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A generation in free fall, Part 3 | Some young people avoid job hunts by employing themselves

Updated: 2010-11-23T20:00:55Z

By SCOTT CANON and DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Let’s face it. Mom and Dad don’t feel so secure pushing paper at General Electric, pulling shifts at General Motors or stacking supplies at General Mills.

Working for the man is an ever-iffier proposition.

So inspired by the likes of Brin, Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg, empowered by the connectivity of the Internet, and daunted by the growing odds against getting a paycheck from Dinosaur Industries Corp., many young adults have struck out on their own.

By some measurements, people in their 20s are more dependent on their parents than folks who emerged into adulthood in recent decades and entrepreneurs are the exception. In fact, most still strive to work at steady institutions.

Still, a notable few create their own jobs.

Almost two decades ago the hipster group Superchunk sang I’m working/But I’m not working for you! Today, millions are actually working for themselves without having even bothered to work for someone else.

They’re designing web pages, making their own films, hustling as all kinds of freelancers and betting that they can be their own boss.

Academics say business start-ups can be more common in tough times and call the phenomenon “necessity entrepreneurship.”

“Sometimes it’s a little scary when you’re trying to figure out where your next customer is going to be coming from,” said Matt Pruitt.

Along with Ross Brown, a friend since seventh grade, he runs a small but optimistic concern doing business as Relatively Early Development.

Together the two 21-year-olds incorporated their web design company in fall 2009 — leaving behind their parents’ ambitions for them to get college degrees and instead taking an immediate plunge into their self-started business.

“We didn’t need a bunch of money. We already had computers,” Pruitt said while plinking on a keyboard in a Kansas City coffee shop that was, for the moment, his office. “Each job pays for the next job.”

In 2006, 2007 and 2009, according to data compiled by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, people ages 18 to 24 started up new businesses at a faster clip than those 35 to 44.

These young business creators, dodging a dodgy job market by forming their own businesses, are encouraged by Kansas City’s entrepreneur-happy Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and by like-minded faculty increasingly populating business schools.

Technology has helped. Even if your business idea isn’t centered on some use of a website, the Internet can provide the connections and at-your-fingertips know-how that could have taken years to assemble in a pre-web age.

Once the American notion of succeeding in business centered on climbing from the mail room to the corner office of some Fortune 500 behemoth. Today the mythology has shifted — inspired by the fables born in a garage for Steve Jobs of Apple or in a dorm room by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook — toward the glory of the start-up.

“The great thing about this generation is that they’re very good at blurring the lines. They’re not so hung up on the traditional notion of what it means to be employed,” said Thom Ruhe, director of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation. “Entrepreneurship is an informed leap for most of them. They see that the historical stalwarts of employment won’t take care of you.

“So who do you have left to rely on? Yourself. They’ve figured out that ‘you’re the one you’re waiting for.’ ”

He cautions that starting a business is not simple. Credit in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown is tight. The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that half of all businesses fail in the first five years. In “Small Business Management,” author Michael Ames cites lack of experience as the chief reason.

And who has less experience than the young?

The failure rate looks more discouraging than reality, said Carla Pavone, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Many of the businesses that the government marks as failures have simply been left behind because the people behind them have found other jobs. Or they’ve been put on a back burner while another idea is pursued.

“Sometimes, especially in bad times, these businesses are how somebody manages to make a living while they wait for something else to open up,” Pavone said.

And although the business climate is tough, and loans are hard to come by, a small-enough outfit can get by without lots of investment.

Without taking on debt, Christie and Matt Scott broke even on the first edition of EA (Ever After) Bride magazine for the Kansas City market in September. Advertising covered the printing costs, and the couple bartered with clients to borrow, for instance, bridal gowns for their photo shoots in return for discounted ads.

“It’s a way we’re making things work,” Christie Scott said.

The bridal magazine was also her way to find the right kind of work.

“I thought: ‘I’m not finding a job I’m dying to do. I’ll create it,’ ” she said.

In fact, the excitement of grabbing the bottom rung at MegaConglomerate Inc. has faded badly. Even the odd young person who might dream of earning a gold watch must surely recognize now that her odds of hanging on at the same joint for an entire career are Powerball-like.

The difficulty of finding a job when roughly 15 percent of your peers are looking for work and failing is its own incentive. Sometimes circumstances simply point to branching out on your own.

“These young people have witnessed a lack of loyalty from their employers and with their parents’ employers,” said Teresa Alewel, the director of career services at the University of Central Missouri. “People will stay in their positions not out of loyalty but out of wanting to avoid risk. … They’ve seen Mom and Dad laid off.”

George Brooks knew his status at a small design agency was dicey when he had little work to do and few billable hours to charge to customers. By the time his layoff came in 2007, he was braced.

He’d already been scraping up the odd freelance job in his off hours, and that gave him a line on customers that would make the idea of starting his own business something other than completely crazy.

In fact, the premise of his on-the-go business plan was that so many advertising and marketing firms had been saving costs by kicking their staff designers to the curb. They were outsourcing the work, and Brooks would be there to scoop it up.

“The trajectory’s been nearly straight up. It’s been pretty incredible,” said the 28-year-old.

But there were growing pains. How to stay on top of his tax obligations, sell and manage all the paperwork that his CremaLab (“crema” for the top golden layer on an espresso shot) was creating.

So this year Brooks recruited a friend, Daniel Linhart, who had been moving from one relatively satisfying job to the next with larger, established employers.

“When he approached me, it was both exciting and scary,” said Linhart, who’s also 28. “You work for yourself. You get up in the morning and set the direction, but that direction either succeeds or fails based on that, on what you do.”

It helped that the medium of their business, the web, was a habitat they grew up immersed in. What an older entrepreneur might not recognize about Internet behavior could come intuitively to the pair.

And if the generation that came of age in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s was steeped in the power of rugged individualism, those becoming adults today have worked through an American education system that’s been dispatching them toward group projects and collaboration for much of their lives.

Bob and Jimmy Horner and their brother-in-law Chris Easter share virtually all the duties of making The Man Registry — their groom-centered website — work.

The idea came after one of the gang was at a wedding where the masculine side of the wedding was overlooked. They figured there was more room among the wedding gifts for tools and camping gear amid the crockery and silverware, that grooms needed advice, and that advertisers might want a quick route to the guy who buys the wedding ring.

So while Easter finished a business degree at Webster University in 2007, the three hatched plans. He went straight from college to company.

“I never even had to apply for a job,” Easter said. “I was already in.”

He confesses to almost no sweating about his future or that of the Overland Park-based TheManRegistry.com. After all, he’s young. And he figures his youth makes him a tad more fearless. His responsibilities are minimal. If the company’s prospects suddenly go down the toilet, he’s got plenty of time to restart his career.

In fact, Easter said he’s determined to keep trying to create new ventures.

“This isn’t the only business I want to start,” he said.

When Chris Wenske left the University of Kansas with a film degree in 2008, he wasn’t about to settle “for managing a Wendy’s or anything like that.”

He went door to door to businesses, offering them on-the-spot videos to promote their boutiques and restaurants. He’s expanded to filming tae kwon do classes and high school choral concerts, and selling DVDs to proud parents. He recently shot a video of Kansas City rapper Dutch Newman on the streets of downtown Kansas City.

It’s a struggle to find work that pays well enough, to get himself to the many places he wants to be to shoot video and to make the connections that generate more work. Yet he seems to love it.

“If I was going to work for Garmin or Sprint or somebody like that, and work a certain number of hours on a certain number of tasks, I wouldn’t be satisfied,” Wenske said. “But I want more than that. … I want to provide the entertainment that people consume.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send e-mail to scanon@kcstar.com. To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send e-mail to stafford@kcstar.com.

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