3 scrappy little businesses

December 7, 2010: 3:00 AM ET

Stylish eyewear, full-service publicity, and specialized home goods: The entrepreneurs behind these three ventures deliver where the big guys don't.

By Jessica Shambora, reporter

Kayos Productions vs. Rogers and Cowan

The challenge: Can a boutique music-publicity firm upstage larger agencies with offices around the world?

What they did: Carol Kaye had tallied 10 years as a music industry publicist when she started her own gig, Kayos, in 1988. Today she still can't match rivals' resources, but her client roster is impressive, with names like Jeff Beck and the Bee Gees. Here's why: Compared to bigger PR firms, Kayos offers a personal touch and the full treatment: print, TV, radio, online, and social media. Kayos also works directly with younger artists, coordinating tours or using media to help them hook a manager. The firm even helps classic rockers go solo, like Rolling Stones' guitarist Ronnie Wood. Kayos recently booked Wood to play on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and arranged for him to appear in a fashion shoot in Guitar Aficionado. Says Kaye, "My clients get all my years of experience across the music industry."

Ace Hardware Guys vs. Lowe's

The challenge: When a big-box rival comes to town, how does a local hardware store hold on to its customers?

What they did: Just a few years after father and son Bill and Erik Young opened their Ace franchise in Weaverville, N.C., in 2004, Lowe's (LOW) arrived on the scene. Undeterred, the Youngs opened a second Ace in nearby Asheville in 2009 and renewed their focus on niche product lines that the big-box stores either don't do well with or don't carry at all. One example: Stihl power equipment, which requires a lot of customer education. The Youngs even started a small in-store engine repair business to service the machines. They also offer Benjamin Moore paint, which is sold only through indie retailers, and recently expanded their pet food section. Another smart move? By locating stores between neighborhoods and the big boxes, they made their Ace outlets the more convenient choice.

SEE Eyewear vs. LensCrafters

The challenge: The big eyewear chains may have a large selection, but this upstart offers something better: affordable style.

What they did: After founding SEE in 1998, Richard Golden sold his previous retail eyewear chain to the parent company of LensCrafters. He learned a lot from that earlier venture. Luxury frames look great, but the brand-name markup is steep and leaves little profit for the retailer. Meanwhile, the more affordable frames lack style. Using his industry contacts, Golden commissioned the same European designers and factories that make the high-end eyewear to produce private-label frames for his stores, priced up to $150 less. The designs are exclusive to SEE, and, says Golden, "If it isn't cool, we don't put it in the store." Instead of advertising, he puts stores near pedestrian traffic so that windows can be used as a showcase. With 24 outlets, Detroit-based SEE says same-store sales are up 15% in 2010.

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