The New Entrepreneur

Four astounding success stories.

Sometimes it’s a big idea. Sometimes it’s a big opportunity. Many times, though, success as an entrepreneur is about being right—having the right idea at the right time in the right place. The enterprises here prove that, not only can success come in small packages, but that hard work and commitment to customers and employees can make those small packages into something special.

Photograph by Jared Castaldi The Better Mousetrap   
Bob Ilis | Angenta

Nine-11 ended Bob Ilis’ career as a pilot for Swissair, but the end of one thing is often the beginning of something new. So Ilis founded Angenta Technologies in Wilmington, an online retailer of computers and peripherals. “I had this idea to build a company in a unique way,” says Ilis. “I wanted the customer to drive the growth, rather than the investor.” His model: The customer’s purchase of Angenta products—not investors—provides capital for growth. “Roughly, for every $1,000 purchased, customers will receive a stock certificate worth around $30 or $35,” Ilis says. “That’s on top of already getting the best price on equipment they will find anywhere in the market.” Ilis’s goal is to have half the company eventually owned by customers. “Why not have a company owned by the people who’ve actually built it through their purchases?” he says. Sometimes building a better mousetrap is more about the mouse than the trap.

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Photograph by Jared Castaldi A Targeted Approach  
Lee Mikles | The Archer Group

In 2003 Lee Mikles and Patrick Callahan decided not to open the doors of their Internet-interactive marketing company to any and all. “We believed from the beginning that if we selected the right client in the right segment of business, we would be successful,” says Mikles. Those clients turned out to be pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and convenience chain Wawa. “I started an earlier business that had focused on pharmaceuticals, so Pfizer was a natural fit for Archer,” Mikles says. “Wawa may seem quite different, but is similar in the sense that both companies consist of diverse business units that must be served.” The Archer Group specializes in all forms of digital, interactive marketing and advertising including Internet, web design and CD-Rom. “Business advertising is changing,” Mikles says. “Today’s digital budgets represent 25 percent of a firm’s total marketing investment, up from just 5 percent a few years ago.” Add J.P. Morgan Chase, Warner Bros., W.L. Gore and DuPont to its list of clients, and there’s little reason to be surprised that by 2007, The Archer Group, based in Wilmington’s LOMA district, had increased revenues by more than 500 percent and zoomed up Inc.’s list of fastest growing businesses—No. 596.

Photograph by Jared Castaldi Old Phone, New Tricks
John Ratliff | Appletree

John Ratliff says the big idea behind his answering service and call center, Appletree, was that it found him instead of the other way around. “I started with three phones in a Greenville apartment and no business plan,” Ratliff says. “I guess for me, I was fortunate enough to be young enough not to know any better.” But Ratliff caught the wave of technological change that took place in the mid-1990s, from a paper-driven answering service business to a paperless one. Since then, Ratliff’s baby has grown to include 12 offices across the country and in Puerto Rico, 350 employees and annual revenues in the $16 million range. “We continue to offer the traditional answering service products for the clients who need them,” Ratliff says. “But we are able, again through technology advances and new software, to either enhance or build an entire customer service or call center unit.” The software Ratliff created allows Appletree to upload customer information and operate as an in-house customer service department. Ratliff attributes his success to the fact that the traditional answering service has remained the biggest segment of his business, one that seems to be “immune to the ebb and flow of economic cycles.”

Photograph by Jared Castaldi A Different Competitor  
Matt and Maggie Swanson |

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The bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000 should have easily taken down a one-person online stationery retailer. Instead, has grown to a workforce of 100 and has experienced double-digit growth. “I believe our success is due to the strategic view we took when we started the business,” says Matt Swanson, who helped wife Maggie set up shop in their garage. “We knew there was both satisfaction and frustration among shoppers with the way brick-and-mortar stationery stores conducted their business.” Rather than pose a direct challenge to those stores, Finestationery focused on customers who had become so frustrated by endlessly flipping pages of sample albums that they had stopped shopping for stationery altogether. “We know there are people who make shopping with retail stationery dealers an event, a mother and daughter day in the case of, say, wedding invitations,” Swanson says. “We’re not competing for those customers.” offers a multitude of designs for all occasions via a few mouse clicks. Because pricing is comparable to that of typical stores, Finestationery avoids turf battles with traditional retailers. “We don’t compete with dealers because our customer base is distinct from theirs,” Swanson says. Finestationery’s success proves online shopping need not be cut-rate or cutthroat to succeed.


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