SALEM — Two years ago, Andrew Turner had no specific plans to become an entrepreneur. He liked his job in business development at Aerial Spectrum in Burlington and figured he would be there a while.
But the entrepreneurial fire kindled quickly when Turner, 31, was laid off in June 2011, and he decided to create his own job. Now, as a Billerica agent for car buyers, he is among the region’s expanding ranks of young adults who have left the 9-to-5 commuter life and embraced the adventure of running their own companies.
On Jan. 24, Turner welcomed 150 similarly ambitious men and women to a launch party at Salem’s Victoria Station restaurant for Young Entrepreneurs of the North Shore, a new nonprofit with a goal of helping local businesspeople succeed. Turner is president of the organization, but he is as eager to learn as everybody else.
“I knew all the different components of being a strong manager, but when it’s your baby and your business, you really need to understand every little bit and piece of it,” Turner said.
Online marketing was not his strong suit, for example, but Turner is now actively shaping his brand image through social media with help from peers in the group.
With jobs scarce and promotions far from certain, more and more people in the region are starting companies, according to Joe Riley, Eastern Bank’s executive vice president for retail and business banking. Eastern Bank helped start the entrepreneurs group with a $10,000 grant last year to the Enterprise Center at Salem State University as the bank saw growing numbers of young adults building new businesses and seeking financing, Riley said.
“You’re not going to retire and get the gold watch from the factory anymore, or anything close to it,” said Mark Pecukonis, membership associate for the Beverly Chamber of Commerce, which has helped sponsor the entrepreneurs group’s events. “People have to think about what they can do, and if they can align what they like to do, say as a hobby, with something they can make money at.”
As Victoria Station filled up, the diverse crowd reflected how wide the appeal of entrepreneurism has become. Law students, exploring the prospect of starting their own firms, hobnobbed with paralegals who had already hung out their own shingles. An agent for artists, a chiropractor, a communications consultant, a realtor — all made contacts that, they hoped, might bear fruit someday somehow.
In connecting with the entrepreneurs group, which has no membership fees, business owners are tapping into emerging resources both technical and interpersonal. Occasional workshops are expected to focus on practical topics, such as how to craft a solid business plan or become a strong candidate for bank financing. During the past year, the group began to hold networking events in Boston’s northern suburbs as it got off the ground. Regular networking gives entrepreneurs opportunities to meet potential vendors, find new clients, or just socialize, which can be important for those holding down a one-person shop.
“When I started out, I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” said Julia Campbell, a member of the entrepreneurs group’s board and owner of J Campbell Social Marketing, a Beverly consultancy. “I didn’t know anyone who had done this, who had gone off on their own. . . . There are so many things I wish I had known. Hopefully I can pass some wisdom on to someone else someday.”
As Young Entrepreneurs of the North Shore gets rolling, it is attracting businesspeople who see themselves in at least one of two camps: those who need a leg up, and those eager to help rookies succeed. But it turns out that just about everyone belongs in both categories.
Take the youngest member, 20-year-old Medley Long III, who has had a business designing websites since he was 16. Seeing at age 18 that he could make a full-time living, he quit his job as a busboy at Danversport Yacht Club and focused on his company, MedleySites . Working from a home office (not his bedroom, he is quick to add) in his parents’ Beverly Farms home, he jumps at opportunities to network, find clients, and overcome stigmas.
Prospective clients often “expect not to see an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old, so it’s been kind of a challenge,” Long said. “I get [people asking], ‘Are you still in school?’ . . . But you just kind of have to prove yourself.”
Long, however, gives as much as he gets through his entrepreneurs group connections. He is already steering business to more established companies like Campbell’s, which offers social media consulting to some of Long’s website clients.
Terri Lee, principal of the Salem booking agency WECAM, attends the group’s events with the hope of offering helpful tips, because she knows from experience that “it’s hard getting that first client.” But she’s also sowing the seeds of future business. Networking at the Jan. 24 event produced a lead on a restaurant mural painting job for one of her clients, Tobias Allendorph of Salem, whose Tobias Artist business could use a midwinter boost.
In his role as the entrepreneurs group president, Turner offers encouragement to prospective business owners, but he is also all ears when peers have suggestions for him. He had been shy to tout his knowledge online before others in the group urged him to share car-buying tips through Facebook. As he took their advice, readers appreciated learning, for example, that the 2012 Jeep Liberty is now “super cheap” because the model is being discontinued. With help from new friends made through the group, he is building his brand and reputation as an authority.
Since the path to entrepreneurial success follows no fixed formula or corporate ladder, the emergence of a new group offers a welcome support structure to entrepreneurs. Pioneers find they are not blazing trails alone, but are part of a community that wants to see local independents thrive.
As the nascent community takes shape, it seems everyone is both giving and receiving assistance. Jill Gibson, a Swampscott chiropractor, stopped by on Jan. 24 in part to share insights as one who has run a successful business for eight years without any advertising or even as much as website.
Yet she found plenty of company, people who could help her, too, via word-of-mouth buzz about her unusual specialty in healing soft tissues. And with a few new contacts in her address book, she may launch a website after all.
“The hardest thing is just getting the word out there about what I do, how it’s different and why it’s worth it” even if insurance will not pay for it, said Gibson, owner of the ART of Healing. “So here [the group] is a venue to express it a little bit.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@gjmacdonald.