Stanislaus County workers increasingly are going it alone. They're creating one-person companies and depending on their own wits to earn a living.
About 7 percent of the county's adults -- 25,236 residents -- reported income from go-it-alone businesses in 2007, according to tax records accessed by the U.S. Census Bureau. This doesn't include business owners who have employees.
The number has risen steadily this decade.
What hasn't been climbing, however, is how much those entrepreneurs earn. Their average gross income -- before the cost of doing business was deducted -- peaked at $54,274 in 2005. Their incomes declined in 2006 and 2007 about 10 percent, falling to an average of $48,882.
"Right now, it's tough times," said Shannon Phillips, who has been struggling to get his mobile locksmith business off the ground in Modesto. "I actually went into the hole quite a bit last year."
Phillips, 39, has been locksmithing about 19 years, but he's been working for himself only the past couple of years. He's been shocked at how expensive it is to run a business. Example: Just filling up his van's gas tank can cost $140.
"And I could not believe how expensive advertising could be," Phillips said. "It cost something like $300 a month for a small ad in the phone book."
But Phillips said he loves his work and is committed to being self-employed.
Working alone was never Anna Harris' plan.
She earned a master's degree and a credential to be a school counselor. Harris lost her counseling position last year, however, and she hasn't been able to find another. Although she landed a restaurant job, she needed more money than it provided.
"About six months ago, I started my own online business," Harris said. Her site sells handmade and vintage goods. "My shop (www.labellavitaboutique.etsy.com) is picking up momentum and doing quite well."
Harris also sells items at the Turlock flea market and offers bartending services.
"After eight years of undergrad and graduate schooling, I never thought I would be a Jane of this many trades," said Harris, a Turlock resident. "But in today's economy, you have to get creative to make ends meet. I'm 27 and thought at this point in my life I'd be happily working as a school counselor, but ... I get a wonderful sense of self-worth from all of my on-the-side endeavors."
With Stanislaus' unemployment rate topping 16 percent, many laid-off workers are becoming their own bosses.
Finding a niche market
David Truax was deputy director of Modesto's information technology department before his job got axed last month.
"The layoff hurt," Truax said, "but I decided to start a consulting business focusing on a niche market within today's business and government world: dirty secrets and skeletons in information technology."
Truax previously owned a computer shop called InfiNet Systems, but he said the business world is tougher today.
"Business people and decision makers ... are either acting out of pure fear, engaging in paralysis by analysis, or are bucking down for a much bigger storm to come," Truax said. "Right now is the most uncertain, tumultuous and, frankly, bizarre time I have ever been through in IT."
Not every work-alone business is technical or complicated.
Gennipher Shepard-Grinder makes and sells soy candles. The stay-at-home Modesto mom turned her hobby into a work-from-home business.
"I develop the majority of the fragrances myself and sell the candles through parties, in local stores (and) across the country," said Shepard-Grinder, whose company is called Naturally Grace Soy. "It has not been easy and it has not been cheap. I picked a bad time to start a business that could be considered a nonessential to living."
But she said starting a business has been a learning experience.
"I would encourage those interested in going into business themselves to make sure they have the support of their family and enough money to live without placing your family finances in jeopardy," Shepard-Grinder said. She suggests people work for a similar business before starting their own "to see if you really want to put the time and effort into it."
Margaret Gomes worked for herself on the side for years while keeping her job as a school secretary.
"It was because I owned my own business that allowed me to take the early retirement (from the school district in 2007)," said Gomes, who owns a CruiseOne travel franchise in Los Banos. "I love working for myself. When you work for yourself, you work when and where you want to, and it is your choice as to how much you want to make."
But not everyone is cut out to work on his own.
"You should never start a business if you do not have your heart and soul in the business," Gomes warned. "I have seen many put in the money investment but never truly put in the physical investment needed for their business to succeed. ... You have to love what you are doing."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2196.