Plano B: sonho e realidade

Baixo rendimento, longas jornadas de trabalho, sem benfícios: O plano B nem sempre é o sonho que as pessoas imaginam. Negócios próprios podem ser tão estressantes quanto a vida executiva.

Maybe It's Time for Plan C
Por Alex Williams
NYTimes 12/8/2011

RONA ECONOMOU was a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm, making a comfortable salary and enjoying nights on the town when she was laid off in 2009, another victim of the recession. At first, she cried. “Then it hit me,” said Ms. Economou, now 33. “This is my one chance” to pursue a dream.

Six months later,
feeling hopeful, she opened Boubouki, a tiny Greek food stall at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where she bakes spinach pies and baklava every morning. This was supposed to be her Plan B: her chance to indulge a passion, lead a healthier life and downshift professionally — at least by a gear. Instead, Ms. Economou finds herself in overdrive.

Six days a week, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. (“before most lawyers”) to start baking. Instead of pushing paper, she hoists 20-pound bags of flour, gets burned and occasionally slices open a finger. On Mondays, when the shop is closed, she does bookkeeping and other administrative tasks.

So much for a healthier life. “The second I feel a cold coming on, I’m taking Cold-Eeze, eating raw garlic,” she said. “I can’t afford to shut the shop down.”

Plan B, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems. But that hasn’t stopped cubicle captives from fantasizing. In recent years, a wave of white-collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artisanal and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolatiers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.

Indeed, since the dawn of the Great Recession, more Americans have started businesses (565,000 of them a month in 2010) than at any period in the last decade and a half, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks statistics on entrepreneurship in the United States.

The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. The highs can be high. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns. The dream job is a “job” as much as it is a “dream.”

“The decision to become an entrepreneur should not be made lightly,” said Paul Bernard, an executive coach in New York who has advised professionals on starting small businesses. The press, he said, has made heroes out of former investment bankers and lawyers who transformed themselves into successful dog-jewelry designers and cupcake kings. “But the reality is that, even during boom times, most new businesses fail.”

Many are surprised to find the hours and work grueling.

That was a rude awakening for Mary Lee Herrington, a 32-year-old St. Louis native who worked at a white-shoe law firm in London. Two years ago she ditched her job as a fourth-year associate, making $250,000 and working 60-hour weeks, to pursue a new life as a wedding planner. Her experience? She enjoyed organizing galas as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was really creative, it was fun, I loved all the details: the party favors, the programs,” she said.

But soon after starting her one-woman business, Forever & Ever Events, she quickly found it wasn’t a 9-to-5 gig. Working out of the Primrose Hill apartment she shared with her husband, she often found herself glued to the computer past midnight, doing spreadsheet analyses of her new business, or writing copy for her Web site. Whenever a wedding date approached, she found herself pulling 17-hour days.

For her first client, a work colleague of a friend, she was so eager to prove herself that she charged $2,000 for a job that took five months. For another wedding, “the clients were very demanding of my time, so much so that when I broke down the fee by the number of hours, I was making close to £1 an hour,” Ms. Herrington said. (By comparison, her rate as a lawyer was $450 an hour.)

The arithmetic doesn’t account for the loss of free time. When you’re the boss, the workday never really ends.

Charan Sachar, 37, a former software engineer who lives near Seattle, used to spend his downtime perusing Etsy, the D.I.Y. crafts site. He daydreamed of an unfettered life at his kiln, creating Bollywood-inspired teapots and butter dishes.

In January, after 12 years in software, he quit to devote himself full time to his online store, Creative With Clay, which sells stoneware he designs and makes. (Last May, he told his story on Etsy’s “Quit Your Day Job” blog.)

Now, instead of spending his free time absorbed in visions of clay, he spends as much as 70 percent of his day on administration. He is not only his own boss, he is his own accountant, sales director, marketing manager and shipping clerk. That leaves little time to enjoy the hobby he loves.

“There are some days that I don’t make anything in my studio, mostly because I am doing everything else,” he said.

Former white-collar workers are also surprised by the demands of manual labor.

Last year, Jennifer Phelan, 27, left a marketing job at a large law firm to become a private Pilates instructor in Boston. She had envisioned a life of “workouts, getting lots of sleep and blogging every day about health and fitness,” she said. Instead, her classes start as early as 6 a.m. and she feels wiped out by day’s end, which can be 14 hours later.

“I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments,” Ms. Phelan said. “Now, I’m lucky if I get that in a few times a month.”

Matthew Kang, 26, a former commercial bank analyst in Los Angeles, has it worse. Last year, he quit his prestigious job to open Scoops Westside, an ice cream shop in Culver City. “I feel like a janitor sometimes,” he said.

At least janitors have a steady paycheck. Plan B might entail more freedom, but that often comes at the expense of financial security.

After Anne McInnis, 52, was laid off as a textiles design director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, she and her live-in partner, David Zadeh, opened an antiques and jewelry shop in Hudson, N.Y., called 12: Modern Antiquities. As a retailer with no retail experience, she had trouble getting used to the uncertainty. On any given day, there’s no telling if 5 people or 50 will come through the door.

“With the shop, you do all your prep work, buying, merchandising and designing,” she said. “And it is a continuous process. And then you wait. And wait.”

Even when business is steady, the sacrifices are never far from mind. Is being your own boss worth the trade-off in medical benefits, gas allowances and paid vacations? AnnaBelle LaRoque, 28, a former pharmaceutical representative in Columbia, S.C., still wonders. “There have been many times when I have had oatmeal for dinner and Grey Goose for dessert, contemplating these questions,” said Ms. LaRoque, who gave up those perks to start a dress line, LaRoque.

Sometimes, keeping a dream job alive also means getting a second job. Before Ms. Herrington, the wedding planner, landed on her feet, she took a part-time job at the London Business School, coordinating a counseling program, that paid $18 an hour.

“It was a drag, but it was necessary because I had bills to pay and student loan payments every month,” she said.

For some career switchers, the toughest challenges aren’t the financial or physical hazards, but the emotional ones.

The risk of isolation is ever-present without co-workers to lean on. There are no bosses to take the heat in moments of crisis, no team to share the triumphs — or the blame when things go wrong. And as Beth Conroy found out, rejection feels more personal when it’s a one-person shop.

Last April Ms. Conroy, 35, quit public relations to become a licensed acupuncturist, opening a practice in Manhattan. She worries whenever a client doesn’t return. Was the ailment cured? Or “is it something I’ve done,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty if I let it become a reflection of me.”

Self-esteem comes up in another way. Leaving behind white-collar security can mean losing your identity as a breadwinner — a “loss of control,” as Jackie Alpers of Tucson put it.

After being laid off from a luxury spa as its media relations coordinator, Ms. Alpers, 43, started a career as a food photographer for cookbooks and magazines. She loves the creativity, but dreads not knowing about the next gig and possibly failing to keep up her “end of the bargain” in maintaining a household with her husband.

“Women have worked hard for equality,” Ms. Alpers added. “I sometimes felt that I was taking a step backwards.”

For some, the unexpected pitfalls can be so treacherous that they no longer consider Plan B a dream job, but a nightmare. That was the unfortunate lesson for Anne-Laure Vibert, 31, who gave up a marketing job in New York, planning glamorous parties for Audemars Piguet, the watchmaker, to become a chocolatier.

A few years ago, she moved to Paris to apprentice with a master chocolatier. Visions of decadent bonbons swirled in her head. Instead, she felt like a modern-day Lucy in the candy factory, hunched over in a chocolate lab packing chocolates and scrubbing pots. If she wasn’t doing that, she was sweeping floors, wrapping gifts, answering telephones or shipping orders.

After four months, she had had enough and called it quits. Her Plan C? She returned to New York and took a job with her old boss, doing marketing for another luxury brand. “It got very lonely, to be honest,” she said.

THIS is not to say that success is unattainable. Martha Stewart, after all, became Martha Stewart as a Plan B after abandoning a career as a stockbroker. And with the exception of Ms. Vibert, everyone interviewed said that despite the unforeseen bumps, they would not trade their new lives for their old jobs.

“I no longer walk with a slight depressed hunch,” said Ms. Herrington, the wedding planner, who is now enjoying steady work and glowing write-ups in wedding blogs like 100 Layer Cake. Her friends, she added, said they noticed an instant improvement in her appearance, too. “I no longer see chunks of hair falling out due to stress.”

“Before, I never wanted to talk about work, other than to complain,” she added. “Now I like talking about my work so much that my husband has to actually ask me not to talk about it all the time.”

Ms. Economou, the Greek baker, says she feels spiritually transformed. “I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary, and I love it,” she said. “I love being a part of the neighborhood. I didn’t realize how you become friends with your customers.”

And Ms. Alpers, the cookbook photographer, said the hard work and anxiety are starting to pay off, creatively and financially. Lately, she has shot covers for a crime novel and a nonfiction book about ghosts, and took photos for an Angry Birds tie-in cookbook.

“Even though I hate taking on all the responsibility myself and I’m often crazed,” she said, “the moment that I hold a book I’ve completed, it makes up for all the uncertainty of getting there.”

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