Baltimore millennials creatively forge their own career path
By By Andrew Zaleski
Jun 17, 2014 | 11:55 AM
Last winter, Rachel Millman began searching for a home in Baltimore. She combed through listings online, but the work of narrowing down her search based on static images became tedious. What if, instead, she could take a video tour through each house, and use a slightly more dynamic medium to decide whether to schedule an in-person tour?
When Millman closed on her new home in Canton this year, having already pitched her idea to a number of receptive real estate agents she had met along the way, she knew this was the right moment. She quit her full-time magazine job of the last two years and, at age 25, founded Reel Estate Media, a company that works with real estate agents in the area to record walk-through videos of houses for sale and video profiles for the agents themselves. As of now, she's the only employee.
"I've been thinking of starting my own company pretty much since I graduated from college," says Millman, who graduated in May 2011 after studying electronic media and film at Towson University. "I thought: 'I'm young. Now's the time,' and I just decided to do it, probably against the better judgment of a lot of people."
While Millman wouldn't have purchased a house if she were paying for it entirely on her own — she and her fiance, a financial services adviser, are moving in together— her decision to forgo the stability of a full-time job with a guaranteed paycheck is one that mirrors a nationwide trend among the millennial generation, the cohort of roughly 73 million Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s who are loosely defined as being between the ages of 18 and 34 today. More millennials are creating their own jobs, either as a response to a continually crummy economy in which they can't find work, or because they would rather be their own bosses and run their own businesses.
A 2011 study by the nonprofit entrepreneurs' support organization Young Entrepreneur Council and Buzz Marketing Group put the percentage of self-employed millennials in the U.S. at 27 percent. Another 2011 study by the Affluence Collaborative, a market research consultancy, estimated that 40 percent started businesses or were planning to.
In Baltimore, a similar mind-set can be observed among the city's millennials who, at slightly more than 163,000 strong, make up the largest age group within the city limits, according to American Community Survey data from 2012. (Baby boomers, those between 50 and 68, number 156,000 in Baltimore.) At incubators such as the Emerging Technology Centers in Highlandtown and Betamore in Federal Hill, a markedly younger crowd toils away on tech startups from behind laptop screens. Walk into Dooby's coffee shop on North Charles Street or Artifact Coffee in Hampden on any given weekday, and a herd of baby-faced digital nomads hunched over keyboards click away while sipping haute caffeinated beverages.
"One of the real strengths about this region now is its appeal to the millennial generation," says Tom Sadowski, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. "It's become a great market in which to start a business, because there's access to capital, mentorship and guidance."
If a survey conducted in May 2013 by research and management firm Millennial Branding and online freelance marketplace oDesk is to be trusted, any urban locale with a growing millennial set will experience an increase in those who identify as self-employed. Appropriately titled "Millennials and the Future of Work," the survey found that nearly 60 percent of millennials worldwide who had been freelancing on the side while working a full-time job quit that job to work for themselves.
"I knew since I was a kid I wanted to work in a startup-like environment," says Messinger, who lives near Hollins Market. "For me it was really just that there was this problem, and I wanted to solve it. I always enjoyed creating stuff. I'm doing what I always wanted to do."
A comparable drive spurred Millman's foray into self-employment. Her mother planted the seed early: She left her job as a company's vice president to start her own business while Millman was in middle school. Concerned about traveling from one company to the next and "hitting a financial ceiling" each time she found new employment, Millman says she was made happier by the prospect of going out on her own. "I don't think I was ever satisfied being in a position where I couldn't grow beyond a certain point," she says.
Millman's concern isn't misplaced. Alicia Sasser Modestino, a senior economist of 10 years with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, says that pay for workers with bachelor's degrees has increased by only 1 percent over the last decade.
"Right now there aren't a lot of jobs out there, but going back to a formal education is very expensive," Modestino says. "It could be very attractive to these millennials to just strike out on their own."
Opinions vary as to why more millennials are going this route. Scanning through the unemployment numbers for young adults in the U.S. provides one clue. Among those between 18 and 29 who are either unemployed or have given up looking for work, the unemployment rate was at 15.4 percent in May, according to libertarian-leaning organization Generation Opportunity. For those between ages 21 and 24 — early college graduates, in other words — the picture isn't much better. According to a May report on young workers from the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, unemployment for that age range is at 8.5 percent; underemployment, defined as those who have given up looking for work or have work but don't receive the on-the-job hours they require, stands at 16.8 percent.
"This is really a problem of a broad-based lack of job opportunities," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, a liberal group that studies and proposes policies to benefit low- and middle-income Americans. "There's going to be a larger swath of millennials who don't get a job regardless of what they do."
Following that logic, one might argue that millennials found their own companies out of necessity, something for which Loyola University Maryland professor Peter Lorenzi has seen anecdotal evidence.
"Students who do businesses on the side in school — it's more desperation than inspiration," says Lorenzi, a professor of management heading into his 20th year at Loyola. "They're strapped for cash. They're not prepared for corporate work, [and] they're not going to get the offer for corporate work. They have to do something to earn a living, and it's an extension of what they've been doing."
Others find success outside their college side projects and despite the pitiful labor market. Sam Henry, a 27-year-old entrepreneur and web developer, toyed with a variety of ideas during his undergraduate years at Morgan State University but managed to find work as a business analyst at technology services company Accenture when he graduated in May 2010. In fall 2010, he and two friends cofounded Given.to (first called NoBadGift), an app that allows people to make piecemeal financial contributions to gifts on a user's wish list.
All three of them, however, continued to work full time, including after Given.to was handed $25,000 for being accepted into a three-month startup accelerator program at the Emerging Technology Centers in winter 2012. (The Abell Foundation provided funding for four startups, including Given.to.) They only quit once their startup was accepted into a second accelerator program in California, which they completed in fall 2012.
"We were kind of on the edge," says Henry, who lives in Mount Washington. "There was some trepidation. We knew we weren't pulling in enough revenue to support ourselves. But we knew we could move a lot faster if we worked on [Given.to] full time."
So what accounts for millennials' adventures into passion-fueled self-employment?
Being young and unencumbered certainly helps, as both Messinger and Millman will attest.
Messinger and his cofounder are both single and have low living expenses, in part because of "the really low cost of living" in Baltimore, he says.
While Millman now shares space with her fiance, their two incomes go mainly toward paying a mortgage, other bills and groceries.
"I think it's definitely a bonus that we're both 25 years old; we don't have children; we're not planning to have children anytime soon," she says. "We don't have crazy financial obligations. What better time than now when I am young and I have minimal obligations, so by the time the business is successful, it will pay for things that come?"
And for young people getting into entrepreneurship, especially those wanting to found a tech startup, timing has never been more opportune, according to Tom Kuegler, co-founder and managing partner of venture capital firm Wasabi Ventures.
The firm's main operations are in Silicon Valley, but Kuegler is a native of Essex, and he spends a good chunk of his time every month visiting with or talking to Baltimore-based startups into which Wasabi has invested money.
"There is more access to early capital than there ever has been in the existence of the U.S.," he says. "You can feel it when you have conversations with people: 'I can raise $250,000 to $750,000.' Twenty years ago that wasn't even remotely possible."
For example, a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing shows that Messinger's startup raised $160,000 for its first round of funding in 2012.
To date, Common Curriculum has raised $420,000, $100,000 of which came from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. TEDCO, as it's commonly known, was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1998 and uses taxpayer dollars to invest in early-stage startups. Even in a down economy, venture capital groups in the area, Kuegler's Wasabi Ventures among them, have money to dole out to start-ups they deem deserving.
The Baltimore Angels — whose members include entrepreneurs like Greg Cangialosi who have pocketed serious cash for selling their startups to bigger companies — made investments totaling $850,000 in eight Baltimore-area startups in 2012.
Lest millennials believe the grass is invariably greener in the moneyed pastures of self-employment, not every entrepreneur will become a 21st-century Rockefeller.
Kuegler notes that many startup ventures — especially those in the tech industry — can and will fail. Henry says that since returning to Baltimore in late 2012, he and his Given.to cofounders have gone back to working full-time jobs.
"It's not a sure thing if you're going to be successful or not," he says.
Not to mention that going out on one's own will inevitably lead to times when one, to appropriate language millennials sometimes invoke, literally can't even.
"I've had days where if one person says no to me, I feel really down," Millman says. "Some days I wake up and think: Why did I do this?"
Messinger compares the arduousness of raising money for Common Curriculum to the laboriousness of first-year teaching.
"You don't realize how hard it is [and] how risky it is. You haven't seen the stories of other people trying and failing," he says. The struggle is indeed real.
But Henry also points out that one failure "doesn't mean you're done as an entrepreneur." He freelances at Jinici, a Baltimore-based Web design and development company. He now works full time as a web developer at an advertising agency.
And if trends continue and patterns converge, it seems likely that millennials will make up a greater percentage of the roughly 16 million Americans who are self-employed.
Those like Millman are at least getting an early start.