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Anderson Rentals seeks new location, expands into art business; Lawrence startup company seeking to become national player in online advertising

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A portable toilet, a forklift and a fine piece of art: Yes, it is a trio that could lead to a date with a bail bondsman. But they’re also three products you’re able to rent at Lawrence-based Anderson Rentals, as it undergoes what could be some significant changes for the longtime business.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted a ‘for sale’ sign showed up in front of the home of Anderson Rentals, 1312 W. Sixth St., which created questions about whether the longtime business was going out of business. Don’t worry, it is not. But co-owner Mary Anderson told me the business is contemplating a series of changes. The company is looking for a buyer for its large piece of Sixth Street property. If a buyer is found, Anderson would look to find a new location more suitable for the current financial conditions.

“Coming through this rough economy, we had a lot of debt pile up,” Anderson said “We are trying to find a cheaper location.”

Another possibility, Anderson said, is it may stay at the current location but rent out some of its existing space. But Anderson said there are no plans to close the business, which dates back to 1946 when it was a used furniture store and eventually got its start in the rental business because the Eldridge Hotel temporarily needed some furniture for a convention. The company is one of the older rental businesses in the country.

The business rents a variety of tools to contractors and home owners, services events with tents, tables, chairs and other such items, and supplies a large amount of the portable toilets you see on jobs sites and elsewhere around town. But what’s this talk of fine art?

Anderson said art is the newest rental product the company is offering. Anderson has been a professional artist and has multiple contacts in that world. She has created a new business, MEA Fine Art, and now she is creating a new program where people can rent art rather than buy it. She’s working with about eight regional artists currently, but hopes to expand the business to a more national base of artists as the concept catches on.

But just how is the concept going to catch on, you ask. Well, take this recent scene from Lawrence life: You’re going to host the president for dinner. Your spouse keeps harping that your substantial art collection of dogs playing pool isn’t appropriate for such a dinner. So, you rent a few pieces of art for the special occasion.

Or some other scenarios include businesses renting art for their waiting rooms, corporations needing art for special events, or real estate agents who need a few pieces to stage a home that they have on the market.

But Anderson hopes the idea goes beyond that. She hopes that rentals will make fine art more affordable.

“My goal is to make fine artists more available to the public,” Anderson said.

One of the programs is geared for people who just enjoy art and want it in their homes, but perhaps would like a rotation of pieces. People pay a rental fee and can have a piece of art for a few months, then receive a different piece of art to replace it. Anderson also is offering a rent-to-own program for some pieces of art.

Anderson thinks the fine art idea has a chance to become a new segment in the rental industry. It will be interesting to watch whether this Lawrence business creates a new industrywide trend. In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch what happens to their property at the corner of Sixth and Michigan streets. It is a fairly large piece of property, so it may be an area to keep an eye on for redevelopment.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Now that I have mentioned dogs playing pool on the Internet, what happens next is predictable: Every website I visit for the next few weeks will have advertisements of dogs playing pool. But with Internet advertising being the imperfect beast that it is, they’ll be ads for dogs playing in a pool. Now, obviously, I like dogs playing pool — as in billiards — because, well, who doesn’t? But I don’t give a flip about dogs playing in a pool — as in a swimming pool — because that is obviously ridiculous.

A Lawrence startup business aims to tackle that problem. Well, maybe not that specific problem because that is a fairly narrow business model. But it hopes to make Internet advertising a lot more user friendly, and that is the type of business that can become an international tech success story that Lawrence hopes to become known for.

The Lawrence-based company is Bixy. Back in 2012, we reported on the Lawrence startup Audio Anywhere and how its founder, Lawrence resident Kyle Johnson, was named the innovator of the year by the Pipeline entrepreneurship program. The business was focused on making music-streaming sites, like Pandora and Spotify, profitable by making online advertising more efficient. It had developed a proprietary piece of technology it called Bixy to do that.

Fast forward to today, and the company is not focusing on music-streaming sites but rather the Bixy technology has become the business. Johnson thinks the timing for the business is good because consumers are becoming more leery of the practice of targeting, where ads start following you around the Internet based on your search history.

The Bixy technology aims to give advertisers another way to reach consumers instead of the traditional targeting practices. The technology creates a system where people complete a form about their interests and can pick from a list of companies that they would be interested in receiving ads from.

“Instead of creeping people out and targeting them, let them control the advertising and give them ads that they want,” Johnson said.

Johnson used himself as an example. He’s a runner. He could choose adidas as one of the companies he would be interested in receiving ads from. The basic idea is that when Kyle is surfing the Web, the banner ads that he sees on those websites would be much more likely to be from adidas rather than some company he doesn’t care about.

“Unless you want to start paying for content, you are going to see ads, so they might as well be ads you want to see,” Johnson said.

The company makes its money by charging a fee to the brands that sign up for the service. Thus far the company has gone through its pilot phase and is pleased with the results. The company mainly has been signing up Lawrence and Kansas City companies for its test phase, but Johnson said it is now seeking to expand its territory. The company is out talking with venture capitalists trying to raise about $750,000 in venture capital. The company is technically based in Lawrence — that’s where Johnson has an office — but is made up of developers and other technical positions that are spread throughout the country. The company has grown from about three employees two years ago to about 10 employees today. Johnson said he expects that number to grow as it begins to build a sales force, which he said is the next step for the company.

Predicting which tech companies will work and which ones will fade away is kind of like trying to predict whether that beagle really will make that nine-ball bank shot. It is tough to know, but this is a Lawrence startup that should be interesting to watch.

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