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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 3, 2017 3 years ago

Center stage

New businesses play a big role in a thriving economy. How will two startups handle the inevitable obstacles?
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The new year-new you vibe to the first few weeks of a year is similar to the lifecycle of a startup. It's full of possibilities and promise. But there are obstacles, uncertainty and risk. Two Sarasota-based startups highlight the contrasts.

A Florida transplant from Los Angeles and the movie industry, Rachel O'Neill started her business at home three years ago, when she created whimsical and hippie-esque wall prints. The prints were made mostly with soft colors, from rainbow trees to unicorns.

O'Neill, with help from her husband, Ryan O'Neill, sold some prints on peer-to-peer e-commerce site Etsy. Sales streamed in quickly, and the couple soon expanded to pillowcases and mugs. They named the business Loftipop.

In October 2015, Amazon, through Handmade at Amazon, a curated site for handcrafted, artisan-made products, reached out to the O'Neills. The business, now with a Loftipop page on Handmade at Amazon, has taken off. “We never thought it would be a place for us,” O'Neill says, but “Amazon has been awesome and amazing.”

Sales are up 200% year over year since Loftipop teamed up with Handmade at Amazon. The most recent holiday season was a blur of print, package and ship, O'Neill says. She declines to disclose sales figures, but it's enough that she quit her job with a Sarasota web design firm to work on Loftipop full time.

Now the O'Neills face tough “next level” business questions. Should Ryan O'Neill quit his graphic design job to work full time on Loftipop, too? Should the crowded home-based business rent flex-office space? Should they buy more printers? Says O'Neill: “I have all these ideas I wanted to get to yesterday.”

The plan, for now, is to be somewhat cautious. The couple would like to avoid debt as long as possible. But even bootstrapping, O'Neill, 36, says starting her own business was the best career move she's ever made. “I've never worked as hard as I am right now,” O'Neill says. “But it's the most fulfilling thing I've ever done.”

Brian Gregorius had the perfect head start for a startup. He sold cars for seven years at a Nissan dealership in Massachusetts.

“You hear a lot of no's in the car industry,” Gregorius says. “That's really helped me.”

In 2015, Gregorius, 35, founded StoryTime, an app that's a techie stand-in for the traditional parent-child nighttime book routine. The app's ReadwithMe feature uses a live video chat and turns pages of digital books in two devices simultaneously to reproduce the in-person experience. “No matter where you are in the world,” Gregorius says, “you can read to your child.”

StoryTime, available so far only on iOS systems, charges a $10 monthly fee for the subscription-based service, which covers its catalog of more than 2,000 books. Gregorius intends to target the military and large consulting firms, coming at it from a workplace perk for well-traveled employees. “Any place where an employee spends a lot of time away from family could be a client,” Gregorius says.
StoryTime faces myriad challenges. A big one is to get book publishers to provide titles for the app. Without a robust library, the business stalls. Gregorius says it's a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Publishers want to know the site has a big audience before they commit, but they can't get a big audience without book titles. There also competitors with a similar service.

Gregorius developed StoryTime while at the University of Florida business school, post-auto sales. He and some relatives invested the money to get StoryTime going. “It's significant,” he says. “It's enough where we are all in. This isn't a flash in the pan.”

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