Recession spurs Web drifters, entrepreneurs to create own jobs

Torrey AndersonSchoepe

The U.S. economy is slowly climbing its way out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. But unlike the 1930s, some of today's financially strapped families can use modern technology to take matters into their own hands and create their own opportunities online.

That's what Tori Redmond-Mize did to keep her family off the streets in Dixon, Mo., and work her way to financial stability. A snowball of events coinciding with the worst of the recession beginning in 2007 left her family nearly homeless. They found out their new house had lead paint, her husband lost his job as a manager at an animal shelter, his back issues worsened and they could no longer pay the bills. In one day she went from being a stay-at-home mom to planning how to become the breadwinner and only source of income for her family.

After two years struggling to keep a roof over their heads and their finances afloat, the pressure and stress finally took its toll. Redmond-Mize had a breakdown and ended up in the hospital, adding more medical bills that they would not be able to pay. After a virtual stranger read about their desperate situation on Redmond-Mize's blog, he offered to let her family stay with him in his Missouri countryside home where they now live.

"What was going through my mind was, 'this woman is in terrible trouble'…I felt that if someone didn't take the load off Tori's shoulders, it would result in true madness or suicide," said Jim Corey, 71, a retired technical engineer. "So I invited her and her family to move into my basement apartment."

They finally had a solid roof over their heads, but with a disabled husband and young children to take care of, Redmond-Mize couldn't afford to work away from home — so she turned to technology and the online market to make ends meet, starting her own Web content company.

"The only way to make it through the recession and the hard economic times is to take a cue from the Great Depression," Redmond-Mize said. "You had people who were drifters and they would stop at farms and work for food, or for a place to stay for the night. You had a lot of that back then and now you can do the same thing, only you don't have to travel around to do it."

Redmond-Mize believes this new kind of virtual wanderer can not only survive online but find real prosperity. She isn't the only one who has been proactive in making her own success despite the poor state of the economy. This has been a growing trend over the past few years, and those in the do-it-yourself Web market say there is much more opportunity to be mined.

With the latest unemployment rate at 8.8 percent, the slowly recovering job market means many Americans will still have to find new ways to reboot their lives like Redmond-Mize. Recent data from the Kauffman Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding and supporting entrepreneurs, suggest people have been doing just that.

"In 2010, 0.34 percent of the adult population, or 340 out of 100,000 adults, created a new business each month, representing approximately 565,000 new businesses per month. This total rate of business creation increased from 0.30 percent in 2007," the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity said.

This increase in entrepreneurialism is partly due to people in a similar situation to Redmond-Mize, according to the foundation's website. After finding no viable job opportunities in her town, she shifted to online work. She wrote freelance articles and worked odd online contract jobs, but the income just wasn't enough. The economy wasn't showing much improvement and freelance rates were static. So she and fellow freelancer, Chrisa Williams, began talking about starting their own content company using a more gracious pay scale for contributors.

"We saw so many people working for content companies and we both have worked for different content companies that were pulling in really big profits and not paying their writers what they're worth and it just kind of bothered us and we wanted to try and find a way around that," Redmond-Mize said.

In a matter of weeks, the pair launched Element Content, a company made up of a network of writers that creates online copy like corporate newsletters, marketing articles, and pay-per-click ads for businesses and other contractors.

Redmond-Mize began actively networking with her online community, finding mentors and researching what it would take to grow her new endeavor. But she is far from alone in venturing into the world of small online entrepreneurialism.

Dr. John H. Vanston, founder and chairman of Technology Futures, Inc., has been studying technology and business trends for more than 30 years. He identifies the increasing number of people working from home as a growing economic force in his new book, "Minitrends: How Innovators & Entrepreneurs Discover & Profit from Business & Technology Trends."

His book spotlights specific "minitrends" and trains people how to recognize them and take advantage of related job opportunities. Vanston defines minitrends as trends that are just beginning to emerge, have potential to become significantly important in two to five years and are not yet widely recognized or appreciated.

With the insecure employment environment, "people are going to have to look for jobs…that are independent and to do what they have to, to really create the jobs themselves," he said.

For those who are part of this trend, like Clint Nelsen, co-founder and director of Startup Weekend, it can be hard to keep up with the demand.

Startup Weekend is a non-profit organization that puts on "54-hour events" around the world where people with entrepreneurial ideas come together to network, build products and launch startups over the course of a weekend.

"Especially when we were a team of two, demand was our biggest problem," Nelsen said. "Too many emails were coming in every day from people saying things like, 'Hey, I'm in Auckland, New Zealand. Let's do a Startup Weekend here.'"

Since 2009 Nelsen and Marc Nager have hired more staffers to help keep up with the volume of requests.

Startup Weekend is part of a growing community of organizations dedicated to facilitating startups and entrepreneurial growth like Lean Startup Machine, MassChallenge, TechStars and the Small Business Administration.

Despite the amount of resources available to those who want to start their own small businesses, it's not a failsafe approach to financial stability. Entrepreneurial success rates tend to be low, and it takes a high level of energy and commitment to turn a profit.

Startup Weekend says about 36 percent of its startups are still "going strong" after three months. "Of the 36 percent roughly 10 percent go on to either get acceptance into an accelerator or incubator, or go on to see some sort of funding or investments," said Maris McEdward, the organization's communications manager.

"Building a startup is just as much about building a product as it is about managing your energy and emotion," Nelsen said. "Sometimes if you hit a low, it's just impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel to continue going on. You need to structure the whole project keeping revenue in mind, and also your own human emotions."

But Redmond-Mize still has hope. She is optimistic that her business model will provide a sustainable fair-pay model for freelance writers — and provide stable income for her family. She hopes it will inspire others to adopt a similar approach of interconnected self-employment.

"I've just thought back on all the people who believed in me and thought, if other people had that, and could see that when you pay it forward, the impact goes much farther than just the person you helped," Redmond-Mize said.

Click here to see readers' first-person accounts of turning to the Web as a result of the recession.

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