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The Reluctant Entrepreneur

Going "out on your own" when you can't find a job.

Passion is what drove University of Missouri civil engineering professor Henry Liu to leave teaching in 2001 and launch an R&D firm for environmental technology. His latest invention, “green bricks,” made from waste byproducts of coal-fired power plants, has been licensed in 11 countries.

It took nine years for the company to return a profit, says Liu. “But profit was not my primary motivation. I was trying to get these environmentally friendly technologies to the commercial market.” Liu works every day, 10 hours a day. “Luckily, I’m in good health at the age of 73, but this way of life might not be for everybody,” he says.

Budding entrepreneurs often underestimate the amount of time and money a start-up requires. New ventures can lead to fame and fortune: Household names like Crate & Barrel home furnishings, Celestial Seasonings teas, and handbag and luggage company Vera Bradley all started small.

In Freeport, Maine, Trina Beaulier’s online and retail business, Simply Divine Brownies, is successful by any standard. Her hand-decorated brownies are tucked into Oscar-party gift bags and handed out at corporate events and celebrity weddings.

“My business has grown 400 percent since I started five years ago, but I have yet to draw a paycheck,” says Beaulier, 61, a retired teacher. “I have 30 people working for me, so everything goes back into the business.” Her advice for other self-starters: Start with enough capital—profit takes time.

Small-business experts agree, and advise against financing a venture with credit cards or retirement savings—it’s just too risky.

After Cincinnati urologist Richard Wendel retired in 1997, he launched a construction firm and employed vocational education students, hoping to give them a leg up. But faced with unanticipated zoning issues, he could complete only five of the eight homes that he’d planned.

“I lost about $125,000,” says Wendel, who now is a volunteer counselor with the nonprofit group SCORE. He uses his own business failure as a cautionary tale for others.

One-third of start-ups fail within two years, according to the Small Business Administration. But James Glay doesn’t think he’ll be among them. Someday, he predicts, he’ll look back at his layoff and call it a blessing.

“If I said I was unafraid, I’d be lying,” he says. “But I really want to make this Web site a growing enterprise. I never want to go through the horror of job-hunting again.”

Elizabeth Pope writes about work and retirement. She lives in Portland, Maine.

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