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A Step Down That's a Step Up

No matter how high up you are on the corporate ladder, it's never too late to start your own business--even if you're heading into a different industry.

They're uplifting stories. A disgruntled corporate employee finds the courage to break away and start a fulfilling business. A talented veteran sees a way to better serve the market and leaves to start a new company. For these people, entrepreneurship is a natural step.

But what if you actually like the job you've had for years? And what if the business idea you stumble upon isn't in your realm of expertise? Well, don't let that stop you. Like these former corporate stars, you might find yourself even better off than before.

Nicole Oden
Past: Smith Barney, senior vice president
Present: Eleven Spa, founder

Eleven Spa founder Nicole Oden, 41, had been a senior vice president at prestigious financial firm Smith Barney for 12 years--and a frustrated spa client for even longer--before her unplanned departure from the corporate world.

In 2003, Oden walked out of a spa after her latest disappointment and decided if she was ever going to get the experience she wanted, she was going to have to create it herself. So she made a call and bought an 11,000-square-foot building in Delray Beach, Fla.

"That's how quickly it happened," she says. "I had this idea of exactly the way it should be, and I thought, 'I'm going to build this place, everybody's going to come, I'm going to go back to work, and I'm going to have a great spa to go to.'"

Oden, who discovered she was pregnant during the year-long construction period, was already on maternity leave when Eleven Spa opened in November 2004--and she never looked back. Literally. "I never even saw my office again. We were so busy right out of the gates, and my assistant and I taught ourselves the business and just trained and interviewed and hired all day long."

Four years later, Eleven Spa has launched a skincare line, and is on track to finish 2008 with $6 million in sales. A Vegas location is set to open in January 2009, and Oden projects around $12 million in sales the first year.

Of course, her former career has contributed to Eleven Spa's success. "I'm a numbers girl," she admits, "so I've been able to do all this on my own without an investor."

Oden adds that being an entrepreneur has surpassed her expectations. "I didn't think there would be something out there better for me than my job, but Eleven Spa is my vision," she says. "I've stayed true to what I wanted from the moment I decided to do this, so I can't imagine anything else this great."

Rick Field
Past: NOW with Bill Moyers, TV producer
Present: Rick's Picks, co-founder

A 15-year veteran of the TV industry, Rick Field, 45, had directed and produced projects for VH1 and Comedy Central. But when his last job on the critically acclaimed PBS show "NOW with Bill Moyers" ended, he found himself at a crossroads. "I enjoyed my time in TV, but I didn't really see a path where I was headed next with it," he says.

So in November 2003, Field took the road less traveled and began New York-based Rick's Picks, a pickle company that has become known for its distinctive branding and unusual flavor profiles--like Windy City Wasabeans, green beans in a soy-wasabi brine--that can be found at upscale food retailers like Whole Foods and Dean & DeLuca.

"I'd been making pickles for fun for a number of years and won a couple pickle contests, so I just decided to go for it," Field says. To scale up from the home kitchen to a commercial environment, he hooked up with business partners Lauren McGrath and Jina Kim. Now, just four years later, Rick's Picks boasts sales figures well past the $500,000 mark.

Field's former experience has been helpful, too. "Most of the work I did tended to be grassroots and low budget, so you always had to come up with a scrappy solution," he says. "The same is true now with a business in an entrepreneurial phase. We still have to make things happen on a shoestring, except now instead of trying to get a movie star to sit on a chair wearing a little red dress reading copy about some boy-band, we're trying to get 2,000 pounds of beets and 1,500 jars in eight hours."

Field loves what he does, but admits, "I thought television was a stressful occupation, but this is much more so." Starting a business, he says, is "not for the faint of heart."

Todd Basche
Past: Apple Computer, vice president of application software
Present: Wordlock, co-founder

As Apple Computer's vice president of application software, Todd Basche's responsibilities were always very entrepreneurial in spirit (he uses the term "intrapreneur" to describe himself).

But Basche, 54, wanted to create something that was completely his own, so when he uncovered a $1 billion consumer market with revolutionary potential, he took the chance to pursue his dream.

What captured his attention was the combination lock industry. While not exactly a high-tech market, Basche saw a way to innovate by using letters instead of numbers. "The numerical left-right-left lock was invented in 1862 and has remained virtually unchanged," he says, "and there're not a lot of other places in your life where you're using 1862 technology."

Basche and his wife, Rahn, developed and licensed the initial product to Staples for a trial run. Quickly realizing its potential, they both quit their jobs in January 2007 to focus on building Wordlock.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company was self-funded and home based during the first year, but experienced "astronomical" growth in 2008. "We moved out of the house, and we're up to 10 full-time employees," Basche says, adding that in the first quarter of 2008, Wordlock was in 900 retail locations; by the end of the second quarter, they were in 12,000 stores. He predicts they'll be in 50,000 next year.

Basche sees potential in other markets, as well. "There are other consumer product areas where the market giants have been sleepy," he says. "We now have the expertise, and we can grow this into a line of innovative products that brings ease of use to the consumer."

The learning curves and challenges for an entrepreneur are considerable, but Basche says the experience has been profound. "When the product is your own, versus a corporation's, it's an amazing feeling to watch it go from your head to the store shelf."

As these three entrepreneurs found out, don't mistake proficiency for passion and limit yourself to creating a business in the field you already inhabit. Your leap from corporate world to business owner doesn't have to be an apples-to-apples switch. It can be financial bigwig to spa owner, software guru to lock maker or producer to pickler.



Make Your Escape From Cubicle Nation
According to business coach Pamela Slim, ex-corporate consultant and author of the website and forthcoming book, Escape from Cubicle Nation, these are some things to consider before you make your leap off the corporate ladder.
  • Make sure you're cut out for it. There's a lot of life-is-beautiful-when-you-work-for-yourself mythology, but you should go through a process to figure out if you can do it.
  • Assess your risk tolerance. The loss of benefits and a regular paycheck is a big problem for many people. It's not insurmountable, but if you have family or a pre-existing health condition, you have to remember that just any business plan won't pay the rent, and base your decisions with that in mind.
  • Do your research. Get as much information as you can for free. There are many online resources you can use, like Startup Nation, Freelance Switch and Location Independent.
  • Create a good business plan. You have to know who your target market is and how much money you really need to survive.
  • Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Probably the quickest way to extinguish a passionate endeavor is to put all of your heart and soul and money into something when you're not quite sure how you're going to make it work. You should try things on the side first.
  • Network with other entrepreneurs. You should branch out and start connecting with people who are on the other side, already running their own companies.
Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.
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