Helping Corporate Drones Live Their Dreams

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By most standards, Benjamin Benton had the ideal job. Within weeks of graduating from Edinburgh University in 2007 with a degree in business, he landed a coveted position with a London hedge fund, earning a hefty salary and continuing in the footsteps of his financier father and grandfather. "It should have been perfect," he explains, but "corporate life just never felt right for me."

So in 2009, Benton gave up his steady paycheck to pursue a personal dream: fashion. In February of that year, he launched a brightly colored high-end clothing label called Huxley Clothing. Today his designs are carried in a clutch of British specialty stores. "I wanted a return to premium British clothing," says Benton, 25, of his new venture. "I wanted to bring color back."

Benton may be one of Britain's most fashionable new entrepreneurs, but he's hardly alone. As the global recession wears on, young professionals are becoming increasingly aware that job security is a relic of the pre-Lehman past. To many of those doing the calculus these days, it seems less risky than ever to trade their corner-office tracks for potentially far more rewarding enterprises in small businesses.

"[People] no longer want to be so removed from the impact of their actions," says Pamela Sims, author of Escape from the Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur. "They want to feel a real-world connection to the work they're doing."

Like any good entrepreneurial scheme, the trend itself has spawned new businesses to support it. In 2009, Rob Symington and Dom Jackman — both former Ernst & Young consultants who were fed up with the long hours and impersonal nature of their London jobs — launched Escape the City, a website that helps banking, law and finance types escape to more fulfilling careers. "After four years of the slow burn, we were both frustrated, both wanted out of the company," says Jackman, 27. "We saw our futures if we stayed in the city and didn't like it."

Today, Escape the City has 14,000 members, mostly in Europe but increasingly worldwide. Many members say the site's most valuable content is the profiles of "heroes" who successfully transitioned from conventional jobs to passion pursuits — like former London consultant Emily Kerr, who embraced her inner adventurer and in February launched Unlocked Guides, a series of travel guides for kids.

The heroes also form a support network of expertise and advice — a sort of collective business consciousness. "They were able to answer basic questions like, How much does it cost to lease an office for a year or should I even rent one?" says Benton, who "sought every possible resource to prepare for my new business — from reading Richard Branson's biography" to sourcing suppliers and potential manufacturers. He also set aside part of every paycheck for six months before quitting to fund his new start-up.

That's the kind of advice Rafael Cervantes, 37, could have used five years ago, when he left a lucrative banking career in Manhattan, in the midst of Wall Street's boom years, to launch the Moksha Yoga Teacher Training Program based in his native Mexico City. "There were few resources available back then," he says. "People thought I was crazy, that I was going to live in a cave." Recently, Cervantes launched a new consulting business that takes him throughout Latin America training professionals to achieve optimal balance between work, life and spirit. "I created a kind of perfect job for myself where I'm using all of my core tools and skills," he says.

Escape the City aims to speed the path to personal satisfaction for people like Cervantes. The site not only helps entrepreneurs launch new companies but also lists job opportunities for unhappy corporate drones needing a change (Benton's public-relations person is an escapee) — which simultaneously helps new businesses hire talent on the cheap. When Tom Benton (no relation to Benjamin), a former Unilever executive in the U.K. now with an organic-baby-food company called Little Dish, needed an account manager, he posted the job on Escape the City and successfully hired away a buyer from the supermarket giant Sainsbury's.

By recruiting via the site, Benton says he not only found "by far the best candidates" for the position, but also saved some £15,000 (about $22,500) in conventional headhunter costs. "That's a huge sum for a small company like our own," says Benton.

"We knew we wanted someone with passion. We wanted someone with big-company experience who'd be just as happy in a board meeting as sweeping the floors," he adds.

Escape the City is only the latest online forum for independent career seekers. Enterprise Nation, also based in the U.K., has been offering similar advice to its 115,000 monthly users since 2006. StartupNation, a seven-year-old U.S. site aimed at entrepreneurs, has 250,000 monthly users. Both sites have reported 30% to 40% increases in traffic over the past 12 months, in tandem with the shrinking job market. "With so many people unemployed — or underemployed — entrepreneurship now seems like the less risky option," says StartupNation founder Jeff Sloan, who launched the site with his brother Richard. "The need for support and a like-minded community has never been greater."