Phidlon, a new Boulder company specializing in heavy-duty storage bags for cars and trucks, was born of double misfortune.
The idea came in 1999 when owners Joe Sansone Jr. and his wife, Janet, got stuck while four-wheeling in a rental Jeep. But the stimulus behind the new business wouldn't come for four more years, when Joe Sansone lost his job as a veterinarian at Alpine Hospital.
With the unemployment rolls expanding, a number of laid off and displaced workers have turned the sour economy into a sweet opportunity by establishing their own businesses.
His job at the Boulder clinic ended May 15, leaving the father of two looking for alternatives in a stagnant economy.
"I actually took it pretty hard," Sansone said of losing his job. "It was disappointing to say the least."
He still works a few days a week as a relief veterinarian serving as the equivalent of a substitute teacher for animal hospitals but the situation forced the Sansones to get serious about their long-term plans for starting a business.
"It was definitely a catalyst for us to say, 'Where are we in our lives? What are we going to do? What do we want for our future?'" Joe Sansone said.
The number of start-up businesses in Boulder County has actually risen as the economy soured and layoffs made people rethink their careers, said Sean Maher, director of the Boulder Small Business Development Center.
In May, Boulder County's unemployment rate hit 5.2 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. In the previous two years, thousands of people lost their jobs in the area, joining the nearly 60,000 statewide who found themselves looking for work.
Maher said he's seen laid-off employees from the technology sector open up restaurants, shops and outdoor recreation companies. One former software consultant pursued a dream of becoming a handyman and seems to be "enjoying himself a lot more than he was sitting in a cubicle all day," Maher said.
"They're kind of using this as an opportunity to pursue a dream that they've always wanted to do but never had the courage to pursue because they were so comfortable in their job," he said.
Maher said he sees an even mix of people who are going for their dreams and people who see opening a business as a last resort. The latter is an approach he typically discourages.
It takes passion, hard work and money to make a business succeed, Maher said. Plus, turning a profit often takes more than a year, so people with hefty severance packages usually have an advantage.
If you can swing it, Maher said, this economy can be a great starting point because leases are cheap and employees are plentiful.
"It's much easier to start a business now than when the economy was red-hot," he said. "It's better to start your business at the bottom of the market and ride things up than it is to start at the top."
One man's venture
Cody Sutherland, a former senior vice president at a telecommunications company, is testing that wisdom three times over.
The firm he worked for until May 2002, Talking Net Inc. in Louisville, burned through $19 million in venture capital. The telecommunications industry was collapsing, and the venture capital gravy train ran dry.
Sutherland, 42, realized he would be out of a job in a matter of months. Rather than soul-search, he decided to focus on the passion for flying he had developed over a quarter century as a recreational pilot.
He left Talking Net Inc. and because he and his wife, lawyer Carolyn Sutherland, had financially prepared themselves within a few months bought one airplane-related business, started another and organized a business in Web-based telecommunications.
"I turned to entrepreneurialism in three forms," Sutherland said. "Check back with me in a year to see which is working."
Sutherland built Journeys Aviation, a flight school and plane rental center at Jefferson County Airport in Broomfield, from scratch. He took advantage of good lease rates on a hangar and a pool of willing veteran flight instructors. It opened as the airport's second-largest flight school.
Its fleet of 15 shiny planes benefit from Sutherland's purchase of Cyclo Toolmakers Inc., a 50-year-old manufacturer of mechanical and pneumatic hand-held airplane buffers. The tools keep the president's Air Force One fleet sparkling and are known by plane owners around the world.
The company captured Sutherland's attention because unlike telecommunications there's a tangible product.
"The other difference is that people call us and want to buy the product ... that never happened in telecom," he said.
Talking Net Inc. went bankrupt not long after Sutherland left. He and several of his former colleagues then put together S-Tel, a Web-based telecommunications company based in Niwot.
Sutherland bought all the office furniture from Talking Net Inc. when it went bankrupt. Today, employees of all three of his companies sit on the seats and work in the cubicles of his former employer.
Running three businesses has kept Sutherland busier than he used to be but happier as well. He said he has found satisfaction working for himself and being around airplanes and pilots. Plus, both the flight school and the buffer tool company make money, Sutherland said.
Being an entrepreneur is more hands-on than being a executive.
"I will empty the trash can today, but I'll eventually get out of having to do that," Sutherland said, eyeing a full wastepaper basket in the Journeys Aviation offices.
Consultant Teresa Szczurek runs "pursuit of passionate purpose" workshops as the head of Technology and Management Solutions in Boulder. She recommends that people try to turn a layoff into an opportunity to earn a living in ways that better matches their values and skills than their old professions.
Someone in a secure job, successfully paying bills and supporting a family may be loath to take risks and create discomfort, she said. The loss of a job can remove the fear and obstacles people often see in changing careers.
People should ask themselves what wild things they really want to do that will make them happy, she said.
"Sometimes you just need to do it," Szczurek said. "Once you do it, sometimes it get easier."
For the Sansones, whose gear bags fit on and in between roll bars or in the back of any vehicle, starting Phidlon (www.phidlon.com) has given them an opportunity to prioritize what they want from their careers.
Joe Sansone said he enjoys veterinary medicine, but few people realize the emotional toll it takes and how challenging it is for animal lovers to spend their days with sick pets who'd rather be anywhere else.
Sewing his multipocketed canvas bags, however, gives him a chance to create with his hands. Showing and testing the gear helps get the whole family outside together, he said.
He credits the four-wheeling fiasco, when the briefly stranded family realized how few supplies they had in their Jeep, for stoking the idea. But his employment troubles are what really kicked the business into high gear.
"Losing that position had some life-changing aspects to it for me," Sansone said. "In the long run I think we've turned it into a real positive for ourselves."
Sean Maher can be reached through the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, (303) 442-1044. Teresa Szczurek can be reached at (303) 443-8674.
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