From pastries to pipes: how two entrepreneurs broke the mold
June 22, 2012By Samantha Freda
Coastal Cupcakes owners Kristen Beckmeyer and Meredith Sullivan always knew that at some point they would be ready to move on to a new business venture, but the one they chose would not have been your first guess.
Beckmeyer graduated in 2001 with a degree in business management from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she met her business partner, Meredith Sullivan, who was studying finances.
After college, Sullivan was earning a master’s in sports leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University, and while living in Washington, D.C. her entrepreneurial eye picked up on the growing popularity of cupcake shops.
Then in their late 20s, the two friends made a “now-or-never” leap and gave up their positions to open Coastal Cupcakes in July 2008. In less than a year, Beckmeyer and Sullivan were able to open a second shop, but despite this success both partners soon felt the itch to create something new.
With a manager in place to run the cupcake stores by March 2011, both women began researching to find what their next move would be.
A family friend of Sullivan’s who is a business consultant approached them with an idea for which there was apparently great need. Instead of selling a product, like cupcakes, it would be selling a service.
What kind of service? Robotic cameras that travel through underground pipes to assess the damage through specific software that translates the information the cameras capture.
Complicated? Well, it certainly isn’t cupcakes.
The company, called PipeView Technologies, addresses the issue of crumbling infrastructures when there is not already an efficient method of inspection. The idea is to catch root balls and clogs that could lead to sewage back-ups and other deficiencies such as cracks that could lead to a pipe collapsing and a massive spill.
Traditionally, pipes are investigated by large camera trucks whose operators drive tethered cameras dropped into pipes through manholes, which can stay open for several hours while the operator watches a live video from the truck.
“This method is dangerous for the truck driver, it stops traffic and is very slow in terms of how many feet are covered. Our equipment can achieve about four times the distance in one day than the traditional method,” Beckmeyer said.
A company based in Pittsburgh called Redzone Robotics makes the cameras. Its product, called the “Solo,” carries a high definition camera in an aluminum, bullet-shaped body that is able to deploy with the manhole closed.
The cameras are able to cover about 3,000 feet per day, whereas the traditional standard is 800 feet. The information is transferred through a program that translates the data into a map, color coded to indicate the severity of damage in specific locations. And with the manhole closed, the service can go practically unnoticed to street traffic.
“These cameras are usually sold to municipalities – we are actually one of the first companies they sold to,” Beckmeyer said.
Beckmeyer and Sullivan purchased two of the cameras, used mostly by large municipalities or national engineering firms, to start a company from scratch selling the pipe inspection services. Following the model of a true start-up, the only people currently on staff are Beckmeyer and Sullivan themselves, as was the case when they opened Coastal Cupcakes.
Neither women had a background in baking or technology, but both were eager to create something, and were willing to learn how.
“For us, the fun is in starting up a new business – finding a need, a niche market, and putting the right people in place to get something going. Learning a new industry is fun and exciting,” Beckmeyer said.
The company has been officially running for only the past two months, so for now its focus is local though the duo plans to branch out. Their range of potential customers is wide, including municipalities, nuclear plants, and golf courses – practically anywhere with stormwater or sewage pipes.
Sullivan and Beckmeyer make a good match, as their differing skills strike a balance. While Beckmeyer handles the sales and networking, Sullivan is doing behind the scenes work such as researching, paying bills and doing the company’s taxes.
Plans for the future are to expand – purchasing more cameras, having multiple crews and a sales force pushing the service beyond the Cape Fear region.
“You definitely have to have a passion for your product,” Beckmeyer said when asked how she would direct other entrepreneurs looking to invest in something unfamiliar. “I think we have an amazing product that will do great things. If you care about what you are doing and run the business side of it correctly, then at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what your product is.”
Most importantly, Beckmeyer advised that entrepreneurs have a circle of advisors. With both companies, the partners consulted a large group of peers when making decisions. They strive to learn from others mistakes and remain open to constructive criticism.
Sullivan and Beckmeyer trace their fierce dedication to success back to their background in sports. While Beckmeyer threw the hammer for track and field at UNCW, Sullivan ran and also participated in cross country.
“We enjoy the adrenaline rush. We both get that from being athletes – we’ve just transferred that competitive drive to the business world,” Beckmeyer said.
Now both women are involved in outdoor adventure races, which consist of mountain biking, running/trekking and kayaking all while using a map and compass to find checkpoints hidden in the woods.
“We are very competitive, and I think it carries over into business,” Sullivan said. “Overall, we’ve both had high expectations of ourselves as athletes and as business owners.”
“The excitement of launching a new business or product is very similar to training for an event,” Beckmeyer said. “The only difference being there is no clear finish line in business. It's like the race that never ends.”