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KEY TO SUCCESS IS DOING WHAT YOU KNOW AND WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY FOR

If you've vowed that 2000 is the year to start your own business and you're stumped on what you should do, relax for a moment and ask yourself two questions.< What do I do well? What do people tell me they need?

If you answer those questions correctly, you may end up like Rick Bennett and Dennis Clay .

1999 sales will reach $500,000, a 30 percent increase from 1998. PEP trucks, which now number 17, are a familiar sight in Orlando, Fla.-area neighborhoods.

How did it happen? The two men did what any prospective entrepreneur should do: They capitalized on their existing strengths. They also provided a service someone wanted - in this case, the Orange County Library needed a way to get books to patron's homes.

Oh, and they consulted a spiritualist. But more on that later.

First, how it all began. Bennett and Clay worked for Federal Express Corp. and the U.S. Postal Service, Bennett as a driver for FedEx and Clay as a supervisor for Uncle Sam.

Neither hated his job, but both wanted something new. Collectively, they had 25 years in the delivery business.

When they thought about going into business, they considered opening a cafe or a gift-basket company. In the end, they drifted back to what they knew.

That was their first smart move.

The small-business crash-and-burn rate is high - more than one- third close in three years - but the likelihood of success is greatest when entrepreneurs venture into areas they know.

A software engineer may yearn to put Aunt Mary's meat-loaf recipe to work. But he shouldn't quit his day job until he has spent some time slinging hash - getting elbow-deep in grease, ordering the week's food and supervising a wait staff.

Bennett and Clay had been hash-slingers for years.

"We knew about different mailing systems," Bennett said simply.

Then, there's that whole idea of providing a service someone's willing to pay for. That software engineer may think Auntie's recipe is killer, but if no one likes meat loaf, he's going to end up with a lot of empty seats.

Bennett and Clay ventured into an area where demand was established. In late 1994, they read a newspaper report about how the library might have to curtail its 20-year-old books-by-mail program because of higher postage rates.

They sent a letter to the library saying they thought they could provide the service more cheaply. A more formal proposal followed and then months of negotiations.

Bennett made dry runs to determine costs and the maximum number of books that could be delivered each hour - 20.

Bennett's dining room became command central. Out went the table and chairs, replaced with boxes of books packaged and addressed in brown mailing sacks. A giant map, with push pins and highlighted routes, was used to plot deliveries.

Books were loaded in the back of a Chevy truck and delivered early in the morning. Sometimes, Bennett took off before day break to be back in time to report by noon at FedEx.

Soon, more geographic areas were added and employees hired. By mid- 1995, both men quit their jobs to go with Priority Express full time. Today, they do about 90 percent of the library's delivery business.

Priority Express now has a small office on West Central Boulevard, a couple of miles from the library. It employs 14 people and the sorting system that began in Bennett's dining room has been relocated to a 600-square-foot back room.

In their first six months of business, they delivered 75,000 books for the library; the following year, it was 200,000. This year, they'll deliver 300,000 packages - some 270,000 books and the remainder for a small but growing non-library segment of their business.

Clay said the business is profitable; "We even pay our employees Christmas bonuses."

Now, for that fortune teller - not one of the steps you'll usually read about in business books.

About a year before PEP was launched, Bennett and Clay went to the spiritualist community in Cassadaga. They had a session with one of the faithful. Palms were examined and energies weighed; they were told they would one day be in a business surrounded by books.

"I bet it was less than a year later when we started the company," Bennett said, and it was some time after that they remembered the fortune teller.

Their reaction? Disbelief. Said Bennett: "We both freaked out when we remembered what she had said."

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