Business founders likely to emerge from meltdown

The bank pulled his line of credit, and he was "shut down overnight … laid off by the bank," Pifer says. The company, backed by Pifer's personal assets, went bankrupt. He lost two homes. At 54, he told his kids they would have to work their way through college and his wife that they were broke, living on unemployment, and moving into an apartment. Six months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"It's easy to get despondent," but Pifer says to keep faith. He's now CEO of Enhanced Telecommunications, a broadband and data software company he founded with an American Express card that he managed to hold onto after going through bankruptcy. Enhanced Telecommunications has 30 employees and $5 million in annual revenue and owes "not a nickel to the bank," Pifer says.

Propulsion engineers Mike Peery and Don Roberts were developing computer programs at Boeing ba when Boeing cut its research budget during the wicked downturn of the early 1980s. The two volunteered for a layoff to start a software engineering firm now named Tecplot, which has had an annual growth rate of 15% since 1985. Tecplot employs 43.

Timing can be everything

The best time to start a business is when everyone else believes it's the worst time, says Julie Northcutt, who was laid off from golf-related Internet start-up Golfserv in 2001 just before the Sept. 11 attacks, then started Chicagoland Caregivers, an agency that provided services to seniors needing home care. She sold the 125-employee company in 2007 and started, a website that matches senior homes to employees.

Everyone else used the economic downturn as an excuse to do nothing, which meant less competition, Northcutt says. "It turned out to be a really good time to start a business. I have always been entrepreneurial, and I just never really had the time, or made the time, to work on my business ideas until I was laid off."

Martin Bodley was laid off from his job as director of new technology in 2003 when Denmark-based headset maker GN Netcom decided to cut costs and consolidate more work in Copenhagen. He co-founded wireless company Revolabs, where he is CEO. It has 42 full-time employees.

"There is life after layoffs," Bodley says. "If it weren't for my layoff, Revolabs would not exist."

"Sometimes we need that extra push when a great idea is upon us, but we're too comfortable to pull the trigger," says George Burke, co-founder of BookSwim, a company that rents books much as Netflix rents movies.

Burke says it was "a breath of fresh air" when he was fired in 2006 as online marketing manager from Sessions Online School of Design. "I'm not sure I would have launched BookSwim without being fired. I probably would have continued to plan and plan some more until the concept got old or until I talked myself out of its feasibility."

People should not feel victimized by pink slips, Bales says. "This is the land of opportunity. In today's environment, you cannot depend on some large company, and certainly not the government, to take care of you."

In 1991, Dan Berman was hired as vice president of an outsourcing call center. Two days after starting his job, he was told that funding had fallen through, and he was asked to work for free for two weeks. That arrangement dragged on for two months. He decided that if he was going to work for free, he might as well work for himself.

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