A Driving Force

Since Mayor Kathy Taylor’s election four years ago, the City of Tulsa has made unprecedented strides in promoting and igniting local entrepreneurs, helping create new businesses and new jobs in and around the city.
With programs like the Tulsey Awards, the Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards and the Collaboratorium, Taylor and her team of business-minded supporters are helping local entrepreneurs not only elaborate on their ideas, but also start and maintain thriving small businesses that are helping support and grow the local economy.
The Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, in its third year with the 2009 awards process launching on April 2, is a partnership with SpiritBank, inspired in part by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, that was born out of a desire to motivate entrepreneurs to start their businesses in Tulsa, Taylor said.
“What many of the past contestants tell us is that the award process is more important to their entrepreneurial growth than the award itself. The coaching, judging and critical questioning has helped them think strategically about their business. They gain the skills to sell their business model in a concise way and, in the process, support getting the real value differentiation of their business plan down on paper, which is a challenging feat,” Taylor said.
“The intention of the Mayor’s Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award is to make it sustainable so it can be carried on. While this began due to my personal passion, leadership from the chair of the Spirit Award, Sean Griffin, and the entrepreneurial team, are working to create a replicable model – one that will remain flexible enough to meet the needs of an ever changing entrepreneurial environment,” she said.
An offshoot of the Spirit Award is the Collaboratorium, 10th floor office space in a Kanbar property at 111 W. Fifth St., that will house entrepreneurs and offer them additional resources. As part of his winning of the award. Grocio.com founder Gerald Buckley will receive space in the center when the facility opens early this year.
Griffin is leading the Collaboratorium through the planning process and is working to define how the space will be used and what services will be offered. The Tulsa Business Journal asked entrepreneurs who participated in the Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award t how it impacted their businesses:
Apples and Oranges
Gerald Buckley, winner of the 2008 Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards, devised the idea for Grocio.com as he and his wife were leaving the grocery store after a particularly expensive trip.
“I thought, ‘Surely there’s a way, before our next shopping trip, to put in our grocery list (on an Internet search) and compare prices,’” Buckley said.
But there wasn’t. When Buckley launches Grocio.com this month, he’ll launch the first ever “apples to apples” grocery comparison Web site.
More than 3,000 potential users nationwide have registered at Grocio.com. When the site is up, users will be able to, free of charge, input their grocery shopping lists and compare prices at local participating stores. The site will also offer free, printable coupons that coincide with the user’s list.
The site is also free to grocers; Buckley will make money off of a distribution fee charged to manufacturers for the coupons downloaded from his site.
“We provide basic, bare-knuckles comparison. If someone wants to know what orange Jell-O is going for in Tulsa, they can search for that and we’re going to spill the beans. Some grocers don’t like that, and some do,” said Buckley.
He said some grocers feel comfortable with how their prices will compare, while others have said they want more control on how their prices are marketed on the site.
He hopes to launch the site this month in Tulsa, with launches following in Oklahoma City, Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco at dates yet to be determined.
As winner of the Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, Buckley received a $30,000 prize from SpiritBank, which he said has helped accelerate the launch of his business.
Safer Sitters
Adrienne and David Kallweit founded Seeking Sitters in 2004 after failing to find the reliable, flexible care they needed for their children.
Adrienne Kallweit was a personal investigator who required on-call care for her children four hours at a time and often at strange hours of the day.
When she became interested in hiring a full-time sitter, she ran a background check and discovered some unsettling things in her candidate’s past.
Within a two-week period in 2004, Adrienne said she and her husband traveled to Denver and Austin and ran into the same dilemma in both places — they failed to find safe, reliable babysitters available when they needed them.
“We wrote our business plan on the seven-hour trip home from Austin.” Adrienne said. That night, David set up the Seeking Sitters’ Web site.
Their goal was to provide reliable, trustworthy babysitters to families nationwide. They opened their business locally in 2004 and started franchising it in 2006, first in Oklahoma City and then in Dallas.
Now, there are 23 franchises across the country, with 138 active sitters in Tulsa and close to 800 nationwide.
Seeking Sitters won the 2007 Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award and received a $25,000 check from SpiritBank, which they put into marketing their business, Adrienne said.
“It gave us the enthusiasm to take our business to the next level,” she said.
Oh, Baby
When Tiffany Bjorlie tells the story of opening her retail store Lundeby’s Eco Baby, she almost always includes the line “We were planning to start a family and had a store by accident.”
Last year, she and her husband Jeremy were thinking about starting a family. With Tiffany’s background in working with children with autism and Jeremy’s as a researcher and engineer, the couple had become interested in exploring the ways in which their living habits impacted the environment and taking steps to reduce that impact.
“We started to change everything about our lives,” Tiffany Bjorlie said, “especially what we buy. We started to look at the story behind it – how it’s made, who’s making it and how those people are treated and the chemicals used in making it.”
As they began to think about expanding their family, either through becoming pregnant or adopting a child, Tiffany said they began to ask themselves how to do so while incorporating their newfound principles.
As they began to seek out non-toxic and organic bedding, diapers, clothes and toys for their would-be bundle of joy, they found products that appealed to their sustainable sensibilities online, but there were no stores in Tulsa geared toward offering products like they wanted. So, they opened one.
The Bjorlies opened their store March 22, 2008, and shortly thereafter applied for the Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.
Tiffany Bjorlie said she was surprised, then, when her store was awarded third prize and $2,500 from SpiritBank, which they used toward setting up their new mom registry at lundebys.com.
“Had I not gone through that process … then I wouldn’t be as confident as I am today,” said Tiffany.
Sleep Soundly
When Beth Alaback’s second-born child was a baby, she learned that the bedding commonly sold for infants was actually declared unsafe by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Because the bumpers commonly used in cribs for aesthetic reasons and to cushion the bump of little heads against wood are so soft and the string used to tie them long, the AAP had begun to warn parents of choking and suffocation hazards associated with the bedding.
But, there were not many alternatives, and most parents were forced to simply remove the bumpers.
Alaback started Lidy Mac LLC to offer parents another alternative. When approaching bedding manufacturers about ways in which to construct and sell safer bumpers, Alaback was told the changes she suggested would be too cost-prohibitive.
“I had to become a manufacturer,” Alaback said. “Simply advocating for change wasn’t working.”
She started Lidy Mac and began manufacturing Bumpaire, crib bumpers that are thin and firm, that allow for circulation of air onto the mattress, that are divided into sections and that have no long ties that can suffocate the child. She addressed all of the problems that the AAP said make conventional bumpers unsafe.
“It was so simple it’s embarrassing,” Alaback said.
She said Lidy Mac really didn’t take off until she applied for the 2008 Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.
“”The awards process forces you to take what can be very overwhelming – starting a business – and learn by doing. You have to jump through various, very structured hoops,” Alaback said.
Alaback was awarded $5,000 from SpiritBank and used that capital to increase her company’s advertising presence. Originally, she planned for Bumpaire to be sold online at www.bumpaire.com, but she’s since received requests from stores around the country who want to carry her product. Locally, the bumpers are sold at Lolly Garden in Utica Square.
Thought Processes
Attempting to define Mike Whitaker’s brainchild Idea Gateway is almost as difficult as defining an idea.
“Idea Gateway is an entrepreneur’s resource for evaluating ideas for their ultimate merit, whether they are good or bad, in the process of creating an investable, viable business” Whitaker explained.
Whitaker is a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” having started his first business while he was in high school. He opened a successful manufacturing business in 1995 in Oklahoma City, and in 2007, “decided to start something in Tulsa to create multiple businesses in rapid time.”
For the entrepreneur, Idea Gateway attempts to “bridge the gap between people who invest in new ideas and the public services that help business plans get written and the basic, foundational support given to those ideas.”
“We think like investors are going to think, and we think like entrepreneurs think,” Whitaker said. “We save people a lot of time and pain before the they go to investors.”
Whitaker said his company doesn’t necessarily have “clients,” because he doesn’t collect fees for the services he provides young, start-up businesses. Whitaker, through Idea Gateway, submitted two business plans to the 2008 Mayor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards – Oovation, a social network content portal, and StartMOM, which matches professional mothers with part-time income opportunities.
StartMOM was one of the top 25 ideas in the contest, and Oovation was one of the seven finalists.

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