Press: Soul Providers

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Entrepreneur profiles several start-ups, focused on more than just making a buck.

Soul Providers

Becoming a brand people want to identify themselves with and be loyal to has always motivated Speakeasy Inc., parent company to Speakeasy Cafe, a “casual and relaxed” Seattle storefront offering Internet access, an espresso and pastry bar, an art gallery, and an 80-seat theater for film, video and plays. The Speakeasy Network offers Web design and hosting, along with RainMail, a network of public-access kiosks throughout Seattle. But lowering the economic and technical barriers to Internet access was primarily why Gretchen Apgar, 34; husband Michael Apgar, 31; and Michael’s brother, Tyler Apgar, 28, opened the first Speakeasy Cafe back in 1995 and launched Speakeasy Network’s initial dial-up service in late 1997. Dreams of Euro-dragster-filled driveways and membership in the elite? Nonexistent–to that extent, anyway. “Gretchen, Tyler and I sit around talking about the challenge, our employees–who’s doing well, who’d rather be in a different job function–and how well we’re building the business to scale,” says Michael. “But we don’t talk about the money.”

The claim’s easier to swallow when you learn all the founders still rent, and just last year Mike and Gretchen replaced the “junker” VCR Mike had since college. “That’s a big deal for us,” says Michael. “I mean, certainly, we want to monetarily profit from the business and have a lifestyle.” But going public has never been “on the radar,” according to Michael, nor been financially possible. Graduates of their father’s school of entrepreneurship, he and Tyler learned a no-nonsense business approach: Bring money in, pay your expenses, keep your overhead low, and pay your employees fairly. With 50 employees and 2000 projections of nearly $15 million–up $13 million from last year–the Apgars are now examining the bigger picture. “Everyone has to work for a living, but we’re having a fabulous time doing it, and we want to provide a rewarding work environment for our employees,” says Michael. “At the same time, we’re extremely excited about our growth last year and what we’re looking at doing this year.”

Speakeasy rests in the heart of Microsoft- and, but its cafe’s street presence prevents the ISP side from becoming “completely virtual.” And because the Apgars are so in-tune with their goals and personal interests, they’ve avoided becoming one of the money-hungry new-school entrepreneurs who people like Bo Peabody, now vice president of network strategy for Lycos, find questionable. Peabody, “no slave to gold watches or yachts,” says location often catalyzes the downfall of good intentions. “Everyone’s really grounded here in [high-tech hot-spot] Williamstown, Massachusetts, because it’s not like Silicon Valley, where everybody drives a Ferrari and tries to get a better house than the next guy,” he says. “That’s a culture that just breeds bad products.” Well, you can’t always decide where you’re based. But thankfully, you can always keep your priorities in check.

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