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MODESTO – When Sally Gerbo lost her job in 2007, she had a crucial choice to make: either find another position with a large design firm or turn misfortune into opportunity and strike out on her own.
Four months pregnant with her first child and just months away from the start of the Great Recession, she chose the latter.
“When it came right down to it, I knew that it was the right time,” Gerbo said.
Starting a business is a rocky proposition, let alone beginning one during a major economic downturn, but the recession may actually have played a role in her success.
In an interview for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Economic Development podcast series, economist Stephan Goetz said that in the past 10 years, self-employment has grown even while the rest of the economy has stagnated.
“To me this is one of the great untold stories of the changing American workforce and the way people work,” Goetz said. “Between 2000 through 2010, the number of self-employed increased from 25 to 36 million workers, which is a staggering 40 percent increase.”
In this respect, Gerbo is right on trend. Her graphic design and marketing business, Gerbo Designs, will celebrate its five-year anniversary this fall.
Whether the economic climate is hot or cold, clients can benefit from working with the self-employed.
“There’s a really big need for the small guy designer,” said Gerbo. “I have the opportunity to give really good one-on-one service to a client. I touch every detail of every project, and that way I can really get to know what somebody wants and what their vision is.”
Gerbo specializes in creating brand solutions for small businesses. She begins by creating five or six versions of a basic black and white logo for each client.
From there, she and the client work to refine the design by choosing appropriate fonts, making corporate color decisions and generally striving to create brand cohesion across every facet of the business.
She describes her design aesthetic as clean and simple, but with a sense of movement.
“I like the font to interact with the icon,” Gerbo said. “When I design, there’s often some sort of a flourish to it, it’s a little bit playful.”
Some of Gerbo’s favorite jobs are the small ones, the clients who don’t need a brand redesign so much as a beautifully personalized wedding invitation or Christmas card.
Often, she said, people think this sort of custom card design is out of their price range, but Gerbo works to keep her prices down in order to stay competitive with online giants like Tiny Prints.
“I love doing it, and I think it’s very effective marketing,” she explained. “It’s a beautiful card with beautiful photography, high quality paper, and my name on it. It’s like my name goes out 150 times for each card I do.”
This emphasis on simple, cohesive design and personal customer service has helped Gerbo to steadily grow her business. These traits, she believes, combined with persistence in the face of failure, are keys to thriving in a sagging economy.
“Yes, the economy has been negative, but my work has been positive, and so my business has grown,” said Gerbo. “You start to see that you’re going to have some ups and downs, but it evens out towards up.”
Technology has also played a crucial role in Gerbo’s success. Incorporating a laptop, smartphone and iPad into her daily routine means she can stay connected to clients whether she’s on the go or hard at work in her home office.
In this way, she is again on trend. According to Goetz, who serves as director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, technological advances are a driving force behind the recent uptick self-employment.
“The productivity of those who know how to use this technology has increased dramatically, and it’s much easier for them to set up a business and work for themselves without having to employ a huge, costly staff,” said Goetz.
Gerbo agrees that having access to her calendar and email at all times has made life much easier.
“Many projects I do are start-to-finish completely remote,” she said, “so being able to stay connected is key.”