Starting Over

Photography by Gene Pollux By Jay Roland December 31, 2008

Thinking of changing your profession in these turbulent times? We talked to four locals who made the leap, leaving the comfort of a known work environment for one that promised change and challenge.

From Penske to Paint

Jack Falter was a successful regional sales manager for vehicle leasing at global transportation firm Penske, earning a six-figure income and managing 13 sales representatives throughout the Midwest. But he was on the road three or four nights a week while his three children were saying their first words, taking their first steps and otherwise growing up back at home. Having completed a two-year corporate training program with Penske parent company General Electric, Falter was facing an out-of-state job relocation and more time away from his wife and kids.

“I always had the idea to own my own business,” he says. So six years ago, Falter, then 36, moved to Sarasota where he had family and bought a CertaPro Painters franchise.

Falter says that buying a franchise, rather than starting a business from scratch, can be a great option for someone looking to be his or her own boss. Falter found CertaPro Painters a comfortable fit that left him plenty of options to shape things the way he wanted. He liked the company’s call center service and accounting software, but he opted to do his own advertising to push the idea that the operation was run by a local small businessman.

“I was impressed with their support,” he recalls. “I could basically make it my business. I could pick and choose what I wanted to use from the franchise.  A franchise can help you ease into a new business and learn about the industry.”

Falter says it cost about $100,000 to get the franchise up and running, a sum he assembled using his own savings, a little equity in his home and some private loans.

And while being your own boss has its challenges—Falter has gone through more than 100 painters to find the dependable and talented 14 he has with him now—he’s been able to coach his kids in sports and be home for dinner.

“It’s a scary jump to make financially, but it’s come around nicely,” Falter says, adding that it would have been easy to overthink the process and never make that leap. “You have to be somewhat impulsive. You have to be willing to make the jump with the idea that failure is not an option.”

Biggest Challenge: “Leaving the safety net of the salary, company car, 401K, health insurance for the family—all of that.”

Planning time: About a year and a half to the day from when Falter started looking for a business, he started Sarasota’s CertaPro Painters.

Biggest Rewards: “I know we’re the best at what we do, and our employees are polite and professional. And I get to coach my kids and be home every night. That’s the biggest payoff.”

Playing Matchmaker


Ever wondered where to find a reliable plumber, a tutor for your child, or someone to trim that out-of-control oak tree? Soon, those service providers will be a click away, thanks to the creation of, a Sarasota-based Web site that connects consumers with the services—and, most importantly, candid reviews of the businesses that provide them.

It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. But if you had asked founder Brian Ehrlich, 32, about possible career shifts few years ago, it’s not likely that entrepreneur would have been at the top of his list. As a former management consultant for Deloitte and then vice president of his father’s large commercial carpet cleaning business—one that stretched from Naples to Sarasota—Ehrlich knew that for this idea to work, he would need a detailed and well-thought-out business plan, lots of patience and savings to live on during the start-up phase. Two years after leaving his six-figure job with the carpet business, he is still pouring his savings in and not earning an income.

Changes in the real estate market had left their carpet-cleaning business on shaky ground. Apartment complexes that had been high-paying customers were being converted to condos a couple of years ago, meaning a significant loss of business for Ehrlich’s company. So Brian and his father started exploring the idea of creating a virtual word-of-mouth network where consumers could share their experiences with a particular provider and businesses could showcase their work. Providers will pay a yearly fee to be included on the site and then a small fee each time they respond to a customer’s inquiry.

Looking back on the months it took to get the site up and running, Ehrlich would be the first to urge anyone looking to start a company to understand early on that it’s going to take a full-time effort.

 “We’re where we wanted to be nine or 10 months ago,” he says. “We knew we were going to have to live on savings.”

And it takes a willingness to find the right employees. Lacking Web experience, Ehrlich and his father Ted have gone through several employees before they found the right team. And like any smart entrepreneurs, they relied on experts—in this case Web designers and other techies—willing to share their knowledge and help to at least minimize the unavoidable stops and starts that come with building a business from scratch. Ehrlich says he found most of those valuable mentors and advisors simply by networking around town and letting it be known to friends and acquaintances that he was looking for Web help.

“In learning anything, you’re going to make mistakes,” Ehrlich says. “Our goal is to just not make the mistake that kills us. Based on the response we’re getting, we know there’s a market. It’s a huge time reducer for people and we have a firm belief that this will work.”

Biggest challenge: “The learning curve of a whole new industry. I had never really done anything in the tech field.”

Planning time: "It was a two-year process from when we first started to consider some possibilities to finally launching the site.”

Biggest rewards: The idea that this could change the way people do business locally, and perhaps nationally or internationally. “We hope it's going to be the matchmaking service for getting stuff done,” Ehrlich says. And it’s still rewarding to work with family. “We've butted heads occasionally, but we know that when push comes to shove, we’re working toward the same goal and we have each other’s back.”

The Write Stuff

The need for a career—no, a life change—struck Nancy Wollin at 35,000 feet in the first-class cabin of a 747 bound for Hong Kong. An international trade attorney and partner in a global law firm, Wollin had an enviable jet-set lifestyle with a nice income, but after almost 25 years practicing law, Wollin couldn’t ignore her real calling any longer. The University of Florida journalism graduate had novels and magazine articles yearning to live on the page.

And then a dear friend died of cancer at age 47, and Wollin found herself re-evaluating everything. “You have to live your life deliberately and with passion,” Wollin says. “I am passionate about writing. I miss the lifestyle of being an international attorney; I’m not going to lie to you. But this was definitely the right decision. I had a plan.”

Wollin, who managed the firm’s Atlanta office, bought a second home in Sarasota and visited here frequently, in large part to look in on her ailing grandmother. Her first step was to move from Atlanta and become the law firm’s marketing vice president, a job that required far less travel and allowed her to telecommute to the firm’s Miami headquarters. Her 60-hour weeks became a part-time arrangement, and last year she left the firm completely to devote herself to freelance writing. She now regularly contributes to regional and national business publications (including Biz941) and general interest magazines, and offers freelance public relations and marketing assistance to area businesses.

Phasing out of one career and into another made the transition less jarring. It also allowed Wollin to see clearly just how such a move would improve her outlook. She took note, for example, that while her globe-trotting lawyer lifestyle allowed for luxurious spa retreats, it was the job stress that was driving her to seek such high-priced relaxation in the first place. While her income today is a fraction of what she used to make, “I don’t have that stress level in my life, so I don’t need it anymore,” she says. “The fact is, now I’m doing something I really love, and it’s fun.”

Biggest challenge: Learning to live on less.

Planning time: “I kept writing off and on for my entire legal career. Once I decided to make the switch, I just did it.”

Change in income: “I took a 66 percent pay cut.”

Biggest rewards: “I get up every morning looking forward to my day.”

The Family Business

Damon Goulet, 30, likes working with his brothers at Vision Horticulture in Nokomis. But truth be told, he really liked his life in Miami.

He had transitioned smoothly from the University of Miami into a sweet gig running the local office for Ford Models and working with other Ford Models offices around the country. He was living a glamorous life on South Beach until Ford wanted to transfer him to New York City. He didn’t have to ponder the decision for long.

“I had a beautiful apartment and a beautiful girlfriend in South Beach,” Goulet says. “It seemed like a no-brainer.” But while he liked New York as a place to visit, he didn’t want to live there.

After parting ways with Ford, Goulet bounced around, trying to maintain his previous lifestyle and looking for the next great opportunity. During that time, real estate was still hot and he found himself setting up landscaping jobs in Miami for his brother John and his Nokomis-based horticulture business. Finally, in October 2007, Goulet packed up and moved back to Sarasota County, where he had grown up, to help his brother grow the business. “I didn’t have a plan,” Goulet says of his gradual career shift. “It was something that just kept happening.”

With John handling the horticulture aspect, Goulet tackles most of the business and sales work. Another brother, Aaron, who had done lighting and audio work in the theater business, was also working at Vision Horticulture, handling the ornamental lighting and electrical work for the family’s landscape designs. Vision Horticulture does residential and commercial landscaping up and down the West Coast and elsewhere in Florida. An ornamental palm tree farm is also in the planning stages to provide trees for projects well down the road.          

Since making the transition, Goulet says he’s learned to appreciate working with family. “It can be a challenge, but at the end of the day, you’re working for the same goal,” he says.

Goulet says he’s especially mindful that these endless days, as the three brothers pour everything they have into the business, won’t last forever. He’s trying to appreciate the rare opportunity to build a successful long-term business with his brothers.

“Where we are in our lives is pretty unique,” Goulet says. “It’s going to change when we pair off and start families. When I started at Ford, it was very much a family-run business and then it started to become much more corporate. I like it better the other way.” 

In Goulet’s case, it was the relocation from Miami back to Sarasota County that was the most troubling, because of the West Coast’s older and slower pace and because he had to say goodbye to friends and a lifestyle he wasn’t quite ready to relinquish. But he urges anyone pondering a career shift to not let geography and the logistics of packing up and moving get in the way of what could be a lucrative opportunity. He compares the move to skydiving

“The hardest part is stepping out of the plane,” he says.

Biggest challenge: “The most agonizing thing was the actual move from a place I really liked.”

Planning time: About a year between helping the family business get work in Miami and moving back to Sarasota County to work full time with his brothers.

Biggest reward: The security of having a job and the enjoyment of working with family. “In the corporate world, things can be predatory even within your own company. There’s a level of comfort here. I mean, you can’t fire your own brother.” 

Making the Switch

Larry Face of Sarasota-based Next Level Achievement coaches executives, managers and others looking to advance their careers or make a major change. Discover what motivates you, what’s holding you back and develop a detailed career transition plan, he says, and follow these tips:

1) Know what you want. You need to understand your own personal and professional goals and values. Sometimes just listing this kind of information and writing out a personal mission statement can help you decide if the change you’re considering fits with what you want out of life.

2) Know your strengths. How often have you seen the great sales rep promoted to a manager position, only to find out later that his or her skill really was in selling, not managing? Face advises budding entrepreneurs to honestly assess their own strengths and weaknesses: “Ask yourself, ‘Do I have all the strengths needed to be successful? Can I get them? Can I team up with someone who has them?’”

3) Have a plan. While a lengthy and detailed business plan is often necessary to secure start-up financing, Face suggests writing out a simple one- or two-page plan for yourself that includes a realistic timetable and a step-by-step approach to starting your new endeavor. One of the most common entrepreneurial mistakes, he says, is poor planning.

4) Stick with it. Too often people quit just as they are about to reach a breakthrough.

Filed under
Show Comments