Despite recession, young entrepreneur is off and running

March 08, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Like any small-business owner, Keenen Geter faces the slings and arrows of the recession. His clients are no different from anyone else's these days, just as reluctant to part with cash, just as ready to ask for a better price. But then, he has always had to be flexible on his rates for some clients.

"I definitely get a discount," Francine Johnson told him. "I'm the one who bought you that laptop."

Johnson is not just a client of Geter's Web Design. She is the mother of its owner.

Geter won't say exactly how much the mom discount is - it's not, perhaps, something you'd want your full-rate paying customers to know - but given that until recently she used to have to drive him to meet some of his customers, presumably he made it worth her while.

At 17, Geter has been driving less time than he has run his Web site design and maintenance business, which is about two years old now. He recently won a citywide competition run by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a group that offers youngsters classes and partnership opportunities that help them develop business skills. He won $1,000 for his business plan and was part of a group of Baltimore students chosen by NFTE to travel to Manhattan last month to visit Sean Combs' music and clothing businesses.

In true businessman fashion, Geter was less impressed by the celebrity aspect - "I'm not that into his music" - and wasn't even particularly disappointed that Diddy himself didn't meet with the group as he has with previous Baltimore NFTE visitors. Instead, Geter was more interested in seeing how someone who started as a rapper and music producer has developed into the head of a multifaceted empire that includes a music label, a clothing line and other business ventures.

"It showed how he was able to start these as small businesses and now they're growing," Geter said.

Tricia Granata Eisner, the executive director of NFTE Baltimore, said that recessionary times and high unemployment are making entrepreneurship more important than ever. "We're saying, make your own job," she said.

It's a message Geter, who lives in the Park Heights area, has embraced - for quite some time. The serious, bespectacled young man actually started his first business in middle school when he joined an NFTE after-school program. He started out selling healthy snacks to his classmates - it wasn't his business genius to hit on a niche market; his principal wouldn't allow junk food sales - through which he learned the principle of buying low and re-selling higher.

He went on to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, thinking he'd become an engineer, but when NFTE began offering an entrepreneur class there as an elective a couple of years ago, it reminded him of how much he liked being a (very) small businessman.

"I felt like it was something I could do, and it really stuck with me," he said.

He took the class and was back in business. He was already casually designing Web sites for people he knew from church or through family, and the course helped him develop it more as a business, with three service levels (gold, silver and bronze) and matching rates. Silver apparently is the most popular, at $280, which gets you 10 to 20 pages, a year of editing and other services.

Although he has been offering design services for a couple of years, it's obviously a start-up - one that's run by someone whose first priority is school, and a challenging one at that. For one thing, he didn't have his own Web site that potential customers could check out, which seems like quite the glaring omission for someone in, uh, the Web site business. Geter is a bit abashed about that, but he says he is working to get one up, maybe as early as today.

If he has dreams of his own diversified empire, he seems on his way - he has what he considers a smaller side business, creating personalized videos that people show at weddings or birthday and graduation parties.

Despite being in the tech field, his modus operandi is quite traditional - he hits up family and friends and relies on word of mouth. He's currently working on a new Web site for a previous client, an insurance agent, and a chat site that a counselor wants him to set up for her. Then there's the frequent updating of the Web site of his mother, a federal employee who also has a side business organizing trips, such as one to the Hampton Jazz Festival in Virginia in June.

Geter hopes to have more time to work on his business this summer, after he graduates from Poly and before he starts college. He's not sure where he's going yet - he's trying to arrange for financial aid and perhaps an NFTE scholarship - but has been admitted to Morgan State and other universities.

His recession plan is to focus on businesses that are in a better position than others to ride out a downturn.

"If you own a barbershop, regardless of a recession, I still will need to get my hair cut," he said. "On the other hand, if you're a cafe and you sell $5 coffee ... "

Which is why, next time he gets a haircut, his barber will be treated to a sales pitch for how a Web site could help his business.

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