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The Recession-Era Entrepreneur

Economic necessity and the ease of social media create the perfect storm for a new crop of DIY businesses.



Kids typically fantasize about having fairy-tale adult lives. They imagine they'll become astronauts, veterinarians, presidents, ballerinas, superheroes, or reality-TV celebrities. And most parents don't go out of their way to quash those dreams, no matter how far-fetched they are. But few youngsters voice desires to become self-employed writing coaches, purveyors of homemade spicy jams, or part-time baristas who make jewelry on the side. Yet those could be more realistic aspirations, as a seemingly growing number of East Bay twenty- and thirtysomethings are doing just that in order to make ends meet.

Due to the economy, slim job prospects, and skyrocketing education costs, more and more young people are finding their fairy-tale careers beyond reach, or simply not on the horizon. As a result, many are supplementing their incomes — or banking entirely on the do-it-yourself route — by starting their own businesses, many within niche or specialized fields. While the Bay Area has always had a certain entrepreneurial spirit about it, these days it seems working stiffs are becoming their own bosses for more urgent financial reasons. And with the availability of online channels like Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, and Etsy, making those businesses financially solvent seems a more viable idea than ever before.

"People are doing lots of small things cobbling together a full living," said Lauren Venell, who teaches often sold-out DIY business classes at Workshop in San Francisco. Venell said her enrollees are mostly creative types — designers, crafters, and illustrators — who want to launch their own endeavors. Many hope to start curatorial businesses that recommend products or hand-pick items to sell. Most of them are in their twenties and thirties, or semi-retirees in their sixties, with few in between, Venell noted. And, for whatever reason, the majority are women.

Venell acknowledges the Bay Area's entrepreneurial pedigree, but says she's seen a new trend of people being drawn to start their own businesses out of economic necessity: getting laid off from their jobs or having their work hours reduced. "It didn't used to be that way," she said. "It was much more deliberate a few years ago. And now ... they're doing it with a little less preparation."

Venell is among those who started a crafty side business not for monetary reasons, per se, but for fun. Nine years ago, she was teaching elementary school in the Bay Area when she began making kitschy plush toys in the shape of various meat cuts (pork chop, bacon, ham, etc.). Initially, she sold her Sweet Meats plush toys on the craft-fair circuit, but thanks to some fortuitous press (including from The New York Times), her products are now widely distributed through stores as far away as Germany and Spain, and on her web site. She has since parlayed her skills into consulting with small-business entrepreneurs and doing product development with toy companies. She also does the occasional prop design, marketing for tech companies, and helps to program the annual Conference of Creative Entrepreneurs, which launched in response to the high demand for her classes (this year's will be held August 5-7 in San Francisco). "I like that I have eight different things to do every day," said Venell. "It's never boring, but it also means you have to be really organized and work weekends. It's not for everyone."

As was the case with Venell, often entrepreneurs are already doing something creative alongside their nine-to-five jobs. When they lose their full-time gigs, hobbies become both prospective revenue sources and more fulfilling avenues of labor. That's exactly how it happened for Dafna Kory. As a video editor, the 29-year-old Berkeley resident was accustomed to spending long hours behind the computer. But she wanted to break up the monotony and do something more physical, so a few years ago she began making jam — specifically, spicy jalapeño jam. She sold it informally to friends, neighbors, and at the SF Underground Market, an event designed for homemade-food producers who don't have proper licenses. So when the company Kory was working for closed its doors in 2009, she decided not to seek more video work but to pursue her hobby as a real business. "I've been wanting to do this jam stuff for a while," she said. "It gave me the opportunity I couldn't refuse."

Today, Kory says her entrepreneurial inclination is paying off. Her jam company, INNA Jam, is sold through her web site and at upscale food stores in Berkeley and Oakland, including Rick & Ann's Restaurant, Summer Kitchen Bake Shop, The Gardener, Berkeley Bowl West, Local 123 cafe, and Sacred Wheel cheese shop.

"It's been going amazing," gushed Kory, who delivers her jams by bicycle. "I have to say, it's way beyond what I expected because there's a lot of good jam in the Bay Area. I didn't think there was some big need for jam, but I'm glad I took it to the next level because it's been really well received." While she still supplements her income with occasional freelance video work, she says she hopes INNA Jam will fully support her next year (although, she admits, she said the same thing last year).

In Ali Lawrence's case, an injury led her to consider self-employment. Lawrence, who lives in Oakland, had been working in events services for a long time when she hurt her wrist in January of last year. "That sort of forced me out of something I didn't really want to be in anyway," she said.