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Leaving the Rat Race

Making the transition from a 9-to-5 job requires a leap of faith. Here's how 3 entrepreneurs finally cut the strings.

Pursuing your dream isn't as easy as quitting your job and following your heart. Passion doesn't pay your bills or provide for your family, which is why many entrepreneurs hang on to the security of their 9-to-5 jobs during the difficult startup phase.

But what happens when you finally hit the wall and realize, "I can't do this anymore"? Maybe it happens in your cubicle as you're counting down the hours until you can work on your product. Or maybe it happens on yet another business trip, a thousand miles from home, as you sit in a lonely hotel room, thinking about your family. Whatever the reason, it's this deciding factor that finally drives you to make that leap of faith.

Whether you've crashed through this wall or simply caught a glimpse of it in the distance, take heart. You, too, can pursue your entrepreneurial dream and finally cut the strings to your 9-to-5 life. Here's how three former 9-to-5ers reached their breaking points, found the courage to follow their hearts and left the corporate world to start businesses of their own.

From Ho-Hum to Yum
Thomas DeGeest, 38, was tired of his predictable life. After 12 years as a management consultant for IBM, the native Belgian was faced with a choice: continue the next 20 years in a predictable career or follow his entrepreneurial dream of sharing his favorite childhood treat--authentic Belgian waffles. Now, instead of traveling the country in a suit and tie, he travels the streets of New York City in an apron, selling freshly made waffles out of a yellow mobile truck.

"I was looking for a business that would have meaning, and my version of meaning is bringing a happy moment--a moment of indulgence or a smile--to people's days, and a waffle definitely does that," DeGeest says.

DeGeest spent a year perfecting his recipes while still employed at IBM, eventually taking a leave of absence when he started Waffles and Dinges in October 2007. A month later, however, he resigned.

Like most kids in Belgium, DeGeest enjoyed waffles as a snack growing up, but he was unable to find a decent waffle in the states. Places like IHOP and Waffle House just don't cut it as far as DeGeest is concerned, and his customers seem to agree. His Belgian and Liege waffles, along with his selection of toppings called dinges (Belgian slang for "whatchamacallits"), have made him a local celebrity of sorts.

The transition from a six-figure salary to slinging waffles hasn't been easy, but DeGeest and his wife are making it work. Since starting the business, DeGeest has pulled money from his IRA and has scrapped extras such as vacations for at least a year, but he's finally found the unpredictable life he was craving.

"I moved from a very, very corporate environment to the New York street," he says. "You deal with a totally different type of people and different ways of communicating, operating and resolving problems. It was a major break."

Preparation Meets Opportunity
Mary Schulman, 33, made a major break of her own when she, too, left a six-figure salary in investment banking to pursue her entrepreneurial dream.

"I enjoyed my job but there was something sort of lacking. I didn't feel that fulfillment in my life, and it was really bothering me," she says.

Schulman always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but it wasn't until she was pregnant with her first child that she realized she had to get out of her demanding corporate job.

In 2005, Schulman and her mother, Janet Owings, started Bethesda, Maryland-based Snikiddy Snacks, a line of fun-to-eat organic snacks for kids made from original family recipes. In the beginning, Schulman kept her day job and worked full-time at night and on the weekends to get the business started, but it wasn't long before she cut the strings to her 9-to-5 job.

"I just had to do it. I couldn't go on anymore without feeling like I was helping other people," she says. Even though she was pregnant, Schulman was able to minimize the financial risk because of a special "entrepreneurial" account she and her husband had started two years earlier. Every month, the two had faithfully set aside money from their paychecks to build up the "future business" fund.

The fund came in handy. Two months after Schulman left her job, her husband also left his job to help the growing business. For one year, the pair went without a salary, forcing them to adopt a budget and to change their lifestyle. This included eating at home and selling one of their two cars.

"Our salary is nothing like it used to be, but we're very happy with it," Schulman says. "It's all panning out to be completely worth it; I've had the most fun I've ever had in my entire life. Building a business is unlike anything else."

Family First
A new baby was the same deciding factor that pushed Greg Rhoads, 38, to leave his high-profile job as a vice president for Kodak. For Rhoads, being in a hotel 200 nights a year had gotten old--it was time to be home with his family. On top of that, Kodak was going through company-wide layoffs, and there was talk that his division would be shut down.

"I decided I wanted to control my own destiny," Rhoads says, so in 2001, he opened a MaggieMoo's franchise in Temple, Texas, while still employed at Kodak.

"I rode it out as long as I could," he says, to minimize the financial risk he was placing his growing family in. Rhoads says it was a change in lifestyle that took some getting used to.

"Being a guy, we're different in a lot of ways. Sometimes we live off of our position--or our lack of position. I went from a suit and traveling and a secretary, to shorts and T-shirt and scooping ice cream," he says.

It was a head game at first, he says, but he finally grew into his new way of life. Now he owns two additional franchises--a Schlotzky's Restaurant he opened in 2006 and an Incredible Pizza he plans to open later this year--as well as a restaurant located in the food court at a local college. Despite his success, he cautions other aspiring franchisees against quitting their 9-to-5 jobs unless they're committed to working hard.

"I tell people very honestly that you have to really know that you're committed," he says. "Franchising isn't as easy as it sounds. It does have its great rewards, after you start paying the debt service off, but it's not easy."

It's advice that any aspiring entrepreneur should heed. Finally cutting the strings to your 9-to-5 job is a commitment that just may prove harder than laboring away under the fluorescent bulbs in a cubicle. But, as these entrepreneurs proved, it's a leap of faith they'd be willing to make again and again.

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