Publication Date: Wednesday, October 10, 2001
A piece of the dream: Low-tech entrepreneurs hold high hopes despite the dot-com tumble
A piece of the dream: Low-tech entrepreneurs hold high hopes despite the dot-com tumble
(October 10, 2001)
By Jocelyn Dong
Special Section Editor
Say the word "entrepreneur" and what picture comes to mind? The geek with the freshly minted grad-school degree, toiling all night in a garage with his buddies, hoping their idea will be the next new thing? Perhaps.
But take a look next door. There's another kind of Silicon Valley entrepreneur in the shadow of all that high-tech grail chasing: She's the woman working out of her home, cultivating a decidedly low-tech enterprise, her hopes pinned on grabbing a piece of the same American dream.
These low-tech entrepreneurs may not aspire to make millions or occupy sprawling campuses. Their goals are arguably modest in comparison with their high-tech counterparts. But women in the United States have been trying their hand at business ownership in steadily increasing numbers. According to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, the number of women-owned firms increased twice as fast as all of U.S. businesses in the 1990s. On the Peninsula, the dream of being one's own boss is alive and well.
The accidental entrepreneur
Some local women become entrepreneurs by design, others almost by accident. Portola Valley resident Ruby Seidl never saw herself as the entrepreneurial type. After a career in high-tech marketing, she expected to have kids and spend her time raising them. At some point, part-time work for a company would factor in, she figured.
"I have always shied away from doing my own consulting," said the mother of two young boys. "I was never the type that could be brave enough to handle (starting my own business). My personality wouldn't undertake something big on my own. It's a lot of work, especially with a family."
Nonetheless, things changed. She had two boys. And she struggled with an issue shared by many women who have worked and then become mothers: how to stay home with the kids, but also have "that kind of mental connection to other people," as Ms. Seidl said.
Instead of going back to corporate work, Ms. Seidl decided to take a hobby of hers, sewing baby blankets, and turn it into a business. To do so, she enlisted the help of an old college friend, Dinah Willier, who was also a mother of two boys and also looking for a way to use her skills as a professional.
"I thought, we can be in this together and support each other. It's not as scary," Ms. Seidl said.
Last February, she and Ms. Willier launched the Bravo Baby Company, making and selling brightly colored pillows, duvet covers and flannel baby blankets (or "throws," as Ms. Seidl prefers to call them).
"You feel like you're building something that's apart from your family. I feel like I'm accomplishing something for myself," Ms. Seidl said. "It's a nice break from being in corporate. It's more hands-on, creative."
Professional coach Peggy Argus was also something of an accidental entrepreneur.
"I never thought of myself as a person who wanted to work on her own," said Ms. Argus, a former librarian and technical writer. After a series of layoffs, though, she had to consider all her possibilities.
In 1995, armed with resumes, she landed a freelance writing job with Time Warner Publishing in New York. Her first taste of working on her own included "sitting in my office at home with my two dogs." Ms. Argus loved it. "I was really enjoying the freedom of not going to an office."
Since that first job, the East Palo Alto resident has taken on other writing assignments, sold children's books, and most recently began a career as a certified coach, helping people meet their business and personal goals. Now Ms. Argus has a new attitude.
"My goal is never to have a 9-to-5 office job again," said Ms. Argus, a member of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce and a coordinator for the Women in Networking (WIN) _ San Mateo group. Recently when an opportunity arose to take a corporate job with a high salary, she found it easy to turn down. "It wasn't a temptation at all. I was surprised, but happy."
According to a study by three women's business organizations _ Catalyst, the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, and The Committee of 200 _ women entrepreneurs are more likely than men to have turned a personal interest into a business pursuit (14 percent vs. 2 percent).
Like Ms. Seidl and her baby-bedding venture, Ellen DiNucci founded a business based on her interest in mind-body skills. After moving to California in 1984, Ms. DiNucci became interested in what she calls "personal growth" activities, like Rolfing, deep-tissue muscle manipulation, and body and mind alignment. "It was a liberating experience."
She obtained a master's degree in clinical holistic health education in 1987 and taught her first workshop in movement awareness in 1990. She followed that by teaching a six-week class for the Palo Alto Adult School in 1991.
Further education has led her to offer additional classes and workshops throughout the Peninsula. Now she has her own business, Movement Dynamics, through which she teaches and offers one-hour "energetic healing" sessions.
"It's a culmination of everything," Ms. DiNucci said of her current enterprise. "I started out with just the movement meditation stuff. Continuing to pursue things that are of interest to me, it all builds on each other and comes together.
"I had no idea ... I'd be where I am now. I think this has evolved to something I didn't think it would evolve to. It's a pleasant surprise. I love all the connections I'm making with people. It's a lot of fun," Ms. DiNucci said.
For entrepreneur Delores Farrell, owning her own business has been a lifelong dream. "Just the idea of being your own boss, making your own decisions, having control over your destiny" appealed to her, Ms. Farrell said.
Before taking the plunge, though, Ms. Farrell spent 17 years working for the state of California, including seven years in licensing and inspecting child-care providers. It was a job that took her throughout the state, from Santa Cruz to King City.
"For me, it was just getting to the point where I was feeling I had to make a change with my regular job," Ms. Farrell said. With a 4-year-old daughter, she wanted to be home in the afternoon, not driving around the state.
The hitch for Ms. Farrell was that she didn't know what kind of business to start. "I thought I didn't have what it takes to do anything I wanted to do," Ms. Farrell said.
So she enrolled in a program at Start Up, a nonprofit training center in East Palo Alto. There, Ms. Farrell realized that she could build a business around her knowledge of child-care licensing. Today, as Farrell and Associates, she offers in-service trainings and other consultations to family child-care providers and child-care centers. The goal of her business is to help child-care providers become more professional.
What it takes
Being an entrepreneur isn't for everyone. Having an inspired idea and bringing it to life are two different matters. Faye McNair-Knox, Ph.D., executive director of Start Up, has seen many would-be entrepreneurs come through the doors during the nonprofit's seven-year history. About one-third who start the 12-week program finish.
"We help people figure out if entrepreneurship is or is not for them," Dr. McNair-Knox said.
Sharon Pepper, director of the YWCA's Women Entrepreneurs Program in Palo Alto, said plainly: "There are people who shouldn't be entrepreneurs. People who can multitask seem to be more successful. A lot of entrepreneurs have their hands in a lot of different things."
About 60 percent of those who attend the Y's 10-week program go on to start their own businesses, Ms. Pepper said.
Some who are interested in being entrepreneurs drop out because they have pie-in-the-sky expectations of overnight success. "One has to be realistic," Dr. McNair-Knox said. "Have a nice balance of creativity and realism. The fantasy stories (of big success) are typically a small percentage of those who start out. Persistence is key."
A willingness to experiment has also proven helpful among the entrepreneurs. All four women have made adjustments to their initial ideas due to feedback from customers and advisers.
Ms. Farrell originally planned to offer her services only to family (home) child-care providers. She expanded her mission statement to include child-care centers when a consultant she was working with suggested it.
"You have to be flexible," Ms. Farrell said. "If you figure out something's not working, re-engineer your business, but not your vision."
Ruby Seidl and her partner have found that one of the fabrics they chose for throws isn't selling as well as hoped. "It looks too adult. It doesn't look 'baby' enough," Ms. Seidl said. So they are discontinuing that fabric and adding new selections.
Ms. Seidl also freely admits that she and Ms. Willier are going to have to learn about business finances while on the job, as neither has a background in it.
Both Ms. DiNucci and Ms. Argus took courses to become certified in their areas of business, Ms. Argus with the Coaches Training Institute and Ms. DiNucci through a variety of local groups.
For all their enthusiasm, entrepreneurs have faced opposition.
"The big thing is believing in myself, even though some people might have thought that what I was doing was off the wall," said Ms. DiNucci. "But I always knew from my own experience that there was something to all this. I knew within that I definitely believe in this."
Ms. Farrell agreed. "The important thing is to find out who you are, what's your passion, what's your vision."
Encouragement from others has been helpful, Ms. Farrell said. "Entrepreneurs have a head full of crazy stuff. You need someone to talk to about it. When (classmates at Start Up) say, 'Sounds like a great idea,' it gives you a little push."
Dr. McNair-Knox of Start Up said that the "stick-to-it" attitude is particularly necessary among her clients, some of whom have low-to-mid-level incomes.
"You have an idea and you'll encounter nay-sayers who'll discourage you from pursuing your dream. That may be a dominant thinking in the low-income environment because of limited means," Ms. McNair-Knox said. "So you must have a belief in self, in the idea, and a willingness to pursue it."
There are many ways to go about starting a business, but "slow and steady" seems to be the motto among the women entrepreneurs interviewed. In part it is due to the financial realities they face. Both Ms. DiNucci and Ms. Farrell work outside of the home in addition to their own businesses.
Ms. DiNucci is a project coordinator with the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program of Stanford's School of Medicine. She also serves on the Women Entrepreneurs Program advisory board.
"If eventually (my business) ends up paying me a huge amount of money, that's fine. But more, it's that I like doing it and it's an extension of myself. I do get some money for what I do; sometimes I don't get much or nothing at all," Ms. DiNucci said.
"Entrepreneurs have to eat while they're launching their dreams," said Ms. Farrell, who works for 20 hours a week as Start Up's outreach coordinator and considers her family to be middle class. She decided not to seek outside funding and is supporting her enterprise through her family.
"To have seed money, (one) way is to write proposals. I don't want to be dependent on that. So I'm starting out on a small scale, and that's OK with me," Ms. Farrell said. She added that she works about two to three hours a day on her business, and sees this as a period when she learns to do a quality job. Then she'll expand the business.
Dr. McNair-Knox said that many home-based entrepreneurs who come through Start Up do not invest large capital in their ventures, instead choosing to grow the business incrementally.
"They're starting out where they are. They're typically maintaining (outside) employment while growing their business. I think it's fascinating and admirable. They're not going to jeopardize home, family and children."
For Ms. Seidl, moving the business forward at a modest pace goes hand in hand with her reason for starting a home-based business: to spend time with her children. Fortunately, her husband's income is enough to support them.
Still, taking it a step at a time doesn't mean that she and the others don't have their ambitions. "Of course we want to make a profit. It'll take a few years," Ms. Seidl said. "Definitely at some point we want to be profitable." Currently, she's selling through the Internet and boutiques, with plans to branch out into fairs and department stores.
If their businesses have not yet brought changes to their lifestyles, the entrepreneurs do say the experience has changed them for the better.
Ms. Argus, who estimated she works about 30-40 hours a week, said she is enjoying the variety of work and people that entrepreneurship has brought. "I feel much more creative working this way. I have these great opportunities." She hopes to make coaching her main source of income this year.
Ms. Seidl has found herself happier, and more disciplined. "Before starting this, I was probably grumpier," she said, tongue partly in cheek. "Having kids and raising them is a different kind of reward. (With this) ... at the end of the day, I can say, 'Oh, look what I've made.' You're making something physical. It's finished, and that's the reward."
Ms. Seidl also said that working on her own has helped her to organize her time and priorities better. "This brings it more into focus," she said.
Ms. Farrell said she feels a greater self-confidence. "I think I am more self-assured about doing this. I feel I can do it. Before, I just took it for granted that what I know (about child-care licensing) was no big deal. (Now) I know that what I know is worth something. And I want to tell somebody."
Equipped with business skills and a vision for helping others, Ms. Farrell waxed enthusiastic about her dream. "We need more quality child care. That's a lofty goal of mine. You can do a quality program (where) children are happy, safe. People are trained in case of emergencies. Kids get picked up on time. There's respect."
Ms. DiNucci, meanwhile, is happy to continue developing curriculum and teaching classes. She is piloting a mind-body class for people with cancer through Stanford's Complementary and Alternative Medicine program. She said she enjoys being an entrepreneur _ especially having the freedom to do as she pleases.
"I don't know what the future has in store," Ms. DiNucci said. "I'm just enjoying the moment."
Business and professional coaching
Mind-body education and services
Farrell and Associates
Child-care provider training
Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce
Business start-up kits and networking opportunities
Bravo Baby Company
Baby bedding and throws
223-2199, ext. 2677
Women Entrepreneurs Program
Women in Networking _ San Mateo
Personal and business networking
Contact: Peggy Argus, 327-5973