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From idea to startup

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From idea to startup: Building a business, one Box Top at a time

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

Gina Dortch built her small business around a strategy pizza companies have used for decades:

The average American household opens the refrigerator dozens of times a day. So if a pizzeria prints menus and glues them to their pizza boxes, there’s a good chance the customer will keep that menu, stick it on the refrigerator and think of their pizza joint first, when the next craving rolls around.

But what if more than the pizza company could benefit from one of those menus?

That’s what Dortch is doing with her business, Box Top Buzz. Dortch designs and prints the glossy menus that appear on top of the pizza boxes for free. In exchange for the free printing – a cost savings for the restaurants of about $10,000 a year, she says – the restaurants let Dortch make money selling advertising on the menus.

In the year since Dortch launched Box Top Buzz, she’s built a base of nearly 40 pizzerias in the Carolinas and raised awareness for dozens of local businesses, from chiropractors to car dealerships, law firms to insurance companies. They pay an average of 5 cents per pizza box, Dortch said.

“It’s a win-win for both,” said Dortch, who recently hired two sales associates to help her meet demand.

New strategy, new start: Dortch, 38, developed the idea for her business after her friend, a pizzeria owner, was complaining about how expensive it was to include a menu on top of every pizza box.

There’s a simple solution, she told him: Ask a neighboring business if they would want to advertise on the menu for a fee of, say, $300.

The first business she asked wrote a check immediately, Dortch said.

So when a friend of hers from Tega Cay, S.C., suggested she move to the Charlotte area, Dortch decided to give the new locale – and her business idea – a start. She moved to Fort Mill in December 2012 and launched her business just two months later.

NATO, reality TV, entrepreneurship: Though Dortch is now bingeing on “Entrepreneur on Fire” podcasts, she didn’t start her career with plans to run her own business.

At age 19, she joined the U.S. Air Force, and then bounced from a mobile command post job with NATO to credit counseling and bartending in Los Angeles.

About eight years ago, she was a fan favorite on the short-lived FX reality show “Todd TV,” where the audience voted on everything in Todd’s life, from where he should work to who he should date (Enter: Dortch.)

She then got her master’s degree in elementary education and started teaching, only to realize that wasn’t her calling, either. But now, she said, she’s in her element, and she’s using her varied experience to benefit the businesses she works with.

For example, she also works with the pizzerias and businesses on their marketing strategies and how to develop their brand.

Dortch said she asks advertisers, “What sets you apart?What are you doing to get your name out now? What works for you?”

Strategic cold-calling: Dortch said she makes about 100 cold calls every Monday, in hopes that 10 percent of them will lead to appointments later in the week. And to make the cold calls more successful, Dortch uses what she calls a “money map” – the Yellow Pages.

If you just search for businesses using Google, all the results are in the same size font, and you have to click on each individual business to read about it, she said. But if you’re looking in the Yellow Pages, you can spot the companies with larger advertising budgets by the size of their ads. It’s also an easy way to learn about the business by seeing the accolades, photos and the owner listed.

Yet another benefit, she adds: When you pick up the phone book to start calling the following Monday, “You know where you left off.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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