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Special Opps

U.S. entrepreneurs are serving others in Iraq--and making a living in the process.

Mark Wilson knows something about Iraq from his days in the first Gulf War. As a former Marine, he also got a taste of Bosnia and Grenada. Now, after years in the private sector spent mostly helping high-tech startups, he's a Clifton Park, New York, franchisee of The Growth Coach, a national franchise of coaches for self-employed and small-business owners.

The 47-year-old entrepreneur has restructured his business and created a Web site, www.operationenduringbusiness.com, to tap into a new market: entrepreneurs who are military reservists and need strategies to keep their businesses operating while they're deployed in Iraq. While Wilson's reservist clients pay him a fee, he has been considering turning part of his business into a nonprofit so he can reach more reservists, as the military would then promote his business to entrepreneurs in uniform.

Wilson, who's still in the Reserve, could very well become his own client. At press time, he was waiting to see if he would be assigned to another military operation-fortunately for him and his family, this could possibly be a desk job in Washington, DC.

When Chris Exline is in the United States long enough to hang out at a social gathering, the wives think what he's doing is "crazy," but the husbands say, "That sounds pretty cool." Exline is CEO of Home Essentials, based in Dallas but with offices in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Hong Kong; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Singapore-and Baghdad, Iraq.

The business generated $3.5 million in revenue last year and is expected to at least double that this year, with its "Why didn't I think of that?" concept: They rent home essentials to people working in foreign countries for a few years, who don't want to move all their belongings overseas or buy all new furniture. And in Iraq, there are plenty of expatriates who need some home essentials. By the end of 2004, Exline, 39, projects his Baghdad operation alone will have generated $2 million in revenue.

But working in Baghdad has its challenges, to put it mildly: Instead of trucking in furniture, they've had to switch to air freight shipping, and Exline travels to Baghdad at least once a month. Which isn't so dangerous, he insists. "I'm in no way comparing parts of New York City to Baghdad, but on the other hand, I'm not foolish enough to walk in certain neighborhoods of New York City late at night-or Dallas. Whatever big city you're in, you adapt."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Special Opps.

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