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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    They left corporate America to be their own boss. This is how it's going.

    Candice Luter, who works in home decor, in her studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She used to work at a commercial design firm. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble)

    Many businesses born during the pandemic are now struggling to survive or grow.

    Rising inflation, supply chain issues and labor shortages are expected to continue at least for the short term, making it harder for small businesses to succeed -- and jeopardizing the prospects of the historic number of new ventures launched in 2021.

    According to the Census Bureau, some 5.4 million new business applications were filed in 2021. Of the businesses launched in 2020, 78% -- or roughly 4 out of 5 establishments -- are still active, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit that studies entrepreneurship.

    The pandemic accelerated the new-business boom in two ways, says Ken Szymusiak, managing director of the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Michigan State University.

    First, entrepreneurs saw opportunities to serve millions of people who were working and learning from home.

    Second, a historic number of people quit their jobs in 2021. Many people who were downsized by their companies or were unwilling to return to the office started their own businesses out of economic necessity. Some 30% of the new businesses in 2020 were started out of necessity, compared with 13% in 2019, the Kauffman Foundation found.

    Experts and academics offer this advice to rookie entrepreneurs: Don't give up. "There are always highs and lows," Szymusiak says. "If you've lost your passion or reached the point where you can't stomach the financial repercussions, it's time to ask hard questions about going on," he says.

    Gallup has found that a craving for independence, the ability to manage risk, self-confidence and a sense of determination are among the top characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. Those traits -- the same that compel someone to start a business -- can be tapped when the start-up is struggling to survive or grow, says Justin Lall, director of strategic partnerships at Gallup.

    To understand how new entrepreneurs stay motivated and build their businesses, we talked to three people who left jobs to go out on their own, launching a cooking show, a home decor business and a board game company.

    One is earning far more than he was at his corporate job. The second is breaking out in big ways on Etsy and through partnerships with companies like Target. The third venture hasn't fully taken off yet. Their experiences show how an uncertain economy can challenge the thrill of being your own boss.

    - - -

    Max Miller

    Burbank, Calif.

    Old job: Film sales and distribution for the Walt Disney Co.

    New venture: Tasting History, a YouTube cooking channel

    Q: Where did you get the idea for Tasting History?

    A: I was always bringing historic food into the office. At a company Christmas party in 2019, I brought a medieval elderflower cheesecake. A co-worker said to me, "Hey, you should put this on YouTube." I put out my first video at the end of February 2020.

    Q: When did Tasting History become a full-time gig?

    A: After the pandemic struck, I was furloughed. Nobody was going to the movies anymore. But I knew that I was starting the channel at the perfect time. Everyone was at home, and there was room to grow there. My start-up costs were fairly cheap -- about $2,000 for a camera, tripod, light ring and microphone. I had rather immediate success, hitting 150,000 subscribers in just four months. By April 2020, the channel had pretty much replaced my income at Disney. When the company asked me to come back in 2021, I decided to focus on the channel and made a video called "I Quit."

    Q: How do you make money?

    A: About four months after the channel took off, a company called Curiosity Stream reached out and wanted to sponsor the channel. I had no idea what to charge. So I decided to ask for a certain amount -- I thought it was a lot -- and they very eagerly said OK. Clearly my amount was not correct. I called a friend who was an agent and asked for help negotiating. She's been able to help me with contracts and seeing pitfalls I didn't see coming. Even though my agent takes a portion of what I bring in, her 10% cut was made up a hundredfold in a month. Now I have over a million subscribers and am full-up with sponsors.

    Q: Are you profitable?

    A: I am making far more than what I was making at Disney. I wouldn't have ever guessed that.

    Q: What's next?

    A: All of this could go away any given week -- there's always that fear. What happens if YouTube changes its search algorithm or how it shares its advertising revenue? My strategy is sublimating YouTube. I have a cookbook in the works. I'm thinking about moving into podcasts. I'm just starting to grow on Instagram and Twitter. If something happens with YouTube, all of my eggs aren't in one basket.

    Miller's takeaways:

    -- Seek revenue from sponsors and advertisers; hire someone to help with negotiations and contracts.

    -- Diversify your offerings and delivery platforms to expand your base and protect you from downturns.

    - - -

    Candice Luter

    Cedar Rapids, Iowa

    Old job: Account executive at a commercial design firm

    New venture: Candice Luter Art + Interiors

    Q: How did you discover your passion?

    A: Sometime in 2015, I came across an ad for a local farmers market. I had never upcycled anything -- where you take old furniture and decor and make it better -- but I had seen it on Pinterest. I bought power tools and asked for help using them. I started upcycling anything I could. A month later, I thought I could really do something with this.

    Q: So you were able to work a full-time job and run a business?

    A: It was hard. With this side job, I was answering emails and calls from the bathroom and in the car. Then the pandemic hit, and I got laid off. I thought it would be for a month or two. But they said, "We can't bring you back." When you're used to stability and then there's no stability, it's tough. I was on unemployment. But I thought, "OK, God, you gave me two hands."

    Q: When did business really take off?

    A: I already had a place on Etsy. At the start of the pandemic, a lot of people were working from home and wanted artwork for their Zoom backgrounds or were tackling to-do lists. I tripled my sales the first year of the pandemic, which floored me. Last August, Etsy named me the artist of the year or some such. A lot of companies search on Etsy and Pinterest to discover artists and see what's new out there. In February, Target featured some of my products that I created for its Black History Month collection across 855 stores. Until December, I wasn't getting a regular paycheck because I needed to take care of my employees first.

    Q: How do you fulfill all these production demands?

    A: I have two part-time employees, but I mainly employ subcontractors who are paid by the hour. I have such a great, supportive community in Cedar Rapids. I am surrounded by people who are willing to learn with me.

    Q: What are your biggest challenges?

    A: In the beginning, I had no business sense, no idea of markup or how much my time was worth. But I didn't set out to be a business manager and lead all these people. I realized that I needed to be in design -- that's my best fit. So I've added people with different skill sets to help me with marketing and shipping. I also contacted women I knew with corporate jobs and outsourced HR and accounting to them.

    Q: What's next?

    A: I can see our business growing across different niches in decor. I'm working with a strategist to figure out where we want to be in five years. Do I need a line of credit? Do I need investors? I'd love to continue expanding -- there's so much room in a creative business.

    Luter's takeaways:

    - Know your weaknesses, such as accounting and human resources, and tap professionals for help.

    - Get exposure online through marketplaces like Etsy and use the platform for marketing to larger vendors.

    - Expand your product line to attract new and returning customers.

    - - -

    Wonmin Lee

    Astoria, Queens

    Old job: Consultant with a major technology company

    New venture: Pegasus Games

    Q: You've known for a while that you weren't cut out for a desk job, right?

    A: The time I spent working for a big corporation was very taxing on my mental health and my soul. In June 2016, I quit my job to do my own thing -- learn coding and launching a website with my brother. After about two years, I got burned out from coding, and we sold our website to a competitor. I wanted to do something with my hands, so I created "Welcome to Sysifus Corp," a board game about corporate life. I wasn't trying to get crazy rich. I was more like a starving artist who wanted to know if it's possible to make something I was proud of.

    Q: How did covid-19 affect your game business?

    A: The pandemic accelerated its release. Right now, there is like a movement of people not wanting to work. It's anti-work, down with corporate America. I took advantage of that. I posted a Kickstarter campaign in early 2021 that raised about $18,000 -- enough money to order 1,000 copies from the manufacturer. The final retail version of the game came out in October 2021. Through Kickstarter, I sold more than 200 games. Then I sent 200 or 250 copies to a board game distributor.

    Q: Are you still a starving artist?

    A: I was until recently. Over Thanksgiving, my brother posted on Reddit a photo of my game, and I got a crap ton of orders. It was a hectic post-Thanksgiving week. I went to my dad's warehouse to ship over 100 games out. In the end, I basically broke even with the Kickstarter money. I didn't take a salary in 2021. Even so, I'm happier with my life now than when I was working for a company. I can spend time with my girlfriend and family -- and my cat, Lou.

    Q: What's holding you back?

    A: I vastly underestimated shipping costs, especially with all the transportation problems globally. I now work with a couple of companies that ship for you, and I get better rates. I also realized that it's cheaper to use standard box sizes instead of custom sizes.

    Q; What's next?

    A: My next game to come out is called "Love, Career & Magic," a game based on a Japanese reality show. This time, I'll have a marketing campaign in place before launching another Kickstarter. I need to build up my following. People have signed up for my email list, and they follow me on social media.

    Lee's takeaways:

    - Consider crowdfunding your start-up costs and market your product to donors.

    - Look for ways to reduce business costs, such as standard box sizes and bulk shipping.

    Candice Luter said she was laid off when the pandemic hit but thought it would be temporary. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble)
    A piece deisgned by Candice Luter. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble)
    Wonmin Lee used to work for a tech company before becoming a game designer. (Photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Blesener)
    Wonmin Lee's newly developed game, "Love, Career & Magic." (Photo for The Washington Post by Sarah Blesener)

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