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Recession breeds new class of ‘unintentional entrepreneurs’

Char Reed is an unintentional entrepreneur – pushed by financial need into starting a small business of drawing digital pet caricatures after her car sputtered out as she drove home from work.

Intentional or unintentional, she’s not alone. Entrepreneurship rates over the past 15 years peaked in 2009 and 2010 at 340 per 100,000 adults, according to the 2011 Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, which tracks the country’s new businesses.

That rate declined in 2011 to 320 per 100,000 adults.

More people turned to self-employment during the recession, said Dane Stangler, director of entrepreneurship for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which maintains the annual index.

“Mostly it is people who were laid off and in some cases people who were worried that they were going to be laid off,” said Fred Gebarowski, director of Wake Tech’s (N.C.) Small Business Center.

Like Reed, Aaron and Natalie Miller became entrepreneurs after unexpected circumstances compelled them to start their own businesses.

In August, Reed, 28, received an email from a Massachusetts man seeking to commission a portrait of his St. Bernard. He had discovered Reed’s 2-year-old graphic design and fantasy genre website, which included her pet caricatures. Reed’s car died a week later.

“With the car situation, that was the little push,” Reed said. She quit her part-time job at Michaels arts and crafts store – which required a 30-minute commute – moved in with her parents and focused on building a business around her illustrations.

Reed is now making the equivalent of her Michaels salary and has been swamped with the holiday rush. But she is already planning a Super Bowl promotion.

“I could draw your dog or your cat wearing a jersey or a hat, something like that,” Reed said.

The Millers started Solid Builders, a remodeling and construction business, after Aaron Miller, 39, was laid off in 2003.

In the beginning, the business didn’t bring in enough money to support the family, Natalie Miller said.

“We survived because of my job and my income,” said Natalie Miller, a former marketing and event planner. “We lived simple lives and spent our money wisely.”

She quit her job in 2007 to build the business and to spend more time with her kids. The Millers created a website and joined Internet directories.

Natalie Miller developed a project management process that involved tracking leads and making follow-up calls.

“We saw improvements within the first month, and a huge improvement over a year,” Natalie Miller said.