Try as they might, not all are cut out to be own boss

It's a tough job market in the valley, with about one in nine adults out of work.

That's got many frustrated job seekers thinking about starting businesses of their own. Why not? If they can put their skills to work and be their own bosses, they can control their destiny.

Such enthusiastic entrepreneurs walk into Kurtis Clark's office every day. He runs the Alliance Small Business Development Center in Modesto, which offers free one-on-one business counseling.

Clark tries not to discourage them, but he dishes out a big dose of reality with his advice.

"One of the greatest fallacies today is that you can become rich running a part-time business," said Clark, who has counseled more than 1,000 entrepreneurs.

"People don't like to hear that it's complicated, and takes a lot of time, hard work and financial risk. They want it to be easy, but there is no secret sauce to make you successful."

That doesn't mean it's not worth it. Small businesses are the backbone of America's economy, and people start them and succeed every day.

But that takes more than just desire.

Clark said many people come in with a "Field of Dreams" attitude: "They think if they can just get the doors open, customers will come."

The reality is that too often, new businesses don't have enough cash reserves to survive. Clark said that for businesses that are poorly

capitalized, "making one mistake can cause the house of cards to crumble."

That's where Clark -- and a host of other business resource agencies -- comes in.

They can help would-be entrepreneurs avoid many common business mistakes, from the start and as they expand.

Best of all, many of these resources are free or cost very little. Unlike "get rich quick" schemes promoted by slick salesmen on late-night TV and elsewhere, the U.S. Small Business Administration and its affiliates offer practical no-strings- attached help for the asking.

Know what mistakes to avoid

"The trick to becoming successful in business is learning where the pitfalls are," said Phil Holland, chairman of the nonprofit My Own Business Inc.

Holland's free online business training Web site, www.MyOwnBusiness.org, is visited by 1 million people annually and is recommended by the SBA.

"The biggest mistake people make is they don't pick the right business to begin with," said Holland, who made his fortune founding the Yum Yum Donut Shops chain. "Personally, I did things the hard way and made some dumb mistakes."

To avoid such mistakes, Holland's 14-unit online course offers step-by-step advice on what people should consider and do before opening any business.

First off, would-be business owners should be honest with themselves about whether they're cut out to be their own bosses.

"It takes an extraordinary amount of commitment," Holland said. "You should have a passion, a real love, for the business you're going into."

Augusta Farley had such a passion when she got into dog training decades ago.

That hobby turned into a business when she started boarding dogs. Eight years ago, she bought a 20-acre boarding facility outside Patterson, named Best Friends Pet Resort and Canine Academy (www.BestFriendsPets.com).

"Business was booming for a while there," said Farley, 60. But to please more clients, she realized she had to convert her outdoor pens to climate-controlled indoor rooms. "In (early) 2007, banks were willing to give me a loan to expand my facility."

Now, as her much-delayed, 50-room facility is almost complete, Farley owes nearly $1 million. The economy, unfortunately, has taken a nose dive and so have her bookings.

"People are not traveling as much, and that's affected my revenues. My expenses have gone up, so it's quite a squeeze," Farley said. "Being in business is not for the faint of heart. ... I don't sleep as well these days, and I've come to the conclusion I may fail."

Luxuries a tough sell in recession

Anyone starting a business during this recession "must be able to satisfy a human need," advised Clark. "If they're going to offer anything that's a luxury or a nonessential product, they should think twice."

Decisions about what business to start must be based on a sound, objective analysis of the current economy and trends, Clark said.

Fortunately for entrepreneurs, such research is offered at no charge by the Business Resource Center, which is part of the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance in Modesto.

Clark said getting such research can help people create a realistic business plan that will improve their chances of success.

Rick Steven wrote his own detailed business plan before he launched his Modesto business in 1999, www.BeerOnTheWall.com. His plan was to use the Internet to sell specialty beers from small breweries to beer lovers across the country.

At the start, he and his girlfriend, Leticia Lopez, did all the work themselves. Steven, 45, said he financed the business by investing $50,000 from the sale of his Bay Area home.

"Neither one of us got a paycheck for the first four years, I think," said Steven, noting how they lived frugally and reinvested all their profits back into the company.

They quickly discovered two things: First, beer becomes very expensive when it has to be shipped cross country; second, 90 percent of their customers were women buying gifts for men.

So they created a second Web site, www.GreatGiftClubs.com, to enable the guys receiving the beers to easily buy flowers and plants for the women in their lives. That led to a third site, www.WineGiftClub.com, then a fourth, www.GiftSpecialistsInc.com.

Combined, they sell more than $1 million a year in products, and employ six people plus extra help during the holiday season. Their biggest clients are companies seeking customized gift baskets.

"If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be selling gift baskets, I wouldn't have believed you," said Steven, who often spends 15 hours a day working at his business or doing research from home. "This is the most rewarding thing I've ever done, but at the same time it's the most stressful thing."

But if he has his way, Steven said, he never again will work for anybody but himself: "It's very fulfilling, and I'm still excited about it every morning."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.