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A year of your small business strategies and successes: ShopTalk turns 1

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/10/21/o96bA.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    BooneOakley president Greg Johnson, left, and co-founder David Oakley opened their ad firm in 2000 and have since led campaigns for a number of well-known companies, such as HBO, MTV and CarMax. They now are helping Cheerwine go national.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/10/21/mHFsf.Em.138.jpeg|232
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    BooneOakley employees (from left) digital analyst Danny Gassaway, IT director Jon Steele, and senior account executive Eliza Carney at work. BooneOakley advertising firm opened in 2000 and has since led campaigns for a number of well-known companies, such as HBO, MTV, State Farm Insurance and CarMax. Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/10/21/1kkpKM.Em.138.jpeg|223
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Phong Luong
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/10/21/JnkOY.Em.138.jpeg|235
    -
    Gretchen Hollifield
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/05/10/21/1diru2.Em.138.jpeg|267
    Courtesy of Ashleigh Thornton -

As ShopTalk celebrates its one-year anniversary this week, we want to thank you, the small-business owners and entrepreneurs, who drive the local economy.

Whether you own a brick-and-mortar shop or commandeer a high-growth startup from Packard Place, your candor has allowed us to move beyond simple storytelling to struggles, successes and strategies.

It’s rare for a woman to run an electro-mechanical repair shop. But Peggy Hunnicutt showed us how to use it as a competitive advantage.

A year after Queen City Appliances declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, CEO Roddey Player showed us how he met what could have been a game-ending obstacle and emerged stronger and more organized.

And serial entrepreneur Shailendra Suman – whose latest device is an LED light bulb that still operates with the switch when the power goes out – showed us how his inventions go from idea to marketplace.

So in honor of the entrepreneurs of our first year, we caught up with a few of them:

BooneOakley: Taking Cheerwine national

The Charlotte advertising team that brought you Bojangles’ “It’s Bo Time!” slogan and took the national spotlight on AMC’s “The Pitch” advertising reality TV show, is now gearing up to take backyard soda brand Cheerwine national.

“It’s one of those brands a lot of us grew up here with,” BooneOakley President Greg Johnson says of the Salisbury-based company, “and we’ve wanted to work with them for a long time.”

Since it opened in 2000, BooneOakley, which has 28 employees, has beat out firms with thousands of employees for accounts with HBO, MTV, State Farm Insurance and CarMax.

And the work of their 9-month-old advertising think tank, the Eye, helped their pitch to the effervescent brand go down smoothly.

Johnson says the Eye is designed to look at long-term advertising trends and explore new strategies for marketing the agency’s customers.

“Media is changing, Johnson said. “We need to keep a constant ‘eye’ on what’s happening in marketplaces, the underpinnings of our business.”

NexTable: Adding languages

We tracked down Charlotte restaurateur Phong Luong last November, when NexTable, the reservation-management app he and his brothers-in-law developed, was in beta mode with 12 restaurant partners.

The app, which costs $49 a month, allows restaurants to manage tables in real time, store data on regular customers’ favorites, send coupons straight to phones and use texting instead of pagers.

“We want to be the first technology platform that’s robust and affordable,” Luong said.

Those original users – including local hotspots Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, Cafe Monte and Miro Spanish Grille – credited the app with transforming their customer experience, and demand has ramped up considerably since.

NexTable is now used in 70 independent restaurants, hotels and resorts around the nation. Restaurateurs from as far as Australia, Dubai and Spain are clamoring for their chance to use it.

“That’s pretty powerful,” Luong said.

Now the NexTable team has partnered with daily deal company TravelZoo and is considering what it would take to make NexTable a multilingual operation one day.

The Dog Wizard: Going cross-country

It seemed like a good idea to Gretchen Hollifield: Start a dog-training service where clients pay a flat fee and get unlimited lessons till their dog masters a certain set of skills.

Her Charlotte clients thought so, too. Which is why four years after founding her company, The Dog Wizard, in 2005, Hollifield franchised the idea.

We talked with the 39-year-old entrepreneur in February, when she’d already expanded to eight other cities, including Charleston, Atlanta and Harrisburg, Pa.

Fast-forward eight months, and Hollifeld has taken the concept cross-country with four more locations, from Orlando to Los Angeles. Aspiring franchisees must come to Charlotte for months of training at the Dog Wizard Academy, leaving with their own Dog Wizard websites, budgeting skills, marketing strategies, promotional material and answering service.

Hollifield’s goal now: Open 15 to 18 new franchise locations a year. “There are so many dog people who’d be great at this career,” she says. “They just don’t know it yet.”

Noire Naturals: Eyeing major retailers

UNC Charlotte student Ashleigh Thornton knew she was on the right track when Seventeen magazine selected her as one of three winners in its “Make Your Own Money” contest for young entrepreneurs last November.

That breakthrough let to a flood of demand for her 2-year-old company, Noire Naturals, and its all-natural hair products from customers across the U.S. and world, from Turkey to Italy, France to the United Kingdom.

She’s now sold 3,000 units through her website and five beauty supply retailers who stock her products.

After graduating in the spring, Thornton is running the business full time. Just last month, she was asked whether she wanted to feature her products in a hospitality suite for celebrities at big events, such as the American Music Awards and the Emmys.

“This has been ‘wow,’” Thornton said. “My next big goal is to get in major retailers like Target and Ulta.”

Innovia: Inventing new models

Recreational inventors Bryant Troutman, 44, and his father, Bill, had experienced the paper-towel woes: Fumble for one with wet hands and the whole roll gets soaked. Your kid grabs for a sheet and unfurls half the roll across the floor.

Their answer: An “ Innovia Home” automated paper-towel dispenser that’s mounted under a cabinet. With the wave of a hand, it metes out any brand or texture of towel according to its perforations, and learns the number of sheets you normally require.

When we wrote about the Troutmans last November, Innovia was 3 years old and the product was on shelves in Lowe’s and in the online stores of Brookstone, Amazon and Target. Now they’ve added the online stores for Costco, Home Depot and Menards to the mix.

When people asked for a wall-mounted version and then a portable dispenser, the Troutmans responded.

Both new models will be released by next summer. Says Bryant: “We have a lot of work to do.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045
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