Jobs: Low-risk entrepreneurship is within almost anyone’s reach

For the AJC

Think starting a company takes high creativity and high risk? Not so, say serial entrepreneurs Chris Hanks and Jim Beach, who have just launched the Entrepreneur School to teach people to think counterintuitively about business startups.

“If you ask anyone on the street the definition of an entrepreneur, he’ll tell you it’s a highly creative person who takes great risks to start a company,” said Beach, director of faculty at the Entrepreneur School. “These aren’t the economic times to quit your job, lose your health insurance or double-mortgage your house in order to follow your dream. The very worst thing someone could do right now is try to start a grandiose company.”

Hanks and Beach advocate a different philosophy -- growing a business slowly and organically by a process called boot-strapping. “We have been doing this ourselves for a very long time, and the education that we’re providing is the culmination of seminars and courses that have helped thousands of others start successful businesses,” said Hanks, director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of Georgia. “We built this online school for $1,000 using the principles we teach. We gave the video editor and the Web designer a piece of the company in exchange for their services.”

Between them, Hanks and Beach have started 14 companies; 12 of which succeeded. In 1993, Beach founded a technology education company for children. Using his credit card he bought two advertisements for summer camps to teach kids computer skills in Boston and Palo Alto, Calif., near MIT and Stanford University, respectively.

“People responded to a phone answering machine, and when enough calls came in, I wrote a brochure and printed it at Kinko’s for $700,” he said. “As people sent deposits, I hired faculty and wrote curriculum.”

By 1999, his company, American Computer Experience of Atlanta, had grown to $12 million in annual revenue, with tie-ins to Intel, Lego, Microsoft, NASA and others. Besides camps, he was providing curricula in school systems and online across the country.

“As you start and grow a business, other doors will open up that you would never have seen if you hadn’t started down that corridor,” said Beach, who has taught entrepreneurship at Georgia State and the University of Tennessee. “The neatest thing with that company is that we changed kids' lives. We taught them that it was cool to be dorky and smart.”

"When you start a company with no money, you have the opportunity to make a better business plan and to sell your idea from Day One,” Hanks said. “The focus should be on selling. You don’t have to wait for God to strike you with a lightning bolt of creativity. Find something that someone is doing in California and do it here. We can teach you to reduce the risks so much that starting the company becomes a no-brainer.”

One of their students had worked his way up to office manager of a major law firm and hit a salary ceiling.

“He quit and outsourced his skills to the same firm and gradually to 10 to 15 others," Beach said. "He’s doing the same exact job, only making a lot more money.”

“Research shows that 72 percent of adults want to start a business, but only about 13 percent ever make that step,” Hanks said. “That’s a huge gap and for reasons that aren’t necessarily true. People think it’s too risky or they’re not that kind of person. If you’ve got the desire and the passion, we can show you how."

Beach and Hanks are passionate about teaching entrepreneurship, and they wanted to create an affordable resource for anyone interested in becoming his own boss. For $29 a month, Entrepreneur School members gain access to 70 hours of video training -- the equivalent of three or four semesters worth of MBA-level lectures and other resources.

“You don’t have to quit your job and start a $1 million business. You don’t have to swing for the fences and put your family at risk. It’s OK to hit a single,” Beach said. “If you started a business that brought in an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a month, how would that change your life?”

In the past, a position at a Fortune 500 company was considered a safe job.

“Many of those companies have made huge layoffs," Hanks said. "The more financially secure person may be the person with several different income streams.”

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