Bank teller Paula Clemens had always dreamed of hanging her own shingle and becoming her own boss -- especially in these times of high unemployment and an ailing economy.
"I'm sorry I never opened a business when I was younger," she said yesterday. "No matter what business you work for, there's always a cutback."
The 50-year-old Essex resident was one of the estimated 5,000 dreamers and entrepreneurs who came to the Franchise and Business Opportunities Show at the Convention Center over the weekend.
The show boasted more than 60 companies and distributors recruiting backbone and bucks to spread their businesses into the Baltimore region.
With start-up costs as much as $200,000 to join a national franchise, Ms. Clemens said venturing on her own was out of her league.
But Jace Harris, owner of a Baltimore cleaning company, found what he believed was a potentially lucrative investment at one table: vending machines that sell French-designer pantyhose, to be put in public bathrooms and other places.
A black-and-gold machine with a picture of a pair of seductive long legs caught his attention.
"This seems like a pretty good idea," said Mr. Harris, 24. "My fiance always needs pantyhose. She's constantly making me go to the store to buy pantyhose."
Las Vegas-based T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care) came to look for a handful of investors to plunk down $10,000 to become a part of a 900-number phone dating service. Other companies hawked drinking water systems, pre-employment screening services, popcorn distributorships and cruise line ventures.
Company representatives said they're seeing people from all walks of life -- laid-off executives with big severance checks looking for investments and couples worried about their future in a shaky job market, to name a few.
"Ten years ago, we saw people who were entrepreneurs," said Jim Gaudry of ProVend International, a Canada-based distributing company recruiting people to sell Disney-licensed products. "Now we're seeing a mixed bag."
"The franchise prospect today is more sophisticated, better educated and more financially qualified than the past," said Timothy Britt of the Carvel ice cream and bakery chain. "We've seen that the past two years."
Others included military veterans and people like 60-year-old Jim Guidera, a laid-off employee of a home materials company who lives in Govans. Although Mr. Guidera opened a successful one-man home contracting company two years ago, he's afraid his age will stop him from continuing it. He checked out a $12,000 exterior cleaning venture with Pennsylvania-based GVM Inc.
People who want to start their own company or join a franchise need money -- as little as several hundred to as much as $200,000 for start-up costs alone.
Rhode Island-based Go Fax requires $26,000 to invest in portable fax machines that only accept payment by credit card.
The machines are a big hit in hotels and courthouses, and the only time investment on the entrepreneur's part is a half-hour each month to restock paper, said Kandy Fancher, marketing representative.
Florida-based Doorscopes -- a company hawking peepholes -- requires people to buy $600 worth of products.
"We're in the business of making money off our products," said Jay Murphy, marketing director, showing off half-a-dozen samples behind a table. "The money you put in, you get in return."
But Mr. Gaudry of ProVend noted: "People believe owning your own business is easier than working your job. It's not."