Innovators

From Unemployed to Small-Business Owner

How a New York state program helps out-of-work people start businesses while still collecting unemployment insurance.

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April 10, 2015, 2:58 a.m.

Dani­elle Bliss already had an ink­ling that she wanted to do something dif­fer­ent with her ca­reer when she got laid off on New Year’s Eve in 2010. For the pre­vi­ous five years, she’d been work­ing for a na­tion­al tele­vi­sion sta­tion in New York City, do­ing on-air an­im­a­tion for the sta­tion’s overnight shift. In her spare time, she took let­ter­press-print­ing classes: a nice, cre­at­ive hobby for an art-school gradu­ate.

After Bliss lost her job, she spent about a month look­ing for oth­er full-time gigs closer to her ho­met­own in up­state New York, with no suc­cess. Then, through the loc­al un­em­ploy­ment of­fice, she learned about a New York state pro­gram that al­lows un­em­ployed work­ers to start small busi­nesses while still col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment checks. She thought, Why not? “Maybe this is what I’m sup­posed to do,” she re­mem­bers think­ing. “Maybe this will be the best thing for my fu­ture.”

So in early 2011, Bliss en­rolled in New York’s Self Em­ploy­ment As­sist­ance Pro­gram. Run out of the state Labor De­part­ment, the pro­gram is meant to train people who are likely to ex­haust their un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits on how to be­come small-busi­ness own­ers. The loosely struc­tured pro­gram re­quires its par­ti­cipants to take 20 hours of classes that teach them how to write up busi­ness plans, to track their pro­gress, and to ul­ti­mately launch a busi­ness.

Par­ti­cipants can col­lect un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits for a max­im­um of 26 weeks while they go through the SEAP pro­gram. That’s not a huge amount of time to plow through the lo­gist­ics and bur­eau­cracy as­so­ci­ated with open­ing a small busi­ness, say past par­ti­cipants. Still, it does give people a little bit of a fin­an­cial cush­ion. “It gives you re­sources, money, and the push you need to do it,” says Mina Mar­sow, an­oth­er SEAP gradu­ate and own­er of Pro­spect Gym­nastics in Brook­lyn. “When you’re un­em­ployed, it is so hard to get out of bed in the morn­ing, be­cause you just have all of this time.”

Too much time on one’s hands is not the typ­ic­al ex­per­i­ence of an un­em­ployed per­son en­rolled in SEAP. Bliss, for in­stance, spent her days scram­bling to com­plete the check­list needed to open her let­ter­press-print­ing busi­ness. She took sev­en small-busi­ness classes at a loc­al com­munity col­lege, in­clud­ing mar­ket­ing and ac­count­ing. She worked with a busi­ness coun­selor to draw up a busi­ness plan, ap­plied for a sales-tax-ID num­ber, and found stu­dio space in her hus­band’s uncle’s house for her massive print­ing presses.

She paid for the start-up costs and classes out of her sav­ings, while still col­lect­ing a weekly un­em­ploy­ment check and not hav­ing to look for an­oth­er job. (Typ­ic­ally, un­em­ployed in­di­vidu­als are not al­lowed to both work and draw be­ne­fits.) “The SEAP pro­gram doesn’t hold your hand. They give you a check­list of things you need to do to stay in the pro­gram,” she says. “But it gave me the struc­ture to know where to go.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Mar­sow had a sim­il­ar ex­per­i­ence as a SEAP en­rollee. The Brook­lyn nat­ive lost her hu­man-re­sources man­age­ment job in Oc­to­ber 2013; as a young pro­fes­sion­al, she as­sumed that she would eas­ily find work be­fore her six weeks of sev­er­ance ran out. When she still had not landed a job and found her­self col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, she learned about SEAP.

As Mar­sow star­ted to re­search small-busi­ness op­por­tun­it­ies in her Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood, she real­ized that Flat­bush did not have any gym­nastics gyms. She had be­come in­volved with the sport as a child and even taught at Man­hat­tan’s Chelsea Piers while she was in col­lege. Sud­denly, she had the germ of a busi­ness plan to hoist her­self out of un­em­ploy­ment. On March 3, 2014, Mar­sow opened Pro­spect Gym­nastics to teach tum­bling and gym­nastics to chil­dren and young teen­agers. “I def­in­itely learned from this ex­per­i­ence that I want to be an en­tre­pren­eur and not work for any­body,” she says. “I don’t see my­self go­ing back to be­ing an em­ploy­ee.”

So far, roughly 9,500 New York­ers have gone through SEAP. A re­cent pa­per out of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Hamilton Pro­ject called at­ten­tion to its mer­its. Evid­ence from a sim­il­ar pro­gram in Mas­sachu­setts showed that al­low­ing people to col­lect un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits while open­ing up a small busi­ness “can help the un­em­ployed trans­ition in­to pro­duct­ive un­em­ploy­ment, and can do so cost-ef­fect­ively,” the pa­per says.

Oth­er states, in­clud­ing Delaware, Mis­sis­sippi, New Hamp­shire, Ore­gon, Rhode Is­land, and Ver­mont, have offered these types of pro­grams at dif­fer­ent times, de­pend­ing on the fund­ing. The New York Self Em­ploy­ment As­sist­ance Pro­gram is set to ex­pire in Decem­ber 2015; a spokes­man for the de­part­ment says SEAP has been re­newed five times since it was first im­ple­men­ted roughly 20 years ago.

Bliss counts her­self among the sat­is­fied par­ti­cipants. By June 2011, roughly six months after her lay­off, Bliss had opened her busi­ness: Wish­bone Let­ter­press. She designs everything from wed­ding in­vit­a­tions to greet­ing-card lines, cal­en­dars, coast­ers, and oth­er hand-prin­ted goods, selling her wares on­line, at craft shows, and whole­sale to stores like Urb­an Out­fit­ters. The writer and cre­at­or of the HBO series Girls, Lena Dun­ham, even pos­ted some of Bliss’s note­cards on her In­s­tagram feed — a huge so­cial-me­dia boost for Bliss and her com­pany.

Bliss says that she now has so much work that she’s on the verge of need­ing to hire an em­ploy­ee. “I feel like I am do­ing something that is an ex­ten­sion of me,” she says. “I work all of the time, like 60 to 80 hours a week, but I love what I do. I really don’t mind.”

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