Wichitans see downturn as chance to follow their dreams

Just as business conditions are at their worst, many people are starting their own businesses.

Some smell opportunity in recession, some feel liberated by a layoff, and others are just looking for some income to get by.

There are no local figures to show exactly how many new businesses have been started, but anecdotal evidence shows interest is strong.

Ten to 12 people attend the weekly basic "starting a business" classes at the Small Business Development Center at Wichita State University.

Bill Ellison, chairman of the local SCORE chapter, is counseling 12 to 15 aspiring business owners a month.

And the local office of the U.S. Small Business Administration saw an uptick in loans going to new businesses in the past six months.

A quick search of the Web will turn up a long list of Fortune 500 companies started during recessions, such as General Electric, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

A December SBA study showed that traditional start-ups fall as the economy falls. But, the study said, the number of people becoming self-employed, often laid-off workers trying to generate income, rises.

The newly self-employed includes Coleen Fountain, who was media director at Associated until she was laid off a couple years ago. She tried to find a job, but didn't want to move.

So, she has formed a company called the Dog Treatery and plans to start selling gourmet hand-baked dog biscuits over the Internet beginning in June at

Fountain said she made them as presents and started to think about a business after her friends encouraged her.

Getting into the business made sense, sounded like fun and keeps her busy, she said.

"It's not desperation," she said, "but we're used to two incomes. And we live in Riverside, so we have to keep putting money into the house."

Traditional entrepreneurs

There are also plenty of more traditional entrepreneurs, those with strong ideas and business plans.

But there are plenty of warnings from those who help entrepreneurs.

Write a business plan, they say, it will help define what you are going to make or do, and who you will sell it to.

"And then probably cut your sales estimates in half," said Tim Pett, director for the Center for Entrepreneurship at Wichita State University.

Getting loans is more difficult than usual these days, although the SBA has expanded its lending programs.

If you are unable to get sufficient funds, be very wary about using a credit card because of the high interest rates, Pett said, and never use your house.

But, if the idea is good enough, it might not make much difference if the economy is down.

"If you've got a good business idea and a good plan in place, you can be successful in difficult times," he said.

Last year Pam Foster started a business called ProLab, a direct-to-consumer medical lab service. Her innovation is to provide blood tests — the actual testing is done by AMS Reference Lab, she said — without the expensive doctor's office overhead.

The cost, she said, at least on some tests, is a third or less. Foster, a trained medical technician, makes an appointment with the client. They meet at Gessler Drug Co., 4817 E. Douglas, where she draws the blood. Results are mailed to the client.

The start-up cost has been relatively small, but she has struggled with getting her name out.

"I've got thousands of dollars in advertising," she said.

But, she said, she looks on the recession as an opportunity because so many people are focused on saving money.

ProLab can be reached at 316-944-0051.

Chasing the dream

Then there is a third category: those who were out of work and realize it frees them up to chase a dream.

Mohamad Krichati did this twice.

After he graduated in 1991 from Wichita State University with a aircraft engineering degree, Krichati couldn't find aircraft work, so he worked in a restaurant to makes ends meet. By 1994, he decided to try his own restaurant and opened Le Monde Cafe & Deli, 602 N. West St.

It happened again 15 years later. He was operating the restaurant while working at Cessna Aircraft. Last year he was laid off and decided now was the time to try an east-side Le Monde at 3101 N. Rock Road.

He emptied his 401(k) to finance it. The risk proved to be worth it, he said.

He said that if the restaurant continues to perform well throughout 2010, he'll open one in Kansas City.

"They call it a forced opportunity, but it was an opportunity to move on," he said. "We are doing very good, and now I cannot go back to a job unless I'm making what I'm making now."