AMERICAN DREAMIN'

AMERICAN DREAMIN'

From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

American Dreamin’

It was more than a decade ago when I got my first taste of the American Dream. While most of my friends were still folding sweaters at the Gap, I was wearing a business suit and reporting to my first job in an office building that looked as big as Disneyland. The monthly salary was handwritten on a Post-it® note. I unfolded the golden slip and revealed a number that would not even cover my mortgage today—I was elated! I nodded my acceptance and reveled in the fact that my days of hourly wages were behind me.

My new, prestigious career began in a customer service center where two dozen robotic agents answered an endless stream of incoming phone calls. The only window looked out into the lobby—or rather the lobby looked in on us. The room was dubbed the “Fish Bowl,” and we were the entertainment for all who entered the building.

The agents were graded on the volume of calls answered and customer satisfaction ratings. I took hundreds of calls each day, typing so fast that sometimes my knuckles cracked without warning. I took pride in my new role and delivered swift, perky service.

Several months later, it was time for a performance review. I anticipated kudos and instead received a cold reprimand from a drill sergeant disguised in designer clothes and flowery perfume. “Nobody could possibly take that many calls in a day,” she said. “You must be doing something wrong.”

Later that day, after raising my hand to request an unscheduled trip to the potty, I considered my predicament. This was Corporate America. It was a real job, and I was making a real monthly salary. I had benefits and paid vacation time and wore pumps to work. I was performing well, yet somehow it wasn’t good enough. I considered the alternatives and quickly realized that if I wanted to keep living the American Dream, I had to suck it up.

My devotion to Corporate America grew in direct proportion to the increases in salary and benefits. The next company I worked for presented me with stock options. I had no idea what they were, but they sounded fantastic! One of the best perks was in the break room: a refrigerator crammed full of bottles of Snapple. Stock options and free Snapple . . . I thought this place was amazing.

The company was thriving and lavished us with logo-covered merchandise. I amassed a collection of coffee mugs, T-shirts, denim shirts, Frisbees, pens, paper clip dishes, CD holders, candy jars, jackets and even a fancy watch. The quarterly meetings were more like celebrations, complete with kegs of beer and platters of shrimp cocktail.

Eventually the flow of free merchandise slowed to a halt. I wondered if there was some sort of delay in shipping and receiving. When the budget cuts were announced, I knew it was inevitable that the free Snapple would disappear, too. I wondered how the entire office would handle the sugar crash as I watched the workers wheel out the prized refrigerator and replace it with a coin-operated soda machine.

Jump forward a few years to a new company, one that gave me stock options that split just a week after I started. By then I knew a thing or two about stocks, and this was a very good sign. They presented me with my own office, complete with a door and void of a window. I set up shop in my big white closet and fell in love with my new prestige and benefits package. It was a great time in the computer industry; the company was growing faster than the desks could be installed to accommodate all the new employees. I was in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and it felt like winning the lottery!

Employee loyalty ran surprisingly deep. The logo-covered merchandise seemed bigger and better here. Some people even wore leather jackets with the company name emblazoned on the lapel. The break rooms were stocked with free bagels, sodas and snacks, and the company meetings were followed with live entertainment, beer, wine and food. Twenty-five-year-old millionaires were born when the stock took off like a bottle rocket, and those of us who arrived on the scene just a little late watched them with envy as they parked their Porsches.

When the dot-com boom busted, the evening news was flooded with stories of corporate demise. I watched my friends lose their jobs faster than Donald Trump could say, “You’re fired!” Some companies didn’t even have the decency to let their employees go with dignity. One news broadcast panned a rainy parking lot full of Silicon Valley workers who arrived to find a handwritten note on the locked front door of a large office building simply stating, “Out of Business.”

I began to question the virtues of the corporate world. Sure, I still had a job. In fact, by then I had a house and a fancy car, thanks to those overinflated stock options. I had a comfortable bank account, a hefty benefits package and a tidy 401(k). But I was also working twelve-hour days, and just before my thirtieth birthday I was diagnosed with an ulcer. That’s when the fog rolled in.

There I was, a loyal worker who wore the company T-shirts to the gym and never took more bagels than I could actually eat. Though I was being rewarded financially for my efforts, I began to wonder how long it would last. How long would it be before another big layoff or corporate merger sent hundreds of us to the unemployment office in our fancy cars? I considered the words of one boss who smirked like a child with too much power and said, “Everyone is replaceable.” It was an epiphany. I was no different from anyone else. We were all as disposable as diapers.

I could go to another company, but for what? The impending doom lay in wait no matter where I went. No job was safe. Corporate America, it turned out, was full of high rollers who took out the little guys like they’re shooting characters in a video game. Nobody cared that these loyal workers had families to support and mortgages to pay. The massacre didn’t even stop in December; pink slips were handed out, and people were sent home to enjoy the holidays without so much as a free turkey as a parting gift.

After more than a year of planning during my precious free time, I quit my job and opened Book Lovers Bookstore in Sacramento, California. My relatives gasped in horror. “But you’re giving up all that money and security,” my father scolded. “No, Dad,” I explained, “I’m finally putting my fate in my own hands.” I thought entrepreneurship had an element of prestige, but most people looked at me as if I had snakes in my hair.

True, entrepreneurship is risky. But so is driving on the highway at rush hour, falling in love or eating anything cooked in oil. The perception is that Corporate America is the safety zone, that if you have a job there, you will be able to pay your mortgage and live the American Dream. Sure, the paychecks are cranked out twice each month from some mystical place called “Payroll,” but that only matters if you’re still on the payroll.

Big companies seem to let employees go whenever the quarterly numbers aren’t up to par, yet corporate waste is infamous. As a small business owner, I would never blow money on beach balls with my company logo or regularly splurge on lavish parties to celebrate the fact that it is Friday. I watch my bottom line and do my best to show appreciation for the people who work for me.

Entrepreneurial life is good. My ulcer doesn’t bother me anymore, and my office has windows—lots of them. Do I miss Corporate America? I did enjoy those free snacks, and for a while I missed the steady paycheck. But when they called and asked me to return, I knew that there weren’t enough stock options on the NASDAQ to lure me back. Why would I do that? I have plenty of Snapple on hand, and the only pink slip I ever have to worry about comes in the form of a phone message. Now that, my friend, is the American Dream.

Stephanie Chandler

EPILOGUE: When Stephanie Chandler decided to quit her software sales job and open a bookstore, her family and friends were concerned. “I love it when someone tells me I can’t do something. It just fuels my fire and makes me want to prove them wrong,” shared a smiling Chandler. Determined to follow her entrepreneurial spirit, she wrote a lengthy business plan and used her personal savings to open Book Lovers Bookstore in Sacramento, California, in November 2003.

Prior to starting her now very successful business, Chandler was frustrated by the fact she still had unanswered questions. “I didn’t know how to locate vendors or trade associations. I didn’t know how to negotiate a lease. I had to figure it all out on my own,” Chandler explained. She was also surprised by the number of people who said to her, “I wish I had the courage to do what you did.”

As a result of these comments, Chandler’s passion became helping other fledgling small-business owners become successful entrepreneurs. She launched a Web site dedicated to providing free business resources—www.BusinessInfoGuide.com —and has written two books: The Business Startup Checklist and Planning Guide: Seize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams! (Aventine Press) and From Entrepreneur to Infopreneur: Make Money with Books, E-books and Information Products (Wiley).

A popular speaker, freelancer, radio show guest and author, Chandler’s Web site has been selected by Writer’s Digest Magazine as one of the top ten sites in the nation for writers. To learn more about Chandler, please visit www.stephaniechandler.com or www.BusinessInfoGuide.com.

Dahlynn McKowen

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