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        From humble beginnings: Auburn's top entrepreneurs take unconventional approaches in building thriving businesses

        April 26, 2016 By Troy Johnson

        All News

         

        Before his moving company raised more than $22 million in venture capital and grew to serve customers in 86 cities, Bellhops co-founder Cameron Doody roamed Auburn-area apartment complexes and went “door to door” in search of business.

        Before her fast casual restaurant concept took off, Chicken Salad Chick founder Stacy Brown used the kitchen of her Auburn home as a point-of-sale and flavor lab for meals that now satisfy diners in eight states.

        Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business recently honored Doody and Brown for their ability to grow thriving companies from humble beginnings and offer distinct brands in crowded marketplaces. Doody, a 2009 supply chain management graduate, earned the Auburn University Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, while Brown, a 1999 communication alumna, was honored as Entrepreneur of the Year at the Top Tigers awards luncheon on April 22.

        The Harbert College of Business also honored 60 “Top Tigers,” fast-growing companies founded, owned or led by Auburn alumni. Montgomery Transport topped the list in the large revenue category ($20 million and above in annual revenue), Muscle Up Marketing took first in the medium revenue category ($5 million to $20 million) and Meridian Global Consulting earned top honors in the small revenue category ($500,000 to $5 million).

        Cameron Doody awardDoody and co-founder Stephen Vlahos hatched their business concept after seeing moms and dads struggle to maneuver sofas and dressers up and down flights of stairs while helping their children move in and out of dorms and apartments near campus.

        “Americans have had basically two options when it comes to moving – doing it yourself and begging your friends to come and help you or going through the hassle and cost of going to a traditional moving company,” said Doody, who serves as president and chairman of Chattanooga-based Bellhops.

        Doody and Vlahos created another possibility that offered a price-friendly alternative to traditional moving companies. Utilizing mobile app technology, Bellhops connects customers in 86 cities with an army of 6,000 contractors who provide the muscle for small- and medium-scale moves. Billed as “the Uber of moving,” Bellhops secured $13.5 million in Series B funding for its on-demand services. Investors to date include Canaan Partners, Lowercase Capital, Bullet Time Capital and Binary Capital.

        “They’re making a bet on us revamping the moving industry,” Doody said. “Three to five years from now, Bellhops will be a household name. In my mind, we will have made it when Bellhops is the first thing people think about when they see an apartment or house full of boxes … becoming that brand name, that gold standard, the company that shook up a dated industry.”

        Brown’s search for the “gold standard” inspired her to begin a business in the kitchen of her Auburn home. “I was obsessed with chicken salad,” she said. “Every restaurant I visited that chicken salad was on the menu, I ordered it. I wanted to know who had the gold.”

        Stacy BrownBrown began making batches of chicken salad for friends and neighbors. She began with one recipe and made four variations. While Brown had a concept in mind for her business -- a logo featuring a fashionable blonde woman – she made some adjustments based on advice from her friend and eventual husband, the late Kevin Brown.

        “He said, ‘You know, you should give them some way to differentiate these flavors, you know, give them some girlie names,’” Brown recalled. “I was like, `Oh my gosh, this is brilliant! They’re going to be chick names, they’re going to be chick flavors. This is a theme, it’s all coming together.”

        That created enough buzz to bring customers to her home kitchen, but it also brought a health inspector. After Brown learned it was illegal to sell home-cooked food, Kevin persuaded Stacy to open a small restaurant location in Auburn. Demand soon led to more local locations, which led to the visiting parents of Auburn students asking Brown if she would consider expanding to other cities and states. Buoyed by flavors like “Nutty Nana,” “Jazzy Julie,” and “Sassy Scotty” – named for important women in Brown’s life – Chicken Salad Chick now features 52 locations with 141 more on the way.

        “The biggest risk and biggest fear came in the beginning,” Brown said. “And that was moving from neighborhood delivery, door-to-door, to opening a restaurant. Am I going to take my life savings … and am I going to put that into possibly providing a stable home for my kids … or am I going to put everything into a restaurant that only served lunch, only served chicken salad and only did takeout? Doesn’t sound like a good idea!

        “After that was decided, the rest of the decisions were not hard,” she joked.