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Grounded in cyberspace

Dawn Nichol has joined the new wave of Internet entrepreneurs who believe they can change the world of commerce, but her reasons for making the leap are more traditional.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom first and a business person second,” she said while seated at one of her regular work places, the Starbucks at the Pine Creek Shopping Center, with her son Ryan at her side. “I can give equal attention to both.”

Nichol also believes she has found a solution to the dilemma of women who leave the workforce to have children and then find it difficult to pick up where they left off.

“When women leave the job force to have children, they have a difficult time getting back to their old position,” she said. “When you are in business for yourself, you don’t lose momentum.”

The advent of Wi-Fi wireless computer technology and the proliferation of laptop computers ” they now outsell the desktop versions ” allow people like Nichol to set up shop wherever they can find a flat surface in a Wi-Fi hot zone.

Nichol is a small business coach who works with solo entrepreneurs ” she calls them “solopreneurs” ” to create profitable businesses that work for them.

She defines solopreneurs as “sole proprietors who have no intention of getting bigger. Because they are computer-based, they are more agile, and can act quickly on a trend.”

Nichol conducts her business via telephone and her laptop from her Banner Mountain home or, when the spirit moves her, one of five local coffee shops that are Wi-Fi hot spots.

When she has a choice, Nichol prefers to work at a coffee shop. “I think I get more done,” she said. “I’m distracted at home.”

That’s a big change from three years ago, when she quit her job as a corporate trainer for E*trade. She was tired of the travel, she and her husband, Patrick, wanted to start a family. Recurring back problems made driving and plane travel uncomfortable.

“I was ready to go out on my own,” she said. “My back problem forced me to do it five years sooner than I would have otherwise. I love it so much I would have a hard time stepping away from it now.”

Nichol started The Solopreneur Zone three years ago, counseling people who are starting up a business or who want to increase the business they have.

She prefers to work 20 to 30 hours a week, but has been putting in more time lately.

“This area is an incredible hotbed of small businesses,” she said. “Technology makes an incredible difference.”

One believer in her work is Paul Vega, co-owner of Greenhouse Marketing and Design, a Sacramento firm that provides graphic design services to a variety of corporate clients.

“Things were going well, but at the same time there were some issues,” he said. “I was looking for an edge in competition, an edge in running my business, and in some ways a partner to assist me in that effort.”

Vega found Nichol on the Internet, and discovered a willing listener who steered him to the answers he was seeking.

“She got down to the point where she started asking questions that really were at issue with me,” Vega said.

“She often let me answer my own questions. That takes time, that takes patience, and that takes skill.

“She is responsible for some of the most significant improvements in my personal and business life,” he said. “I think the coaching is outstanding. Dawn specifically is wonderful.”

Angee Robertson, who takes over administrative and other tasks for small business owners, said her business was stagnant until she met Nichol.

“I wanted more clients, so we started discussing how to niche my business and focus on one particular type of client,” she said. “It was total self discovery. When I started talking to her, I had no clue. With her probing questions, I was able to figure out what I wanted to do.”

By narrowing her market focus, Robertson said she was able to double the online business she runs from her home outside Birmingham, Ala. “It was awesome,” she said.

Nichol charges $250 an hour for her time. That’s a high price to pay for people starting out in business, so she’s starting The 10,000 Solopreneurs Project.

“Small businesses can’t afford the support they need,” she said. “I want to create an online community where people can hear the real life stories of others, how they overcome problems, their best practices.”

People who sign up for the project ” there’s a one-time fee of $29 ” will be asked to perform a self-assessment in marketing, systems and technology, time management, products and services, and finance and money.

Members will have access to what their peers are revealing in their assessments, and there will be regular teleclass discussions with others who have achieved success, Nichol said. (The Web site is being maintained by a virtual assistant.)

She launched the site June 15 and currently has “several hundred members,” Nichol said. She wants to use the input from members to create learning tools for solopreneurs, and possibly write a book.

“I have a degree in sociology and my parents have always wondered when I would use it,” she said.

Nichol is expecting her second child in October and has no plans to give up her current job. “We’re doing what we want,” she said, “and we’re happier.”