The Economy of You
Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life
Author: Kimberly Palmer
Pub Date: January 2014
Print Edition: $21.95
Print ISBN: 9780814432730
Page Count: 256
e-Book ISBN: 9780814432747
Buy the book:
Give Me a Reason
When I first met Chris Furin, he was behind the counter of his dad's deli in Washington, D.C.'s, Georgetown neighborhood, asking me what I wanted for lunch. He had been working there for twenty-seven years, often seven days a week, and regular customers were used to seeing his friendly smile.
Chris, who at forty-one looks like a more muscular version of actor Chris Klein, wasn't just taking salad and sandwich orders. He was also slowly building a business of his own. As television shows like Cake Boss and Cupcake Wars took off, customers started calling and asking for personalized concoctions of their own. "Somebody wanted a cake in the shape of the United States. 'It's a pain in the butt,' our chef said, and he'd just say no. I'd say, 'Wait a minute. Our economy is headed down. How can I say no?' So I would say yes. I got the chef to bake the sheet cake and then I would stay late and shape it at night, and charge more money for it," says Chris. "I can make sandwiches for three hours and make $100 or a cake in forty-five minutes and make $300," he says.
He liked his new side-gig. "In the restaurant, I was waiting on people and taking orders, and there wasn't so much baking or dec-orating. I'm a creative person; I enjoy doing that." And he's good at it. "I felt like I had some talent. I can draw," says Chris.
As property taxes and food prices rose and his dad struggled to keep the deli afloat, Chris knew he needed to prepare for the day when it would close. "Things were going down; bills were piling up. I went into emergency mode. I started wondering, 'How am I going to survive if I lose my job?'" That's when he got serious about building what he would call Cakes by Chris Furin.
Over the course of two years, Chris perfected his craft in the deli's kitchen after it closed for the day, creating cakes in the shape of Darth Vader, Dr. Seuss, the White House, and a Mercedes Benz. "I wanted to take it up a notch, and I wanted to take my price point up a notch," he says. Thanks to the deli's proximity to the Four Seasons and other high-end hotels in Georgetown, he made cakes for big-name clients, including Joan Rivers and Whoopi Goldberg. He also reached out to managers of local restaurants and hotels, who could make lucrative referrals when clients needed big orders for events, including weddings.
As the deli's closing looked increasingly likely, Chris hired a freelance web designer to set up his website, and his wife, Dawn, who works in marketing, helped make the site easy to find through web searches. He created a limited liability company through legalzoom.com, ordered brochures and other marketing materials through vistaprint.com, and applied for a local catering license. With Dawn's help, he was also able to capitalize on some of the local press coverage the deli got as it shut down, with some sources, including The Washington Post, announcing his new custom cake business. He made sure the deli's now-defunct website pointed customers directly to his own.
On July 31, 2011, when the deli officially shut its doors for good, Chris felt "scared, sad, and happy." He was ready to leave a situation where he had started to feel trapped, but he wasn't sure if he'd be able to replace his income with his cake business. When he said goodbye to the other employees that day, he left with a database of a couple hundred customers, a few leftover mixers and shelves, and the urgent desire to make his own company a success.
When we spoke about his business by phone shortly after the deli closed, Chris invited me to see him at work as he prepared an order out of the kitchen of his home in Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. His two small, white poodles greeted me at the door, and Chris welcomed me upstairs to his kitchen, where he and Manuel, a former deli employee who now works for Chris a few hours a week, were cleaning up after a morning of baking. "Doing it from home saves five to ten thousand dollars a month in rent," says Chris, whose fingers were stained with red icing. "Plus," he jokes, "my kitchen is a hundred times cleaner than that restaurant ever was." His standard-sized oven isn't large enough for big sheet cakes, so he bakes them in pieces and then glues them together with icing. Huge Tupperware containers of cake mix, flour, and sugar line the floor, and the sun streaming through the orange curtains on the windows highlights smudges left from earlier efforts on the black granite countertops.
Order forms for the week's cakes are lined up on a bulletin board, along with a photo of Joan Rivers showing off her orange and brown Hermés bag-shaped cake and a photo of a pink and white ballerina cake with a billowing dress made out of icing. "A customer wanted a cake for her daughter's birthday, so I Googled and found this princess cake," he says.
That princess cake sits in the basement garage that he converted into an extension of his kitchen. A brown-haired Barbie wrapped in Saran wrap stuck out of the rolled fondant pink and white dress; the four-year-old recipient will get to keep the doll when she's done eating the cake. Also in the fridge: a four-tiered white wedding cake, a red cake featuring the logo of a local company, stacks of Philadelphia cream cheese for icing--and Heineken, for when Chris's day is over. Silver sheet trays from the deli, packets of nuts and sprinkles, and cake boxes are stacked around the room, which also houses Chris's weights and motorcycle, as well as his biggest start-up expense, a $2,500 industrial-size refrigerator.
The dining room next to the kitchen serves as his office, where his laptop, a file full of invoices, and brochures with the Cakes by Chris Furin logo monopolize the table. (His wife Dawn is fine with the fact that his business has taken over their home, Chris says, because she wants him to succeed, too. He also tidies up at the end of every day before she gets home from the office.) He's sold about $1,800 worth of cakes this week, out of which he'll pay between 10 and 15 percent in costs. Sales go up and down; last week he made a record $3,600, and sometimes he doesn't earn half that. It doesn't quite replace his old income from the deli, but it's enough to sustain the business as he works on growing it and picking up more customers. "I would like to make $100,000 this year. We'll see," he says. He plans to expand from there. Possibilities include launching a mail-order cookie business, ramping up his referrals for bigger orders, and creating even higher-end cakes.
His business not only saved him from financial catastrophe, but it also gave him freedom. No longer tethered to the hours of the deli, he's in control of his schedule now. "I can take on business if I want it, but if I want to take a day off to ride my motorcycle, I can do that, too," he says.
"No matter what you do, you always need to have a backup plan," says Chris, an avid reader of business books. He asks me what my own backup plan is, and seems glad when I tell him about my freelance work. "As a country, we're not making anything. We just consume. We all need to pick up responsibility and do more," he says. On this Friday afternoon, he loads a cake into his truck and gets ready to do just that.
When I asked other side-hustlers why they got up at 5 a.m. to work on their blog before their office job started, or why they sacrificed so much of their personal lives in pursuit of their idea, they almost always had a specific story to tell. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans who hold more than one job are motivated by the desire to earn more money and meet expenses or pay off debt, as well as the sheer enjoyment of their second job. But that only gives a glimpse of the story. The people I interviewed often pointed to big life changes, such as becoming a parent, or vulnerable moments, such as losing--or fearing losing--their main source of income, as the reason they first pursued their side-gig.
For Joe Cain, a retired New York Police Department captain now living in suburban New York, it was parenthood. He started sidegig.com, a website where retired cops and firefighters advertise their services for everything from legal expertise to handyman work, after noticing that many of his fellow officers supplemented their income with side-jobs. He also knew that some people, including other cops, would prefer to do business with badge-carrying officers. As Joe puts it, "Cops only trust other cops."
His website, which he's been running since 2000, now features posts from thousands of people all across the country. "Cops and firefighters have always had side-gigs," Joe explains, largely because the jobs come with relatively modest salaries and their skills are easily transferable to work in security or contracting. The older generation of policemen, he says, have traditionally used side-gigs to set themselves up for retirement, or to supplement their income while raising families. Today, Joe, forty-eight, finds even more cops and firefighters searching for side-gig work, to help protect themselves from the financial fallout of potential layoffs. "In New Jersey, they're laying off cops like crazy. The public sector does not have the security that it used to," he says.
As a result, Joe says, "Everybody's hustling, trying to make a buck. The old way was to get a job at Con Ed and you're set for life. That mentality is pretty much gone. People are more self-reliant. You have to be."
For Joe, though, the decision to launch his own side-business wasn't about money--at least, not at first. In 1987, when he was working as a foot cop in the Bronx, he started investing in mutual funds, which promptly lost almost all their value. He decided to teach himself about investing so that would never happen again; he signed up for tax and finance classes. Eventually, he became a certified tax specialist and began helping some of his coworkers with their taxes. He enjoyed the work, but as he rose through the ranks of the police department, the time he could spend on it was limited.
As captain, he was always on duty, and his home phone rang even when he was "off." There was endless paperwork and man-agement demands. Then, his son was born on September 11, 2001, joining his then-two-year-old daughter. The long hours combined with the emotional upheaval of September 11 made his decision easy: "I said, 'I could be chief or I could be Daddy.'" He chose the latter.
Within three years, he retired, with ambitions to ramp up his side-gig so it could fully support his family. "I saved some money and spoke to my wife. We said, 'It could be tight for a little while, but let's try it.'" His pension from his service helped.
Now, with his son and daughter on the cusp of their teenage years, his business, Finest Financial Group, is booming with over 1,000 clients. It easily replaces his old income as a captain, and he says his hours are infinitely better. In the summer and other off-season times, he works about three and a half days a week. (During tax season, he puts in between sixty and seventy hours a week for about ten weeks.) His office is a mile away from his house, and Joe says he's never missed a concert, Little League game, or school event. "We're the helicopter parents," he jokes--and he wouldn't want it any other way.
Tara Gentile's story also starts with family. In 2008, she was working at Borders, earning $28,000 a year and working long hours. She had a six-month-old daughter at home, and was desperate to spend more time with her. She started looking into potential career alternatives, and settled on ramping up her online presence and starting a coaching business, focused on creative entrepreneurs. She launched her website in January 2009, and built it up while holding onto her day job, which she eventually left. Within two years, Tara, who lives in Redding, Pennsylvania, was bringing home an annual salary of $150,000.
I managed to catch Tara, who's in her late twenties, on the phone while she was attending BlogHer 2011, a conference that attracts both successful and aspiring female bloggers. I wanted to understand how she went from holding a dead-end retail job to becoming one of the most popular and high-earning leaders in the growing field of creative entrepreneurs.
"Business is a constant evolution of understanding what I do well, what I really like to do, and what people need from me," she says. "My main business is offering small business philosophy, inspiration, and advice, through services as a solo business coach and all sorts of informational products, like e-books on blogging and the art of earning," she explains. Her e-books, in fact, make up about 60 percent of her income, with coaching filling in the remaining 40 percent.
Her own motivation has changed, too. While she started out with the goal of spending more time with her daughter and replacing her old income, she has since decided that it's better for her family to focus on building her income while her husband stays home with their daughter. She also gets deep fulfillment knowing that she's doing work that matters to other people.
That's why she's content now to be traveling so much to speak at events like BlogHer, even though it means being away from her family. As she tells potential clients on her website, "It's not enough to simply create a product, dream up a service, or make an offer. Your work must be aligned with your very core to realize its financial potential. As I continue to align my work with my core spirit, I continue to grow my business, becoming free and financially independent." Her "core spirit," or true passion, is helping other entrepreneurs make their businesses successful. It wasn't working the floor of a bookstore chain.
Chicagoan Nicole Crimaldi Emerick started Ms. Career Girl (msca-reergirl.com), an advice blog for young college grads like herself, as a creative outlet. She squeezed in time for blogging by waking up at 5 a.m. before her office job at an Internet start-up. She wrote about what she and her friends were experiencing in the job market: uncertainty, the importance of connections, and the rising power of social media. To her, career insurance means having a solid list of contacts you can call on in the event of a layoff as well as multiple revenue streams. "You never know what's going to happen as far as employment goes. So you have to have a little side thing so you have more control," she says.
"In the beginning, I posted every day for the first year," says Nicole, who holds a finance degree from Miami University. At first, she earned no money, but then, as her audience grew, she began receiving paid speaking engagement requests and also posted online advertisements to bring in extra revenue. She soon added workshops, consulting work for local career centers, and networking event planning to her repertoire.
Then, two and a half years after starting her site, she suddenly got laid off. "The minute I got laid off, my first thought was, 'Awesome, now I get to work for myself.' It's been hard over the last couple years not to let it interfere with my day job. I love writing and Tweeting," she says. From that moment on, she committed to earning a steady income from what had previously been more of a hobby.
Shortly after her layoff, she hosted one of her biggest networking events yet, dubbed Ms. Career Girl Connect, in Chicago. Over eighty young women paid $15 each to listen to a panel of five women, including small business owners and the social media manager at CareerBuilder.com, talk about getting ahead today. Door prizes included free life coaching sessions and spa certificates, and stylists with trunk shows were on hand to provide fashion advice. "I wanted to cut the awkwardness of networking," she says, and she thinks shopping helps women do just that. She plans to grow event revenue through sponsorships and focus on different themes such as personal finance or home ownership at future panels. She's looking into licensing out her career event concept to other cities.
Without the layoff, Nicole says, she wouldn't have time to develop relationships with clients, market her business, or build her brand. "It's been such a blessing. I used to joke, 'It's going to take me getting fired or laid off to do this full time.' But since I was a little girl, I wanted to work for myself."
At the rate her business is growing, Nicole says, she expects to surpass her old income in a matter of months. Plus, like Tara Gentile, she finds the work more fulfilling than she ever found her former day job. "My business is now all about helping women. It's cool to get paid for that."
For television journalist and entrepreneur Tory Johnson, the path to job-juggling also started with a layoff. At twenty, she landed the position of her dreams working as a network television publicist for NBC. Then, she was suddenly laid off. She moved to Nickelodeon and then to a magazine, but she couldn't shake her own uneasiness about depending on a single paycheck. "I had a permanent scar from the pink slip," she says. So she decided to launch her own company, Women for Hire, an online recruiting and career fair source for women. With two babies at home, she invested $5,000 of her own money and started planning her first career fair at the Manhattan Center. "To me, the riskier assumption was that you could just do a good job and expect a paycheck," she says. "There's nothing like the need to make money to cause you to hustle."
Today, Tory also works as a contributor to ABC's Good Morning America and has launched a second enterprise, Spark and Hustle, which organizes conferences for aspiring female entrepreneurs. She attributes the popularity of those conferences, which fill up quickly, to the economy. "It's, 'I lost my job and I can't find another.' Or, 'I'm worried about losing my job.' Or, 'I'm miserable at my job because half the department was downsized and it's a miserable environment.' Or, 'While I'm thrilled to have a paycheck, I don't know how much longer this scene can go on and I want to plan for something more sustainable and fulfilling, while providing the same financial security.' Or, 'I've been a stay-at-home mom, and my husband lost his job and I need to ramp up my contributions to the family's finances.'"
One of the tips Tory passes on to attendees is the importance of knowing why you want to be an entrepreneur.
You have to be very clear on your motivation. People say, "To make money, or to have more control." . . . I say, "Let's go deeper. Why do you want this money?" For me, it was to protect and insulate my family from ever having to experience the sheer pain that I did from a pink slip. For others, it might be to pay for medical treatment for a family member, or to take pressure off their husband, who's been supporting the family. . . . It's important because the going will get tough, and there will be times when you say, "Wouldn't it be easier to do anything else?" But when you're so clear on that why and what you're fighting for, then that motivating factor is still going to be there.
That, in fact, pretty much sums up the newest research on the best way to go about achieving your goals. Focusing too much on just how we're going to lose weight or make our new business a success can end up holding us back, because we get frustrated when unexpected obstacles mess with those plans. But focusing instead on the big--picture reason for those goals--the specifics behind financial security or a better family life--actually improves our chances of making them happen. That's what Julia Belyavsky Bayuk, a goal expert and business professor at the University of Delaware, and her colleagues found when they tempted a group of college students with candy for seventy-five cents each after telling half of them to form a savings plan.
The group most likely to blow their budgets on candy were the ones who developed savings plans--not exactly what you'd expect. And students who were primed to think more abstractly, through questions on why they want to save money, were the ones who were most likely to decline the candy and pocket the money instead. Bayuk attributes her findings to the fact that thinking ab-stractly about our motivations can help us keep an open mind, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities that pop up that weren't in the original plan and deal with unexpected challenges. After all, in real life, specific plans get sabotaged all the time. A client doesn't pay his bill. A new product launch flops. The Internet connection fails when you planned to send emails. If we stay focused on the bigger goal and regroup, then those obstacles don't have to throw us entirely off course.
The lesson, Bayuk explains, is that we can increase our chances of success if we focus on the "why" behind our goals along with the "how." She adds that it's important to remind yourself, "What is my goal?"
For many of us, the goal isn't to eventually work entirely for ourselves, the way Nicole Crimaldi and Tory Johnson did when they got laid off, or like Tara Gentile and Joe Cain did when their side--businesses took off. Our goal is more subtle but equally ambitious: to develop a solid secondary source of income, beyond our main paychecks, so we have some measure of financial security that doesn't depend on the whims of our primary employers. The more specific financial motivations often differ by age: Twenty-somethings who find themselves underpaid, unemployed, or underemployed tend to want a side-gig that allows them to take full advantage of their education and potential. Thirty- and forty-somethings facing stagnant wages want to give their incomes a boost, especially as their household and family responsibilities grow. Forty- and fifty-somethings who've seen their own incomes and assets fall over the last decade want to rebuild their finances before retirement, and sixty-somethings and beyond are frequently focused on funding their golden years amid rising costs.
Across all age groups, secondary income streams from side-gigs can fill the gap between primary incomes and expenses, and make up for the lack of raises or pay cuts. If we do lose our jobs, they can keep us afloat as we search for new ones, as well as allow us to maintain a professional identity, build new skills, and make new contacts.
Successful side-giggers can often point to a specific rea-son or motivating factor that drove them to first build their outside pursuit.
Big life changes, such as parenthood or a layoff, frequently inspire a commitment to greater financial security.
Some successful side-giggers opt to leave their full-time jobs when their side-gigs take off; others prefer to bal-ance full-time employment with their side-gigs.
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