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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

Vegas entrepreneur sees plenty of opportunities

4 May 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's tough being a company man or woman in a listing-company town, especially one taking on as much water as Las Vegas.

Since September, nearly 35,000 Las Vegas workers have lost their jobs.

The recession torpedoed consumer spending and real estate values, which formed the foundation of the modern Las Vegas economy, making it hard for the community's biggest companies to stay afloat, let alone provide economic life preservers for the unemployed.

Using savings, credit, severance package proceeds and their own sweat, some former employees are starting to save themselves by forming their own businesses.

And finding that it can be as rewarding as it is scary.

"Short of waiting on the birth of my children, it was the most nerve-wracking time of my life," says Joe Cannon, 47, of Las Vegas.

Cannon recently invested more than $80,000 of his life savings to launch a Mr. Handyman franchise in the Las Vegas Valley.

Not only is Cannon new to Las Vegas and launching his first business in the toughest economy since the Great Depression, he wasn't even a professional handyman until a few months ago.

He was an out-of-work software professional who had left a lucrative job in Chicago in September to come to Las Vegas only to find a job market as dry as the Mojave desert.

For the first time in his professional life, Cannon was not only unemployed but without prospects.

"I'm a senior technical person, always in super-high demand," says Cannon, whose previous job changes had been at the behest of companies recruiting him for his skills. "It was frustrating, a little spooky. You always hear stories about guys who are too senior for their own good."

After one position at the water district got lopped from the budget just as Cannon was about to be hired, he decided to put the skills he learned as a vice president in charge of more than 100 people and millions of dollars in company money to work for himself.

A franchise-matching firm presented him with opportunities that might fit his personality and, being proficient with tools and maintenance, Cannon jumped at the chance to launch a Mr. Handyman business.

Now he's working out of his home, learning about how to file business-license documents, build inventory, market, and recruit and motivate dedicated, professional technicians.

"The decisions you need to make are amazing," he says. "I used to have a human resources department to handle those things for me."

And for now he's making a lot less money than a corporate vice president.

"We don't go out to dinner nearly as often. We've learned that Wal-Mart shopping is just as good as Abercrombie or Hollister."

Cannon expects the business will be cash-flow positive within six months.

To make sure the business has long-term health, he's only offering technicians who are bonded, insured, pass drug screening and background checks and who adhere to strict customer service standards. Those include removing sunglasses to speak with customers, cleaning up their work space and clearly explaining their work to customers.

He doesn't intend to go back to software.

"This is something I could easily see myself handing down to my son when he gets older," Cannon says. "I'm no longer Joe Cannon the software guru. I think of myself as Joe Cannon Mr. Handyman."

Reggie Burton had been a communications expert with MGM Mirage for 10 years before he was cut loose.

MGM Mirage let him go on Jan. 15. Several weeks later, MGM Mirage cut a position his wife had with the company.

"You pray a lot, you try to stay positive and assure yourselves and each other things will be OK" says Burton of the couple, who have two kids. "But the reality is, you have to get to work."

With prospects in the corporate world bleak, Burton started Reggie Burton Communications.

It is a one-man shop Burton operates from his Henderson home and has two clients. He landed his first client in mid-March and another shortly thereafter.

He holds meetings in a nearby Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The coffee shop not only provides a relaxed meeting environment, it offers free Wi-Fi ,which helps business people save money while maintaining access to online professional tools.

"In this economy, free is good," he says.

The money-saving efforts extend to the Burton home, too.

The family has cut back on dining out, uses a freezer to stock up on good food deals and has cut spending on small conveniences, like car washes.

"In better times we might have been able to buy this and do that, now we are talking about recessions and staycations," Burton says. "It is a different conversation than spring breaks and summers past."

Still, Burton is finding personal and professional rewards in his new situation.

For starters, he gets to concentrate his full attention on his clients, one a nonprofit and the other a for-profit company.

Burton says he's learning that a company that's small and nimble can have its advantages.

He landed one client by returning the client's call first, even though the client had called several other public relations firms before Burton's.

He's also learned some tricks to remind clients and business-to-business partners that although Reggie Burton Communications is small, Reggie Burton the individual spent 10 successful years with what became the biggest privately owned company in Nevada.

"I have to toss in a few 'formerly withs,' " he says.

If the recession is proving anything, it's that even seemingly secure employment, like a university job, can be shaky.

Cathy Hanson of Las Vegas found that out the hard way when she was let go from an adjunct professor job at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"It can happen to anybody," Hanson says. "That's the thing people are suddenly realizing."

Hanson, a television journalist by trade, had worked in politics and corporate communications before landing the professor position at UNLV.

She was let go in 2007 around the time hype for the Nevada caucuses was heating up and got a temporary job hosting "Caucus Countdown," a show on Vegas PBS.

The show ended after the February 2008 Nevada caucuses, and Hanson took some time off in anticipation of another show she thought would start soon on the same channel in the fall.

She lived frugally, stayed with family and was comfortable taking some time away from the rat race.

The economy started to unravel fast and the show she had planned to host was canceled before it started.

"What was scary was when I came back there wasn't a show ready," she says.

It led to an anxious three months for Hanson.

What brought the dry spell to an end was an opportunity that wouldn't have been around in boom times. Vegas PBS decided to launch "Recession Rx," a show aimed at helping people through hard times.

"It is kind of ironic I'm working on a show about unemployment," says Hanson.

The show aims to cut through confusion, and shame, on issues such as bankruptcy, foreclosure and job loss.

It also covers more mundane topics such as how to make sure coupon shopping saves money.

Hanson says her own brushes with unemployment and a frugal lifestyle inform her work on the show.

"I'm not trying to tell you what to do," she says of her voice on the show. "It is us trying to make our way out of this."

She's experienced several unplanned career changes and thinks others in the Las Vegas area can benefit from what she's learned.

"For someone who has had one job for 30 years ... they don't know where to begin," she says. "Every five years I've changed jobs whether I wanted to or not."

Serina Choi of Las Vegas is used to making her own work.

Choi hasn't been an employee for about a decade.

She says working for other people stifled her entrepreneurial instincts and led to some uncomfortable moments on the job.

"I always get fired from my jobs," she says, describing an interaction with an old boss who didn't want to hear her ideas for improving a debt counseling business where she worked.

Choi says she wasn't shy about telling her boss, "just because you give me a paycheck doesn't mean you own me."

She adds, "That's when it started getting crazy."

Since then, Choi has been fending for herself.

Her current venture has her working with a retired gaming control investigator for a consulting business that helps people navigate the process of getting gaming and liquor licenses.

Choi has a few tips for others starting their own businesses.

She suggests people winnow their client pitch to about seven minutes.

A short pitch serves two purposes. It is respectful of others' time and is a good test of a potential client's interest.

"When that time is up, walk away," she says. "Let them say 'no, no, stay a little longer,' that's how you engage a client."

Choi also advises people who are just starting out to keep a constant eye out for clients or potential business opportunities.

"They're everywhere. The grocery store, the gas station, Starbucks," she says. "(Investors) still have money, they still want to do something. They just don't know what to do."