Second Acts: Recession Success Stories

These rebound success stories are inspiring.

Laughter is the Best Revenge

The Go-Getter: Dan Nainan, 48, marketing engineer turned comedian

Got Started in: New York City

The Goal: To make laughter his business

The Gain: Doubled his salary, learned to trust his instincts

When I was laid off from Intel Corporation in New York almost two years ago, I felt tremendous rejection. I’d been with the company since 1996 and had poured a lot into my technical work. I thought, I guess I’m not good enough now. But I also felt free, maybe even elated. I hadn’t really liked my job very much.

Dan Nainan practiced his jokes relentlessly, promoted himself on the Internet, and performed when he had the chance.

Years earlier, I had taken a comedy class to conquer my fear of public speaking. I had a knack for stand-up. A lot of my material was biographical, as in, “When I applied for the job at Intel, they told me, ‘You’re half Indian, half Japanese? You don’t even have to interview!'” Like many other performers, I seemed shy in person, but after a show, people would say, “Hey, you’re amazing onstage.”

I thought, Okay, I’ll pursue comedy. It’ll pay starvation wages, but I’m not a big spender. I can eat Top Ramen noodles forever. I also had a fairly decent nest egg from all those years in the corporate world.

I composed jokes while riding the subway, walking around, and talking on the phone with buddies. I’d whip out my Treo and jot them down. I practiced relentlessly, promoted myself on the Internet, and performed when I had the chance. My new career took off. To date, I have done stand-up at corporate functions, charity galas, and birthday parties. This year, I’ll have flown 125,000 miles on Delta. I’m a frequent flier, and I get upgraded to first class on every flight.

Recently, I made the surreal sum of $12,500 in one night. I’m making more than double what I made at Intel. I’ll probably pull in about $275,000 this year, not counting the commercial I just shot for a computer company. I also have a role in a movie due out next summer, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and featuring one of the stars of Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel. In the Indian community, I’ve become pretty well known.

In this business, there is no greater thrill than thinking of a joke in the shower that makes you laugh out loud, practicing it for a small audience, and then performing it in a theater of 2,000 people—and bringing the house down. Getting laid off was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Experts say that this is how to prepare for the next recession. 

Living Off the Land

The Go-Getter: Rose Godfrey, 42, speech pathologist and farmer

Got Started in: Marysville, California

The Goal : To return to nature

The Gain : Cut $160 weekly grocery bill by two thirds, forged new bonds with family

I still remember the moment in June 2008 when I looked at my appointments book and thought, Wow. I have only two clients all month. I started my speech pathology practice in 1998 and gradually grew the business to 13 employees in three different offices. But by last year, people weren’t paying for speech therapy the way they had been. For one thing, the insurance companies were tightening their belts, even denying reimbursement retroactively. I cut my own pay by 20 percent because I didn’t want to let anyone on my staff go. My husband, Brian, who had worked in military intelligence for 22 years before staying home with our kids, tried to rejoin the workforce. But there were no jobs in his field. His job had been to process film from spy planes—it’s a very niche profession.

We have 11 children in all, from 25 years to six months, although our oldest four are already on their own. But we couldn’t live on anything less than what we were making. We’ve always been interested in food safety and in teaching the kids where their food comes from. We love fresh vegetables from small farms. I’d raised chickens while growing up in nearby Yuba City. So we wondered, What if we started farming?

We began with two pigs. When a local farmer suggested we get laying hens because there was a market for fresh eggs, our plan came together. Brian built coops with wheels so that we could move our chickens around on fresh grass over our seven acres of land. We acquired more animals. It was scary and stressful. What if no one bought anything?

But people did buy. The local farmer took eggs to sell to his customers, and today he purchases about 20 dozen a week from us. At farmers’ markets in Yuba City, we sell out completely, earning $250 to $500 in a day. I once spent $160 a week on groceries; now I spend just $40 to $50 a week. Next year, the farm should gross about $40,000.

The children help out, which is crucial because our menagerie today includes 270 laying hens and 200 chickens. Sixteen-year-old Alyona waters and feeds the hens. Nine-year-old Bella, seven-year-old Sophia, and six-year-old Olivia milk the dairy goats and put out feed and water.

The speech therapy business is still alive, but I put in less than ten hours a week. I don’t know what the future holds. I do know that on the farm, there is life, there is physically satisfying work, and our family has bonded. Our quality of life is so much better. I spend most of the day with my children, which I’m grateful for, and at night, I have the good feelings that come from working with my hands and doing something positive.

Small is Good

The Go-Getter: Sergio Santos, 40, architect

Got Started in: Delray Beach, Florida

The Goal : To turn a closet into a studio apartment

The Gain : Saved $350 a month, attracted new clients with his ingenuity

I was hard at work on a museum project when the client abruptly canceled it. In January, my boss told me I was no longer needed. I had just $1,000 in savings.

After trolling the Internet for architecture jobs, I landed one interview, but nothing came of it. Finally, I took a job as a waiter. I knew I’d have to find a place to live that cost less than the $500 a month I was paying.

I went to see a bedroom for rent. It was listed for $500, but the landlord said I could have it for $350 if he maintained control of the closet for storage. I told him later, “I don’t want the bedroom, but I’m interested in the closet.” I suggested that I pay $150 a month for it. He thought I was joking.

The closet measures just 5 ½ feet by 14 feet. With my design experience, I was confident I could make it into a great living space. I sketched for three days. I measured old pieces of wood that people donated. It was like putting together a puzzle.

In March, I moved in. It’s a legal rental. The landlord cut out a door so I’d have access to a kitchen and bathroom, which I share with three other tenants. I have a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a storage bin for dry goods. I made a loft for my bed, TV, and DVD player. My clothes hang on a metal rod.

I don’t really get claustrophobic. I’ve learned to be comfortable in small places. If I keep the window open, I can just about see over the terrace and into the street. Next to my window is a bench—I call it my veranda. I’ve entertained as many as 11 people at my place. I can seat seven.

On my website, I’ve posted pictures of my new home, and that’s brought in some freelance design work. A few more jobs and I’ll be able to afford a new place. That’s definitely a good thing: My girlfriend, Susan, and I are engaged, and once we’re married, next March, I’m sure I’ll leave my little closet behind.

But now I know that I don’t need much to live well.

The Road Less Traveled

The Go-Getter: Wendi Ezgur, 42, corporate consultant

Got Started in: Highland Park, Illinois

The Goal : To lighten up

The Gain: Saved $1,200 a month in expenses, taught the kids about pulling together

My husband, Michael, an attorney and a co-owner of a real estate development company, came home from work one day and said, “It’s not looking good.” In the middle of the night, I’d wake up and see him sitting in a chair, with his hand on his forehead. I was worried. I wanted to cheer him up and help us financially.

I’ve been a corporate consultant for years, brainstorming ideas for top companies such as Campbell’s and Mars. I also teach creative thinking at the college level. I thought, What if we embarked on an adventure and monetized it? As a family, we’d always talked about traveling more, but we’d been tied to routines. Now I saw no point in sitting around worrying when we could see the country. We’d take our kids, Aidan, 11, Charlie, 8, and Rosie, 6, out of school and teach them on the road. It was the perfect time, before they reached high school. We’d rent out our house.

I pitched this to Michael: “What if we took a road trip in an RV?” He resisted at first but realized that with his BlackBerry, cell phone, and computer, he could work anywhere.

We listed our house for rent and got a great deal on an RV (no payments for six months). Wearing my idea consultant’s hat, I created a brand strategy, logo, and website for us—familyofftrack.com—and secured five major sponsors, including Geico and Encore campgrounds. Their ads on our site would help defray travel costs, and we’d promote their brands in campgrounds on our trip in exchange for their support. Plus, in the RV, we wouldn’t spend money on things like dry cleaning and baseball league fees.

We never rented the house, which cost us thousands, but with our minds made up, we took off on April 3. Our first stop: Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln. In the Whispering Gallery at the presidential library and museum, Aidan was blown away by political cartoons of the day that criticized Lincoln for his stance on slavery. I thought, Already we’ve embedded learning in our trip.

All spring and summer, we visited national landmarks and treasured lands. In the South, we drove along the Natchez Trace, the 444-mile parkway lined with Civil War history. At Bandelier National Monument, in New Mexico, we climbed ladders up to the ancient cliff dwellings of Native Americans and down to their sacred communal prayer pits. And we took swims in Oregon’s sparkling rivers. We kept a video blog; Aidan added the music. Rosie made a slide show of photos, while Charlie put receipts in a folder.

By the end of August, we were ready to return home. Michael’s company continued to slide and now may have to file for bankruptcy. But he and I spent so much time planning that we’re now going to make the RV a permanent part of our lives and reap the rewards: This winter, we hope to make a southeastern run, and next summer, we’ll be on the road again. With a Chicago-based production company, I’m developing the Family Off Track brand by creating videos, educational programs, and exhibits. And Michael has new ideas for commercial leasing and management businesses. It’s great to see the spark in his eyes again.

I’ve always felt that my husband and I make a great team. Now I feel it even more. Together we taught our kids a lesson: Nobody ever made history by living 100 percent by the book.

Life-Changing Advice

Experts say many of us will hold 12 different jobs in our lives, by choice or because of seismic changes in the economy. Get your financial house in order so you’ll be ready. And seek advice from those who’ve successfully managed transitions, like these three:

“Ask yourself, What are my strengths, my passions? Where do they meet?”

—Dan Ogden, 41, sales associate with Guitar Center in New York City

“After 15 years as a headhunter in the financial services industry, I was laid off last December. I began playing the guitar again, something I’ve loved for 25 years.

I thought about a music career, but how many pop stars break into the business at my age? One day, I walked past a guitar shop. I thought of merging my passion for music with my sales background. I went in and was hired as a sales associate. I had to adjust my financial expectations, as I was now making an hourly wage plus commission. But moving in with my fiancée helped. Last month, I ranked 15th out of a 90-person sales team in our New York City store—the nation’s biggest.”

“When others say your goal is too risky, rise above the negativity.”

—Claire Cook, 54, novelist in Scituate, Massachusetts, whose latest book is The Wildwater Walking Club (Hyperion/Voice)

“Those who care about you will often try to ‘protect’ you. They’ll say your dream is too different, too scary. But I say, network, use the Internet, and go for it. While juggling three teaching jobs and raising my two kids, it hit me one day that I might live my whole life without doing what I really wanted to do, which was to write a novel. Life’s obligations had overshadowed my dreams. It was my midlife wake-up call. So, during my daughter’s early-morning swim practices, I began writing a novel on a legal pad in my minivan. When I got home, I typed it up. That first book sold to a tiny publisher. With my second book, I landed a contract worth more than 15 times my teacher’s income. Since then, I’ve supported myself full-time as a writer, and the 2005 movie based on my novel Must Love Dogs has put my two children through college. I’m so glad I went for it.”

“Consider your key skills and how they’re transferable to a new job.”

—Katie Wharton, 31, wildland firefighter in Long Barn, California, formerly with Merrill Lynch in New York City

“People will rule out new career choices, thinking they’re unqualified for them. But with the teamwork and communication skills I used in corporate America, I joined a helicopter crew of 18 firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s temporary, while I look for work in finance, but it’s highly satisfying. Being outdoors in natural settings is inspiring. And as always, tenacity and hard work are crucial.”

With reporting by J. Alex Tarquinio

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Adam Piore
Adam Piore is an award-winning journalist and book author based in New York. A former editor and correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, his narrative features have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, Discover Magazine, Mother Jones, Playboy, Scientific American, the Atavist, BusinessWeek and many others.