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Reinventing oneself is the new normal in this economy

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

For years the economy has been forcing people to take stock of their lives and, in some cases, reinvent themselves.

And yet not all of those people have started over after getting pink slips. Some were left unfulfilled by jobs with competitive salaries and benefits and thus took a chance on major career makeovers.

Jared Nichols, a strategy consultant and author of “Leading the 21st Century: the CEO's guide to Thriving in a Volatile & Uncertain Future,” said barriers to starting new businesses are all but gone and people are better equipped, better connected and far more resourceful than at any point in human history.

“In the 20th century, the individual was subjected to a hierarchy of information, resources, and connections,” Nichols said. “Today if an individual sees a market need, they can launch a business to address that need virtually overnight.”

Fred Spring, 51, saw opportunity in Internet marketing and two years ago co-founded 98 to Go, a company based in Atlanta.

Until then, the Brookhaven resident was a vice president of marketing research for Turner Entertainment.

“It was a great ride, but I couldn't control the economy so I responded to it and reinvented myself,” he said.

A year after his lay-off in 2009, Spring said, he was helping a client develop website traffic for his business using Internet marketing and was struck by how successful their efforts were. The client was so pleased that he suggested they start a business that would help other companies have the same peace of mind.

In 2011, he and Spring began 98 to Go, specifically to use content that attracts traffic to business websites and to convert site visitors to leads and customers. A year and half later, 98 to Go is on track to turn a profit, he said.

While the economy was the driving force in Spring's remake, it is less a factor for the vast majority of people — which is evidence, Nichols said, that unprecedented access to information is doing more than informing us about the external environment. It is showing us opportunities to make money or find job satisfaction.

Boomers such as Spring started nearly half of new businesses recently, according to Kansas City's Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which tracks and encourages entrepreneurship. Many were pushed into those careers by the difficult job market.

Baby boomers between 55 and 64 started 21 percent of new companies in 2011, up from 14 percent in 1996, a foundation study shows. Those 45 to 54 built 28 percent of companies, with younger entrepreneurs starting the remainder.

Jarrett Helms, 36, and Amanda Brown, 44, are good examples of the new crop of entrepreneurs. Brown, a former teacher and interior designer, said she just wasn't happy with her life. She finally decided to jump “off the hamster wheel” and start over.

“I discovered that in letting go, the pieces that eluded me, the parts of my life that I wanted most, were right there in front of me,” Brown said. “Things did not have to be perfect in order for perfect things to happen.” And so in July 2011, Brown said she had a “come to Amanda moment” and replanned her entire life.

Within months, she'd whittled her worldly goods down to two suitcases — a big green one for house contents and a little gray one for office supplies. On Jan. 17, 2012, Brown set out to travel the world — taking photographs and writing about them, with a goal of turning them into a profitable career.

“I have rid myself of the American anxiety and know exactly what I want to do with my life instead of thinking about it and dreaming about it,” she said in a telephone interview from France. “I think I will hit the tipping point when people discover my photography prints and I get a children's publisher.”

It does not always mean more money. Happiness also plays a role in their choices.

“I'm living below the American poverty level right now, but I love what I do,” Brown said.

Helms, who left a well-paying, high-powered job as a consultant four months ago to begin a baby apparel company called Cradle & Thread, said he fell in love with the notion of a for-profit company that had a charitable mission at its heart.

The idea came to him, he said, soon after he began questioning what he was doing with his life. The answer, Helms said, came in June 2011, when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and landed in the hospital.

“I decided with a lot more clarity that I wanted to do something that I felt good about, that I was contributing to my community,” he said. “When I had that revelation, the question became how?” Because he and his wife, Christina, were relatively new parents, they knew there was a stable market for baby apparel.

Helms began working on the concept on nights and weekends. On Nov. 1, he started Cradle & Thread, and in December he left his corporate job.

For every $100 bought on www.cradleandthread.com, the company donates an entire outfit of clothing to a needy child.

“I think I've known for a while that I have a more visionary entrepreneurial spirit, so it was very liberating to conceive a brand and execute the brand,” he said.

Gracie Bonds Staples is a writer for the Austin American-Statesman.

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