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Pastime To Profit

by Danielle Burrows
An electronics whiz kid. A group of soccer dads. Two art school friends. A beer geek. A fitness buff. These South Jersey entrepreneurs all have one thing in common: they followed their passions and turned them into successful careers.

Starlite Productions boasted a business card before its owner, Dean Danowitz (pictured), even had facial hair—let alone a product or service to offer. “As far back as I can remember, I was building electronics,” Danowitz says. “And I always had a vision of owning a business.”

So, he recalls with a laugh, “I registered the company name in 1974, when I was 11, and had a relative create a business card. I remember telling my mom, ‘I’m gonna sell light and sound equipment,’ and she responded with, ‘How many people are going to buy that?’”

A lot of people, apparently. The company, which finally launched in 1983, initially took up residence in his parents’ garage and began selling equipment to nightclubs. Today, it operates out of a 53,000-square-foot facility in Moorestown, employing close to 50 people and providing audio, visual, lighting and special effects to clients ranging from the Kimmel Center to planetariums worldwide.

But vision and execution are two different things, as any business owner can attest. Local entrepreneurs who have turned their hobbies into careers can attest to the perks—as well as the hurdles and drawbacks—of going full time with a pastime.

For one thing, says Gene Muller, founder and president of Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, there can be too much of a good thing. “One of my favorite vacations was to Portugal, where there was no beer to drink—just wine,” he says.

His need to occasionally step away from the hops and malt might be the greatest difference between Muller and his loyal customer base. Muller has spent the last 16 years submerged, almost literally, in beer—a far cry from his existence before 1995, when the full-time advertising agency writer brewed at home as a pastime, when his schedule allowed. “I loved the science of brewing, and the art of brewing,” he explains. “As I was driving back from a trip to New Mexico in the mid-’90s, I started brainstorming career paths and wondered aloud, ‘Could I start a brew pub?’” Muller enrolled in brewing school in Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, but he emerged more eager to handle malts than marketing. “Some people have a burning desire to run a business. I was never one of those people,” Muller says. “It was always the brewing that appealed to me first.”

But even the finest brew won’t sell itself, and Muller was rejected by potential investors, who cited his lack of formal business experience. Just as Muller’s optimism was fading, though, the power of the Internet was coming into view. Muller paid a programmer $1,500 to create a website, and sent out a press release announcing the online presence of his virtual brewery. The site, which doubled as a market research forum for Muller, solicited votes on label design, bottle size and logos, even allowing users to apply to become Flying Fish taste-testers.

“When I went back to investors, I was able to say, ‘Here’s a stack of news clippings about my site. I’m selling pint glasses and T-shirts for a product that doesn’t even exist.’”

Within eight months, financing was locked in and Flying Fish’s earliest fans could finally taste the brand they’d had a role in designing. Flying Fish Brewing Co. rolled out its first barrels from its Cherry Hill location in late 1996. Today, it’s the largest craft brewery in the state.

“I get a lot of calls from people who want to brew full-time. They have such a passion for making beer, but a lot of them have no concept of what it takes to sustain a business,” he says. “They describe their business plan to me, and I have to tell them, ‘What you’re describing is a really expensive hobby.’”

Jerry McGough, Brad Yates, and Andy Logar know a thing or two about expensive—as well as time-consuming—hobbies. Between them, the Washington Township residents are fathers to eight sons, all of whom grew up playing sports, on fields their dads considered to be sub-par.

“Brad and I were just two dads sitting in a living room, talking about the fact that our kids were playing soccer in places that looked bad, smelled bad, and where you couldn’t see the players after dark,” McGough says of the day in March 2007 when the idea for Total Turf Experience—an expansive, 42,000-square-foot, indoor/ outdoor sports complex—was born.

After working for almost three years to secure private investing, the partners, (as well as another principal, Bob Loftus, who lives in Villanova), broke ground in Mantua in July for the forthcoming complex, scheduled to turn on its lights on Nov. 1. The facility will house its own sports teams and organizations, as well as provide a site for lessons and external leagues.

The men admit the venture has its risks, but say they draw confidence from the partners’ diverse strengths.

“We [have] the dream team,” McGough says. “We share a love of our kids and sports, and between the four of us, we can tackle almost every aspect of business.” Yates has a construction background, Logar brings experience from 10 years as a professional soccer player, and McGough offers business know-how, having started and sold a handful of businesses over the years.

Having that business background can be helpful in companies sprung from personal passions. Often, such acumen is the part of the business that entrepreneurs have to learn the hard way.

Tom Watters and Jim Mendillo, friends who bonded over their love of visual arts while students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, encountered this dilemma soon after their design and product development company, Med ford’s Scrambled Eggz, landed its first accounts in the mid-1980s.

“We didn’t consider the reality of attrition, of inevitably losing clients over time—some because they shift gears or go out of business, others because they want a new look,” Watters admits.

But the partners overcame such challenges by way of sheer determination. Rather than invest in a sales-person, Watters and Mendillo decided to stretch their skills and handle sales themselves, a decision that’s worked for the company, which specializes in the toy and entertainment industries. “Sales is manageable once you decide to aggressively look for opportunities,” Watters says. “I’ve learned that when you have any opportunity, how - ever small as it is, to make contact— you make it.”

One of Scrambled Eggz’ largest accounts to date, Elmer’s Glue, began simply as a one-time gig passed along through a consultant.

“We completed the work, and thought that would be the end of it,” Watters remembers. “But I pushed myself to reach out directly afterward, and asked, ‘Are there any opportunities for future work? Do you want us to come out?’ They did, and Elmer’s ended up being a very large client until they got out of the toy industry. That account is much of the reason we were able to buy our current space. And it all happened because of one phone call.”

Taking the plunge—whether pitching a whale of a client, moving into a larger office space or building a website for a brewery that doesn’t yet exist—is a recurring theme for those looking to turn their passion into a their career.

Even Danowitz, who operated Starlite Productions out of his parents’ garage well into its profitable years, eventually ran up against such a watershed moment.

“I was embarrassed to tell anyone I was working out of a house, let alone my parents’ house. One time, a sales guy I’d cultivated a relationship with, and from whom I was buying equipment, wanted to visit. I went into a panic.”

The panic prompted him to make the leap he’d been fearing. He went out that day and rented a 1200-square- foot warehouse, and moved every- thing into that space in time for the visit. It was a step toward growth, and yet was one of many moments in which Danowitz somberly realized that, as Starlite Productions grows, he’s forced to think less about the passions that led him to the industry, and more about the ins and outs of business.

“Today, my role is like that of an air traffic controller. There’s no way I can be as hands-on with the equipment as I was years ago. I still love the stuff, and any time we order something new, I check it out. But not like the old days. In fact, if I show up on a job, guys are like, ‘What’s he doing here?’”

Of course, not every entrepreneur has the option of focusing on business alone. Take exercise maven Cathe Friedrich. She can never distance herself too far from her brand—mainly because her face and toned body are synonymous with the Cathe line of home exercise videos that are popular among thousands of fans nationwide.

It all began in 1989, when Friedrich, an exercise instructor, picked up on the emerging popularity of step aerobics—and created a step aerobics video ahead of fitness giants like Nike and Reebok.

“I set up a display at a national fitness conference,” she remembers. “My dis - play booth had gotten lost by the airline, so all I had was a cardboard sign and a rented TV that played the tape.”

Despite flashy booths on either side of her, Friedrich’s video turned heads. “People were walking by saying, ‘Oh my God, this is like what Nike and Reebok are teaching. You have it on tape?’”

The longevity and success of her brand makes the Washington Township mother of two proud, but also demands her constant care and attention. “Whether or not you’re the face of a brand, your customers need to feel that camaraderie with you,” she says.

She says online interactions now enable her to achieve that. “Before the Internet, when I taught fitness classes, I’d go into class a little early and stay later, just to hear students’ feedback. When we started the website, the discussion forums took some of that work off my plate,” says Friedrich, who still teaches classes to stay in touch with her customers.

The exercise mogul, who’s also part-owner of Four Seasons, the Glassboro gym where she taught her first classes in the late 1980s, is hard-pressed to pinpoint any one key to her success.

“My job was one of those that evolved, and I truly believe evolved because I followed my passion. If you truly follow your passion,” she says, “everything else will fall in place.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 9 (September, 2011).
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