Maggie Shafer Writes

The Upside of a Down Economy

Maggie Shafer5 Comments

This article was originally published in the November/December 2013 issue of Relevant Magazine.

When my husband, Steven, and I got married, he was a milkman.

As a liberal arts graduate fresh from Colorado State University, it had only taken a few months in the proverbial “real world” for him to realize no one was looking to hire an amateur literary critic at the height of one of the worst recessions our nation has seen. It didn’t matter how many classics he had read—or how many hours he scoured Craigslist. And so, he drove a dairy delivery truck.

Then he discovered woodworking. Within a year, we opened a custom furniture business with Steven’s best friend. The venture ended nine months later—but not before Steven discovered he had the potential to be his own boss, that he works longest and hardest when no one is keeping time and that sometimes, when the right job doesn’t exist, maybe it just hasn’t been created yet.

The Entrepreneurial Renaissance

Steven’s entrepreneurial spirit is no exception in our generation. According to a recent study by Forbes, 30 percent of Millennials have started a business while in college, and 92 percent see entrepreneurial education as “vital” to the economy.

Simon Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says this kind of “entrepreneurial renaissance” is common in the midst of an economic downturn. Limited career options, he says, inspire Millennials to use whatever resources they have to create their own job opportunities.

In other words, more young people today are going to work for themselves simply because they are the only ones hiring.

“Many have realized the job market is not coming back and you must innovate your way into the workforce,” says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. “The starting salary out of college is now only $20,000 to $30,000, often without health benefits. So more and more of them have nothing to lose.”

And with today’s widespread resources and their own web savvy, the price for innovation is just right.

“Five thousand [dollars] is the new $50,000,” says Banks Benitez, vice president of partnerships for the Unreasonable Institute, a business incubator in Boulder, Colo. “The barriers to entrepreneurism are decreasing as technology catches up.”

Specifically, the Internet has made the cost of advertising, communications, market reach and the supply chain minimal. Websites—the new global storefront—are vastly more affordable than a brick-and-mortar presence.

But while affordable options and a hard-hitting recession are indeed part of what has galvanized entrepreneurism, they are not explanation enough for why this new wave of young people are choosing a path that is more stressful, unpredictable and consuming than a traditional career.

More than profits, it seems, this generation is about doing what they love—and what they love is creating something meaningful.

“We are a generation that shares a deep empathy for people and for the world, motivated to love people well and help them break free of the things that bind them,” Benitez says. “Social entrepreneurship is a way to do that. There is redemption in making something where there was nothing before.”

A Generation at Work

Victor Saad of The Experience Institute

Victor Saad of The Experience Institute

When David Chan started an online commercial book club in 2010, all he needed was a computer and some basic web design skills and—voilà—he was a business owner.

Since then, the Northern Arizona University MBA graduate has started 11 companies, ranging from a custom bow-tie business to a biomedical engineering company. Today, he is actively involved in five of them—and the only consistencies in his average day are a shower and three eggs. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

“I’ve had to cultivate self-discipline,” Chan says. “Being your own boss can be a double-edged sword. You can sleep in, but you better be making it up later.”

As the director of operations for Kulira Technologies, Chan relies on Skype and email to stay in touch with his business partner a state away. Aligning himself with smart people—people to whom he is accountable—has been key to maintaining momentum, he says.

While serial entrepreneurs like Chan love the process of creating a business but not necessarily running one, others are creating their dream jobs—a place they want to be not just for 40 hours a week, but for 40 years.

Austen Menges is the co-owner and founder of Two Shot West, a film and commercial production company based in Austin, Texas. Since his first high school job at a theme park, Menges has known he wasn’t cut out to work for someone else.

"Many have realized the job market is not coming back and you must innovate your way into the workforce," Scott Gerber

“I guess you could say Six Flags spurred me into entrepreneurism,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t cut out to work. These days, between Two Shot West and his contract work, Menges will easily pull an 80-hour workweek—which isn’t as bad as it sounds when your career doubles as your hobby and “colleague” becomes another word for your best friend—or, in Menges’ case, his wife.

Yet this dynamic is also why it can be so hard for entrepreneurs to take a break. Without an employer keeping the clock, there is rarely a clear division between work and home life.

“Having a partner has really added some nice checks and balances,” Menges says. “My wife and I both work hard by nature, but it can be hard to turn the phone off. We’ve been cognizant of that and [have] gone off the grid a couple of times. The whole day of rest—we try to take that seriously.”

Such rest grounds Menges in the reason behind his work. As a Christian in a largely secular industry, Menges hasn’t wanted to feel like a circle fitting into a square hole. His values don’t align with the big film producers, nor do his artistic sensibilities align with strictly Christian films.

But with Two Shot West, Menges is able to tell stories the way he chooses.

“Part of my story is to be salt and light here,” he says. “But we don’t want to be hit over the head in this generation. If we can make authentic pieces of work and instill them with qualities, then that’s the goal. We aspire to a very high level of craft.”

Victor Saad jumpstarted his career in the face of a different kind of challenge.

He wanted an MBA. But as a middle-school pastor with a heart for the nonprofit world, Saad didn’t want to take out a school loan that would take him the better part of his career to pay back.

And so Saad created a 12-month plan—he calls it the Leapyear Project—to fully immerse himself in 12 different apprenticeships in design, business and social change. He calls it a “self-made MBA” and invited others to join him by taking “leaps” of their own. He “graduated” from TED headquarters in Chicago last summer and has since published a compilation book of the leapers’ experiences, funded fully through Kickstarter.

The process may be unconventional, but Saad’s goal is simple: to use education to empower positive change. Because, Saad believes, “The greatest workers are the best students, and the best students are the greatest workers.” Perpetual students, he says, comprise the best blueprint for creating solutions for human needs around the world.

Saad may be taking a different route to ministry than most, but it’s a route that fuses his pastoral heart with his innovative vision. “Perhaps the greatest opportunity to be Kingdom-builders is to strive to be the best entrepreneurs with the most honest motivations,” he says.

Made to Be a Maker

A tiny photo of Erwin McManus

A tiny photo of Erwin McManus

Erwin McManus, a pastor and entrepreneur in LA, believes we are all created to create—and that doing so fulfills a deep desire in the human heart.

“God placed in us all the material necessary to accomplish His intent for our lives,” he says. “Every time we [innovate], we are co-creators with God in creating a future only He can fully imagine or realize.”

Perhaps this is why, despite our first failure, Steven and I reopened shop last year.

We found a shop space, secured the necessary finances and began our second attempt in the furniture business. Today, we have an official LLC—and I finally know what those letters stand for.

Still, there are no guarantees when you’re signing your own paycheck. While Steven’s busy with work this week, we can’t be sure about the next.

And you can forget about a five-year plan.

“Entrepreneurs have to be able to deal with a degree of ambiguity. It’s really a critical step,” Benitez says. “You have to be at rest with the mystery and uncertainty of what’s coming up. It takes an aspect of faith.”

What we know is that we believe in what we are doing. And at the end of each day, Steven has created something beautiful that didn’t exist when he woke up—something that someone will sit in, eat a meal over, or rock their child with for the rest of their lives, and probably someone else’s after that.

And most days, that’s enough reason for Steven—and for a generation with him—to have faith to keep hammering.