Learn From the Best: Unlikely Entrepreneurs and How They Succeeded

There are more ways to find success than becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Check out these inspirational tales of five unusual entrepreneurs who cast off the shackles of the office and made careers doing what they love.

Sriracha sauce

David Tran, Huy Fong Foods

From the family kitchen to your table.

If you like hot sauce, you're probably familiar with the bottle of red deliciousness with the rooster logo known as sriracha sauce. Found in places as diverse as pho restaurants and Applebee's, the spicy concoction is a condiment favorite - and a great story of success.

The sauce is named after Sriracha, a Thai town where homemade chili pastes are popular, but it was actually created in America. David Tran, who is of Chinese heritage but was born in Vietnam, started making hot sauces in the 1970s from peppers on his brothers farms. After emigrating to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Mr. Tran knew he could market his product to other Vietnamese immigrants. But he also wanted to create a hot sauce that would be popular with everyone.

And he succeeded. Using family labor and a simple recipe, Mr. Tran created a sauce that has become a national sensation. The product doesn't even have a formal name (the rooster comes from Mr. Tran's astrological sign), but everybody knows it. These days, Mr. Tran and his wife get phone calls and pictures from strangers, sharing their love - and tattoos! - of his wonderful product.

Most importantly: More than 10 million bottles are produced at the main Huy Fong foods plant each year.

Internet classifieds

Craig Newmark, Craigslist

Proving that free doesn't mean failure.

Founded in the 1990s, is one of the most enduring, well-loved giants of the Internet. It continues to offer the most comprehensive classifieds online, from jobs to love to items for sale, and it's (almost) completely free.

Craigslist is remarkable because it truly helps people without treating them as dollar signs. The site is run entirely without ads in a simple, easy to use text-based layout. No one is charged to view it, and the only people who are charged to post to it are employers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.

So what makes Craig Newmark a great entrepreneur? In spite of its narrow revenue stream, industry insiders estimate that Craigslist grosses $10 million each year (a figure neither confirmed nor denied by Mr. Newmark). Simply put, he's found a way to be incredibly successful at helping people. When asked how he does it by, Mr. Newmark replied, 'There's no genius behind it. It's persistence and listening to people.'

Cake Love

Warren Brown, Cake Love and Love Café

Go ahead, quit your day job.

Have you ever sat in a cubicle, dreaming of ditching the suit and becoming your own boss? Warren Brown did just that. In 1999 he discovered that baking cakes provided a welcome relief from his high-stress job as a federal attorney.

So he decided to quit his job and just bake cakes.

In 2000 Mr. Brown got some business loans and opened a tiny shop, christening it 'Cake Love.' A few years later the main shop was selling about 40 cakes per day (at $55 each), and he had also opened Love Café, a bistro across the street with comfy chairs and a little more breathing room.

Cake Love now has three locations in Virginia and two in Maryland in addition to the original D.C. shops. Customers can also order cakes online, and Cake Love was voted Best Bakery of 2009 by Express.

No suits, no office, just a successful business doing what he loves - Mr. Brown is truly living the American dream.

castle in the sand

Todd Vander Pluym, Sand Sculptors International

Built from a grain of sand.

Have an unusual talent? Todd Vander Pluym does - he's the best sand sculptor in the world. He started off as an architect, entering sand sculpture competitions as a hobby. Then in 1978 Dick Clark got in touch with him. Mr. Clark wanted somebody to build a sand castle outside of his Malibu home, and he hired Mr. Vander Pluym. The rest, as they say, is history.

By now Sand Sculptors International (SSI, Mr. Vander Pluym's business) has built sculptures in more than 40 different countries and worked for most of the Fortune 500 companies, including GM, Paramount Pictures and Disney - SSI built Disney a landscape with over 150 cartoon characters.

Mr. Vander Pluym hires freelance sand sculptors to work on site, and his business earns about $1 million in revenue. Who ever said that a hobby couldn't pay off?


Roy Watters, Watters Safe & Lock

Secret agent man.

You don't have to work for the CIA to live the life of a glamorous spy.

Roy Watters discovered that he had a talent for springing locks when he started playing around with them as a child. Lucky for us, the adult Mr. Watters decided to put this skill to use for the good side as a vault-cracking expert, or 'safe doctor.'

Believe it or not, people even lose the keys and combinations to their most important safes. That's where Watters Safe & Lock comes in. Since 1978 Roy Watters has been using the latest technology to get you back into your safe. These days, he uses a borescope, which is a tiny fiber optic cable that allows him to see inside your lock the same way a doctor looks inside your body during microsurgery.

Speaking to Business Week, Mr. Watters commented that 'Inside the safes, I've seen everything: Family heirlooms, stacks of cash, silver, and gold - and a lot of drugs.'

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