The Road to Your Future Take control. Start your own business… now.

July 14, 2010

Lisa Ocker Mary Vinnedge Jonathan Davis survived rounds of layoffs before the end came in May 2008 when his employer went out of business. Even before receiving his pink slip, he’d gotten fed up with the insecurity, the lack of control over his life and with the work itself, selling subprime mortgages.

Ellen Pfeiffer was perfectly happy working in business development for a chain of residential centers for the elderly. Then, out of the blue, her supervisor announced her position was being eliminated. Do these stories sound familiar? If you haven’t faced a layoff yourself, surely you know someone who has. Or you’ve suffered moments of uncertainty when all the scary what-ifs creep into your thoughts: What if I lost my job, my paycheck, my security, my savings, my identity… my future?

Job security is a phrase our grandparents or parents understood. But in today’s economy, it’s gone the way of analog phones and eight-track tapes. Those who have retained their jobs must do more for less—shoulder more of the workload, work longer hours, forgo raises and bonuses. There is no safety net and fewer incentives for staying.

For many disillusioned employees, employer-provided health insurance remained the last best reason not to leave and start their own businesses. But benefits like insurance and 401(k) accounts have bitten the dust, too. So why not strike out on your own? What have you got to lose? That’s what Davis and Pfeiffer asked themselves. Now, they realize they had everything to gain.

Although Davis felt a sense of pride in not getting axed in the first rounds of layoffs, he was tired of the uncertainty. He was inspired as he watched his brother help his sister-in-law start her own business, so he started “brainstorming on paper,” jotting down interests and ideas. He was exhilarated as he allowed himself to dream about all the possibilities. Among his interests were green business and sustainable living. “I wanted to be involved in something that was giving back to the community,” he says. He tried to do research online, but found insufficient resources in his Portland, Ore., area. And that gave him a business idea: a website for environmentally conscious consumers. From that moment on, there was no stopping him. “It was like I had a fire in my gut.” Davis’s GreenPosting.org, a free directory for all things green in the Portland area, has been live since October 2008 and generates income by selling ads to businesses promoting their sustainability.  And 30-year-old Davis has since developed a promising consulting business, too, helping other businesses adopt green practices and connect with each other.

Pfeiffer’s inspiration for taking the leap came from a random conversation with a friend about entrepreneurship. She liked the idea of starting her own business, using her own creativity to take charge of her future. And she recognized an unmet need for concierge services like running errands and providing transportation to help elderly people live independently in their own homes. Days after attending a seminar on developing her business, she got the news that her position was being eliminated. Her supervisor offered her a lateral move within the company, but Pfeiffer said no thanks. She’d already turned the corner and was ready to chart her own success. Since that day near the end of 2008, Pfeiffer, 57, has expanded her concierge services to serve busy people of all ages. Her San Antonio, Texas-based Generations Concierge Service has 10 employees and about 100 individual clients, and works with three corporations. She markets her services to healthcare and corporate clients, and has been successful in persuading them that their employees will be more productive at work if they have help with personal needs.

Successful entrepreneurs aren’t surprised to see their ranks growing. “Owning your own business puts you in control of your financial destiny,” former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach says. He followed a successful NFL career by working his way from real estate agent to the helm of an international commercial real estate company. “Small-business success has no limits,” supermodel-turned-CEO Kathy Ireland says, “unless you place them on yourself.” Ireland’s product marketing company, kathy ireland Worldwide, “began at my kitchen table with a few borrowed dollars,” she says, and generated an estimated $1.4 billion in retail sales in 2005.

Entrepreneurs, by their very nature, can create their own success, says media mogul Ted Turner. “People who own their own businesses are their own bosses. They are independent thinkers.” Indeed, the liberty that comes with owning a business is a major draw of entrepreneurship. Business owners are able to be their own bosses, exercise creative freedom, and achieve financial independence—not only for themselves, but for their families as well. “Small businesses help enhance the lives of our citizens by improving our quality of life and creating personal wealth,” says President Barack Obama. “Small businesses will lead the way to prosperity, particularly in today’s challenging economic environment.” On a personal level, the rewards of entrepreneurship are infinite. “To take an idea and turn it into something making money—it’s really amazing,” Davis says. “I’m in charge of my own destiny completely. It’s just so rewarding to do something you’re good at that’s so appreciated,” Pfeiffer says.

Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway followed his record-setting NFL career with entrepreneurial ventures that include car dealerships, restaurants, endorsements and Internet opportunities. “The responsibility of making important decisions that impact your business is exhilarating,” Elway says. “It may be one of the few things that can come close to replacing the high of throwing the game-winning touchdown in an AFC Championship game in Cleveland.

If you meet the challenges and make the right decisions, and are fortunate enough to succeed, then there are few things better than enjoying the fruits of your efforts and decisions.” But what about the risks of starting a business in these unstable times? Successful entrepreneurs resoundingly agree that now isn’t just a good time—it’s the best time. “Times when everyone is confused and stunned present enormous opportunity [for entrepreneurs] because no one is really doing anything,” writes Dell Inc. founder and CEO Michael Dell on his company’s blog. “So I think this is the time where the seeds of really successful businesses will be created.”

Best-selling author, radio host and wealth expert Dave Ramsey puts it this way: “There’s been a lot of doom and gloom in the media this year. The truth is, many people were laid off from jobs they hated anyway. Many people, instead of sitting home and sulking, have used the opportunity to think about what they really want to do when they grow up. You have ideas—go do it!”

Finance guru and best-selling author Suze Orman points out that starting a home-based business is “an incredible way—without risking any money, so to speak—to see what hidden communication talents may be uncovered that could create an independent income stream.” And when it comes to risk, successful entrepreneurs say taking a chance on yourself is a much safer bet than gambling your financial future on a corporate job. “I think a lot of people are worried about making mistakes, but if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not taking enough risks,” says Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. “Taking risks and making mistakes is how you grow, on both a business and personal level.”

“Entrepreneurship starts with a passionate person who is willing to take a risk,” Elway says. “It doesn’t have to be a big risk, as sometimes it may be as simple as getting out of your comfort zone. Sometimes the ‘nothing to lose’ attitude can force people to pursue dormant dreams,” he says.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says he took a big risk in acquiring the franchise. “I didn’t sleep for two and a half years, but it was probably the most exhilarating time of my life.… It was a gamble, but there have also been some pretty big rewards.”

For wealth expert and best-selling author Robert Kiyosaki, risk is actually part of the enticement. “Just as Tiger Woods seeks the challenges a golf course offers and Lance Armstrong craves the challenges the Tour de France offers, I seek the challenges entrepreneurship offers. I seek long-term business challenges, and today’s economy is offering all of us challenges we’ve never seen before.” Mark Cuban, chairman of HDNet and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, points out that some of the best businesses are built in recessions. “Money is easy to find in boom times, which leads to far too many businesses getting out of the gate that don’t deserve to be started. When money is scarce, better ideas face less competition and better execution can lead to greater success.” Indeed, more than half of the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during a recession or bear market, along with nearly half of the firms on the 2008 Inc. list of fastest-growing companies, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Would Davis and Pfeiffer have taken the leap if not for losing their jobs? Possibly not, although both are awfully glad they did. “Starting the business in these tough times and seeing it grow is reassuring because it’ll be poised for greater success when the economy rebounds.” Pfeiffer admits she would’ve waited until the economy improved, but she says that would’ve been a mistake. With more people downsized, those who remain employed are responsible for more of the work, so they need her services to keep their personal lives on track, she says. Davis’s young business is still growing, but “I can pay for my life,” he says. As his own boss, he sees unlimited earning potential and personal fulfillment. Sure, he puts in a lot of hours, “but it’s like that adage, ‘Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day,’ ” he says. And he has time to volunteer playing chess with kids through an after-school program, has started a nonprofit called the Bicycle Business League that promotes pedal-powered transportation. And, “when it snows on Mount Hood, I’m able to leave at 2:00 and get there in time for night skiing.” Pfeiffer also works long hours, but she’s only really given up TV, “which isn’t such a bad thing.” For anyone thinking about entrepreneurship, she offers this advice: “If there’s something you’re passionate about that you’re not doing, make every effort to attain that dream, pursue that goal. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.”

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