Back to Basics

Ex-dotcommers create new beginnings through low-tech businesses.
From the September 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

When Peter Rinnig was the art director for Lycos, he made a fine salary, got oodles of stock options and had a great time working on marketing projects, including designing a Lycos-sponsored NASCAR race car. After being laid off in 2001, he started QRST's LLC, a five-person T-shirt company in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he spends his days silk-screening shirts for clients like college students and banks.

Yet despite his descent from high-tech aristocracy to a low-tech garment industry job, Rinnig says he's thrilled with the switch. "I only have to answer to myself," says Rinnig, 39. "And I'm back to almost my Lycos salary--without stock options."

Immigrants to America have always opened businesses in search of a better life. Now, a growing number of ex-dotcommers are starting businesses in low-tech fields associated with immigrants. "We're seeing a lot of businesses being started by former high-tech workers," says Teresa Thomae, director of the Central Coast Small Business Development Center in Aptos, California, near hard-hit Silicon Valley. Instead of flocking to a technology, today's entrepreneurs are specifically looking for low-tech. "There's a lot of disillusionment with high-tech and the corporate world," says Thomae. "We're seeing people in formerly pretty high positions [choosing] relatively blue-collar work."

Brian Benavidez, a laid-off director of business development for online marketer Bolt Media Inc. in New York City, last October used savings, family and friends' money and credit cards to open Sparky's American Food, a hot dog restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. Today Benavidez, 35, employs five people, preparing and selling hormone- and antibiotic-free hot dogs and organic ketchup.

Ex-techies come to their low-end enterprises in a variety of ways. Benavidez saw a video documentary about hot dog vendors. "Everybody seemed so happy when they talked about hot dogs," he recalls. "I said, 'That's the type of excitement I want in my next job.'"

Chuck Zimmer traded developing software for making soup after dining on packaged vegetarian soup while on assignment in London for his employer, a large accounting and technology consulting firm. Zimmer cashed in some real estate investments to open Heartland Soups--since renamed Heartland Fresh--in San Francisco in October 2001 and now spends his days slicing cabbage and driving a delivery truck. "It's been an unbelievable struggle," says Zimmer, who expects $200,000 in sales this year. "But I love the fact that we have revenue and it's a real product. I go to a store or deli and drop off soup, and they pay me."

Like the genuine immigrants whose experiences these tech refugees are imitating, they work hard and have big plans for "someday." Benavidez is considering opening a second location. Rinnig wants to buy a fourth press and hire another operator. Zimmer is expanding into other prepared foods.

Unlike the Ellis Island-type immigrant, however, the owners of these start-up enterprises have a career hole card they may be able to play in case things don't work out as entrepreneurs. "When the recovery starts," notes Thomae, "they can always go back."

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