By Bridgett Weaver Greeley Tribune, Colo.
After more than a year of owning a taxi business, Nicole Watkins really has heard it all.
Two days after she started Smart Rides Transportation in Greeley, Watkins hailed a cab to take her home, only to find footprints on the ceiling. When she asked the driver what happened, he said she probably didn't want to know.
She laughed and said, "Yes, I probably don't."
A few footprints on the ceiling seem like a minor consequence of the three businesses Watkins runs, all while taking care of her two daughters.
Watkins also runs her own accounting business, Aliquam Financial Services, and an office sharing business, Socius.
Watkins' busy schedule, along with her determination to be a prominent Greeley businesswoman, has landed her on the Greeley Chamber of Commerce's list of honorees this year for its annual awards dinner. Watkins will be recognized as Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
She was raised in Greeley, and she graduated from UNC with a degree in accounting.
After working for a few years in Denver, Watkins and her husband moved back to Greeley, and that's when the businesses started.
While Watkins likes her other businesses, she refers to Smart Rides as her "baby."
What started as a hobby project quickly turned into a full-grown company.
"We kind of had the thoughts that people call in for a ride and someone goes and gets them in a car, but it's very regulated," Watkins said. "Unlike Uber, all of our drivers have to be background-checked, finger-printed, and we drug test so that you know whoever is getting in the car is safe. We need to prove to the community why we should be their No. 1 choice."
Smart Rides has seen the most growth of any of her businesses since it opened in August 2014.
When Watkins started the company, she had only four cars and a few drivers. Now Smart Rides employs 31 people, 26 of whom are drivers, and the company has 15 vehicles.
She said it feels great to be able to give jobs to so many people, and they often will employ people who come out of the Greeley Transitional House, so the job means even more.
She thinks of the employees as her kids, helping them with problems and interacting with each of them a little bit differently.
Luckily, her husband, Randy, is around to help with Smart Rides as he is co-owner of the business.
Watkins said being in business with her husband is tough sometimes, but it's also really convenient.
"Because this is so new, and there's not a path for us, it's handy when I'm doing something at 11 p.m. that I can say, 'Hey, this is what I'm saying. Is that OK?'" she said.
Watkins said they came up with the idea for Smart Rides together after moving from Denver.
Soon after moving, she and Randy realized if they wanted to get home safe after an evening on the town, they would have to call her mom.
At 30 years old, this didn't seem like a very reasonable option.
So the idea for Smart Rides was born. When it started, she didn't think it would be so hard to get the taxi company rolling, but after spending months in court to get licensed, they finally got the green light.
She said the biggest struggle now is getting the word out. They want to let people know that Smart Rides is a good, affordable alternative to driving after drinking. Also, that it's not just a taxi company for a sober ride. During the day they take people to the grocery store, to the doctor and anywhere else that someone who doesn't have transportation needs to go.
At Aliquam, Watkins oversees three employees who together work with 30 to 35 clients on their financials. She said it's mostly businesses, but there are a few individual clients as well.
Her accounting company shares its office building with other businesses, which creates the third business, Socius.
At Socius, there are eight businesses, ranging from insurance and accounting to mortgage and payroll. Watkins manages the leasing.
In the future, Watkins hopes to expand Aliquam to the point where it takes over the whole Socius building. She also hopes to see Smart Rides take on a few other counties, allowing customers to commute between cities.
No matter which business she's working on for that day, Watkins always knows she has a ride home and someone to do her taxes.