When Betsy Browning was in law school and needed to present evidence, she drew charts and graphs on the back of shirt cardboard with a marking pen. Browning went on to teach media law at the University of Texas at Austin, but never forgot those crude cardboard graphics.
Today, Browning combines her legal expertise with the talents of a team of graphic artists at Browning & Co. The Houston-based firm prepares demonstrative evidence for trials and utility rate cases across the country. The charts, graphics and time lines not only help jury members better understand what's being said in court but will also generate about $1 million in revenue this year for Browning's company.
Browning is among the thousands of professionals and former ** executives parlaying their skills into successful small businesses. Pushed out of corporations by budget cuts or leaving dead-end jobs on their own, this new breed of entrepreneur is flourishing in the 1990s.
"I call them 'propreneurs,' " said Sarah Edwards, a Santa Monica author and home-based business consultant. "Propreneurs are creating a major blip in the economy."
The propreneurs that Edwards meets approach their business from a different perspective than traditional entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs dream of growing their small businesses into big ones, Edwards said, but propreneurs prefer to set up a comfortable working situation that allows them to do what they do best -- deal with people. They usually hire assistants to help with the administrative and clerical duties, thus
freeing them up to work with their clients.
It is no surprise that growing numbers of highly qualified professionals are out on the streets. Corporate downsizing and plant closings displace about 2 million workers every year, according to the National Planning Association in Washington. Major law and accounting firms are also shrinking, sending more professionals out on their own.
Placement consultants counseling today's displaced professionals say up to 30 percent of their clients would rather start their own business than go back to work for someone else.
"We have seen a radical increase in the number of people who want to start their own business, compared with five years ago," said Rick Cobb, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based international placement consulting firm.
Cobb said 18 percent -- or about 100 -- of the 600 clients that his firm counsels each quarter plan to start their own business. Of that 18 percent, Cobb said, about 80 percent are people over age 40 with a wealth of experience.
"We recently had a vice president of marketing for a large publishing company with an excellent pedigree who just ran into the wrong boss," said Cobb. "He started his own publishing company and is doing quite well."
When clients express an interest in going out on their own, Cobb said, his counselors try to determine whether the person has the physical stamina and the sales ability needed to succeed. They also help the person figure out whether they have enough capital and whether there is a real need for what they plan to sell or do.
"In many cases, our job is to talk people out of starting their own businesses," said Cobb.
Browning and other propreneurs say an essential ingredient for success is to be well-respected in your field before you launch the business.
"I think having the law degree and being an attorney and a professor gave me instant credibility," said Browning, the evidence specialist. "I can speak the language of my clients. I understand the rules of evidence and what the judge will and will not allow us to do."
Another secret of success is to seek expert advice when setting up your business. Browning, who had never sold anything before, hired a marketing consultant to draft a plan and followed it to the letter. When she had trouble raising seed money, she used money from the sale of her home in Austin to open her business in Houston.
While Browning transferred her professional skills directly into a small business, other professionals are setting up small ventures to complement their skills.
Last fall, Joseph Fowler Jr., M.D., a Louisville, Ky., dermatologist, opened the Skin & Allergy Shop in the medical building where he sees patients. Fowler and his partners, two dermatologists, an allergist and an auto parts store owner, invested about $50,000 to open the store. They rely on the one experienced businessman -- the store owner -- in the group to steer them in the right direction.
The shop carries all kinds of hypoallergenic products, from air purifiers to non-irritating earrings. In addition to selling widely available products for allergy-sufferers, the store sells its own line of hypoallergenic cosmetics, called Skin Sense.
"My idea was for us to do the legwork, seek out the products for our patients and put them all in one place," said Fowler. "But I don't tell anybody they have to buy anything from our store."
Fowler said the Skin & Allergy Shop recently began to break even. The partners are already talking about opening a second store in an upscale shopping mall.
"Running a business really takes alot of time which most professionals don't have," said Fowler. "If you are going to do something like this, it is very important to hve someone who knows about business working with you as an adviser."