August 17, 2011
Plan B careers aren't always the dream jobs people hope for
The New York Times
Rona Economou was a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm, making a comfortable salary and enjoying nights on the town when she was laid off in 2009, another victim of the recession.
At first, she cried. "Then it hit me," said Economou, now 33. "This is my one chance" to pursue a dream.
Six months later, she opened Boubouki, a tiny Greek food stall at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where she bakes spinach pies and baklava every morning. This was her Plan B: her chance to indulge a passion, lead a more healthful life and downshift professionally — at least by a gear.
Instead, Economou finds herself in overdrive.
Six days a week, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. ("before most lawyers") to start baking. Instead of pushing paper, she hoists 20-pound bags of flour, gets burned and occasionally slices open a finger. On Mondays, when the shop is closed, she does bookkeeping and other administrative tasks.
As for her health, "The second I feel a cold coming on, I'm taking Cold-Eeze, eating raw garlic. I can't afford to shut the shop down."
Plan B, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems. But that hasn't stopped cubicle captives from fantasizing.
In recent years, a wave of white-collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artisanal and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolatiers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.
Since the dawn of the Great Recession, more Americans have started businesses (565,000 of them a month in 2010) than at any period in the last decade and a half, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks statistics on entrepreneurship in the United States.
The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns.
The dream job is a "job" as much as it is a "dream."
"The decision to become an entrepreneur should not be made lightly," said Paul Bernard, an executive coach in New York. The media, he said, has made heroes out of former investment bankers and lawyers who transformed themselves into successful dog-jewelry designers and cupcake kings.
"But the reality is that, even during boom times, most new businesses fail."
Many are surprised to find the hours and work grueling. When you're the boss, the workday never really ends.
Charan Sachar, 37, a former software engineer who lives in Federal Way, used to spend his downtime perusing Etsy, the DIY crafts site.
He daydreamed of an unfettered life at his kiln, creating Bollywood-inspired teapots and butter dishes.
In January, after 12 years in software, he quit to devote himself full time to his online store, Creative With Clay, which sells stoneware he designs and makes. (In May, he told his story on Etsy's "Quit Your Day Job" blog.)
Now, instead of spending his free time absorbed in visions of clay, he spends as much as 70 percent of his day on administration.
He is not only his own boss, he is his own accountant, sales director, marketing manager and shipping clerk.
That leaves little time to enjoy the hobby he loves. "There are some days that I don't make anything in my studio, mostly because I am doing everything else."
Former white-collar workers are also surprised by the demands of manual labor.
Last year, Jennifer Phelan, 27, left a marketing job at a large law firm to become a private Pilates instructor in Boston. She had envisioned a life of "workouts, getting lots of sleep and blogging every day about health and fitness," she said.
Instead, her classes start as early as 6 a.m. and she feels wiped out by day's end, which can be 14 hours later.
After Anne McInnis, 52, was laid off as a textiles-design director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, she and her live-in partner, David Zadeh, opened an antiques and jewelry shop.
With no retail experience, she had trouble getting used to the uncertainty. On any given day, there's no telling if five people or 50 will come through the door.
"With the shop, you do all your prep work, buying, merchandising and designing," McInnis said. "And it is a continuous process. And then you wait. And wait."
Even when business is steady, the sacrifices are never far from mind. Is being your own boss worth the trade-off in medical benefits, gas allowances and paid vacations?
AnnaBelle LaRoque, 28, a former pharmaceutical representative in Columbia, S.C., still wonders. "There have been many times when I have had oatmeal for dinner and Grey Goose for dessert, contemplating these questions," said LaRoque, who gave up those perks to start a dress line, LaRoque.
For some, the unexpected pitfalls can be so treacherous that they no longer consider Plan B a dream job, but a nightmare.
That was the unfortunate lesson for Anne-Laure Vibert, 31, who gave up a high-end marketing job in New York to become a chocolatier. Visions of decadent bonbons swirled in her head. Instead, she was hunched over in a chocolate lab packing chocolates and scrubbing pots.
After four months, she called it quits. Her Plan C? She returned to her old company.
"It got very lonely, to be honest," she said.
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