Survey: Nashville Entrepreneurs Optimistic for 2010

Entrepreneurs in the Nashville area are looking to a brighter future in 2010, and some are using a four-letter word that hasn’t yet been part of recovery: jobs.

After two years scarred by economic downturn, survey results and sentiment among business groups suggest that many business people are ready to start hiring — a development that would still fly in the face of continued economic challenges.

“It took us a year and a half to figure out how to work again,” Arnie Malham, president of the 65-company Nashville Entrepreneurs’ Organization, said of the small-business community.

A recent survey of the group’s members found that 75 percent expect to hire in 2010, and 63 percent will boost compensation. And Intuit Inc., which provides online payroll services to small businesses, found nationally that small firms added 40,000 jobs in February and nearly 150,000 jobs since last June.

Malham, whose company CJ Advertising of Nashville handles marketing for lawyers, said there’s a sense that businesses that have made it through the past two years can begin looking for ways to bring people on.

Yet, it’s not as simple as saying jobs are on their way back.

For one thing, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s survey showed that 82 percent of respondents were concerned about the financial climate’s impact on their businesses. And the National Federation of Independent Business found as early as January that slightly more small firms plan to cut their work force, rather than add workers.

Unemployment in the Nashville area still hovers near 10 percent, and economists say a large-scale return of jobs often doesn’t happen until late in a recovery, when companies feel confident enough to expand.

Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the positive feeling among entrepreneurs is an example of how job recovery will begin, though it’s likely to take a while.

Many small businesses are sprouting up to serve businesses that have cut back on in-house capabilities, he said, sometimes even enabling people who have lost their jobs to become independent contractors. Those small companies will be hiring and, in turn, using contractors themselves for various services to keep costs down, he said.

The entrepreneur survey also noted that 64 percent of respondents considered it likely that they’d start a new business in 2010. And yet, Schulz said, it will indeed be a while before large companies are doing extensive hiring, and normal unemployment levels are likely to remain elusive.

“Full employment as we knew it two years ago is some distance off,” he said.

Some companies already have been hiring and feel they’re poised to continue. Malham’s firm, which he said was not hit as hard as some companies because it does business with the relatively stable legal industry, added several people each year during the recession.

Sonny Clark, a fellow member of EO and president of technology consulting company Advanced Network Solutions, added two employees in recent months and has plans for more. He said a flat-fee option for companies has helped the company grow.

“We’re actively looking right now to add people,” he said.

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