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Entrepreneurs' quest for job can be tricky

(ran Tampa, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus editions)

Mitchel Harad has launched and run two successful small businesses. Yet his resume deliberately plays down his entrepreneurial background with a vague summary that calls him an "accomplished marketing leader."

So far, this strategy hasn't helped Harad join someone else's payroll for the first time since 1999. "I'm having trouble getting in the door," says the overworked, 32-year-old owner of Bay Area Surplus, a San Francisco company that liquidates excess inventory online.

Many prospective employers doubt that a strong-willed entrepreneur will be able to take orders as a subordinate. They think "you're only going to run off and start another company," Harad says.

Small-business owners "tend to become a disruptive force" when they work for other concerns because "they don't fit well in a group," says Bob McDonald, an Atlanta leadership consultant.

Is there hope for job-hunting entrepreneurs like Harad? Perhaps.

He began his career as a senior financial analyst for J.P. Morgan Chase. He later co-founded a direct-marketing service whose annual revenue reached $4-million before its 2002 sale to Spain's Telefonica, a major telecommunications operator. He also carved out a profitable niche for Bay Area Surplus shortly after he formed the venture in summer 2003.

"I love having my hands in everything, but it's also overwhelming," Harad says. He commenced his job search in June, hoping to head a young company's marketing efforts or run a unit of a mid-sized company. But he has had few interviews and no offers.

When Harad initially tapped his network of friends, investors and venture capitalists, he discovered most could picture him solely as a small-business boss. The CEO of one well-funded start-up curtly responded: "We have lots of chiefs. We need Indians."

Smarter networking might enable Harad to find employers that value entrepreneurship more, career specialists advise. He should ask a wide range of people, including vendors and prior associates, to supply an eight-word description of what job they see him doing next, suggests Diane Darling, chief executive of consultants Effective Networking in Boston. "The challenge is to get them out of the mind-set" of narrowly viewing him as an entrepreneur, she notes.

In turn, Darling says, Harad should offer acquaintances "specific examples of whom he wants to meet" and an articulate explanation of how he would transfer his entrepreneurial talents to a corporate setting.

Harad reports that he's now "networking like a fiend," honing his 30-second "elevator" pitch and pursuing some interim management gigs. He informs contacts he's interested in a variety of management positions, "depending on who the company is."

During job interviews, Harad should tell hiring managers that the best staffers take ownership of their duties and so "there is a need for entrepreneurial people like him," says Scott Love, a management consultant and leadership speaker in Asheville, N.C.

Burnt-out Boston entrepreneur Lauren Mackler effectively switched gears. Four years ago, she left the small executive coaching firm she had created and became a vice president of a State Street Bank subsidiary. "The very factors that I thought might limit my ability to move from entrepreneur to executive were the ones that got me the job," she said.

The unit's leader wanted a nontraditional change agent who could reorganize the training and development department. "He needed an entrepreneur who could approach this task as if starting a new business from the ground up," she says.

Unfortunately, the leader left three months after Mackler arrived. His successor cut spending for her retention-improvement initiatives. Mackler stayed less than a year. She subsequently founded another Boston coaching business.

As for Harad, he might lessen a potential employer's qualms by agreeing to a refundable signing bonus. That's what software start-up founder Aaron Abend did when a suburban Boston management consulting firm hired him in 2000. The veteran entrepreneur promised to return part of his $50,000 signing bonus if he left within two years. He hoped the big consultancy would move into customer relationship management, an area he knew well. But the diversification effort stalled, largely due to a lack of client interest. He resigned in March 2001, repaying half of the initial bonus.

Unlike Harad, who is trying to sell Bay Area Surplus, Abend kept his enterprise going while employed elsewhere. His wife took charge, and the Burlington, Mass., concern achieved record revenue during his absence. He has spurned feelers to become a subordinate again. Viapoint, his latest software product venture, begins operations this fall.

Nevertheless, he thinks Harad's job quest will succeed if he sheds the entrepreneurial habit of wearing multiple hats. Harad should "put a stake in the ground and say, "This is the kind of slot I'm interested in,' " Abend says. That's wiser, he believes, than saying, "I can do everything."

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