When the end came, Shawna McKeown wasn't surprised.
"I'd been there 10 years and saw the signs," she said. "I was the one who shut down the classified department, got rid of the web editor and demoted the receptionist."
In June, it was McKeown's turn: She was laid off as general manager of Willamette Week, a Portland alternative newspaper.
As the divorced mother of two boys -- Thilo, 7, and Cian, 5 -- she needed to find something else.
After months of planning, she opened a business, Oui Presse coffee shop on Portland's Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Now she maintains a complicated schedule of caring for her sons and running a shop that faces competition from not only national chains such as Starbucks but other independent shops with loyal followings.
On good days, when the till shows the shop broke even or better, McKeown is elated. On bad days, she steels her resolve and fights back the fear that she made a mistake.
Her story is a familiar one, playing out in various forms across a metro area with a jobless rate that has hovered above 10 percent for more than a year. Local groups that work with budding entrepreneurs note a significant uptick in the number of people seeking to open a business. While some have always dreamed of being self-employed, many, such as McKeown, are starting businesses out of necessity.
McKeown, 43, seeded her shop with a small severance package from the paper, money from her retirement savings and three credit cards. In October, she signed a lease on a storefront at 1740 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., a space where a cafe and later a clothing store had failed.
Two days before Christmas, she opened her doors.
"It's terrifying," she said. "Failure isn't an option."
McKeown started a blog to chart her progress and build a following. She tried to borrow money from several banks, including the one that holds her mortgage. But with no paycheck, they all said no.
Next she turned to MercyCorps Northwest, which has a loan program for startups.
"What's changed in the past couple years is that we're seeing people who've been working for a company for years and then they lost a job," said Scott Onder, the Portland organization's fund development and strategy coordinator. "It's a tough job market, and the only alternative is to become self-employed."
MercyCorps gets 20 applications a month and approves four, he said. Since the program began nine years ago, the organization has issued just over 200 loans totaling $2.3 million. Now demand is so high, the agency is working with banks to get more money to loan.
"We've funded some businesses that you wouldn't think would make it," he said. "Craftsmen that sell jewelry. We've helped florists and photographers. What we look at is potential cash flow to make sure there's enough profit to make loan payments on a monthly basis."
McKeown was approved for a $20,000 loan, with a 12 percent interest rate. She opted instead to sign up for two more credit cards, which offered zero interest for the first year.
"I have to do what it takes to get going," she said.
Maggie Palmer, owner of Portland's MKP Creative Services, knows what she means.
In 2008, Palmer had what she thought was a secure job as a marketing manager at a Portland company. She and her husband had just bought a house when they took their newborn to visit relatives in Ohio for Thanksgiving.
"Just before dinner, I signed onto the computer to check my e-mail," Palmer said. "My boss had sent a note to everyone that they were selling our desks on eBay. That's how I got the news I was being laid off."
She applied for jobs throughout the city but found nothing.
"I had no choice but to start my own business," she said. "I started calling businesses around town and asked if they'd laid off their marketing person. I proposed they hire me month to month. I incorporated in June. I'm making triple what I made when I worked for someone else.
"But it's scary when a client quits," she said. "I have to get another client. That's business."
We've been working our buns off over here at Oui Presse HQ, so there hasn't been much time to update the blog with progress photos. Here's what the store looks like now, on the eve of its debut. -- Oui Presse blog, Dec. 22
Women Entrepreneurs of Oregon, a Lake Oswego-based group, has watched membership grow from 25 in 2005 to more than 80, President Briana Borten said.
"You have to be passionate about running a business," she said. "You may love making jewelry, but the business is about making contacts, keeping books and employing people. Most businesses fail within the first three years. People don't plan for all the bad times. They plan for the way they hope it goes."
Borten, 30, started her business, The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa, when she was 22 after her boss at another spa told her that if she had so many great ideas, she should launch her own place.
Borten got a business partner, whose family loaned them money. Her boyfriend let her use his credit card.
"That's real love," said Borten, who now has two Portland spas and 60 employees. "We got married."
She hired a contractor for plumbing and electrical work but had friends help her rip out carpet and walls, and haul old tiles to the dump. Even so, she spent $55,000 to get started.
"When you add it up, it's the cost of a couple cars," she said. "But a car won't make me money. I have to make the investment in this business."
We hung our Stumptown sign from the ceiling using 30 lb monofilament today. Now we have the prettiest espresso machine AND the prettiest sign in town. -- Oui Presse blog, Dec. 31, under the heading "Too Legit to Quit"
McKeown's life can be a blur of business and child care. On weekdays, she dresses and feeds her sons, then sends them off to school, one on a school bus, the other with a neighborhood mom. She drives to a bakery in Northwest Portland to pick up pastries, then heads to her shop, usually arriving by 8:30 a.m.
About 3 p.m., she walks son Cian and other kids home from kindergarten and waits for the bus to deliver Thilo. Then her ex-husband picks up the boys, and she heads back to the shop until it closes at 6 p.m. Then it's back to parenting duties. Every other weekend, the boys stay with her ex-husband. On her weekends, she frequently brings them to work.
She has three part-time employees at her industrial-looking space, including Dan Winters, 27. She arrived one recent morning to find him in the shop alone. Business had been slow since the 7 a.m. opening, he said.
The two commiserated, with McKeown saying she drew a little comfort from noticing on her drive in that other coffee shops were empty, too.
Winters was a colleague at Willamette Week before being demoted and eventually leaving amid cutbacks. He has since returned to the paper to work on a project, and works at Oui Presse 20 hours a week.
"The extra money is nice," he said. "But I like being able to help her out. Shawna has become one of my best friends."
Within the hour, customers were flowing in as McKeown worked around the store -- installing a bathroom mirror, wrapping an overhead pipe with insulation and looking over her magazine rack. She stocks a variety of titles, plus gift items, to set her shop apart and add revenue. She eventually hopes to offer 150 periodicals, including hard-to-find titles from Europe.
When the shop emptied again, McKeown relaxed for a moment behind the counter.
"If I can manage my cash and stay ahead of the game for a year, I'll be OK," she said. In the meantime, she's learning that running her own shop is an around-the-clock endeavor.
"I think about this place all the time," McKeown said. "When I fall asleep, when I'm driving. I worry that lower Hawthorne doesn't have a lot of foot traffic. But then I realize it has easy parking. The scary part is when people don't come in. But I tell myself they will."
She needs $400 a day to break even, and so far, her best day brought in $476. Going over her books, she realized she took in just $168 on a recent Monday.
"I panicked," she said. "But I have to manage the fear. I have to cope. Each day a few more people come in, and I'm getting some regulars. I can't get discouraged. I have to remind myself that I'm laying the foundation for my future."
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--Tom Hallman Jr.