Going independent: Free agents across industries find their niche in the …

There’s no such thing as a typical entrepreneur.

People strike out on their own for a variety of reasons — it could be employees starting their own businesses after being laid off, parents who quit their jobs to raise children looking to start up a new, flexible venture out of their home, independent-minded types who feel stifled by corporate culture or people who just want to be their own boss.

But no matter what the reasons, going independent takes guts.

In the volatile world of start-up businesses, the odds can seem daunting at best for prospective entrepreneurs. The best ideas are worthless without proper strategy backing them up, and a carefully crafted business model can collapse if customers aren’t receptive.

Being a successful free agent takes passion, commitment, ingenuity and organization — not to mention start-up capital and no small amount of pure luck.

“When we see people come in our office, there’s a level of excitement and enthusiasm,” said Anne Hlavacka, director of the Small Business Development Center at UW-La Crosse. “They think they have something to offer — a new product, a new service, a different and better way of doing things.”

Post-recession, businesses are still operating with lean staffs to maximize efficiency, Hlavacka said. Companies have trimmed their staffs such that only the most essential and consistent business operations warrant full-time positions and are opting to contract out for seasonal duties or specialized work that’s outside a company’s base wheelhouse.

“Business attitudes have changed,” she said. “They’re trending toward using independent agents rather than doing stuff in-house.”

For those considering a start-up, the first step is to take stock of the resources available locally, experts say. UW-La Crosse and Minnesota State College Southeast Technical both have small business development centers that offer educational support, financial information, marketing tools and business advising for new and existing entrepreneurial ventures.

With all the risk associated with starting a business, it’s important for entrepreneurs to equip themselves with all the tools and resources available, said Mark Thein, a Winona-based consultant with Southeast Tech’s business center.

“A lot of start-ups don’t come to fruition, but some do,” he said. “I wish everybody would call me first.”

The biggest mistake Thein sees is entrepreneurs underestimating just how much money it will take to get started. Setting up a detailed business model with a matching financial plan is the best way to accurately gauge the necessary capital. Lack of experience can be deadly in the volatile world of independent business, so prospective entrepreneurs should familiarize themselves with both the industry and the specific operations required for the business.

It’s a gamble, but many of these small operations have found success here in the Coulee Region.

Finding a niche

Pam Cox-Otto left a high-level marketing position at Western Technical College nearly two decades ago to start her own venture, Interact Communications. She enjoyed the work she did at WTC and loved the organization, but the cyclical nature of the academic calendar became too repetitive.

“If you like that kind of rhythm it can be wonderful, but for me it got to be kind of rinse and repeat,” she said. “My big thing is challenge.”

The key to Interact’s success was that the company found a niche, Cox-Otto said. Technical and community colleges are a traditionally under-served market, and with the experience she had gained through her work at WTC, her educational and research background in marketing to Generation Y and her reputation as an author and lecturer, she was able to leverage her skills into business contacts and connect with clients all over the United States.

“An entrepreneur is somebody who will work 80 hours a week just so they can pick their own schedule,” Cox-Otto said. “There’s an unending excitement to it.”

Freedom to be flexible

Stacy Shapiro worked as the Executive Director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Coulee Region (now known as Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the 7 Rivers Region) for seven years before she quit to focus on raising her own children. But once her boys reached school age, she wanted to get back into business that could benefit the community.

She founded Shapiro Strategies as a means to market her leadership, communication and strategic planning skills and provide values-driven training and consultation services to organizations throughout the state.

“Most times, there’s not a person on-staff doing that kind of work,” she said. “Plus, it’s nice to have an objective person.”

As the president and sole employee, Shapiro has the freedom to make her own schedule and saves money on overhead by working out of coffee shops when she’s not on-site working with clients. Being out and about in the community also helps with networking, she said.

The same is true for Melissa Schultz, a freelance administrative assistant based out of La Crosse. When she started her business back in 1994, working from home was a brand new concept. Schultz, who had been employed at a local law firm before she left to stay home with her children, began picking up freelance work and her business grew from there.

“The environment now might be a little more receptive to non traditional roles,” she said. “I think we’ve seen cases where people have started their own business and are doing well, which proves that you don’t have to be sitting in an office in a corporate building to do good work.”

Following your passion

And there can be no success without passion. For Carol Ebert, a career nurse and community wellness educator who “went independent” about 10 years ago, her passion is helping people get healthy.

Ebert noted a trend among retirement-aged people turning to entrepreneurship to provide crucial income in an era of disappearing pensions and dwindling Social Security funds. Older workers who have reached the top of the pay scale are often the first to go when companies need to cut back.

As a “traditional” health care provider, previous roles were focused on providing her patients and clients with information. But when she went independent, she switched up her focus and took a more hands-on approach. As a wellness coach, she’s seen better health results from her clients than she ever did as a nurse.

“If you’re working in your passion, you’ve got it,” she said.