Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with leading southeast tech executives about how entrepreneurs and tech leaders can endure the recession.

DURHAM, N.C. — Tough times call for boldness, not timidity, says Aaron Houghton, co-founder and chairman of fast-growing e-mail marketing services firm iContact.

“Your competition is probably totally paranoid about the recession, which means that you can be totally paranoid about out-thinking them strategically so that in a year or so when they resurface, you’ll be light years ahead of them,” Houghton told Local Tech Wire as part of its “Survival of the Fittest” series.

Cuts must be made and a survival plan must be crafted, Houghton added. But he also said the smart executives will seize 2009 as an opportunity for innovation and recruitment of new talent.

Here’s the Q&A with Houghton:

A "nuclear winter" appears to have descended upon us as a New Year begins. But in the last such "winter," the Internet and Web 2.0 emerged as entrepreneurs seized upon tough times to deliver innovation and to grow their businesses or start new ones, not just survive. What is your advice to fellow and would-be entrepreneurs entering the New Year – conserve, cut or invest?

A slow economy brings with it the great advantage of less urgency. With little prospect for traditional investment capital or new clients with unlimited budgets, companies can change their focus from how they will beat their competition next week to how they will beat their competition next year. Now is the right time to be cutting all unnecessary costs and cutting hard, but it is also the best time to invest in R&D. Your competition is probably totally paranoid about the recession, which means that you can be totally paranoid about out-thinking them strategically so that in a year or so when they resurface, you’ll be light years ahead of them. For new companies looking to hire in top R&D talent, the pool of qualified candidates is overflowing, which means lower costs and a great availability of talent. So, in a nutshell, first plan for stability and get lean. Then once you have a solid survival plan in place, put every resource you’ve got into innovating with R&D.

Who will be not just the survivors, but the winners still standing when the recession ends?

Companies with recurring revenue models

Companies providing products and services that clearly reduce costs

Companies that invest in retaining their top talent and keep them focused in the midst of all this distraction

What is your biggest fear/concern entering the New Year?

The question of whether the market at the bottom yet? Once it’s clear that we’ve seen the bottom, I think everything will pick up quickly.

Conversely, what are you most optimistic about?

I’m most optimistic that profitable companies who have held cash through the recession will begin spending heavily in an effort to make up lost ground once the market is on a steady climb back out. I’m also hopeful that they’ll continue to hold some cash to ensure their stability in the future, which will provide padding against this situation happening again.

In what areas do you see opportunities for growth in 2009 – Means to help companies become more efficient? Enabling technology to help people do more with mobile devices? Investments in clean technology? Further evolution of the Web? Tell us what you think.

Clean technology remains a strong category through the recession, so I expect that it will continue to strengthen through 2009. You can see that trend by comparing VC investment in clean tech to IT and biotech in the third and fourth quarters of 2008. Personally, I still think the opportunity in mobile is over-rated because mobile devices are quickly just becoming always-connected, on-person computers, so I think mobile and the Web will just continue to merge. Since the Web is the common theme between the most popular mobile device and desktop computer uses today, I think the Web will continue to lead innovation. For example, Twitter, the top popularity mobile revolution, is really just a web-app that plays nicely with text messages from mobile phones. So I suggest a focus on creating something new for the Web. If I had to choose three words I would say: Web, R&D, innovate

If the IPO markets remained closed, how can life-science, medical-device and other capital-intensive startups best generate cash to keep investors onboard and the company doors open while pursuing R&D?

Seek investment from their larger competitors who don’t have the flexibility to innovate and would have much higher costs if they were to try to do it themselves. This will position you for a home-grown exit and allow you to work with an investment partner that understands your business.

What do you believe will be executives’ biggest challenges this year – Financing? Growing sales? Balancing the cutting of costs with need for R&D as well as consumer support?

Both financing and growing sales are top challenges for early 2009. They should have a plan in place to survive if they cannot do either. Sales should be the top priority as the new year unfolds.

Will venture financing tighten, especially for startups, as recent surveys have indicated?

Venture Capital funding will continue to tighten. See my on this topic. I think 2009 and 2010 will mark a drastic reduction in the number of currently operating venture capital funds, i.e., funds accepting new deals of any type. Since many of them run lean operations, many will survive by hunkering down for two to three years. The VC industry typically trails the public markets by six to nine months, so the worst is certainly still to come for VCs.

Do you believe off-shoring of jobs will increase this year? Please explain.

Possibly, but only because the use of contractors instead of full-time employees will likely increase. The number of on-shore contractors will likely greatly increase as the markets come back and companies conservatively hire in talent with shorter-term commitments. The world as a whole is feeling the pain of the recession right now, so I don’t think the offshore companies have a big advantage that will allow them to position their services more attractively at this time. Companies that were off-shoring for contractors before will continue to do so, and companies that have stayed on-shore for contractors in the past will continue that way as well.

What advice would you offer to job-seekers in such a tough environment?

Start a business only if you can find a way to cover your living expenses for at least 12 months or if you have no other options. Selling in this environment will be difficult regardless of your connections. Obvious investments are no longer so obvious with the level of conservatism most businesses are exercising right now, so a well-crafted sales pitch won’t go quite as far as it used to. That said, now is an excellent time to start a new business with a focus on building a new product or service that doesn’t exist in the market. If you’ll continue looking for a job among the 8 percent of North Carolinians who are available, make sure you stand out. Don’t even think about applying for a job unless you have a public profile on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and have a well-developed personal blog with several intelligent and passionate posts on your area of expertise. Companies are looking for connected high-tech innovators, so don’t expect to get picked up with only a traditional list of experience, titles and accolades on a resume.