Ask virtually any entrepreneur about the "aha moment" that got their businesses started and invariably a big smile will cross their face. Usually, they can pinpoint it to the exact second, because it was the moment that changed their lives forever.

The finalists in Salesforce's Small Business, Big Impact Contest all had "aha moments" that set the wheels in motion for their current success. These finalists were chosen out of hundreds of entries, and each of their stories is compelling and inspiring.

August Graube is founder of finalist Fort Boards, which makes creative building toys that let kids build forts, houses, cars, planes, and sea creatures--anything as big as their imaginations. He has deep industrial design experience and has even built a full-scale mock-up of the interior of a Boeing airliner.

"Essentially I was designing forts for adults on the move," he says.

The "aha moment" came when he was managing the design and build of an interactive children's exhibit for a museum in Seattle and saw how much kids enjoyed playing with the life-sized Lincoln logs that he had made for them.

"I saw just how much they were loving it," he explains. "You could see their eyes light up. I thought back on the endless hours that I spent playing in forts, and how much I loved building with construction toys as a kid, so I thought that there should be something in the market that combined the best of those activities.

I realized that if I could design a product that was easy for kids to use, but still allowed them to build anything that they wanted, I would have a hit on my hands."

Going from the "aha moment" to the marketplace was no easy feat. It took Graube 18 months and 165 design versions before he came up with the prototype for Fort Boards. Designing a product that meets two important needs from its target market will ensure that the toy will be high on many parent's holiday shopping lists this year.

Vic Wintress, founder of the League of Amazing Programmers, earned his place in the finalist group with a very different approach to engaging children and a very different kind of "aha moment."

Wintress, who has an advanced degree in electrical engineering from Cornell, previously served as a commander in the Navy, and had founded three very successful electronics manufacturing companies, earning multiple inclusions in the Inc. 5000.

After retiring from his electronics businesses, Wintress came upon the idea of setting up schools where students as young as fifth grade would be taught Java. There wasn't another school in the country that even considered teaching such sophisticated programming to children so young.

So, what was Wintress' "aha moment?"

"Honestly, I don't know how I got the idea," he admits. "It's magic. It was like a voice came from heaven. I didn't even know how to program with Java myself. I have no idea why this idea just popped into my head."

To turn this revelation into a business, Wintress went about learning Java and then hired a core team, assembled a faculty, and created the curriculum. Many of the teachers were volunteers, passionate coders who wanted to pass their skills on to another generation.

His "aha moment" has already turned into a major success story. Fully 92 percent of the kids who start the program stick with it. Many of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and many of the attendees are girls, who are in relatively short supply in the coding and programming fields.

A sixth-grader in the program passed the AP exam for computer science. Eleventh and 12th graders are earning Oracle Java certification and University of California Davis certification.

"These high school students have the skills to immediately get jobs starting at $125,000 and that's with no college," he says. "More than that, it's amazing to see the changes in these kids. Their confidence is way up, they do better in school. It's great to be a part of something like this."

Learn about three more business founders and their personal "aha moments" here.

Published on: Dec 7, 2016