American Morning

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November 23rd, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Success in Sour Times – You're the boss

By Stephen Samaniego

Ida Petkus may be in the middle of her sixth month on unemployment, but she says she hasn't looked for a job since the summer. She's already got work – a job she created working for herself. "I thought I'd still be working for someone else and working in a company," says Petkus. "I never thought I would be an employer myself."

After being laid off as a domestic violence advocate this past March, Ida started her own domestic violence agency with a little help from Uncle Sam. It’s called the Self Employment Assistance Program, S.E.A. for short, and it trains people receiving unemployment benefits to start and run their own business.

When Ida heard about the program, it seemed like a no-brainer. She had tried looking for a job but had no luck. Petkus says, "There’s just nothing out there to be an advocate in this economy. So I signed up for it, thinking, "Well, I can brush up on my marketing skills, why not?'"

"Small businesses tend to fail," says Michael Glass who is director of New Jersey’s S.E.A. "Often because they don't have a written business plan, a marketing plan, and they're not financially ready to do it, so what we try to do is ease that process," adds Glass. He has been with the program since it started in the state 13 years ago and has seen close to 8,000 businesses created through S.E.A.

Here's how it works: applicants are screened and those who are likely to exhaust their benefits before finding a job are selected. Once in the program they are required to draw up a business plan, create a marketing campaign, and attend 60 hours of classes where seasoned entrepreneurs teach them everything from accounting to workplace regulations.

New Jersey is one of 8 states that offer the program and while interest there has remained steady since the recession began, other states are seeing a dramatic increase. In Oregon, officials say enrollment has jumped 75%.

Ida enrolled in the program in August and within weeks she had her agency, Tree House Haven, up and running. She rented office space in Mount Holly, New Jersey, secured funding through private donors like Verzion and the Philadelphia Flyers, recruited a staff and began counseling domestic abuse victims in person and via her website. "The first month, I probably had 25 hits – 25 people asking for information, now we're up to 80 people," says Petkus.

Ida picked her location, directly across the street from Mt. Holly Superior Court House, so that victims of domestic abuse are able to access her services quickly and conveniently. "Sara" is a victim of domestic violence and while she has a restraining order against her abuser, she was still subject to abuse from him when he would pick up the child they share.

"Sara" needed more help than what was being provided and sought out Ida's services. "She's been a lifesaving resource, absolutely life saving," says "Sara." "I was in a very bad way when Ida came to me and I can sit here and talk about it now with some focus, with some empowerment, with some comfort and with some confidence that I have a plan,” adds “Sara,” I have some resources and I'm gonna make it."

Filed under: Economy • Success in Sour Times
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Jobby Paiva


    November 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  2. Ida Petkus

    Hello. the S.E.A. Program in New Jersey is a great resource. Once you are participating in the program you are advised and required to still search for a job, which I have been doing in addition to starting an agency.

    So, if you are me!

    Unfortunately, this economy has brought bullies out of the closet, in the work place, in the public arena, and in the home, where one should be the safest.

    Addtionally, there are people out there who do not want to see anyone succeed or want to bring someone down.. If you are one of those people, I ask that you examine your own motives.

    Hopefully, this exposure has made a difference and provided a reminder to those who are abusive, in the work place, on the street and especially at home, there is NO EXCUSE FOR ABUSE. period.

    On the inside, I have been exposed to providers (agencies) that do more harm than good. It is my strong belief that Domestic Violence Agencies and single providers should be held accountable for any additional harm to a victim and their own abuse of agency power in providing services to victims. It's important to know, victims who receive services from a domestic violence agency have rights. Victims need to be aware that agencies have a duty to protect victim privacy and an obligation to advocacte to other resources if they cannot provide services for a victim.

    If anyone would like to speak to me directly, please call me at 609.265.9000 anytime.

    Have a peaceful holiday.


    November 25, 2009 at 11:49 am |
  3. cat

    What experience does this woman have with counseling abuse victims. Sounds like she is out of her element and may do more harm than good, what is her degree/experience?

    November 24, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  4. Daniel

    I've been an entrepreur for some time now, and have learned that channeling as much possitive energy as possible toward your goals is as important as a good business plan. In reading this stream, I think its important to note that we need to hear the 1-3% success stories as often as possible, because we all know that there are plenty of nay sayers even within our own family support groups. I would only add to keep the faith, continually experiment, and know that each step is a lesson learned, even if it fails.

    November 24, 2009 at 10:41 am |
  5. CathyD

    @Rob - Amen! We are on the same page! I am starting my own business - the sad thing is, you don't collect unemployment benefits if you're setting up your own business.

    @Nancy, actually James Bemus does not sound bitter at all. He's not discussing the lady's situation. He's discussing the COMPLETELY VALID issue that the segment and this article do not adequately mention the fact that very few states have this program.

    When you think about it, as a nation, we are not geared towards funneling people towards entrepreneurism. Instead, we push everyone to the "cubicle nation" of corporate work. This is particularly true of our state governments doling out unemployment benefits.

    November 23, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
  6. Michael

    Why does the govt work so hard developing programs to encourage people to start small businesses and then tax the business as part of the owner's estate when the owner passes away? Why do the employees' jobs have to be tied to the life/death of the business owner?
    Sure, tax their personal money and possessions, but geez, leave the business alone! We can make small businesses (which employ 80% of the workforce) stronger, if we allow the business to stay alive and continue to pay taxes and employ people.
    Let's consider that!!

    November 23, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  7. Hisham

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for your report about SEA. I m laid off as well since March 2009 but unfortunatly I could not have any opportunity untill now. I apply every where, any where with no success to find a job. So can you help me where I can find this program which can help me start my own business? Is it working as Ida said ? I m in Southern California and I dnt know whether I can find it here or not. If no program here, can I do find it in other state which could work with me? Does this program assist in funding the smalll business untill I start up and then repay it? I m waiting for your repose and if you please send a copy to my email adress. Thanks

    November 23, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  8. Rob

    All states should be required to have these programs as working for someone else has proven it's worth in today's economy. Also, self employment should be presented to the unemployed when they start their benefits, as the most rewarding work experience there is. Afterall, who wants to work for someone that violates many of your rights simply by employing you. Working for corporate america is for the birds.

    November 23, 2009 at 11:10 am |
  9. nancy

    @ James Bemus ~~ you sound a little bitter. Good grief, give her a chance will ya. She just started up this company.

    November 23, 2009 at 9:52 am |
  10. bcathey

    Actually we started reinventing ourselves a couple of years ago.

    As a traditional graphic design firm for over 30 years, we began to see the age of print waning and the first line item in the marketing budget to get cut in tough times. We noticed, however, that people weren't canceling their websites. So, we polished out basic Web skills, and then learned some Web programming languages that enabled us to offer our clients sites that were more than just brochureware. We now have ecommerce customers and sites that allow conference registration, etc. This new direction helped us survive the the last year and put us in a good position to grow in the future.

    November 23, 2009 at 9:24 am |
  11. Mitch Dworkin - Dallas, Texas

    I have a lot of respect for Jason Carroll and I am very happy for Ida Petkus that she was successful in setting up her own business but this story in my opinion really does seem to me to be talking much more about the very rare exception of what happens to older people who get laid off as opposed to the general rule.

    This story reminds me of just about all "set up your own business using our program" and "weight loss" infomercials that are designed to look easy enough for anyone to do but that always use disclaimers in very small print which say something like "these results are not typical" or "that is what this person has done and you should not expect these same results."

    I am 43 years old, I have been laid off for over a year being one of many millions of people who have not been able to find one of the very few rare jobs which are out there, and I have been told by employment agencies that my age makes me unemployable from their standpoint because their companies want younger people who they think they can pay less and who they also think will be less likely to leave when the job market ever gets better.

    Because I am a truly objective, credible, and insightful political analyst with a track record of being right about 99% of the time, I have tried to start a serious business just like how Ida Petkus did by setting up my own political website and by paying for advertising in a prominent political publication (in addition to talking with people I know) and nothing of any substance has happened at all yet. After several months, I have only received a lot of promises from people that were never kept and no serious inquiries.

    That along with other realistic stories I am hearing now is why I think that Ida Petkus probably represents about the 1% to 3% of people who are lucky enough to succeed at starting a serious business while I represent the 97% to 99% of people who tried to do the same thing and were not successful because of how hard that it really is. These same "success" statistics are also true about "set up your own business using our program" and "weight loss" infomercials which is why I used them as accurate analogies to show how hard that it really is to start a serious business when it is made to look easy by one or by very few people who represent the extremely rare exception of being successful.

    Every person who reads this and who has tried to start a serious business can decide for themselves if they think that my point in this comment is correct but I think that it is and that it falls into the category of my 99% track record of being right!

    I do not see myself changing my mind and my analysis of this issue until I get at least a few hits on my website, get at least a few serious inquiries about my business, or see success stories like Ida Petkus happening as the general rule as opposed to the very rare exception which would probably mean that I am doing something wrong!

    Mitch Dworkin
    Dallas, Texas

    November 23, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  12. Lori Mendelsohn Thomas

    I had been downsized before, but for some reason, this time hit me like a ton of bricks.
    Why? Well, the area where we live is not the hotbed of the fashion world, nor the hotbed of anything, in my opinion, other than bars and Friday Night Fish Fry. I was terrified that my opportunities were not only limited, but nonexistent if relocation wasn’t an option. A retail giant, located near my home was hiring, but the idea of working for a mega corporation turned my stomach to mush. I was best suited in smaller companies with entrepreneurial thinkers.
    Once I could get my head around not making a six figure income, and not feeling bad about it (which took a tremendous amount of adjustment), I asked myself “what do I REALLY WANT TO DO.” I have an affinity, a passion, a soul yearning love for four legged creatures. I had volunteered my entire adult life in shelters, and did rescue transport. If possible, heck, why not start a pet sitting business and be around “people” I love? I’ve always like animals more than people, anyway.
    I did just that. I took all of my sales, marketing, people, negotiating and animal skills and packed them into one big bag of gumption. I came up with a name- I can brand, grow, and eventually start satellite offices. I asked people on the street if they needed my services. I became so humble I didn’t recognize myself. I soon saw $15 a walk as a ton of money. I learned to live on less financially, but gained far more emotionally because I’m insanely happy and the pups I take care of show me how important I am to them. I’ll never get licked by a boss, nor appreciated as much. My pet parents love me, trust me, count on me, and need me. I really never felt that in a corporate environment-I felt very replaceable and disposable. I’m growing like gangbusters and now have 3 part timers helping me with my customers. I believe that being downsized placed me where exactly I needed to be, and am the better for it.

    Lori Mendelsohn Thomas

    November 23, 2009 at 8:42 am |
  13. James Bemus

    I found both this online article and the TV segment very misleading. The real story here is not that this program should bring hope to unemployed people wanting to start their own business, but how it is only available to a very few.
    What it comes down to is ONLY eight states offer this program, and you have to fit a certain profile to qualify. If only eight states participate, and you put it forward as such a helpful program, should not the question have been raised about why do the other forty two states not participate?
    The profile itself is based on an inflexible formula, and pretty much rules out anyone with a college degree.
    I live in New York state, which does participate in the program. My college degree is in photography, and I have worked in various digital imaging and photography related jobs. When I was laid off last year, I applied for the SEAP. I was told that because of my college degree I could not qualify.

    November 23, 2009 at 8:18 am |
  14. Alejandra

    I'm a 25 year old with an IT consulting background. I've always had a passion for organizing. I started my professional organizing business called Color-Coded in 2008 during this recession. Using my IT consulting experience, I setup my business with a similar business model. We organize homes and businesses with a team of consultants to bring efficiency and organization to files, closets, desks, pantries, etc. My business is thriving despite the economy and I couldn't be happier in my new role. For more information, check out our site:

    November 23, 2009 at 7:46 am |
  15. D Notree

    I didnt catch the states that have the S.E.A. Program! Could you please send me those states.


    November 23, 2009 at 7:40 am |
  16. Kerry Mitchell

    We established a company, Green Real Estate Education that trains government and real estate sectors in how to implement green living and green marketing into their businesses. Our goal is to cause market transformation by teaching Realtors and Mortgage Professionals on how to establish programs and out reach to the community. In government sessions we train this sector on the how to's in coordinating departments towards sustainability. We focus on water conservation, recycling programs, establishing an energy plan, green building, etc.

    November 23, 2009 at 7:40 am |