Entrepreneurs tackle—and overcome—the odds
Rick Marini ’94 is moving at warp speed—working 80 hours a week, barely stopping to eat, hardly pausing to sleep. The pace is relentless. But Marini is pumped. He’s building a new company, and he’s pretty sure it’s his billion-dollar opportunity. “Being an entrepreneur is a rollercoaster—you have to have a strong stomach,” says Marini. “It’s hard, but I love it.”
Best known as the co-founder of Tickle.com, the social networking site he sold to Monster Worldwide for over $100 million, Marini is now on to his latest venture, BranchOut.com, a professional networking app on Facebook that has dazzled the cyber world with its growth and attracted big-name investors. It also landed Marini an invitation to a private dinner at the Louvre in Paris, where he found himself chatting with Google founder Eric Schmidt, Skype founder Niklas Zennstroem and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. “We were basically sharing advice, trading insights on how the Internet can increase economic growth,” says Marini, describing the eG8 Forum hosted by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The story of how Marini came to be known as the visionary behind the Internet’s “next big thing” (as some industry watchers have dubbed BranchOut), begins in Merrimack, N.H., where he grew up playing sports year round. As point guard on the basketball court, he had to manage the tempo of the game and learn to work closely with a team. On the tennis court, he learned self-reliance and focus. He credits his dad with helping him develop the drive to excel. “I’d come home and he’d have a full workout designed for me,” says Marini.
When Marini headed off to UNH’s Whittemore School of Business and Economics, he approached his education like the businessman he would later become. “I wanted a good return on my investment,” he says. “I wanted to get the most out of every class. I talked to my professors and I took advantage of their office hours.” Marini’s diligence earned him a financial analyst position at Fisher Scientific when he graduated. Three years later, after impressing colleagues with his talent—and his penchant for working nearly round the clock—Marini was on his way to Harvard Business School.
At Harvard, he met James Currier, another New Hampshire native, who became a good friend. In 1999, with the dot-com revolution in full swing, Marini turned down a high-paying job offer and helped Currier launch Tickle.com, which became the biggest personality-testing web
site in the world—and the No. 18 site overall. Questions like “What breed of dog are you?” and “Who is your celebrity match?” flew around the Internet with pass-along emails, becoming early proof of the power of viral marketing. After selling the company in 2004, Marini stayed on for a couple of years, and then took off on a round-the-world trip. “It had been five long years, and I was pretty burned out,” he says.
As he traveled, Marini kept up from afar with the ever-changing world of high-tech startups. “I remember sitting on a beach in Thailand and running to a nearby Internet cafe to check the tech news back home. I’d read about all my friends who were starting and selling companies or becoming venture capitalists. I wanted to be back in the game.”
In 2008, Marini returned to San Francisco and launched SuperFan, a social entertainment site. But one day he was trying to help a friend who needed an introduction at a particular company—and he couldn’t recall which of his 1,500 Facebook friends worked there. “I had no way to figure it out,” he says, “so I asked my head of engineering to help me build a widget to identify the right person in Facebook. We realized immediately that there was huge potential here.”
Five weeks later, BranchOut was up and running, and the media was buzzing about the new “LinkedIn for Facebook,” which capitalizes on the idea that your real friends are the ones mostly likely to help you find a job. A few days after the launch, Marini had calls from eight venture capitalists. A week later, he had a $6 million commitment from Accel, a top investing firm and a major investor in Facebook. Marini’s “next big thing” was taking off.
“Rick’s got the ability to throw himself against the wall again and again,” says Currier, who is one of Marini’s investors. “He’s fearless.” Plus, people like working for him. “It’s a testament to Rick as a manager that so many former Tickle colleagues came onboard again,” says Currier. Marini, for his part, talks about his employees like a coach, praising their individual strengths and celebrating their teamwork. “Everyone has equity in the company,” he notes. “That’s something I believe in strongly.” Their high-tech office environment is set against exposed brick walls and filled with technology from the past—turntables and speakers, old cameras and musical instruments. Ping-pong and foosball tables take a serious beating during stress-busting game sessions, and big-screen TVs keep track of BranchOut’s numbers with constant updates.
Last spring, when the company made some significant improvements to the site, those numbers skyrocketed from 30,000 users to more than a million—in a single week. And recently, Marini secured another $18 million in funding. The sports fanatic pulls out one of his favorite analogies: “Just like a champion athlete, you’re going to be on some winning teams and some losing teams.” He’s planning on a big win this time around. Meanwhile, his own fitness regimen includes regular yoga sessions. Every Saturday morning, the cutting-edge, 21st-century entrepreneur with the nonstop work ethic rolls out his mat and devotes himself to an ancient ritual. He spends one hour chanting, posing, emptying his mind and—something he never does the rest of the week—sitting still. Then it’s back to the marathon.
Doing Good by Doing Well
Tameria Lanier, 23, knows what it’s like to be without a steady job. For three years, the single mother of two young boys lay awake at night worrying about how to feed her family. Some of those nights—the hardest ones—were spent in homeless shelters. She wanted to work, but she couldn’t afford childcare. Today Lanier has a job she loves, working as a stitcher for a company that provides a good wage, health benefits, career training and—almost too good to be true—full-time childcare. She also has hope. She’s motivated. And she has her pride back.
That’s the whole idea behind MoJo, a company devoted, as its name suggests, to Moms and Jobs. More than 80 percent of the employees at this Lowell, Mass., factory, which produces apparel and accessories, are single mothers. And all of them feel they’ve been given a chance to get their lives back on track, one stitch at a time. Entrepreneurs—and identical twin brothers—Tom Aley ’88 and Darr Aley ’88 launched MoJo about two years ago, inspired by a single fact: 1.5 million children in the United States are homeless. “How is it,” says Darr, “that we’ve been unable to solve what has become an institutionalized problem in our country?” They decided that what these kids needed was some sort of magical charm or spell (the original meaning of the word “mojo”) to help change their lives.
The Aleys, who both have children of their own, learned that nearly 40 percent of child support in the United States is never paid, that about 27 percent of single mothers live under the poverty line and that mothers who lose their jobs wait up to three years for childcare subsidies. Suddenly, the answer seemed obvious: if single moms could get jobs, maybe the relentless cycle of homelessness among children could be broken.
While they may have been inspired by nonprofit motives, the Aleys chose a decidedly for-profit business model to power their vision, one that would use profits to fund their socially responsible idea. “But we had to figure out what we could sell,” says Tom.
Software was what the brothers knew best—it was how they got their entrepreneurial feet wet and, ultimately, it was how they achieved their success. Both had started, or joined in the early stages, a number of different technology ventures, all of which were eventually acquired by bigger companies. Most recently, the two of them co-founded Generate, a software analytics firm acquired by Dow Jones in 2008. Today, along with MoJo, they are also launching Rapid Buyr.com, a private buying club often described as “Groupon for business buyers.”
But in the midst of all the success, another idea was taking hold. “We’d often get together and try to think of something that could be really cool, but have a social impact,” says Darr. “When we had our lucky exit from Generate in 2008, we said, ‘This is the time.'” Eventually, they landed on apparel as a product that people with few or no job skills could be trained to make. To produce its jackets and vests, hats and scarves, MoJo partnered with Polartec, famous for its recycled microfleece. “It’s not about the jackets, though,” Darr insists. “Our goal was something sustainable that could empower the moms, and then we’d have the potential to change the lives of these children.”
It hasn’t been easy. The risks of a socially responsible startup are not so different from their technology ventures. But the burden feels greater. “With a software company, if people get laid off, they can typically find another job,” says Darr. “Failing at this effort means throwing people back into poverty.”
Driven by their mission, the brothers are expanding the Lowell plant and opening a second site in Oakland, Calif., with Detroit and New Orleans in the works for next year. The company has signed on to produce apparel for some corporate customers, including Accenture, Morgan Stanley and Staples. They will also sell MoJo clothing at colleges, including UNH, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Pittsburgh, Syracuse University and Northeastern. MoJo has attracted celebrity attention, too, providing fleece blankets for the Dave Matthews Band, Faith Hill and other artists.
The fledgling company is sustained in part by the more than $1 million the family has invested, but also by the spirit that drives their efforts. The twins have always been a good team, according to younger sister Cara, MoJo’s president and COO. “Tom thrives on coming up with new opportunities. Darr has a brilliant marketing mind. And they love ping-ponging ideas back and forth,” she says. “Both are incredible strategic thinkers. Together they are a formidable force.”
They also have a good sense of humor, a lifesaver when things get stressful. That humor goes back to their growing-up years—including plenty of stories about attending UNH as twins. “Darr was pretty popular,” recalls Tom, who sometimes found himself trying to prove his identity to his brother’s dates. Once, he even had to march a skeptical woman over to Darr’s dorm room to make his point.
Tom, an economics major, and Darr, a health management and policy major, also recall UNH as the start of their entrepreneurial efforts. They launched the university’s debate team as well as a coupon company they marketed to students. “The ability to take chances is something I learned from my college experience,” says Tom, noting that both he and Darr were involved with a number of unremarkable startups before they became successful. “We made a number of mistakes along the way,” he says. Today, that willingness to take risks and keep going, together with the bond the brothers have built, is having a far-reaching impact.
When CBS News aired a segment about MoJo, the Aleys got calls from community leaders around the country asking for programs in their cities. But the Aleys are concentrating on growing carefully. “It has to be about more than just the bottom line,” says Tom. “It’s about how much you can do to support your employees.” Along with the string of benefits they offer, the Aleys have launched a “Momtrepreneur” program to encourage stitchers to try out their own designs and ideas during “open sew” sessions. When one employee showed the Aleys the coin purse she’d created, they decided to feature it on the MoJo web site. Before long, the company received a $50,000 order, a percentage of which will go directly to the creator herself. “When we told her the news,” says Darr, “she had tears in her eyes. And it was obvious that her young son, who was sitting next to her, was proud of his mom.” Fine craftsmanship. A hard-working mother. An admiring child. Just like that, all the hope and all the potential of the Aleys’ better-kind-of-business vision, came together—in a single “good mojo” moment.
Networking Second to None
Morreen Rukin Bayles ’88 was a brand-new college graduate who’d spent more time in the classroom than on the job when she had to confront the guys in the kitchen—the tough-talking line cooks. Bayles had landed an assistant manager job at Houlihan’s in Cherry Hill, N.J., the No. 2 restaurant in the popular national chain, but it had been rough going. She was the new kid in town, and some of the old-timers were making sure she knew it. Finally, she’d had enough. “One night,” says Bayles, “in the middle of a hectic shift with a dining room full of customers, I called the kitchen staff, one by one, into my office, closed the door, and laid it on the line.” Heart pounding and hands shaking, she delivered an ultimatum about teamwork and cooperation. “It was scary,” she says. “But it worked.” Bayles’ honest, no-nonsense approach to management became one of her guiding principles. It also made the gruff line cooks cry—when she told them a few years later that she was moving on to a new job.
As her career developed, Bayles worked as a recruiter, a director of training, and finally the director of operational services for a number of big chains, including Red Lobster and Boston Chicken. She hired managers, oversaw training programs and orchestrated the installation of new computer systems and leadership development programs. Often responsible for more than 100 restaurants, she traveled constantly, once putting 47,000 miles on her car in a single year. By the time she had overseen the conversion of Boston Chicken to Boston Market, working ruthlessly long days for several years, Bayles was ready for a change.
The first thing she did after leaving her job in 1997 was to launch a serious networking effort. “I knew I wanted to focus on training and development and restaurant operations—I like the challenge of juggling 15 things at once,” Bayles says. “But I wanted to do it for many different companies.” She started by putting together a list of 50 names. “Then I called all those people,” she says, “and told them about my business idea.” One of those calls landed her a three-day consulting job that turned into 63 days. As soon as she finished one project, she started networking to find the next one. By the end of 1997, her networking had turned into a business, Creative Restaurant Solutions, which has grown into a consulting firm that works with a slew of national chains—Legal Sea Foods, Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s, Seasons 52–as well as smaller independent operations.
Known for her leadership and management training programs, Bayles also offers exit surveys to her clients. “We call it ‘getting the real scoop,'” she explains. “In a field with extremely high turnover, it’s critical for our clients to know how they can improve retention.” Over time, exit surveys have grown to be about 40 percent of the CRS business.
And then, in late 2008, the economy crashed. “I thought if one more call came in—another client needing to cancel due to the economy—I’d have to close my doors,” she says. But she knew what she had to do. “The punching gloves went on,” she says. “I hit the phones and began networking.” By the end of 2009, business had started to turn around. “Last year,” reports Bayles, “was our best ever.”
Networking did more than help her build—and then save—her business. At a Toastmasters meeting, Bayles met her future husband. “He was the membership director, and I thought he just wanted me to join the organization,” she says. When a giant bouquet of flowers arrived the next day, she realized she might have met more than a new colleague.
Today she is happily married to her Toastmasters date, fellow entrepreneur Steve Bayles, a digital photographer. And her business is flourishing—she was recognized recently as one of Pennsylvania’s top 50 women in business. But her family is best known locally for a joint entrepreneurial venture—Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which they run every Tuesday night throughout the summer. The money they raise goes to a charity founded in memory of a local girl whose lemonade-stand business raised $1 million for cancer research before she died of the disease at the age of 8. The Bayles’ stand—among the top out of 5,000 in the country—has raised $80,000 in six years. “It was my daughter who got us going with this,” says Morreen of her 7-year-old, Sydnie. “She’s focused, she knows how to give direction—especially to her parents! And she’s a great networker, making friends easily with donors.” Sounds like an entrepreneur in the making.
Brewing up a Storm
If it hadn’t been for a failed real estate deal, Fred Forsley ’83 might never have found his way to the beer—craft beer, that is. Now one of the biggest microbreweries in the nation (ranked at 28 out of 1,750), the Shipyard Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, started almost by accident in 1992, when Forsley stepped in to help save a landmark restaurant and pub in Kennebunkport, Maine, from creditors. Instead of becoming a landlord, though, he wound up as a business owner and started Federal Jack’s Restaurant & Brew Pub, the birthplace of Shipyard ales. Two years later, he opened Shipyard’s Portland site, and by 1996, the firm was the fastest growing craft-beer producer in the country.
It was also facing daunting financial challenges. Forsley had racked up $400,000 in debt on eight different credit cards and was losing sleep over how to make payroll. “I’d basically borrowed everything I could,” he says. “It was one of those moments when you know you’re an entrepreneur.” A deal with the Miller beer company helped keep Forsley going and extended Shipyard’s distribution throughout the country. But a few years later, the winds changed again. “I got lucky,” says Forsley, who was able to purchase Miller’s shares back when the corporate giant decided not to focus on craft beer brands.
Today, Forsley is proud of the fact that Shipyard is independently owned. He and his two partners, cousin Bruce Forsley and master brewer Alan Pugsley, have increased production from 1,200 barrels of beer in 1992 to more than 100,000 barrels in 2010. Shipyard ales are sold in 40 states, and Forsley has opened eight restaurants with more on tap. The company has also acquired several other labels and won plenty of awards.
Forsley wasn’t headed for a career in business—never mind award-winning beer brewing—when he started at UNH. He was, in fact, taking psychology classes when a friend encouraged him to try an internship in real estate. “That was the light-bulb moment for me,” says Forsley. At 19, he started Fred Forsley Realty and became one of the youngest brokers in Maine to own his own firm. Through the years, he was involved with a few other startups in the fields of recycling, health care and marketing, but with Shipyard he found his passion.
“We brew our beer the old way—in small batches of 50-100 barrels. It’s labor-intensive, and you have to be attentive to every detail and methodically stick to the recipe,” says Forsley. He credits Pugsley as the mastermind behind Shipyard’s 17 recipes, which include favorites like Wild Blueberry and the seasonal Pumpkinhead. Along with great Maine water, the critical ingredient in every recipe is the yeast; Pugsley brought it with him from the Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, England, and it adds a distinctive flavor.
When Forsley sums up his entrepreneurial philosophy, he doesn’t choose words like “focus” or “persistence” or “grit”—all of which have been integral to his success. “We try to have fun,” he says. “That’s our whole approach. We focus on where our customers are—ski resorts, golf courses, sailing, which are all fun places. And we try to connect with them and get involved with the community.” Along with plenty of fun, Shipyard has had a few encounters with fame, too. Martha Stewart used the company’s Old Thumper Ale in one of her recipes. And Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton both have had tours of the brewery. “We’re a product that crosses political boundaries,” notes Forsley, chuckling.
When things get tough, as they often do if you’re running a business, Forsley likes to point out that he can always draw on another of his UNH experiences. “If you survive Stoke,” he says, recalling the famous—or, infamous—dorm, “you can survive anything.” Forsley’s accidental beer brewing business has, in fact, done more than survive—it’s thrived. And while he intends to keep growing, Forsley has no intention of selling—his son, stepdaughters and several nieces and nephews are already part of the team. “Some people build a business to sell it,” he says. “But my goal is to keep it in the family forever. I’ve put it in my will.” Sounds like a plan worthy of a toast—with a frosty mug of Shipyard ale.
Gretchen Eastman ’11 and her five co-workers never thought they’d be back on campus this fall. But that was before the giant red gift box—the one that takes a couple of people to lift and anchor to the top of a car. Last spring, Eastman and the others were weighing job options. Matt Robinson ’11 had an offer from Liberty Mutual. Nick Blanchette ’11 had a position lined up with a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. But this fall, on move-in day, the new alums were back on campus to promote their new business, Regaalo.
A variation on the Spanish word for “gift,” Regaalo started as a project for the annual Holloway Prize competition held at UNH’s Whittemore School of Business and Economics. The Regaalo team came in second out of 45 entries. Designed to make gift-giving simple for families and their far-away students, the online business connects merchants, parents and students in a shopping-giving-receiving triangle that supports the local economy, eliminates shipping costs and provides targeted, useful gifts. The idea attracted the attention of Mark Galvin, managing director of the N.H. Innovation Commercialization Center, who invited the group to become a resident startup company at the center’s Pease Tradeport location. “Regaalo clearly had the crossover of a great idea with a huge market potential, along with a dedicated team,” says Galvin, a successful entrepreneur himself.
Designed to accelerate the growth of high-tech startups, the center provides an address, office space, infrastructure support and help raising capital. Perhaps most important of all, companies get consulting help from industry veterans, including financial adviser Roger Tuttle and marketing executive Alan Hauf. UNH, which has part ownership in the center, will benefit financially as companies become successful. The university also gets help accelerating the commercialization of some of its most promising research and technology.
One resident company, for example, founded by Glen Miller, UNH professor of chemistry, has created a cutting-edge semiconductor coating for use in organic light-emitting diodes. (Read more about Miller’s company on the UNH Magazine website)
The Regaalo students-turned-employees, meanwhile, with guidance from the center’s staff, have built a bigger team, bringing on extra technical support and CEO Dennis Honan, a former Lands’ End executive, to get the company onto stable financial footing. Enthusiasm is high. “What I’m most excited about,” says Eastman, marketing specialist, “is the reaction from parents.” When the team tested their idea at orientation last June, they were hoping a couple hundred people would sign up as potential customers. They got so many in the first few hours that they raised their goal to 600. In the end, they hit 1,000. The results confirmed their hunch that they were on to something big—that the giant red gift box holds within it the promise of success.
The giant stone mill buildings along the Lamprey River in Newmarket, N.H., once rattled with the sounds of industry, churning out textiles, then shoes. Today, the mills are quiet. Condo dwellers live in some of the high-ceilinged buildings. Others have stood empty for a generation or more.
But on the second floor of Newmarket’s No. 5 Mill, entrepreneur Doug Clark ’79 is cultivating a new idea—one he hopes will bring the sounds of shoe manufacturing back to New England, and also help to transform the industry’s environmentally unfriendly reputation. The CEO of New England Footwear reels off the grim statistics: Of the 20 billion pairs of shoes manufactured each year, most eventually wind up in landfills. In the trash, their glue emits toxic volatile organic compounds. Shipping from overseas factories generates 2.25 million tons of carbon each year.
Clark is out to create a brand-new footprint for the shoe industry—and it starts with his concept for a GoLite shoe, partly made with a vegetable-based polymer that eliminates the need for glue and makes it instantly “greener.” GoLite’s “soft against the ground” technology puts a firm layer next to the foot and a soft layer against the ground, to absorb shock. “It’s the best of a clog and a sneaker combined,” says Clark, who also has a prototype for a soy-based shoe that can be added to your compost pile. “Our goal,” he says, “is innovative green design that produces superior performance—and is made in America.”
The company got a boost in 2011 from the Green Launching Pad, a joint venture between UNH and the state of New Hampshire designed to develop green technologies and create green jobs. Its $1.5 million in federal stimulus funding also supports a number of other companies, including Revolution Energy, which makes alternative energy more affordable, and Blue2Green, which promotes hydroelectric power production by restoring dams.
Clark traces his entrepreneurial passion for new ideas directly to a UNH history course. “Jeff Diefendorf challenged us to stop reciting and start thinking,” says Clark, whose father, Charles Clark, was a professor of history at UNH. “I realized I could do more than read and rewrite—I could read and re-think. I could come up with a whole new idea.”
That realization stayed with Clark, who started his career as a lab technician at Nike’s sports research lab in Exeter, N.H. Clark moved to Reebok and then to Timberland, where he eventually became chief innovation officer of the company’s Invention Factory. When he left Timberland in 2008 to start his own company, he was joined by two other former Timberland employees: Tom Montgomery ’81, who oversees operations, and Scott Briggs ’81, who handles sales and marketing. Clark’s wife, Kim ’00G, is vice president of human resources, and another alum, Holly Craig ’93, is manager of sales support.
“Being an entrepreneur is a quest to do something no one’s ever done,” says Clark, “and to leave the world a better place.” If you’re making eco-friendly shoes, of course, the mark you make on history is, essentially, invisible. Success is measured not only in shoes produced, but in shoes recycled–shoes that decompose and vanish, without a trace.