For Past Winners, Spirit Award Proved a Game Changer

It goes something like this: First there are the excruciating months of coaching and presentations, writing and refining. The white-knuckled, sick-stomached rounds of elimination. The night of, there is the nervous mingling, and the pounding heart as the announcement is made. Then the fist-pumping, high-fiving victory. The jubilation, the lime light and the afterglow.
Finally, there’s the next day, when the realization sets in that there is still a business to run, and a million things can still go wrong.
Winning Mayor Kathy Taylor’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Award is an accomplishment, to be sure. But it is the years after that truly define what will become of those businesses and their owners.
To find out, the Tulsa Business Journal sat down with three winners from years past to find out what has changed, why it changed, and where they’re going.
Cash is King
Gerald Buckley, founder of Grocio.com, a comparison shopping engine for groceries, and winner of last year’s contest, said the monetary award, $30,000, was crucial to his rapid expansion.
“There were two big capital events this past year,” he said. “The first was winning the Spirit Award. The other was being awarded one of [the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology’s Technology Business Finance Program] technology grants for $100,000. If either of those or both of those hadn’t happened, I would still be doing this, but I wouldn’t be nearly where I am today.”
But more than the money, Buckley said, it was the recognition he valued the most.
“The capital is nice, but it was the validation that helped more than anything else,” he said. “The local business leaders that were judges and coaches felt the way that they did, and that in turn has helped open up a lot of doors along the way that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to get the kind of appointments with people that this made possible.”
Media Darlings
Everyone likes a winner — nobody more than the media.
Buckley said the attention garnered after winning the award was almost more valuable than the prize money.
“The night of the Spirit Award, and for the following week or so, free registration went bonkers,” Buckley said. “My first-year projection for registered accounts was met within six months, and that was due in large part to such favorable local media coverage, which was quickly picked up nationally.”
Since winning the award, Buckley has grown Grocio to having a total membership of more than 20,000, spanning all 50 states.
“In the Internet business people call that sort of thing the ‘Digg effect,’” he said. “Or, in traditional media it’s called the ‘Oprah effect.’ Sites get swamped when a major publicity event like that happens. The trick now is to stick to our plan, launch all our products and live up to everyone’s expectations.”
Structure and Discipline
Tiffany Bjorlie, founder of Eco Baby + Kids, formerly Lundeby’s Eco Baby, and last year’s third-place winner, said more than media attention, her business benefitted from the structure she gained.
“The whole process of the Spirit Award really got me to thinking in a broader direction and a more structured, business-minded direction,” she said. “Opening the store for us was just kind of something that happened. It wasn’t really anything we decided on. And it was one of those things that from the get-go proved to be a viable business, but I’m not a really business-minded person, so it helped to have help writing down a structured business plan.”
Ned Bruha, founder of The Skunk Whisperer Inc., a humane pest and wildlife removal and prevention company, said the formation of a business plan was crucial for his business as well.
“It has really been a night and day difference,” Bruha said. “The process really made us look at our business plan under a microscope.”
Bruha said while he formed a fairly rigid plan during the contest, he has since learned that plans also change.
“Business plans change, and you really have to learn to change with it,” he said.
Bjorlie concurred.
“You have your direction and your goals, but you have to constantly keep direction of where you are and tailor things,” she said.
Bjorlie, whose personal ideals drive her business, a store that specializes in people- and planet-friendly children’s items, said the formation of a written business plan has been helpful in unexpected ways.
“We try to do things a little bit differently here, but you can’t go against the grain on everything,” she said. “I learned over the past year that there are a lot of compromises that you have to make along the way, so it’s good to have a business plan that spells out the things you aren’t willing to compromise on. So far, we’ve been able to use it and go in good directions as we expand.”
Growth Spurts
Expansion seems to have been the buzz word among past years’ winners, and most of them attribute such an ability to their participation in the Spirit Award.
“I don’t think I would have been willing to expand had it not been for the Spirit Award,” Bjorlie said. “It primed me for so many things that I was going to have to do that if I hadn’t done, I wouldn’t say the store wouldn’t be here, but I might not.”
Bjorlie recently moved to a larger store location at Brookside’s Center 1, which she said had “proved to us to be vital to us sticking around.” But her biggest expansion, she said, was on the Web.
“Had it not been for the Spirit Award, I would not have been willing to invest the countless hours in as I have in the Web site,” she said. “But the Web site has been crucial to our advertising structure. People can get on there and see what is new and what kind of sales we are having, which has been key, and we have expanded our online gift registry, which has been a big boost.”
Bjorlie said as she comes up to the three-years-in-business mark, she will be looking at expanding again.
“I’ve got my eye on some different markets where we might go if we expand,” she said. “The three options are franchising, opening another store or working with some stores on a possible buyout. I would rather go with the first two, but if I see that someone else has the vision to make it more than we could, I may be open to that.”
Buckley has also seen expansion, especially that of his workload.
“A lot more variety of products than I had initially expected to have this early,” he said. “The biggest news, though, is that where before I had a day job to support this, I am now full-time Grocio.”
Buckley encourages locals to watch his business over the next few months for developments.
“We’re a dot-com, so it’s almost like a shark,” he said. “You have to stay in motion. If you aren’t in motion, something is really wrong.”
Bruha offered perhaps the most intriguing outlook for his business.
“We are expanding outside Oklahoma and opening offices nationwide,” he said. “We have found a way to expand our business 100 times more rapidly than before. I can’t be specific, but you’ll know when it happens, because you’ll see it on TV.”



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