As this issue was going to press, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released employment figures for May 2009. In that one month, the number of unemployed workers in the U.S. rose by 787,000 to a total of 14.5 million.

Chances are you know someone who's recently lost a job. This is a scary and uncertain time. Or, if you're Rich Sloan, it's “a phenomenal time.” Sloan, co-founder of the Web site startupnation.com, thinks a recession is a great time to launch a business. Why? “Widely available technology makes business easier and less expensive, outsourcing makes business possible for people who don't have or don't wish to have a big infrastructure, and social media allows for inexpensive marketing,” he says. And a time of rampant layoffs, he adds, “is a time when people dust off that dream of owning their own business.” We talked to several former financial services company meeting planners who have done just that, asking them to share the good, the bad, and the challenging of making the leap to self-employment.

Kathy Rust, CMP, CTC

LEFT THIS JOB: Vice President, Corporate Meetings & Events, Washington Mutual

TO START THIS JOB: Rust & Associates, Seattle, 2009 www.rustandassoc.com

Target Client: Mid-sized companies with meeting spend over $5M

Target Projects: “My goal is not to do meeting planning. I want to focus on infrastructure, on strategic issues, and on business processes. My role at Washington Mutual was leading a team doing meetings and managing the SMMP: creating the preferred-vendor program, creating consistent policies, leveraging our spend. Companies don't realize what they don't know about what they're spending and who is spending it. They don't understand their liability when non-meeting-professionals are signing contracts. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit if you have the time and energy to find it.”

Why I Made the Switch: “When J.P. Morgan bought Washington Mutual in September 2008, the New York investment firm decided to downsize the West Coast office with the intention of ultimately moving employees east. I was not willing to relocate. I started to look around the Seattle area, and there was not much out there. Many others had been laid off as well, so it was discouraging. I took this as an opportunity to do what I'd always wanted to do — start a business.”

Challenges of a Startup: I need to identify the niche I am going after and refine the services I am able to offer. And once I find that target client, I have to get in the door and ascertain what they need. I have a great capacity for building relationships. But it's a challenge to get to the right people in the right company. I would like to talk to the CFO or procurement head because they are looking at things holistically. It's about risk management, and how all the pieces fit together.”

Staying Connected: I'm a member of the National Business Travel Association and Meeting Professionals International. I go to my monthly chapter meetings and continue to network with colleagues. And I am one of 12 industry professionals on the task force developing a strategic meetings management certification, which will launch at the NBTA convention in August.”

On Being Your Own Boss: “It's exciting and it's scary. I love the idea of having autonomy — of having all the responsibility and all the reward of growing this business. I believe that this is a good time to start a business and that this is a good business to start.”

Steve Clark, CMP

LEFT THIS JOB: Assistant Vice President, Conference & Travel, CUNA Mutual Group

TO START THIS JOB: Stephen Clark & Associates LLC, Chicago, 2003 www.stephenclarkassociates.com

Client Types: insurance and financial services companies

Project Types: training conferences and client programs for up to 500 guests

Having a Plan in Place: “I was planning to do it for many years, and I had saved the startup money. I was very active in Meeting Professionals International. They were always teaching the process of working your way up the chain. I had done that. I reported to the president. All companies, especially financial services companies, struggle with where to place the meeting management function. No matter how much they value you, you've reached your peak. I realized I had many more years of working but had gone as far as I could go at the company. Also, I had no personal life whatsoever!”

Advice: “One mistake I made was that I should have diversified my clients. You don't want to let one client dominate, because you never know what's going to happen. You have to market yourself, and that's not easy. You need to step out of your comfort zone, knock on doors, and sell yourself.”

Staying Connected: “For the past five years I have been on either the board of directors or a committee of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners. I spent 18 years on boards and committees with MPI. I have a good network. In the past few years I have missed the office camaraderie. But you've got to be secure enough in yourself to be able to handle that. And you need to stay involved in the industry. Make sure you belong to meeting planning organizations, keep up the rapport. I also subscribe to e-newsletters, which make it easy to stay on top of things.”

Making the Pitch: “Financial services planners today can sell the value of hiring people who have lost jobs and have them become part of the staff as independent contractors. That way the company can hire someone with a much higher level of experience than they could otherwise afford, and they aren't paying benefits or having to manage an employee. Especially when a company has peaks and valleys in terms of meeting management. In addition, the fee for the independent contractor can be passed through to the meeting owner. The meeting department doesn't have to take on the cost if it is marketed correctly.”

Coming Through the Downturn: “We have seen these cycles in the past but this is without question the scariest of them. As an industry we have struggled to get recognition for corporate meetings, to get a seat at the table. But we still struggle with showing executives the return on investment that meetings bring to the bottom line. And unfortunately, now corporate meetings have reached the cover of every magazine and become the topic of every talk show, but not in a positive light. Luckily people have short memories. But we have to get back to the starting point before we can move forward again.”

On Being Your Own Boss: “This year, the thought of getting a corporate job has crossed my mind multiple times! But I love being self-employed. I have a much-improved quality of life. I sleep! I wake up happy.”

Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP

LEFT THIS JOB: Director, Meetings & Client Events, Fidelity Investments

TO START THIS JOB: RLC Events, Marlborough, Mass., 2007; www.rlcevents.com

Client Types: Large companies in and outside of financial services/insurance, a nonprofit organization

Project Types: Site selection, project management, event specifications, and other consulting

Making the Leap: “Having my own company was always a dream. Once I decided to do it and was in the process of making it happen, there were days where I thought I was crazy. But it would come down to the same conversation: What's the worst that can happen? I can always go back to work. Despite my fears, it felt right. I knew I could do it.”

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Advice: “Get a good accountant — someone you trust. I thought, ‘I'll do it myself.’ But I realized I would never have time to learn to use QuickBooks. My accountant has helped with tracking expenses, deciding what type of business to set up, and has referred me to a great lawyer and insurance agent. You need to balance your time between working in your business and working on your business. This is your passion, but the steady paycheck is no longer there, so you have to stay on top of your invoicing and receivables.”

Staying Connected: “The power of relationships cannot be overstated. All my business has come by word of mouth. I have always been very active in the industry — at Financial & Insurance Conference Planners events, Meeting Professionals International programs, and hospitality partner events. I also reach out to other independents and have collaborated with my peers at times. I believe that we are all here for each other. I keep up with the business press and e-mail newsletters to stay on top of trends. I do a lot of site visits. Your best marketing tool as an independent planner is just being out there.”

Keys to Success: “Make sure it is easy to do business with you. Be on top of your tasks and don't take your clients for granted. No matter how simple or complex, I still get nervous before events and go through my list four times. Also, be open to anything but say no if it's not a good fit. It can be hard to say no, especially in this economy, but you have to follow your gut.”

On Being Your Own Boss: “I'm free to make my own decisions and I have control over my calendar. I can pick and choose the work I enjoy doing. I've gained so much confidence. The biggest reward has been building my personal and professional brand.”

Kelly F. Stratton

LEFT THIS JOB: Director, Meeting & Event Services, NCR

TO START THIS JOB: General Manager/Co-owner, Paragon Events, Bahamas, 2001; followed by President, Stratton Meeting & Event Services, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 2004 www.strattoneventservices.com

Client Types: Association, yacht manufacturer, financial services and insurance companies

Project Types: Planning an annual exposition with 125-plus exhibitors; producing a 1,200-person customer event; providing emergency medical and evacuation travel insurance coverage for groups

Why I Made the Switch: “Making the leap to the Bahamas in 2001 to join Paragon Events was a result of an intense desire to ‘shake it up’ and do something entirely different. Starting and managing a destination management company in the Bahamas met that goal! I thought that I was leaving the corporate world, but really it was just a smaller version of corporate (with smaller budgets). Finally, when I realized that I no longer wanted to worry about pleasing everyone above and below me, I decided to fly solo. The only people I have to please at this point are my clients and myself.”

Big Surprise: “This is the good news/bad news part. The biggest surprise is when you first realize that you are no longer a part of a big organization that is credible and recognizable and has huge budgets! Unless you jump with a client in your pocket, you really do have to start from the bottom all over again. I also realized that it felt much different being a ‘supplier’ rather than a ‘client.’ Actually, it took quite a while to reprogram how to interact at The Motivation Show and other industry gatherings not as a planner of a large corporation but as an owner of a small business.”

Facing Challenges: “Creating a product or service that stood apart from what felt like a million others doing the same thing was the first challenge. But you need to take the time to do the startup work. Someone gave me a marketing workbook that forced me to define my mission, strategy, products, sales goals, audience, etc. I spent a lot of time on this until I was comfortable saying what my company does in 30 seconds or less. Sounds easy but it's not. I also spent months on my logo, stationary, and Web site. It was a serious investment of time and money but it has served me well.”

Staying Connected: “Thanks to the Internet, I actually feel more connected now than when I worked 60 hours a week in my corporate jobs! And I'm making it a priority to get connected. Thanks to social networking sites, it's easier than ever to keep up with peers and clients. I've also begun presenting to meeting planning audiences, which helps me build relationships.”

On Being Your Own Boss: “The reason that I keep doing this is the freedom: the freedom to work my own hours, to be creative, and to know who is accountable when things go right and when things go wrong.”

You've Been Laid Off: Now What?

It's common to feel blindsided and overwhelmed, says Sue Lidstrom, director of sales for the Hyatt Place Hotel in downtown Madison, Wis. Here is Lidstrom's post-layoff to-do list, a version of which originally appeared in Agenda, a publication of the Wisconsin chapter of Meeting Professionals International.

  • File for unemployment right away.
  • Assess your financial situation.
  • Don't feel ashamed; it's not about you!
  • Make a home office to stay organized.
  • Think about your career history: Do you need a change?
  • Leave on good terms — there's always a chance for rehire.
  • Practice your interview skills.
  • Consider consulting or temp work.
  • Save your receipts: Everything you pay for related to your job search is tax deductible.
  • Consult your tax adviser, and if you don't have one, get one!