Necessary Entrepreneurs

The image of standing on the edge of a cliff, starring into the deep, dark abyss may be a cliche, but it perfectly sums up the Last Crusade-like leap of faith most entrepreneurs make when they strike out on their own.

More and more people are flinging themselves off that ledge these days, and many of them are taking flight thanks to a firm push from someone higher up the corporate ladder. These accidental entrepreneurs are turning their pink slips into green cash and enjoying professional freedoms so attractive they never again want to fly under someone else's wing. But those first few weeks of free fall are terrifying.

Tom Roberts is going through that right now. The Wyandotte resident has a resume many envy. He has worked for big firms like SmithGroup and has racked up top awards, like American Institute of Architect's Young Architect of the Year for Detroit in 2008. None of that could save Roberts when Gunn Levine Architects "right-sized" him in May.

His team had just met a 1 p.m. deadline for a $15 million project. By 2 p.m. the six-member team had been herded into a conference room where four of them were let go. They were given a few minutes to clear out their personal belongings. Roberts and his other co-worker casualties were out the door and on their own by 4 p.m.

"There was no explanation of 'Why me?'" says Roberts, adding this was the first time he didn't have a job since he 16. "I was completely in shock of it. To go from everything to nothing is a strange wake-up call. I spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what happened."

Roberts is the man with the answers now. He is the boss of his own firm, Thomas Roberts Architect, fulfilling a long-held dream of being his own boss. He used to say he would hit that milestone by 35. When he turned 35 it became 40. When Roberts hit 40 his boss made the decision for him.

Today Roberts is finally using the home studio he built four years ago but rarely used because of his day job. He is taking on smaller but much more eclectic projects with six-figure price tags instead of the big seven-and-eight-figure jobs. This work lets him become more innovative, like turning a 1920s gas station into an ice cream shop or creating a sustainable master plan for a 500-acre ranch. He hopes the little things like this will help him put enough food on the table.

"The fear is not about whether I can do it or not do it," Roberts says. "The fear is my financial commitment to my wife and kids."


Joe Voszatka has already tasted that fear. It left his mouth long ago, but the memory is still vividly there.

He left his job as community development director for the city of Wyandotte in late 2007 to start his own company, SMOOTH Development. Voszatka had worked in city government for 17 years in places like Dearborn and Bay City. His last seven years were with the Downriver suburb known for its downtown, making sure all of the t's were crossed and i's dotted for developers looking to build in the city.

Voszatka knew he wouldn't have to worry about management giving him ulcers if he was his own boss. So he packed up his pencils and left right before the city started dealing with its budget. His old position has since been eliminated.

"Everybody said it was a bad idea," Voszatka says. "I was walking to work at a good job with benefits. But I couldn't be happier now."

Starting right out of the gate hit Voszatka hard financially, making a much smaller percentage of income than in his old job. However, he doubled that amount in the second year and is on track to be at a normal pay scale again by the end of this year. His list of clients range from local developers to large corporations like Tim Hortons.

At the same time he picks his jobs, plans his schedule his way, and decides when and where he'll get his work done. He has ideas about taking advantage of brownfield tax credits to redevelop old car dealerships because so many have become obsolete. He just needs the projects to be as flexible as his schedule.

"Some days you work eight hours and some days you're up until 8 a.m.," Voszatka says.

Free Agent Nation

Daniel Pink opens his first book, “Free Agent Nation,” working at a job most would kill for - speech writer for the vice president with a White House desk. He quits after passing out from the stress of the job and starts freelancing on his own, writing “for just about anybody whose check would clear.”

He ended up joining a growing number of do-it-yourself career workers in America that is redefining the country’s white collar landscape. Today more than 33 million Americans are their own boss in one way or another, according to Free Agent Nation. Those people range from temps to freelancers to micro-businesses, accounting for about one quarter of active workers in the U.S. About 40 percent of workers end up working for themselves in one way or another during their careers.

"I didn't know I was part of a trend of million of other people doing the same thing," says
Voszatka. "I am part of a movement and I didn't even know it."

The above statistic comes from Free Agent Nation, which was published in 2001. Similarly, a U.S. Census Bureau report states that the number of businesses with no employees (i.e. owner-operated) grew by 1 million to 18.7 million people between 2002 and 2003. Independent contractors, a different classification, are estimated at 10.3 million people as of 2005, up 6.4 percent since 2001. 

And these people aren't switching back to steady, dependable paychecks. Fewer than 1 in 10 independent contractors say they prefer a traditional work arrangement as of 2005, according to U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Free Agent Nation cites a study that states 40 percent of workers would leave their job if offered slightly higher pay.

Smooth transition

Many accidental entrepreneurs have actually been thinking about it for years.

Bruce Auerbach entertained such dreams in the back of his head for years while working for Pfizer in Ann Arbor. Those were always shelved because it's much easier to cash corporate paychecks and sleep easy with employer health insurance. Numerous dreams of start-ups die in this rut of comfort.

Auerbach was well ensconced in the corporate mode when Pfizer overturned that turnip cart by closing its Ann Arbor office. Auerbach and his two fellow research scientists, Reyn Homan and Brian Krause, soon discovered they liked parts of both ideas. The trio decided to keep working together with or without Pfizer. The pharma giant was definitely out of the picture so they formed Alphacore Pharma, using their severance packages as a financial cushion.

They have turned the start-up into their full-time jobs researching a protein that could one day help fight cardiovascular disease. A couple of angel investors have helped fund their research and they hope to continue to grow the company and its research, together, on their own terms.

"We're able to learn from things that don't work properly instead of being punished if it goes wrong," Auerbach says. "You don't dread experiments going wrong."

This type of freedom from fear lets them continue to work their own way. They have been able to hit several milestones in their research and push it toward early clinical trials. They hope to partner with a larger pharma company after they push further into trials, but they know they would much rather work for themselves than anyone else.

"Even on the bad days it's great," Auerbach says. "We have worked together for a long time and we enjoy each other's company. We like what we're doing."

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for metromode and its sister publication Concentrate. He is also a Detroit-based freelance writer who thinks taking the leap of faith of becoming his own boss is one of the best things he has ever fallen into.


Bruce Auerbach and the Aphacore
Pharma team

Thomas Roberts designed and built his home

Thomas Roberts at home with his two kids

Joe Voszatka

Wyndotte Masonic Temple, a development
Joe Voszatka is currently working on.

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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