Monday, March 1, 1999

New shiatsu entrepreneur battles stress

Small-business owners face special challenges


I lay on my belly inhaling the sweet scent of lavender as Amanda Burger delicately planted her size 7 1/2 feet on my butt and started walking on me. This "walk-about" was not some sadomasochistic bondage ritual. I wasn't being punished because I'd been a bad boy. I've been really good lately — I just paid the City of Cote St. Luc my business taxes for 1999, and my account manager at the Hongkong Bank is real happy with the regular deposits our company has been making.

So why was I lying on a purple mat listening to misty strands of Gaelic music by the Irish group Clannad while 135 pounds of feminine charm performed a toe-heel rendition of the Mash Potato on my derrière and back? It's simple. I WAS STRESSED OUT! My muscles were knotted and I felt lethargic.

Burger is a practitioner of shiatsu, a Japanese massage therapy employing fingers, hands, knees, elbows and feet to apply pressure to more than 300 acupoints located along energy meridians which run throughout the body.

She is the owner of Bamboo Stress Reduction Services and one of 2.5 million self-employed Canadian entrepreneurs — including 536,000 Quebecers — hustling to make a living, according to 1998 Statistics Canada figures.

She's also among the 48 percent of small business people forced to use personal credit cards to finance their businesses because Canadian banks say they don't qualify for a loan, a line of credit or a commercial credit card.

Bankers like to tell a tall tale about their valiant efforts to help finance small business, but the figures from Statistics Canada convey a story of struggle and financial deprivation for Canadian entrepreneurs. Many self-employed people, such as Burger, are forced to work from their homes to keep expenses down.

Self-employed entrepreneurs who work independently — meaning they have no employees — have lower average incomes than salaried workers. And entrepreneurs do not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits and government pension plans.

Figures from the most recent Statistics Canada salary survey done in 1990 showed that male entrepreneurs who worked independently earned an average of $32,000 per year, compared with $38,300 for salaried male workers. Self-employed men who had employees working for them earned an annual average of $51,300.

The statistics also demonstrated that gender plays a role in the earning power of entrepreneurs, just as it does in every other field. Female entrepreneurs, such as Burger, who worked independently earned an average of $19,300 in 1990, compared with $25,300 for salaried females. Self-employed women who had employees working for them earned an annual average of $29,100.

Entrepreneurs work longer hours. Self-employed entrepreneurs who had others working for them put in an average of 47 hours per week in 1991, according to Statistics Canada figures. The same survey showed that entrepreneurs who worked alone did an average of 40 hours per week in 1991. Salaried workers put in 37 hours per week.

The self-employed also tend to be older. Self-employed people with employees had an average age of just over 43 in 1991; independently self-employed people were 42 years of age on average; while salaried workers had an average age of 36.

What this means is that most people who start a business have been around the block a few times. They might have been casualties of the merger mania of the 80s and 90s or they might have been unfortunate salary statistics targeted by some tiger tough CEO intent on short-term bulking of the bottom line.

As in the case of the 36-year-old Burger, perhaps they used their 20s to figure out what they didn't want. Nothing incites the entrepreneurial spirit more than the mind-numbing monotony of a dead-end job and the rantings of a brain-dead boss.

The days of playing barmaid, baker and waitress are behind Burger. Goodbye to freight-forwarders, pharmacies, video stores and courier collections. When you're 5 foot, 7 inches, with thick raven hair, striking features and an athlete's body, you can stack the jobs and scatter them like pins in a bowling alley.There's always another offer around the corner.

By the time she hit her mid-20s, Burger's Thespian urges were fighting to emerge. She enrolled in the fine arts course at Concordia to study theatre. At the same time, she worked part-time as a stage manager at the now-defunct Le Stage dinner theatre club on Decarie Boulevard.

The wander lust hit again after three years at Concordia. She quit one year short of her degree to take a job as the stage manager for a touring theatre troupe in St. Catherines, Ont. Two years later — 1990 — she was ready for a three-month trip to Europe.

Shortly before leaving, there was a hot summer outing to Putney, Vt. where she met Pat Burger who was studying English literature and would go on to become a professor. They had a lot in common — both are suckers for nature and romance. A hand-in-hand stroll under the thick forest canopy, passionate kisses and a solitary dip in a tranquil pond. They were married a few years later.

But it would be four long years before Burger would return to Concordia to complete her fine arts degree. She still owes $10,000 on her student loan.

By the time she graduated, she had despaired of finding "socially and politically relevant" theatre productions in which she could immerse herself. She found that most theatre was too commercial, "fun" productions such as those based on Neil Simon plays.

She wanted an "eye-opener" — a career where she could use her skills to help people. She gravitated to shiatsu, using her $4,800 of savings to pay the tuition for 2 1/2 years of courses starting in 1995. She learned two shiatsu styles — the Yamamoto, which uses foot pressure to work all 12 meridians in a 1 1/2-hour session and the Ohashi which employs the fingers, hands and arms to press only on the meridian which needs the most work.

It is believed that every meridian is linked to an internal organ and that an energy or life force known as ki flows through the meridians. By pressing on certain acupoints, known as tsubos, the practitioner attempts to balance the flow of energy among the meridians to maintain a healthy immune system.

Burger diagnosed my problem as too much energy in my gall bladder, which is the organ responsible for decision-making, and too little energy in my Triple Heater, which is the meridian governing body temperature, fluids and circulation.

I attribute my Triple Heater malfunction to a wicked virus which decked me three weeks ago. I'm sure that my gall bladder is in overdrive because of those sly clients who reassure me every week that our overdue cheques are in the mail.

Burger, who started practicing from her home last fall, has five clients who take a treatment weekly or bi-weekly.She scrounged the funds to print 2,100 flyers and distribute them in the west end last fall, attracting three of her five clients. But like most neophyte entrepreneurs, she has no marketing budget and must rely on word of mouth.

I figure that anybody who can balance herself on my gluteus maximus deserves my vote.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.