9 Minute Read

Our Trends Guide to Small Business Growth, home to more than 600 small businesses that have provided us with their financials, includes stories of every kind of startup. We’ve interviewed some of the most interesting of the bunch, explaining how they got their start and how they’ve grown their businesses.

You can submit information about your own small business here.

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The features below are in reverse chronological order from the date we published them. This file was last updated on 11/05/19.

The ultimate calculator side hustle

Ten years ago, Justin Supak, 39, stumbled across something silly on eBay: used graphing calculators for sale. He happened to own two calculators from his college days at Texas A&M and had no idea they might be worth something. “I just tested it to see if you could actually sell them,” Supak says. “I listed the two on eBay and they sold. So I was like, ‘OK let’s see if we can get more.’”  

Supak has now run for 10 years as a side business to his work as an IT service desk analyst. His platform provides an easy way for people to sell calculators, which he then sells at a profit. 

After tinkering to build a user-friendly application for customers to sell him their calculators, negotiating shipping deals with the post office, and figuring out how to fix decent calculators into top shape, Supak makes $100k a year in profit while working 25 hours a week. His goal is to eventually give the business to his parents for them to make money in retirement. 

But the work is not for the faint of heart. Supak has dealt with scammers, and the calculator market has seen better days. It’s all part of the challenge for Supak, who is considering diversifying to sell used phones or iPads. 

“What am I going to do at night? Just watch TV?” he asks. “If I can make an extra 100 bucks or 50 bucks, why not do that?” 

Stats at a glance:

  • Founder: Justin Supak
  • Employees: 1
  • Years in business: 10 
  • Cost to launch: $20k
  • Funding methods: Personal savings
  • 1st-year revenue: $50k 
  • Current annual revenue: $350k 

Australian skincare company eliminates the bull semen, invests in vegan products

Angelique Ahearn battled sensitive skin for decades and had to carefully check the ingredients in her cosmetics. She was often shocked, finding crushed beetles, bull semen, and sheep grease in popular products.

After consulting for a skincare brand, she recognized a gap waiting to be filled: natural skincare that wasn’t lumpy and brown and tested on animals. She quit her job and launched NEEK Skin Organics in 2014 (motto: “testing on sisters, not animals”). 

The brand featured one of the first vegan lipsticks on the market. NEEK has invested in other cruelty-free, vegan products, including face cleansers, moisturizers, and eco barrettes. 

The business, based in Australia, now does ~$200k per year.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Angelique Ahearn
  • Employees: 2
  • Years in business: 4
  • Cost to launch: $100k
  • Funding methods: Personal savings, loans
  • 1st-year revenue: $50k
  • Current annual revenue: $150k

$1m cookie company persuades father to come out of retirement

In 2016, the Martin family noticed something mundane about corporate gifting: No matter the holiday or special occasion, everyone seemed to receive the same box of crackers, nuts, relish, or Clark Griswold-esque jelly. 

Sensing an opportunity to inject originality, Siblings Trevor and Andie Martin; father Mike Martin; launched Noms, a personalized cookie product. Trevor and Andie had enjoyed their father’s confections throughout childhood, and they convinced him to come out of retirement from his computer engineering career to spearhead product development.

Noms’ customers can request personal messages or corporate branding to be laser-etched onto the cookies. Unlike relish and nuts, the Martins believe the personalization leads to a product people “feel good about sending.” 

The family has kept everything in-house, starting with a home kitchen and upgrading to a commercial kitchen capable of producing 50k cookies a day. Oh yeah, and Noms is doing $1m/year with 20 employees. That’s a lot of cookies.

The business has grown mostly through word-of-mouth and the good ‘ol cold call, but Noms plans to focus on digital and the launch of a subscription service in 2020. 

Monthly personalized cookies? Sounds better than the Jelly of the Month Club.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Trevor Martin, Michael Martin, Andie Martin
  • Employees: 23
  • Years in business: 4
  • Cost to launch: $3m
  • Funding methods: Personal savings, Family/friend contributions, Loans
  • 1st-year revenue: $20k
  • Current annual revenue: $1m
  • Profit margin: 25%

Duo looks to replace TP with ‘below the belt’ wipes

Charlie Siciak and Sam Nebel met in the upstairs bathroom of their frat house with the same thing in their hands: baby wipes. After their friends kept stealing their wipes instead of buying their own, they realized they had a business idea. 

The pair launched Good Wipes — eco-friendly, scented, and adult-branded wet wipes for “down there.” The wipes contain no parabens or alcohols, and the tissue feels nice and thick (but still flushes and biodegrades). An added kick of aloe and chamomile help soothe the skin.

A major challenge for Siciak and Nebel has been destigmatizing the product: They’re trying to prove Good Wipes are better than regular TP and not embarrassing for adults.

So far, the founders have steered Good Wipes into all 1,800 Target Stores, CVS, HEB, and multiple outlets online, reaching  $2.8m in sales this year.

Along the way, they’ve relied heavily on feedback and advice for new products and scents from their Facebook group, Good Wipes Labs. Up next? They’re looking to launch a subscription service in the new year for people looking to replace their Prime Charmin order.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Sam Nebel and Charlie Siciak
  • Employees: 5
  • Years in business: 5
  • Cost to launch: $75k
  • Funding methods: Personal savings, friends/family contributions, venture capital, crowdfunding, loans
  • 1st-year revenue: $172k
  • Current annual revenue: $2.8m

A husband and wife disrupt the outdated jewelry industry

In the summer of 2017, Chris and Steph Sammons were set to get married. As Chris looked for his wedding band in dozens of stores across Philly and New York, he kept finding the same thing: small selection, ill-informed staff, lofty prices, and months of turnaround.  After waiting two months for his ring of choice, he was told they forgot to order it. Multiple purchases on Amazon later, the couple decided to create a better way.

Enter Hitched.

Hitched allows buyers to select 5 rings and ships them directly to consumers in one week. All of their rings cost less than $499 — a third to a fifth of the in-store price point. 

They’ve achieved lower cost, speed, and variety by working directly with manufacturers, eliminating the middle-men suppliers involved with many diamond retailers.

Sales reached $250k in their first year in business, driven mostly by referrals. “We knew that if we could make the process fun, easy, and affordable, people would tell their friends,” Chris said. “Everybody knows somebody that’s getting married and they all talk to each other.”

They’ve recently partnered with the Groomsman Suit and have plans to open 2 in-person showrooms so people can have a drink, kick back, and leave with a band. Imagine Bonobos, but for the outdated jewelry industry.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Chris and Steph Sammons
  • Employees: 3
  • Years in business: 1
  • Cost to launch: $125k
  • Funding methods: Angel funding
  • Current annual revenue: $250k
  • 2020 projection: $1m+

Advice to first-time founders? 

Chris: “A lot of people like to dip their toes in, but you really need to take the dive.” Steph: “Don’t be scared of competition. Competition is out there, is healthy — and honestly, it makes you hungry.”

The Sabré brothers ditched dentistry to sell online leather goods

Omar Sabré had his dental degree, and brother Zane was working toward his, when their father was diagnosed with leukemia. The family’s finances could no longer support Zane’s schooling, so Omar gave him $30k to keep working toward his degree.

Meanwhile, the family needed to find another financial support system, quickly. Pairing their detail orientation with Zane’s affinity for personalized goods, Omar invested another $45k of personal savings to create Maison de Sabré, a personalized leather-goods company.

Rookies in ecommerce, they learned all they could from Youtube tutorials and spent a year experimenting before introducing a luxury phone case. The case, made from bovine leather and individually monogrammed, sold from Day 1. Since then, the brothers have expanded to personalized card holders, clutches, and wallets.

Two years later, they’ve become so proficient at online marketing, they’ve sold leather goods to customers in over 100 countries.

Zane has since graduated from dental school, but the Sabré brothers have given up dentistry to go full-time on the business, expecting $8.6m in sales this year. Next year, they plan to launch an apparel line.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Omar and Zane Sabré
  • Employees: 14
  • Years in business: 2
  • Cost to launch: $45k
  • Funding methods: Personal savings
  • 1st-year revenue: $1.9m
  • Current annual revenue: $8.6m

The Silicon Valley duo helping data centers waste less energy 

After graduating from Santa Clara University, Matt Renner attempted to get a plum job with a startup. But industrial engineers weren’t in high demand at the entry level. He ended up working for a company that buys, owns and operates data centers. 

He noticed a pattern: The biggest companies all went for new construction. They wanted a cut of projects that cost anywhere from $50m to $1B. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are about 3m data centers in the country. Many of them need to be refurbished. 

Along with Aryn Bergman, Renner started Northshore. The company evaluates and retrofits older data centers to make them more energy efficient. “That’s the market niche we’re carving,” Renner says. 

They tapped into their existing networks to find clients. The first year, Northshore made $300k, mostly off consulting work for existing data centers. This year, with $1m in revenue expected, the company is consulting and retrofitting. 

“We’re ultimately trying to influence the improvement of energy efficiency across the world and save our shores,” Renner says.  

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Matt Renner and Aryn Bergman
  • Employees: 3
  • Years in business: 2
  • Cost to launch: $15k
  • Funding methods: Personal savings
  • 1st-year revenue: $300k
  • Current annual revenue: $1m
  • Annual overhead: $200k

The 21-year-old kids who created an egg-white chip brand

On a summer day in 2016, two recent high school grads, Nick Hamburger and Zack Schreier, were sitting around cooking omelettes.

For Schreier, a Type 1 diabetic, egg whites were a favorite snack — particularly, the crispy burnt edges. In the kitchen, the friends asked a question: “Is it possible to make a healthy chip out of egg whites?“

“Zack had to account for every gram of carbohydrate that he ate,” says Hamburger. “He couldn’t even enjoy a bag of chips without having to give himself an insulin shot.”

The duo spent the next 2 years testing out hundreds of ingredients and different cooking processes before striking culinary gold.

In 2018, they dropped out of college and launched Quevos, the first egg-white-based chip. The snack was so good that it earned them a $50k investment from Kraft Heinz, $72k in pre-orders on Kickstarter, and, more recently, a $925k angel round.

They’re currently in more than 250 retail stores, and they’re using their funds to ramp up manufacturing capacity and “fine tune” their chips.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founders: Nick Hamburger and Zack Schreier (21)
  • Employees: 8
  • Years in business: 2
  • Cost to launch: $150k
  • Funding methods: Kickstarter, VC, loans, personal savings
  • Current annual revenue: $400k
  • Projected revenue (2020): $3m

$0 to $8.5m in 4 years — by building pools

A decade ago, in the wake of the recession, Tim Maas watched his construction business crumble into financial ruin.

“It was a smoldering pile of ashes,” he says. “I lost everything.”

He tried his hand at various small online businesses — a wine marketplace, a corporate video platform, a radio show — but nothing stuck and he struggled to stay afloat.

Then, he got a piece of advice: “My friends said, ‘Tim, just do what you know how to do: Build pools.’”

In 2015, he cashed out early on his 401k (complete with a 10% penalty and taxes up the wazoo), and started Pool and Landscape AZ, an Arizona-based construction outlet specializing in pools.

Maas spent $5k on licensing, insurance, business cards, and marketing (mostly truck signs and brochures). He acted as his own sales person, leveraged his prior construction network for labor, and optimized his SEO keywords.

His first year, he pulled in $1.2m in business. Instead of taking a large salary, he invested his profits right back into the company.

Today, he builds around 200 new pools a year (averaging $35k each) and does ~45 big pool remodels (also averaging $35 each) — good for $8.5m in revenue. Accounting for an overhead of $6m (50% of which is material costs, and 35% labor), he’s $2.5m in the green.

What’s been the secret to his growth?

“I hire people with more experience than me, and I allow them to do their jobs as team players,” says Maas.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founder: Tim Mass, 63
  • Employees: 50
  • Years in business: 4
  • Cost to launch: $5k
  • Funding method(s): Personal savings
  • 1st year revenue: $1.2m
  • Current annual revenue: $8.5m
  • Current annual overhead: $6m

Scott Ball, red light ticket attorney

In 2008, Scott Ball graduated from USC law school with $190k in student debt and no clear career job prospects.

Criminal defense was, in his mind, “the only area of law that [wasn’t] boring as hell”––but no firms were hiring. For several years, he “tread water” by picking up legal odd jobs, like defending friends’ DUIs.

Then, in 2011, Ball found his niche: Red light camera tickets.

“Cities would issue hundreds of $500+ tickets a month, and regularly send the tickets to the registered owner of the vehicle without first determining that the person driving the car was the same person,” he says. “[These were] easy cases to get dismissed.”

He launched a direct mail marketing campaign with a unique promise: If he lost a case, he’d offer a money-back guarantee; if he won, he’d charge $200-300 (~50% of the cost of the original ticket).

In his first year, Ball grossed $50k; 8 years later, he’s on track to make $675k in revenue.

Though other law firms have copied Ball’s direct mail marketing model and undercut his prices, he’s now the top-rated traffic ticket lawyer in Orange County, California. To date, he boasts a 60% dismissal rate and has saved clients $2.6m in ticket fines.

Stats at a glance:

  • Founder: Scott Ball, 37
  • Employees: 2
  • Years in business: 8
  • Cost to launch: $2k
  • Funding method(s): Personal savings
  • 1st year revenue: $50k
  • Current annual revenue: $675k
  • Current annual overhead: $200k


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