Three startups. Two states. One massive economic downturn.
Each has a different story to tell.
At one, the founders at one point ran out of money and skipped three days of meals. When a potential business client offered them $68 for food during a meeting, the company's chief executive cried.
At another startup in the finance industry, a major player in causing the Great Recession, employees focused on how to save people money on transactions while working at folding tables.
The third startup didn't see the recession coming. The company's two-man team developed a product that helped restaurants and venue owners manage their operations and special events. After the markets crashed, people stopped eating out as much and restaurants didn't have money to buy the product.
Despite the hardship and the struggles, all three companies now share a common success. They are growing and adding employees. They remained relevant and survived even though each launched between December 2007 and June 2009, the official dates of the Great Recession.
Contemporary Analysis, Omaha, founded in January 2008
Grant Stanley was in college and running a small lawn care and landscaping company when the idea dawned on him to start Contemporary Analysis, a company that marries economics and data science with the objective of saving businesses cash by becoming more efficient.
At the time, his lawn care business was struggling. Some of his bigger, more lucrative clients were struggling to pay their bills. Others stopped paying altogether.
"People had just completely stopped spending money," Stanley said. "People had always been able to pay their bills, so that was kind of what launched the move into Contemporary Analysis."
Stanley persuaded friend and fellow University of Nebraska at Omaha student Tadd Wood to help him launch the company. At first, it wasn't easy.
Companies didn't have money to spend, so for months, Stanley, Wood and the company's other employees focused on building the company's backbone, including predictive analytics software that companies could use to help save money.
They worked out of basements, Stanley said. Most weeks he survived on a salary of $175. They started the company with a $20,000 cash reserve, but once that ran out, Stanley and Wood at one point didn't have money to spend on food. They once went without meals for three days, Stanley said, until a business cohort gave them $68.
"I think that's what separates entrepreneurs from small-business owners," Stanley said. " We didn't think we had a choice. We knew it would be hard, but still did it.
"Looking back, I would never advise anyone to do it."
Despite the struggles, the recession gave Contemporary Analysis time to plot its strategy and perfect its products. It was a blessing in disguise, Stanley said, because once the recession eased and businesses began spending again, the company took off.
Contemporary Analysis now has nine employees at its offices in Omaha's Old Market. By the end of 2012, Stanley said he expects Contemporary Analysis to hit $5 million in annual revenue and launch a suite of new products while also adding between 15 and 20 new employees, many of whom will make salaries near $100,000, he said.
"The recession gave us time to incubate something that's really great," Stanley said. "It's part of the reason why the business is so unique."
Dwolla, Des Moines, founded in April 2008
When Ben Milne launched Dwolla, he was on a mission to save people, and businesses, money.
At his previous startup, which built and sold custom audio equipment, credit card and bank fees eroded the company's profits. Milne, 29, grew frustrated and decided to develop a solution.
That solution became Dwolla, a mobile and online payment platform that charges users a flat rate of 25 cents per transaction over $10. All payments under that amount are free. Competitors, like PayPal, which has major Omaha operations, charge a percentage of the transaction, plus 30 cents for many of the payments it processes, no matter the amount.
But the recession was not kind to financial institutions. Government bailouts, golden parachutes and subprime mortgages left deep scars on the U.S. economy.
But there's another term that Milne says best describes his finance company and how it thrived during the Great Recession: "Scrappy."
Working on plastic tables. Using personal computers instead of fancy new laptops. Stretching investment capital as far as it could go.
"We've been accused of being overly cheap," Milne said. "But we all kind of do it to be successful."
According to Milne, the recession may actually have helped Dwolla gain users.
"Even thought the markets were perceived as shrinking, the opportunity for us was still massive," Milne said. "People still have to exchange money during a recession, so that actually made us more valuable during the recession, since we're saving people money."
Along with other mobile solutions like Google Wallet, Square and PayPal's mobile application promising to become the payment wave of the future, Dwolla is in a good position to grow, Milne said.
Currently, the company has 20 employees and about 80,000 users moving between $1 million and $3 million per day in transactions.
This month, the company, which is looking to disrupt the payment industry dominated by behemoths like Visa, MasterCard and American Express, raised a $5 million Series B round of capital from firms that have also invested in Twitter, Foursquare, Etsy and Zaarly.
By the end of the year, Milne expects the company to have 250,000 users and a total of $1 billion in transactions for the year.
Even though the recession posed some challenges for Dwolla, Milne said failed companies shouldn't use the economy as an excuse for their failures.
"I would tell them that if the company fails it's your fault, not the economy's fault," he said. "You're going to have more failures than successes, but if Dwolla didn't work, I would have to own that."
Tripleseat, Omaha, founded in February 2008
Dusty Davidson didn't realize he was planting the seed for Tripleseat, an event-planning software platform, in the middle of a recession.
"When we started, nothing had happened yet," Davidson said. "The markets were fine and restaurants were doing well."
Then everything came crashing down.
After about nine months of building the software, Davidson and co-founders Kevin Zink and Jonathan Morse were faced with the challenge of trying to sell a product to restaurants, catering businesses and banquet facilities that had just seen their business dry up as consumers and businesses trimmed their budgets.
"It just was poor timing on our side more than anything," Davidson said.
Those challenges continued for Tripleseat's first year. But during that time, Davidson, Zink, Morse and the company's sales team work closely with the few customers who did purchase the product to learn what changes needed to be made so that they could offer better software when restaurant and event spending did come back.
"I think that the thing that we did well was that we didn't get too far out in front of our skis," Davidson said. "We sort of persevered through it, kind of like our customers did."
Over the last year, event spending has come back. The 2011 holiday season was a boon for Tripleseat as the company's customers logged $20 million in business, a significant increase from the same period in 2010, Davidson said.
"I expect the company to expand quickly over the next 18 to 24 months," he said.
Davidson, who now serves on the company's board of directors in an advisory role, said the company is planning to add marketing and sales positions.
Since Tripleseat has found its stride, the majority of Davidson's focus has ventured to a new startup: Layered Innovations, an Omaha company Davidson launched with co-founder John Grange that is developing software that will help marketing companies manage their mobile advertising campaigns.
"Tripleseat is an operating company that's growing and doing well," Davidson said, "so for me, this is back to square one."
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