The business was dreamed up in just one hour by the pool. Ten-minute manicures in airports -- it's an idea so simple that it can't miss. At least that's what the founders hope

Vivian Jimenez knows exactly when the metamorphosis happened: in June, somewhere on the road to the Austin airport. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she'd spent the better part of a decade working her way up the ladder to become vice-president of interactive media services at one of Florida's largest public-relations firms. She'd been the first in her family to graduate from college and had begun to achieve all the dreams her parents could have had for her. But that June day, Jimenez knew that things would never be the same again. Even though she still held her position at the PR firm, in her heart she was no longer a working stiff, hoping for a better raise, a better job, a better work life. She had become something entirely different. "I am," she declared aloud in the car, "an entrepreneur."

Along with her partners -- Karen Janson, a former colleague from the PR firm, and Lorraine Brennan O'Neil, a friend of Janson's -- Jimenez had spent the previous months exploring the idea of starting a business. "It was sort of just fun," Jimenez says, recalling the nights and weekends they'd devoted to sketching out a game plan for the business they called 10 Minute Manicure, which they hoped to open in airports. When Jimenez and Janson called about attending an airline-industry conference in Austin, the organizer was so taken with their idea that she asked if the women would speak on a panel. It was an offer that both scared and excited them. If the organizer was that enthusiastic about their concept, Janson recalls, they figured they might be onto something. By the time they left the conference, they were sure.

But for Jimenez the realization that she, too, could be an entrepreneur was the real revelation of the two-day event. "On our way to the airport afterward, we were rattling off ideas, and I just knew: that's what makes an entrepreneur. Seeing an opportunity and making it happen," she says.

Ten-minute manicures. It doesn't get much simpler than that. It had taken Janson and O'Neil just one hour by a pool while their husbands were playing golf to come up with the idea in the first place. In April, Janson quit her job to pursue the start-up full-time. She recruited Jimenez to help her, in part because O'Neil wasn't in a position to leave her law practice. (She is a name partner in a Miami medical-malpractice defense firm.) While there have been doubts along the way about whether they were doing the right thing, Janson says, the reaction they've gotten has buoyed them daily. "Everybody has said, 'Oh, my god, that's such a simple idea -- that's why it's going to work," she says.

The business model is pretty basic: install relatively inexpensive kiosks near high-traffic areas in airports, hire $7-an-hour "nail technicians," and attract every hour at least five customers who are willing to pay $15 for a fast manicure. By the founders' calculations, just a single airport contract with 3 or 4 kiosks would be profitable. If they manage to get 13 kiosks in four locations, they would reach $3.2 million in annual revenues.

None of the cofounders has serious business-building experience. The women are not particularly well connected, though they've been fearless in networking with whoever they thought could help them. "It's like six degrees of separation," says Jimenez. "You just keep going till you get what you need."

But as businesswomen themselves, they understand the potential market for their service: the exploding number of female business travelers for whom airports historically have offered few services of value. And their simple vision and raw enthusiasm have so far struck a chord with some key people, from the certified public accountant who is informally helping them with their business plan to the licensed nail technician who helped them perfect the 10-minute technique. So far those advisers have all given assistance without ever asking for a cut of the business. "We have been lucky with every person we've talked to," Janson says. "Everybody seems to want the underdog to win."

In mid-August, Janson's persistent E-mail messages to the director of concessions at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport paid off with an invitation to present the start-up's concept. For weeks before the appointment Janson and her colleagues worked around the clock to perfect their presentation. "And even though we were here really long hours, we were working with that fat-Cheshire-cat smile," Janson says. "You know this time it's for you."

The Dallas trip went well from the start. From the moment Janson and Jimenez got off the plane, they noticed how male-oriented the airport's stores and concessions were (from the Tie Rack to the golf store to the barber called Hair Line). That on-site observation nicely segued into their presentation about the increase in the number of female business travelers. By the time they had finished their delivery, Janson recalls, they knew they had scored. "The director even showed us where our kiosks might go," she says.

That their concept had been taken seriously by such a large airport was the validation they needed. And as if it were a final sign, when Janson and Jimenez were waiting for their return flight, "we saw a woman whip out a nail file," Janson says. "It seemed like fate had sealed the deal."

The 10 Minute Manicure founders had told the airport managers that once given a go-ahead, they could be up and running in three months. That was only partly true. To be able to do that, they needed real start-up capital: about half a million dollars. And four days after the Dallas meeting they found themselves asking for just that from a prospective investor lined up by O'Neil, who's in charge of the company's financial dealings.

Glenn Singer had built a successful Inc. 500 employee-leasing company that he and his cofounders sold to Paychex in 1996 for $160 million. Since then Singer has dabbled in investing in other companies, taught aerobics classes -- and watched his stock in Paychex triple. When the cofounders knocked on the door of his stunning Golden Beach, Fla., home, he answered the door in shorts and a T-shirt. Once inside, the startled women began to run through the same presentation they had made to the airport staff. But the genial guy in casual clothes quickly turned into a hard-nosed businessman. "Toward the beginning of my speech," recalls Jimenez, "he goes, 'I don't have to hear any more. I believe in the concept. I want to see the numbers." And that, she says, rattled them further "because we weren't prepared." They had focused on building a concept, not on doing a serious business plan from an investor's perspective.

So when they left Singer's home, they went back to the drawing board and put together a business plan line by line. Janson recalls the next three and a half weeks as "hell." They valued the company at about $2 million and offered Singer a 25% equity stake. "They've got a great business plan," Singer says. "They're focused; they've got a great concept." But the business plan led to questions that were harder to answer. Does 10 Minute Manicure have a limited audience? Where does it go if it doesn't get into the right number of airports? And is the concept easily duplicated? "It's not like they've reinvented the wheel," he says.

He also doesn't want to make such a major investment based on a single meeting. "A big part of my decision," he says, "is to make sure that the management team is able to take it where they want to take it." Since none of the founders has built a serious business before, how will he make that determination? "It basically gets down to gut feeling," he says simply.

All three cofounders cite "control" as one of the main reasons they wanted to start their own business, but at this stage they are anything but in control. At press time neither Singer nor the Dallas/Fort Worth airport had made a decision about 10 Minute Manicure -- despite frequent queries from the women. Singer suggested that he wait for the Dallas/Fort Worth start-up to be operational and then evaluate things. O'Neil has been negotiating with Singer, but the founders are holding firm that they need $500,000 to launch. It's a catch-22.

So the three are preparing Plan B. Janson will focus on making pitches to other airports and following up leads on other investors. Jimenez is exploring the prospect of setting up nail kiosks in professional buildings in downtown Miami and Dade County.

Something -- anything -- has to happen soon for them to reach their goal of generating revenues this year. And the stakes are not insubstantial. Jimenez, who by her own account is the least comfortable financially of the three, had cut back her hours at her job and was set to leave it at press time. Already she's feeling the pinch. In October she decided that her splashy spring wedding would instead be a small ceremony in Las Vegas. Her life and her vocation have become inextricably entwined. "I had a dream that I was getting married at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport," she confesses.

But whether the business succeeds or not, says Jimenez, she now sees the world from a totally different vantage point. Some of her friends have made inquiries about possibly hooking up with 10 Minute Manicure if it gets off the ground. But their queries stun her. "I can't believe it," she says. "They're inquiring about working for someone. It sort of defeats the whole purpose."

Karen Dillon is Inc.'s deputy editor.

Executive Summary

COMPANY: 10 Minute Manicure

FOUNDERS: Karen Janson, 33, CEO; Vivian Jimenez, 31, COO; Lorraine Brennan O'Neil, 35, part-time chief administrative officer

FAMILY: Janson, married; Jimenez, engaged; O'Neil, married with one stepchild, and a baby on the way at press time

CONCEPT: Set up small kiosks in airports offering -- you guessed it -- manicures in 10 minutes

FINANCING: Hoping for $500,000 in angel money

PROJECTIONS: First year, $3.3 million in revenues, $1.1 million in income; second year, $5.3 million in revenues, $3 million in income

HURDLES: Winning concession contracts from airports, which typically are run by local government agencies practicing rampant cronyism; maintaining the customer traffic that the business model calls for (five manicures per hour at each two-chair kiosk for 13 hours every day of the year)

PERSONAL FUNDS INVESTED: $20,000 total from the three

EQUITY HELD: 33% for each founder, until reduced by sale of equity to investors

SALARY: None to date. If the company gets its hoped-for $500,000 seed money, the three cofounders anticipate taking approximately $45,000 each in salary for their respective roles.

PREVIOUS JOBS: Janson and Jimenez as executives in Florida's largest PR firm; O'Neil as name partner in a law firm

SOURCE OF IDEA: Friends Janson and O'Neil, while fantasizing poolside about starting their own business, "wanted something that would make the professional woman's life easier," O'Neil recalls. "We came up with the idea and the name just like that," Janson says.

OUTSIDE BOARD OF ADVISERS: Nothing formal; informally, an array of friends and acquaintances

WHY THEY'D QUIT: Says Janson, "If some major player came in and swooped up spots in major airports. That's the only reason."

WHAT THEY'D BE DOING IF THEY WEREN'T DOING THIS: "I'd start another business," says Janson. "Or maybe I'd work on that absolutely perfect novel, but I always think I need a little more life experience to make that bite."

SOURCE OF INSPIRATION: "My uncle, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown, who says that if you die trying, then you're a success," says Janson. "That's how I feel about this business."

ROLE MODEL: Janson grew up watching her father, Bob Sweeney, succeed in his own right as an entrepreneur. (Currently, he runs Regal Kitchens, which manufactures high-end kitchens for large-scale construction projects.)