By Abby Ohlheiser
— Jacob Lefton learned the blacksmith's trade in Europe. Restless, he'd left a low-paying job teaching gymnastics in Massachusetts to travel to Ukraine for an annual blacksmith's festival. Then he worked his way across the continent, honing his craft in various shops. In Europe, blacksmiths will take on and train journeymen in exchange for room and board. It's taken more seriously as a profession than it is in the United States, where smithing tends to be seen as an idle pastime of retired engineers, or something confined to re-enactment villages.
The journeyman's life would have suited Lefton, but he had something drawing him back home: student-loan debt. So in 2010, having returned stateside, he started his own blacksmith shop. "If I didn't have loans to pay, I probably wouldn't have started a business," he admits. His federal loans are now in hardship deferment — he has one more year to build up his business before he has to start paying them back.
In short, Lefton became an entrepreneur out of necessity. And he's not alone. With unemployment at 8.1 percent, and nearly half that number jobless for more than six months, the temptation to hire yourself when no one will hire you has rarely been stronger.
Read through advice on starting a small business, and you'll find that the path has been lined with caution tape. Never start a small business just because you have no other options, experts counsel. This wisdom is generally offered with a nod to the number of new businesses that fail: three in 10 within two years, and the majority after five, according to the Small Business Administration. If you already have a steady job, those figures make a compelling argument for starting your business as a side project until you're confident it will actually take off. But for those with no good options, what is there to lose?
Between 2008 and 2009, the number of Americans gaining employment from starting a small business doubled to nearly one in 10. Recognizing the trend, the Small Business Administration has set up resource pages for those trying to start small businesses while saddled with student debt or while unemployed. Those making the leap include laid-off professionals opting for consulting work, serial entrepreneurs, and young creative types like Lefton who simply don't consider themselves cut out for 9-to-5 jobs. He and I went to the same liberal arts college in Massachusetts, a place where students have no grades and design their own majors. There he cultivated three sets of skills: fiction writing, circus performance, and metal-working. Of the three, the latter was the only one he could imagine offering a steady income.
So when he returned to the United States, at a time when my Facebook feed was filled with friends' frustrated job-search postings, Lefton began posting photos of his handiwork. It wasn't long before he started getting commissions. He calls himself an artistic blacksmith and makes sculptures when he can. But he also makes fences, chandeliers, and signs, usually on commission. In his first year, he brought in about $10,000. Last year, he made $30,000. This year he's aiming for $50,000.
His long-term goal is to build a European-style shop large enough to take on apprentices. For now, though, Lefton's operation is a one-man show. In this, he has plenty of company: Just 7 million of the nation's 27 million small businesses have employees. Some, like me, are freelancers, working for another company on a contract basis. Others work for themselves as sole proprietors or in partnerships. Many are taking on great financial risk by striking out on their own. But in an economic climate where satisfying full-time jobs are hard to come by, it can be a risk worth taking.
It's especially so for those whose talents tend toward the eccentric.
Take the Unemployed Philosophers Guild, a business founded in 1989 by two brothers with liberal arts degrees and few marketable skills. They sell punny gifts for nerds — "Freudian Slippers," "Empower-mints" and "Disappoint-mints" are among their best-known wares. Stephan Shaw, one of the brothers, had worked day jobs at Radio Shack, at a book store, and in data entry and was looking for something more fulfilling when he and his brother hit on the concept of selling clever novelty items to tourists in Manhattan. According to Shaw, the business's first incarnation eventually fell victim to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tough stance on unsanctioned street vendors. By then, though, its products had proved popular enough to warrant selling them in stores.
Shaw admits his path to small-business success was improbable, but he doesn't discourage other free spirits from giving it a try. His advice? Start small and stay out of debt. The Unemployed Philosophers Guild's first investment was a $40 purchase of clay.
One another advantage to the last-resort small business: If your career is at a dead end, it can save your sense of self-worth. Helder Mira, a Hartford, Conn.-based filmmaker, started his own production company as a side project to "stay sane" while trapped in a creatively stifling day job at a public access station. He started by taking on odd jobs doing video work locally, gaining contacts in the small city's arts scene, in which I used to work. It wasn't long before he quit his day job, thanks in part to a grant from the city's arts council designed to support job creation in the arts. Two years later, his business hasn't exactly taken off, but it pays his bills_and he actually enjoys the work.
Lefton, Mira, and Shaw have a few things in common. They're educated. They kept their startup costs manageable. They started young. And they refused to accept the idea that their unusual skill sets had no value.
As today's twenty- and thirtysomethings grapple with a stubborn job market and student-debt loads, some are more optimistic about their chances than others. But at a time when the news is filled with phrases like "law school bubble," one thing is becoming clear: Traditional employment is not the sure path to financial stability that it might once have seemed.
Yet while running a business for yourself can free you up to, say, make plushie dolls of Virginia Woolf for a living, no one should expect it to be easy. And the lifestyle might not be as freewheeling as you'd expect. Lefton realized this recently while trying to decide whether to apply to graduate school. He wants to refine his skill in the artistic side of his chosen profession, but now that he has a business, there's a problem: "If I walk away from it, if I neglect it for any significant amount of time, it's gone and I have to start over from the beginning."