Small business owners reinvent to survive and grow

Associated Press Modified: November 14, 2012 at 7:15 pm •  Published: November 14, 2012
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"We just weren't getting serious attention. The brand wasn't moving off the shelf," he says. "I wasn't sure if it was the price point or the marketing."

In January 2010, Ventura and Domene showed Bonadea to focus groups. Based on the feedback, the partners realized they had to change the way the beverage was packaged and marketed. One problem was its name, which had no real meaning. People didn't connect with it. And the 16-ounce bottle looked too much like the ones that contain Snapple, one of the top-selling iced tea and juice drink brands in the country.

Over the next nine months, they considered many names and label designs and eventually came up a new name, Coba, a Mayan city on the Yucatan peninsula and decorated the labels with images of flowers and fruit. In March 2011, they took Coba to a trade show in Anaheim, Calif. On the show's last day the organizers surprised the partners by announcing that they had picked Coba as the best product in the show. Coba also caught the interest of retailers.

The partners began producing their new beverages — but soon came another worry: Nestle, the world's largest food and beverage maker, was introducing its own aguas frescas. And there was competition from natural soda maker Hansen. Ventura hurried to Whole Foods' headquarters in Austin, Texas with a shoulder bag filled with Coba on ice. He met with an executive just hours after Hansen's representatives visited, made his pitch and showed his product. The company decided to carry the beverage in some of its locations.

Coba is now sold in Whole Foods stores in Florida and the West. It's also at delis, convenience stores and restaurants, priced between $1.99 and $2.50. Sales are up five times from Bonadea's best levels.

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DESIGNING A COMEBACK

In May 2008, Lauren Rottet bought back the architecture and design business she founded in 1990. She and her partner had sold the company to a larger engineering and construction firm in 1994 and continued working there. At the time, she believed it was a good strategic move. But years later, Rottet wanted more autonomy and bought the business back.

Her timing wasn't great. The slump in the construction market was under way. A month after the deal to buy back Rottet Studio closed, the firm's biggest client put all its projects on hold. Then the financial crisis hit.

Clients who were still seeking her services scaled back. Instead of winning big, lucrative projects like redesigning a law firm's new office, she would get less expensive projects like renovations of a company's reception area.

"Instead of managing eight big (projects), you were managing 25 little ones," she says. "A small project can be as much work as a big one."

Rottet, who had offices in Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, had to think differently about how she ran her business. Instead of having a team work on a project, one staffer would handle it. "We quickly started to cross-training to make people more adept at doing more things," Rottet says. So an employee whose specialty was interior design learned how to do architectural drawing. Architects learned about selecting furniture and fabrics.

Rottet also took on new types of clients. Before the pullback in the construction business, 90 percent of the firm's work consisted of projects like corporate offices. Rottet's new clients included hotels and homeowners.

That meant convincing new clients she could adapt to their needs. But she was able to make the transition — she's even signed deals to design rooms for cruise lines. The result: Business has more than doubled since 2010, the worst year for the company's revenue.



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