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Internet-fueled entrepreneurs on the rise

I firmly believe that using social media helps to turn people into entrepreneurs. The Internet has leveled the playing field in a lot of ways to make running a business possible for all kinds of people.

I’ve been thinking about two Web entrepreneurs in particular this week: one name you probably won’t recognize, and one name you might.

The first is Lisa Lillien. She’s a 43-year-old former TV producer living in Los Angeles, and while her background may seem unremarkable, her professional life is a beat-the-odds success story.

Lisa goes by the name “Hungry Girl” in the online world, where she’s crafted a personal brand based on her appreciation for low-fat foods. She concocts easy recipes made from prepackaged, easy-to-find ingredients that are low in calories. Many, but not all, of her followers are women.

With just $10,000 of her personal savings, the Hungry Girl launched an e-mail newsletter and Web site in 2004. By 2005, she had about 100,000 subscribers to the e-mail. Last week, she hit 800,000.
In 2005, she made a profit of about $60,000; now she employs a staff of nine and has released two books, with a third set for December 2009.

You can bet that social media’s helped her increase her flock, especially in the last few years, when her fame really took off. (Last week Lillien also made an appearance on The Rachael Ray Show, which — as we all know — seals her culinary fate).

Lillien and her crew feed the Twitter account @hungrygirl, where they post about her media appearances, and books, and poll her audience on their dietary habits. Lillien has only 27,000 followers, but she wisely connects to industry contacts (@rachaelrayshow, for example) to make sure her message is spread further.

She also posts frequently on Facebook, where she has 90,000 fans that receive her updates in their newsfeeds. It’s common for her Facebook comments to elicit a response from 200 or more Hungry Girl fans.

Cashing in with ‘Gary V.’

The second name, one that’s sets media outlets abuzz this week, is Gary Vaynerchuk — also known simply as “Gary V.” Vaynerchuk transformed his family’s modest New Jersey-based wine business into a $60 million-per-year online wine retailer.

His daily video blog (dubbed “Wine Library TV”) may be unspectacular in production quality, but the videos are a home run on the content side. The result is an unbelievable audience: More than 80,000 viewers tune in each day to hear his diatribes on wine.
Vaynerchuk credits the videos for building his personal brand. “I hustled … I was very patient,” he explained at a Wednesday night book signing.

“Wine Library grew at least 20 percent against the prior number for every month for nine years that I did it,” he continued. “[But] the first month that I did Wine Library TV, we were flat. … I was losing money, and credibility.

A substantial amount of my staff at Wine Library thought that I lost my mind. But it took me 18 months before I had my first break.”

This all led to Vaynerchuk announcing in the Wall Street Journal that he had a seven-figure, 10-book deal with HarperStudio. The first book, “Crush It! Why Now Is the Time to Cash in on Your Passion,” was released Tuesday to enormous buzz, both online and in broadcast, print and other media.

“Crush It!” is Vaynerchuk’s opus on how to harness the power of the Web to do what you love — and to sell it to consumers. On Wednesday he was featured on the “Today” show and his book climbed to No. 16 on Amazon’s most popular sellers list by mid-afternoon.

Through it all, Vaynerchuk is a social media fanatic. He has 850,000 Twitter followers, many of whom he responds to personally, and he’s on LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook and Cork’d, a social network exclusively for wine lovers.

While Vaynerchuk’s success may outpace Lillien’s at the moment, both figures prove that even in a depressing economic climate, it’s possible to flourish with a clearly defined, targeted demographic and the right approach to winning over prospective consumers.

As Vaynerchuk reiterated Wednesday night, social media is allowing entrepreneurs direct access to consumers — and in the process, shoving aside traditional middlemen such as agents and public relations people.

Jackie Sauter is a Web marketing professional with the Kogod School of Business at American University. Follow her on Twitter @jackiesauter.