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JANUARY 17, 2000
The Accidental Entrepreneur
A photogenic young man without a company enters a contest and walks away with seed money  

Ten days ago, Jia Forrest was building docks on Lake Cayuga in the Adirondack mountains in New York State. Last Thursday, he was on TV in the Big Apple, looking happily dazed as he received a $100,000 check — seed capital to develop a mountain cycle for the disabled into a business.

Few entrepreneurs get television exposure just for finding seed capital.

But Forrest won a contest sponsored by Slates, a division of Levi Strauss. He's the latest in a series of photogenic young businessmen that Slates has plucked from obscurity to tap the image of the entrepreneur-as-culture hero to sell its line of men's clothing. Some appeared in ads modeling Slates clothes. The contest is a follow-up, in which 12 magazines that carried the ads present candidates.

"A FOREIGN LANGUAGE." Forrest's good fortune certainly illustrates one thing about conditions for small business today: There's no shortage of money. The $100,000 giveaway is essentially a marketing gimmick. And for all its hype about "helping an aspiring entrepreneur realize his dream," the 27-year-old freelance furniture designer seems more like an accidental entrepreneur than the driven personalities lionized in the media as heroes of the Internet age. Forrest doesn't have a company quite yet. He has little more than a sketch and a tiny prototype. He hasn't even patented his cycle. He only approached a lawyer about what to do next after he heard he had won the Slates contest. He has no idea what it will cost to make his cycle or if there's a market for it. Asked if he has approached angel investors or venture capitalists, he looks blank: "You're speaking a foreign language to me."

Forrest came up with the idea for an all-terrain cycle for people who can't use their legs, in a course at Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia. Riders steer and pedal the four-wheeled vehicle with their hands. While there are several racing cycles for the disabled, Forrest says his is the first that can take rough ground or city potholes. Although Forrest is not disabled himself, he is an avid mountain biker. When he saw the contest advertised in Outside Magazine, a publication for outdoor sports fanatics and a sponsor of the contest, he recognized the perfect opportunity to move on a long-neglected pet project and branch out from freelance furniture building projects he had relied on since the Hilton Head (N.C.) furniture company he worked for folded a year ago.

How did Slates choose its ingenuous winner? The marketing team established a scorecard beforehand as a way of reviewing the candidates: 25% on how doable the idea is, 25% on the uniqueness of it, and 50% based on representing the Slates brand — someone "young with entrepreneurial spirit" and "somebody with the potential to be in our ad campaign." They lucked out on that score. Whatever the prospects for his company, Forrest has boy-next-door looks.

IT SELLS PANTS.The Levi's marketing team that supervised the contest says it doesn't plan on leaving Forrest and his $100,000 to the tender mercies of the capitalist system. "We'll be keeping in touch with him to make sure he's doing all right," says Slates President Bobbi Silten, maternally. She says that she and a team of other Levi's employees barraged Forrest with helpful business tips at a dinner the night before he received his award: "We told him, you've got to write a business plan."

For his part, Forrest plans to lean heavily on Outside Magazine, whose role as a contest sponsor is to give him advice and open doors. The magazine is picking up the tab for Forrest to attend the Outdoor Retailer trade show next September. "Outside knows everybody, and they'll be able to tell me who to talk to and how," he explains. He hopes to show his idea to Cannondale, a Bethel (Conn.) manufacturer that is developing a superfast, hand-pedaled racing bike for the disabled. Forrest insists he's not totally naive about the business world: "I know you have to be careful about showing your idea to somebody. They reject it and then come out with their own a few months later," he says. Beyond that, Forrest is vague about how he'll commercialize his idea, though he insists he'll use the money well. "I'm not going to waste it," he assures. "I'm going to invest it."

Slates, meanwhile, considers the money well spent. Hard numbers on the entrepreneurial campaign won't be in for another few weeks, but anecdotal feedback suggests that it sells pants. The company is going to choose a new batch of models and give away another $100,000. Need money? Check it out. No business plan? No company? No problem.

By Margaret Popper



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