(The Tennessean) -- Mary and Dave Morris were both decades into established careers - she worked for state government, he as a private sector logistics analyst - when the Nashville couple decided it was time to take a chance on their bucket list.

It was 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, the worst U.S. housing crisis in history and a global credit crisis that led to banks cutting in half what they were willing to lend to small businesses.

And it ended up being the perfect time to take a risk on a new company.

They created Front Porch Designs and More, an online business devoted to all things front porch, from photos and decorating tips to contractor and retailer referrals. They earned enough in the first 18 months for Mary to quit her day job.

By 2011, revenues had doubled. Dave quit his job. The couple now had what many would consider an enviable life - with most staff meetings held on the porch overlooking wild turkeys roaming the hills behind their Bellevue home. Or they could take their laptops with them on many travels around the country, working while visiting grandchildren and photographing front porches.

"We started out slow, for sure. Our first money was 72 cents. It grew so much faster than we could have imagined. Even if people don't have a lot of money to spend, they still like to have beautiful front porches," Mary Morris said.

Economists say the Morris family's experience is not atypical for kitchen-table entrepreneurs during this recession, as more people turn hobbies or ideas hashed out with friends and family into viable ventures.

For these micro-entrepreneurs in Middle Tennessee, the economic downturn has provided a surprising upside, especially for those on the modest end of the startup spectrum, who manage to keep overhead low and expectations for growth reasonable.

"The Great Recession has pushed many individuals into business ownership due to high unemployment rates," said Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation. "However, economic uncertainty likely has made them more cautious, and they prefer to start sole proprietorships rather than more costly employer firms."

Can it last?

But whether homegrown entrepeneurs can sustain or grow these small enterprises remains a big question.

In the dot-com bust of 2000, there was an even larger spike in entrepreneurship, according to Middle Tennessee State University associate professor Doug Tatum. However, many of the startups soon flamed out, he said.

"During the last recession, within three years, most of them went away," said Tatum, holder of the Wright Travel Chair of Entrepreneurship at MTSU and chairman of the research advisory board for the Institute for Exceptional Growth, which tracks economic trends.

Business partners Tanya Coe and Kimberly Davison are hoping to defy the odds.

The former college roommates opened their vintage retail space, the Goodbuy Girls, one day a week in an inexpensive, 250-square-foot space in East Nashville three years ago.

It was a hobby more than anything else, a low-risk entrée into the world of entrepreneurship. Coe, a financial accounting software expert, and Davison, who did marketing and Web design work, invested about $4,000 of their own savings.

The shoestring investment turned a profit. And the pair took a leap of faith last year, leaving their full-time jobs, moving the store into a more expensive space in East Nashville's Five Points commercial strip and keeping the store open seven days a week.

Sales have increased fourfold since.

"If we made $2,000 a week in the old space, we make $8,000 to $10,000 now," said Coe, 25.

Davison attributes the store's success to starting small and catering to a budget-conscious clientele.

"Our clothing and everything we (have) in here is very affordable. It's vintage and pre-owned stuff, and it goes along with people's interest in recycling, and there wasn't really any store like this in East Nashville," Davison said.

And while they took a DIY approach, a strong network of other East Nashville business owners has been a critical resource for advice on running the company, Davison said.

The key, Coe, Davison and the Morrises say, was taking a low-risk, think-small approach, taking ventures that had a low bar of entry and keeping their day jobs until profits rolled in. Lower rents during the downturn made brick-and-mortar less risky.

And social media and technology advances moderated advertising and marketing costs, Coe said. The Goodbuy Girls relies on Facebook and a spike of interest after its mentions in national publications such as Lucky Magazine.

Credit remains iffy

Experts say it's axiomatic in this economy that new business owners generally must go it alone without easy access to bank loans.

"There's always entrepreneurs, particularly in our community, and I would say the volume of ideas has not slowed," said Andy Moats, chief credit officer and bank group director for Avenue Bank. "But banks go into periods of being more or less aggressive, and certainly the recession took a toll on available credit."

Aspiring business owners, particularly those with no track record as entrepreneurs, typically seek out personal or home equity loans to compensate. With this recession, even those forms of credit have been scarce, as has available credit card financing.

For any entrepreneur, however, taking a leap of faith is a requisite first step, said Katie Radel.

Radel left her job as a corporate event planner and assistant to the president at First Tennessee Bank in 2010 to start a marketing and event planning business. She began out of her home, with minimal startup costs, a laptop and business cards.

The 32-year-old Cincinnati native relied on some contacts she'd created through her corporate job as well as through CABLE, a Nashville networking group for female professionals. Her first client was a matter of both luck and networking - someone she met while running with fellow women in CABLE.

"I left with zero contacts. Within three weeks, I had my first big client, the Women's Half Marathon. And one client led to another," Radel said. "From my first to my second year, revenue doubled."

Whether entrepreneurs such as Radel can continue to grow their companies is an important question not just for individual business owners but for the economy at large.

"Preliminarily, what we're concerned about in this recession is we're not seeing the same spike of new startups that we saw in the last recession," said MTSU's Tatum.

Small startups are the beginning of the ecosystem that eventually can lead to midlevel companies that hire more workers, create goods and fuel the economy. It remains an open question how the evolution of entrepreneurship will play out for the balance of this decade.

"The analogy is that if you're going to have the best professional baseball teams in the world, it all starts in the Little League," Tatum said. "If you have fewer or weaker Little League teams, then the long-term effect is the overall number of real ball players going to the farm league and going to big leagues is going to be smaller."

Reach Anita Wadhwani at awadhwani@tennessean.com or 615-259-8092.

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