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Where Are Last Year's Winners Now?

Last year, BusinessWeek.com set out to find the best young entrepreneurs in the U.S. by soliciting nominations from readers, whittling them down to a group of 20 finalists, and then asking readers to vote on which had the most promising businesses. When the dust cleared, five winners emerged-five ideas that the BusinessWeek.com readership believed to be the cream of the crop (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/1/05, “The Best Entrepreneurs Under 25”).

So where are those five winners now? How have their businesses changed over the past year? And with another year of perspective, what can they tell us about being a young entrepreneur in today’s market?

Rosy pictures emerged when we checked back with each of the businesses: They’ve all experienced significant growth, and most of them are expanding into new areas. The most significant growth occurred at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook-its valuation now tops $1 billion (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/28/06, “Facebook’s On the Block”). Anand Chhatpar and his brainstormers-for-hire, Brain Reactions, experienced 300% revenue growth. And GotVMail’s David Hauser and Siamak Taghaddos have more than doubled the number of companies subscribing to their virtual phone-system services.

Extending the Brand
Growth hasn’t been the only positive for last year’s winners. They’ve also changed their goals. Last year, Joanna Alberti entered BusinessWeek.com’s top five with high hopes for expanding her successful greeting-card business, philoSophie’s, and licensing her trademark character, Sophie. But because she feels her company still relies on her personal touch (she includes handwritten thank-you notes with most orders), Alberti has worked to maintain control over the brand, resisting the urge to license to just anyone.

While carefully managing her success, Alberti has also accomplished what several of last year’s winners have managed to do: extend their company’s brand. Alberti launched a new Web site, joannanicole.com, to promote her custom illustration work, through which she has branched out beyond her trademark character (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/19/06, “philoSophie’s for Growth”).

Brain Reactions’ Chhatpar is also working to expand his company’s global reach through its just-launched Web site, brainreactions.net, which provides a way for his business to conduct professional brainstorming for multinational companies remotely.

Last year’s winners have been active in spreading their startup know-how to other aspiring entrepreneurs. Siamak Taghaddos recently returned to his alma mater, Babson College, to give a talk about his experience starting a successful company. When he ventured back on campus for the first time in a while, Taghaddos says he was struck by the quality of both the business ideas and the students starting those businesses. “I made a joke with other alumni that if I were applying today, I don’t think I’d get in,” says Taghaddos.

Advantage, Young Turks
And last year’s winners agree that today’s savvy young entrepreneurs have a number of advantages over previous generations. Business-plan contests and funding opportunities, many of which are now organized through universities, offer them unprecedented support (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/30/06, “Young Entrepreneurs”). The continued rise of social-networking sites offers another leg up. Small companies can spread the word about their products and services with little or no capital.

But it’s more than just social networks that makes now a great time to be a young entrepreneur. Other tools enable the young and the financially strapped to avoid previously unavoidable overhead costs, making entrepreneurship the career of choice for more and more young people.

“We call people around the world for almost free ‘cause of Skype. We have document collaboration through free open-source technology. It’s so easy to set up your own Web site or incorporate an LLC online. It’s a great time to be a young entrepreneur,” says Chhatpar.

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.