Companies continued to take off during the recession


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One day in late 2008, Joe Serkoch was pulled into a "training" meeting at his job in television advertising. He and several colleagues were handed severance papers and told their jobs would be eliminated in two months.

Mr. Serkoch called his real estate agent and pulled the papers that he and his wife had signed earlier that day on a new house.

It was the kind of day that could drive a person crazy -- so Mr. Serkoch did something crazy. On that same day in late 2008, he decided to join others and start a new company in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Mr. Serkoch joined two other newly terminated colleagues around a breakfast table and listened as his wife, a graphic designer, pitched the idea of starting a company together.

Since then, Mr. Serkoch's media company, Orionvega, has moved out of the offices they'd set up in their apartment and settled into West End office space and hired a full-time employee.

Not bad for a company built because of bad news.

As unemployment swelled during the market drops of 2008 and 2009, many workers found themselves updating resumes in a climate that didn't seem welcoming to new applicants. So instead of playing the interview game, local entrepreneurs started their own companies.

Credit may tighten up during a downturn, but overhead costs can be cheaper when building a firm in a recession. And perhaps the greatest perk of being your own boss is the fact that only you can fire yourself.

In the nine years since he had graduated from college, Mr. Serkoch had been laid off twice and had to navigate unemployment benefits too many times.

"If I was to go and find another job, in a few years I could be facing the same thing," he said. Considering his salary at Orionvega is now comparable to his previous job, it doesn't appear that'll happen anytime soon.

GrayBridge Software was founded on June 30, 2009, (the Dow hit 8,447 that day), also by workers who'd found themselves unemployed. When the Ericsson high-tech plant in Marshall closed in November 2008, three employees there decided to continue pursuing research and to spin off into GrayBridge.

They joined forces with Fred Gohh, a consultant in Franklin Park, and developed Assurity, software that allows firms to better plot out timelines for software projects. They've since hired one employee and, while the unofficial headquarters is Mr. Gohh's house, the co-founders usually conduct meetings in a coffee shop.

The Assurity software is in beta form and will start charging for the next iteration, set to release this June.

Generally, the next step for any early-stage tech firm would be approaching venture capitalists about securing funds but Mr. Gohh said the downturn had constricted the market.

"The venture community is slightly different than two years ago," he said. "Now they've been saying they need to see paying customers before they start considering you."

Other new entrepreneurs have volunteered to leave the corporate world and try things on their own.

Linda D'Angelo resigned from a position at PNC Bank in late 2008 to start Advanced Administrative Services LLC, a training and business development consultancy based out of her home in Scott.

Ms. D'Angelo's years in information technology work led her to tailor her services to that sector, specifically small business and early-stage companies that need assistance in tasks like data entry or training programs.

The company officially incorporated on Dec. 1, 2008, (Dow at 8,149). Advanced Administrative Services now employs three workers on an as-needed basis, and has a portfolio that counts 15 clients.

"I enjoy being in business with myself; I love wearing all of the hats," she said. She also has taken on annual service projects, something she couldn't pursue in the corporate world. Last year, her company donated music-therapy technology to the Bradley Center, a residential facility for children in McKees Rocks.

Since she had been planning to go into work with herself for a while, Ms. D'Angelo self-financed the new company and said she would pursue a loan only if cash flow issues arise.

If possible, self-financing a new company in tough economic times can be the easiest route, since banks are reluctant to lend in a credit crunch, said Christine Hughes, the training manager at the Duquesne Small Business Development Center.

"You have to have good credit, and banks are still looking at that," she said. "But banks want to see business plans now, too."

Attendance at the organization's training workshops has stayed steady throughout the recession, she said, with 60 people registered for the latest session.

Even though loans may be harder to come by, Ms. Hughes said a recession-born business could take advantage of lower costs elsewhere. For example, businesses may be able to purchase or rent office space at a lower rate.

Other times, new businesses will form to cater to companies looking to cut costs in a recession, such as a virtual assistant program that offers an option to hiring a full-time worker, she said.

"Businesses are looking at their expenses, large or small, and that's an opportunity for a new business to come in and offer a better rate," she said.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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