Serial entrepreneurs

They care little for security, thrive on the possibilities

April 01, 2007|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

About four years ago, Jim Kucher and his wife and business partner Cindy Leahy sat in a darkened Baltimore bar, drowning their sorrows. The couple's 10-month-old startup, Wickford Technologies, had fallen victim to the tech sector's implosion, and their lawyer had a message for them.

"This has either cured you forever of a horrible disease or given you a taste for something you'll never be able to get rid of," Kucher recalled his lawyer saying.

For Kucher, it was definitely the latter. He went on to start a consulting company and later became executive director of the University of Baltimore's entrepreneurship program - an effort he still heads. Now, Kucher knows all too well the plight of the serial entrepreneur. "It is something that you just really really develop a passion for, and you have to, because it's insanity," Kucher said.

In Maryland and around the country, these entrepreneurs help fuel the economy, with ventures from retail to restaurants to technology companies. More than 80 percent of new jobs are created by entrepreneurs, said Michael Morris, chairman of the department of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management.

Here's the picture some experts paint of habitual entrepreneurs. Generally they're a breed apart from those who want the security of a steady paycheck and benefits as well as a good night's sleep. They embody innovation, enthusiasm and perseverance.

The need for achievement is key, as is their sense of self-efficacy. They're driven and they believe they control their own destiny. They're willing to take risks, but they aren't foolish. They're more than willing to trade the securities of a steady paycheck and benefits for the excitement and uncertainties of building their own business.

While their businesses may be different, there are similarities in what drives them and keeps them coming back for more, despite the uncertainties and struggles. Many are willing to pour their life's savings into a dream, or borrow to the hilt to do it. They're not too shy to look for funding. Some work night and day for months - even years - without a salary. And they have a knack for spotting a need and identifying opportunities, experts say.

Once they get a taste for running their own business, whether that first one was a failure or a success, they can't help themselves from doing it all over again. Chocolate king Milton S. Hershey, for instance, had three candy-making ventures fail, was snubbed by his family and nearly went under again before he scored with a caramel company. Not content, he sold it for $1 million in 1900 to focus on developing what was then a luxury product - chocolate - for the mass market.

`Antennas are out'

"I think their antennas are out a little bit more," said Ven Sriram, a professor of marketing at the University of Baltimore who is working on a study about urban entrepreneurship in the United States and in emerging markets.

Take Kehar Singh, 38. Singh said he had already owned two Baltimore restaurants and a nightclub with his brother, Binda Singh, 31, when he toured the Ambassador in Baltimore's Canterbury-Tuscany neighborhood in 1997.

Even though the restaurant was hidden inside a 1930s apartment house, Singh said he knew instantly it would work because of its location near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus and some of Baltimore's most affluent areas, its architectural detail and its extensive garden that, in warm weather, becomes an outdoor dining area.

"The minute I walked in the room, I looked out of the back doors, over the garden and I told them: `I will take this place,' " Kehar Singh recalled.

Singh's journey from rural India to restaurant mogul began in 1985 when he emigrated to America. He worked 16 hours a day, six days a week as a waiter until he saved up enough money to buy his first restaurant, Banjara in Federal Hill, in 1992. Despite the long days, the work seemed easy compared with his life on a farm in his homeland where he had to care for livestock around the clock. His brother arrived from India the day Banjara opened.

A dozen years after Kehar came to Baltimore, he and his brother opened the Carlyle Club restaurant just a few blocks away from the Ambassador - an opportunity they seized partly, Kehar Singh said, because there were no other fine-dining Middle Eastern restaurants in Baltimore. The brothers, who also invest in real estate, added a third restaurant in the neighborhood four months ago, taking over the Spice Company in the nearby Colonnade.

Is there another restaurant in their future?

"Every time I open one, I always say, `never again.' But perhaps," Kehar Singh said.

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