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Will work for ... well, nothing
Austin Business Journal - by Christopher Calnan ABJ Staff

A lot of laid-off professionals would work for free if they could just get a foot in the door. And many bootstrapped entrepreneurs would love some free help during times like these.

Those two matching puzzle pieces are being put together via a new initiative at the Tech Ranch Austin incubator.

The recession-sparked program, called Barn Builders, connects unemployed and underemployed businesspeople with young entrepreneurs to foster conditions for the veterans to provide expertise. The goal is to grow nascent businesses, which may result in those unemployed people landing jobs.

The program, with its name inspired by the tradition of neighbors working together to raise a barn’s walls, attracted 35 attendees at its initial Sept. 28 event, organizer Austin Gunter said.

Three days after the event, at least one veteran was hired by a fledgling company, he said.

Gunter likened the concept to an extended interview process for prospective employees. The initial meeting at Tech Ranch was similar to speed dating, matching veterans with appropriate young entrepreneurs, he said.

One participant, Abdul Jabali, was one of the 12,000 workers who were laid off from AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) in February. Jabali, a former AT&T project manager, had worked for the company for eight years.

He now plans to work up to 30 hours per week with an educational services startup that Jabali learned about through Barn Builders. It is a better and more proactive alternative to conventional networking — the most recommended activity of the unemployed.

“This is a step or two above networking,” Jabali said. “It’s a chance to showcase what I can do.”

Kevin Koym, Tech Ranch’s founding partner, got the idea for the program while speaking to a Cedar Park group last month about entrepreneurship. During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Koym said, he realized that many audience members had recently lost their jobs and needed direction.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there are a lot of people who have no idea about what to do next,’” he said. “There are high-quality people who have been laid off and feel they have no choices.”

Barn Builders is designed to address that. By volunteering one’s skills for four hours to six hours a week, an unemployed worker could help grow a company enough that it could eventually hire the volunteer.

Koym got the image of raising a barn roof as a group effort that is part of a “community survival.”

Alora Chistiakoff, principal and co-founder of the Austin-based Indigo Heron Group Inc., said Barn Builders has already provided a sizable benefit to prove that local tech startups rarely need assistance with research and development.

“In point of fact,” she said, “often the biggest help that tech startups need is on the business side — marketing, sales, operations, finance, etc.”

During the first Barn Builders event, her company attracted seven professionals who wanted to help her company develop an educational product. Three others were interested in her consulting and services practice, Chistiakoff said.

For Tech Ranch, the immediate problem to solve is how to manage the large demand that it has discovered, Koym said.

“I’m trying to organize it in a way that it won’t overrun us,” he said. “We’ve tapped into a nerve where there is an extreme amount of pain.”

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