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Entrepreneurs build around need for personal services

ATLANTA — You can hire Sara Fisher to straighten your room and Amber Leigh Salisbury to straighten out your love life. You can call Deneane Maldonado when your child needs minding and Dennis Freeman when you want to improve your child's mind. Of course, you could also do all those things yourself. But if you hire someone, you can save time, avoid stress, make your life less cluttered — and maybe even better.

By the way, you'll also be fanning a series of small, glowing embers amid the ashes of the job market. Many American families are juggling an array of tasks every day. And they are increasingly hiring people and companies to do what they can't do — or don't want to.

"I am sure that the market is growing," said Freeman, owner of In-Home Tutors Atlanta, which sends tutors to client homes. "On a good week, I pay about 100 tutors, who are working with maybe 150 students. People have a lot on their plates."

The trend accelerated after the recession, starting in late 2007, cast millions of workers into unemployment. The lackluster recovery beginning in 2009 has not created enough jobs to pull all those people back onto payrolls.

The result has been a huge supply of potential entrepreneurs. Many of them have started offering services — from dog-walker to rent-a-friend.

Sue Cleere, for example, started She's Wired LLC after being laid off by WebMD in late 2008, just as the economy was falling off a cliff. She installs technology, fixes problems and teaches her clients how to get the most out of their devices.

"They are not necessarily tech people, but they want the latest technology," she said. "They are always looking for the next thing."

Right now, Cleere said, she has enough business to consider taking on an employee or even franchising what she does in different cities.

Many of her clients are themselves entrepreneurs who are running small businesses.

The trend extends through all sorts of personal needs, according to sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of a new book, The Outsourced Self.

"Every stage of life has its corresponding market service," she wrote. "I interviewed love coaches and wedding planners, birth surrogates and parenting counselors, paid friends and mourners-for-hire."

Hochschild discounts narrow economic explanations. The trend, she argued in a recent email, has been caused by a conjunction of factors: growth in the two-job family, decline of community services and rising demand as more for-profit businesses get contracts to run public institutions like prisons, schools and parks.

"What comes out as an economic 'demand' is a result, I'd argue, of a modern-day 'perfect storm,' " she said. "So if we're privatizing public life, the thinking is, why not privatize private life?"

Are these "outsourced" services just marginal jobs at the edge of the economy that will never amount to much?

E.J. Reedy, a research fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship, predicted that some will be able to "scale," or expand to provide the same services to more customers by hiring more employees.

Some services have already made the jump to a larger scale, creating many jobs. Nanny Poppinz Inc., a project that Maldonado started two decades ago when she was a stay-at-home mother, now has more than 3,000 nannies placed in metro Atlanta.

A database with tens of thousands of names lets the company find nannies who fit client requests, she said.

"This is designed to be like Match.com, a kind of matchmaking set-up. I am the headhunter," Maldonado said.

And while a typical nanny-hiring family may be more affluent than a drop-them-off-at-church-day-care household, most are working parents, she said. "They are just stressed and stretched beyond their limits, and they need an extra set of hands."

The client pays a $40 fee to Nanny Poppinz, then pays the nanny $12 an hour for one child, $1 an hour more for each additional child. Her nannies average 32 months on each job and make between $28,000 and $38,000 a year, Maldonado said.

Some entrepreneurs are satisfied — at least for now — with cobbled-together, "outsourced" jobs that maximize flexibility, even if they don't pay that well.

Renita Poole of Decatur, Ga., works between 20 and 40 hours a week for her one-woman company, Extra Pair of Hands. She charges about $15 an hour to run errands: to the grocer, to the cleaners, to the post office. "A lot of people don't like to do that kind of thing," she said.

She doesn't mind the errands or the irregular schedule.

"It's just enough income for me," Poole said. "I love not being in corporate America. Life is about reinventing yourself."

Ultimately, entrepreneurial services depend on demand, and much of that demand comes from people with the most disposable income.

Executives and hard-charging business people are the bulk of her clients in counseling, said Salisbury of Atlanta, who counsels, guides and talks with people about their relationships.

Calling herself "the love coach," Salisbury said her clients can afford sessions that start at $250, and they are willing to spend the money because they are impatient about results, she said.

"I am very driven by results, and my clients are driven by results," she said. "Also they don't have a lot of time. They want to cut out the 'struggling through to answers.' These are definitely people who know the value of bringing in a specialist."

But it can be more than a question of time or expertise. There is a psychological flavor to the demands of some customers, said Fisher, owner of A Simple Space, which offers organizing and cleaning, as well as "decluttering and purging."

Eight years of running the company has convinced her that some people just have trouble doing some chores.

"My four or five biggest clients are housewives, people who are overwhelmed," Fisher said. "They are losing their mind — not to mention a lot of other things in the house."

She thinks it applies to everyone — including herself.

"It's when an individual realizes they do not like a certain task or they don't feel qualified," Fisher said. "I'm not a fan of working out, so I hire a trainer."

Entrepreneurs build around need for personal services 07/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2012 5:30am]

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