Nearly 20 years ago, I was laid off from a local aerospace company, which had “downsized” from about 1400 State College employees to about 400 in the span of a year and a half. I counted myself relatively lucky. I was in the last wave of the layoffs, and through the years had published numerous papers, written many proposals, and had developed a bit of a reputation in the field of multi-sensor data fusion, having given a number of 2-day seminars around the county on the topic. In anticipation of the layoff, I had created a self-comforting “plan B” file that I carried with me containing a sequence of steps I would take; a list of potential clients, potential personal cost-savings measures, and thoughts for a small start-up company. The actual layoff came as a relief. As a mid-level manager in the company, I had had the odious duty of laying off a number of long-term employees many of whom had never looked for another job since joining the company years earlier and who were unprepared for the eventuality of a layoff.
The week of the layoff, I gathered my wife and a few friends who had also been laid off, and we started a small company dedicated to technology training and consulting. We created an office in my basement and began the process of selecting and registering a company name, obtaining the services of an attorney, developing a preliminary business plan, and buying some computer equipment and peripherals to create our company “infrastructure”. Without bragging or going into details, I note that we developed and marketed a technical training product, won a Ben Franklin small business grant, bid and won phase I and phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants and became moderately profitable within one year. I subsequently joined The Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory, and left the company in the capable hands of my wife, oldest daughter, and founding colleagues.
During the start up period, we arranged to rent office space in State College and created a “store front”; a physical presence to host visitors and house our minimum development space needs. Despite the modest physical space and limited computer equipment, the costs strained our budget. As I reflect upon that valuable experience, it strikes me that it is both much easier and more challenging to start up a company. The easy part involves the wide availability of resources for entrepreneurship and start-ups. First, one no longer needs a physical “store front” or location. Much business is now conducted electronically via the web. One can literally work out of your living room or dorm room and create a web site using resources such as those from Weebly.com. If a physical presence is actually needed, then services such as cloud virtual office (www.cloudvirutaloffice.com) allow you to have an impressive corporate address, custom answering service, locations for day offices, access to meeting rooms, and formal client reception. Other services include use of local graphic design and printing services (e.g., via Kinkos or Office Max), access to extensive online materials for creating documents (e.g., www.clipart.com), availability of consulting and development support for computer programming and app development, and numerous online resources.
Penn State students, alumni, faculty and staff are fortunate to have access to a wide array of resources ranging from free training, mentoring, access to technical expertise and library resources, specialized courses, access to student organizations (such as Innoblue, Nittany Entrepreneurs, SparkPlug), the ability to participate in numerous events such as our own Startup Week and access to numerous consulting and networking possibilities. In IST we are in the process of developing a special website to make these resources easily accessible via a one-stop-shopping entrepreneurship portal. In addition, this summer, IST will develop a special Innovation Laboratory that provides computer and software facilities to support the development of information technology ideas, concepts and products. These will be featured in future Hall Pass entries.
Our ultimate goal is to provide our students with training, resources and connections to make entrepreneurship (and intrapreneurship) relatively easy. More important, our goal is to inculcate an attitude of self-reliance, creativity, and “can do”. As I learned over 20 years ago, the ultimate job security is “paying your own salary”. This can be accomplished by many different methods; starting your own business, creating your own job and area of expertise within a larger organization, continually expanding your skills and expertise, or becoming known as “the go-to problem solver” within your organization.
The hard part is not the infrastructure or setting up the Store Front, the hard part is developing and maintaining an attitude of self-reliance and continual vigilance.