Two years ago, a couple of friends and I started a small business together to do public affairs and political work - something with which we all had experience. I found it particularly rewarding because, well, I have few other marketable skills. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. I'm suspicious of my electrical abilities (I use lots of electric tape) and the closest I've come to welding involves sparklers on the Fourth of July.

They say Davy Crockett could grin a raccoon out of a tree, but no matter my smile and focus, staring under the hood of a car does not seem to make it crank.

I did learn the three rules of plumbing several years ago (unprintable in a family newspaper) and while I can replace a toilet, I would not trust my skills to say, build a bathroom. Although, while perhaps I am qualified to work on the Jackson water system, the city doesn't seem to be flush (pun not intended) with cash for such a project. But I do know something about politics and campaigns and government, so I took the plunge (yes, pun intended).

People ask me how the economy has affected my work and I tell them, "I don't know." The time seemed right to start my own small business; work has been steady; and all I know about working for myself is doing it during a recession. I did not consider the impact of the housing bubble and financial markets when we started, or even when the economy's bottom dropped out a few months later. I was blessed with a few opportunities and took them.

A recession can provide the kick many of us need to pursue new opportunities. Community colleges are seeing significant enrollment increases as people leaving the workforce choose to increase their education or seek new job training. Some workers, no longer enjoying the security of employment, take the risks they would not normally pursue and become entrepreneurs.

A recession also provides opportunity to established businesses for both short term and long term growth.

In April of last year, James Surowiecki published a piece in the New Yorker illustrating these opportunities in past recessions, and even depressions. He says, "In the late nineteen-twenties, two companies-Kellogg and Post-dominated the market for packaged cereal. It was still a relatively new market....when the Depression hit, no one knew what would happen to consumer demand. Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. (Snap, Crackle, and Pop first appeared in the thirties.) By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg's profits had risen almost thirty per cent and it had become what it remains today: the industry's dominant player."

Surowiecki continued, "numerous studies have shown that companies that keep spending on acquisition, advertising, and R. & D. during recessions do significantly better than those which make big cuts...firms that kept ad spending stable or increased it during the recession of 1921-22 saw their sales hold up significantly better than those which didn't...advertising during the 1981-82 recession found that sales at firms that increased advertising or held steady grew precipitously in the next three years, compared with only slight increases at firms that had slashed their budgets...a McKinsey study of the 1990-91 recession found that companies that remained market leaders or became serious challengers during the downturn had increased their acquisition, R. & D., and ad budgets, while companies at the bottom of the pile had reduced them."

Rather than falter with the economy, a recession can provide a good time to build brand identification and recruit customers by expanding advertising while other companies are cutting back. When there are fewer competing messages - less advertising competition - a business gets a greater return on an investment.

Surowiecki says it comes down to a decision between "sinking the ship" and "missing the ship." Not everyone has that choice. Sometimes all you can do is keep the ship afloat.

"Kraft introduced Miracle Whip in 1933 and saw it become America's best-selling dressing in six months; Texas Instruments brought out the transistor radio in the 1954 recession; Apple launched the iPod in 2001, but Surowiecki warned, "the record is also full of forgotten companies that gambled and failed."

Hopefully that won't be the case with my small business, or the next time you pull up to a car shop you might see me smiling under a hood with some sparklers, a roll of electric tape, and a plunger.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at