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Published April 22, 2007

Who's the boss? I am

A shifting job landscape pushes more people to start businesses
By Jonathan B. Cox, Staff Writer

Genel Webb works 10-hour days and doesn't get paid. But she loves it.
"It's been more rewarding than my 20-year career," said the mother of two.

Webb, 44, left Verizon Communications in July 2005 when the company decided to reduce its work force.

She set up office in her Fuquay-Varina home and set out to start an elder-care business; CenterPeace Companion Care now employs 10.

"It was not my goal to retire from Verizon," she said. "I always had the sense that I would do something different."

Webb represents a new current of entrepreneurship that is coursing through the state in the wake of mass layoffs, population growth and other economic shifts that have roiled and reshaped North Carolina this decade.

Established companies still account for most employment, but in the past year, jobs among startups and the self-employed grew more than twice as fast.

"The entire 2001 through 2004 was the time when all of us who focus on entrepreneurship were checking our phones to make sure they were still connected," said Mark H. Mirkin, a lawyer with Williams Mullen in Research Triangle Park. "We have seen a comeback, with a vengeance."

Manufacturing and technology workers thrown out of work have opened restaurants and shops -- some by choice, others because they couldn't find other jobs. Retirees who migrated to Asheville and Wilmington are supplementing incomes by consulting. Residents are seizing the opportunity to provide services for newcomers.

Venture capital that evaporated when the economy contracted has returned, giving sustenance to big ideas that could become the next big technical, medical or pharmaceutical breakthrough.

And more entrepreneurs are getting help from the government. The number of loans made to North Carolina companies by the Small Business Administration in the past five years has more than doubled, according to data from the federal agency, exceeding national loan growth by 45 percentage points.

"We're in an economy that's in a state of flux. Old industries are declining, decaying. New industries are sprouting up," said Mike Walden, an N.C. State University economist.

"That's very fertile ground" for entrepreneurs.

Ambitious restaurateurs, landscapers, drug developers and other novice business owners are integral to economic well-being. As operations grow, they hire more workers. They add employment diversity and help insulate communities from economic shocks.

The most successful of them -- think Cary's SAS -- can shape a city.

But they also bring risk. Startups are fragile. A downturn in the economy can stamp them out. A marketing misstep can prove fatal.

Indeed, an estimated one-third of new businesses fail within two years.

'Best job I've ever had'

David Braaten has beaten the odds for nine months. Among his secrets: Sound effects.

"You're dealing with small people who don't want shoes put on their feet," said Braaten, 32, the proprietor of Trendy Toes Children's Shoes in Cary.

So Braaten gets creative. He makes airplane sounds to put his little customers at ease.

"I absolutely love the interaction," he said. "I tell my wife it's the best job I've ever had."

Like a lot of people, Braaten tried for years to find happiness at work. He took different jobs but never found a niche.

His wife's family had a long history in the shoe industry, so Braaten decided to give it a shot.

His store, a colorful place with checker boards, backgammon and other games on the carpet, opened in July. It stocks athletic, casual and dress shoes for newborns up to youth size six. Braaten promises friendly service and a proper fit.

So far, he has hired four employees and is looking for a fourth. Building the business, though, was more challenging than he expected.

"The nice thing is, when you first start a business you don't know anything," Braaten said. "Once you get into it, you realize how hard it really is."

For two decades, Webb improved processes, added automation and fixed problems at Verizon.

But she was unfulfilled. She was reading "48 Days to the Work You Love," which helps people turn passions into profits, when she volunteered to leave.

"It was so timely," she said. "I felt like a door was being opened."

Growing up in Bladen County, Webb learned compassion. Her mother and grandmother owned a facility for the elderly there.

CenterPeace takes off

When a friend in New York was disabled by a stroke, Webb hatched her idea. Her friend was crying one day when Webb called, because she struggled to get into bed. Webb found a company that sent an employee in every other day to help.

CenterPeace does almost exactly the same thing. For $16 an hour, the company will send workers to visit elderly clients, remind them to take medicine, do light housekeeping and pick up prescriptions. In May, it was also licensed to provide in-home services such as bathing. It charges $20 an hour for that.

"There's a lot of opportunity," said Webb, who intends to start taking a salary this year. "There's a lot of need."

She attributes her success so far in part to her experience at Verizon. There, she learned to manage people and plan projects.

Still, Webb isn't quite where she expected to be. She has 10 clients, but wants four times that. Among her biggest challenges is retaining employees. The business is competitive and if CenterPeace doesn't generate enough steady business, workers will go to rivals.

She wants to set her company apart by offering health and dental insurance, a perk usually missing in the industry. But she can't afford it yet.

"Everything depends on the business decisions that I make," Webb said. "It's not hard, but it's intense."

Leaders in the state are turning more attention to the challenges entrepreneurs face and looking for ways to encourage more people to start businesses.

In February, the leaders of the state House and Senate added "entrepreneurship" to the names of committees that they oversee. It might seem trivial, but it reflects a greater focus on the needs of startups.

Educators have pledged to work together as part of the new N.C. Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education. They want to develop a curriculum that builds entrepreneurial skills, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through adult education.

University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles is ratcheting up pressure on system colleges to move discoveries out of labs and into the private sector where they can be commercialized. That mission could fuel more new businesses.

Fulfilling, but not easy

Malcolm Thomas is using technology developed at N.C. State University as the foundation for his venture, Arbovax. The goal is to create vaccines to thwart insect-borne viruses, such as Dengue Fever, from affecting mammals.

Thomas has been working to develop the company for about two years, with the past 12 months spent raising $1.5 million. He wants to hire two post-doctoral researchers and renovate former N.C. State labs so that by mid-year he will no longer be the only employee, and the company will have a home base.

But everything has taken longer than he anticipated.

"One of the problems is the angel network is not as good as it could be here," he said. Angel investors often take the earliest risks on new technology and biotechnology, promising to invest before researchers know for sure that an idea will work.

Indeed, funding can be the most onerous problem. Entrepreneurs usually don't lack ideas or passion.

"This company truly is a part of mine and my family's life," Webb said. "I am a third-generation, caregiver business owner, although it took a second career for me to come to it."

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