Buck Stops Here: Everyday Superheroes

At first thought, there aren’t many positive things that can be said about business lately. But, looking a little deeper, there is plenty of cause to celebrate. These small business owners not only survived the difficult economic conditions, but many of them even thrived. In an effort to protect their businesses and promote growth, these small business owners turned into superheroes—fighting a dismal economy, flying to new innovative heights, and rescuing their business from plummeting.

While they may not wear headbands or tights, their code of arms shines through in the success of their companies:

Elizabeth Frank President, Eye5 Marketing & Talent, Inc.

When Elizabeth Frank had the idea to start a model staffing firm in 2002, she knew she needed a professional space to interview possible employees and clients. However, with little in her bank account and two jobs (one as a nanny and the other as the assistant editor for an international geriatric urology and nephrology journal), renting office space wasn’t an option. With her nanny experience, Frank traded one day of office space a week in return for a day of childcare services, allowing her to project a more professional image of her budding business. “I’ve been through the flow of the ups and downs, bartering for space or lying about my age to seem more valid, but I feel absolutely blessed and appreciative of where I am,” Frank says. This nontraditional approach proved successful; by 2006, Eye5 Marketing & Talent doubled in revenue.

Last year, the company exceeded its revenue goal by 40 percent. Frank decided to concentrate the company’s account acquisition efforts on clients who had regular event model and brand ambassador needs, and who were likely to be more than just one-off or seasonal clients. “We made it a serious point to be incredibly proactive, and to create personal relationships with our clients to absolutely ensure continued and more repetitive bookings,” says Frank.

Lev Ekster Owner, CupcakeStop

In 2008, when life dealt Lev Esker lemons, he decided to make…cupcakes. Esker was not accepted into the firm he anticipated working for, and he missed the deadline to apply for other positions. So, he decided to go into the cupcake business in NYC. However, he soon realized that renting brick and mortar space wasn’t in his budget. And with the cupcake trend reaching a plateau, and competition abounding, Esker also had to figure out a way to set his business apart from the other cupcake businesses in the area. So, he bought a food truck. He graduated from law school on May 15, 2009, and opened his (mobile) shop on June 3, 2009—roaming around various parts of New York City selling cupcakes made at a bakery he rented at nighttime in Park Slope. While the food and hospitality business was hit particularly hard last year, Esker managed to expand. This year, he opened a retail location in Montclair, N.J., and will get another truck on the road this month. The CupcakeStop e-commerce site will also soon be available.

To make this growth possible, Esker keeps his company small and gets his hands dirty along with his employees. “Our staff is a close-knit team of six people, some full-time, some part-time, and we’ve recently brought on our first intern,” he says. While he’s delegated tasks like event planning, day-to-day employee relations like hiring and scheduling, and online operations, Lev finds it difficult to let go of having his hands in every part of his company, and says he would rather grow slowly and have a rich cupcake than to grow quickly and compromise taste. He’s also trying to stay physically lean in the cupcake business—he’s thankful for his fast metabolism in a job that has required him to taste close to 1,000 cupcakes in the last year.

Hunter Bell and Jennifer Dixon, Owners Hunter Dixon Clothing

A little over a year ago, Hunter Bell and Jennifer Dixon decided to hire their first intern for their clothing line, Hunter Dixon. Little did they know this intern would turn into their first employee, be one of their best decisions, and help rescue the business and expand their clothing line. Heather Parsons was brought onto the team as an intern last year, and was hired full time in March to handle operations and customer service.

Because of Parsons’ helpfulness as an intern, Bell and Dixon were inspired to keep hiring interns to help their company grow.

Now, Hunter Dixon has four to five interns per semester who work for college credit doing design, fitting, production, and shipping. Interns have become a secret weapon in the company’s ability to do more with less. “There is no way Hunter and I could do all of the tasks necessary without interns,” Dixon says. “Luckily, both of us have done all of these things and know what it takes to manage them, so we can help teach them.”