A challenging undiagnosed illness benched me from my corporate job seven years ago. With little warning, I had to discover my inner entrepreneur. I had always had a goal of someday working from home full-time – but, like the rest of my career up to that point, the decision was pretty much made for me. It took a change in mindset and some creative risk-taking to keep myself afloat.
When I heard that I was going to be laid off from my last job, I decided it was time to take the hint. In my mind, I was entirely capable of continuing my work as an art director, webmaster, or technical writer at another company, but my body couldn’t take the corporate environment. Whether I liked it or not, I was about to be my own boss.
Writing my business plan was dismal. I was used to working for Fortune 500 companies with teams of the best and brightest accomplishing initiatives with massive impact. I had no idea how to set goals for a company of one. My network consisted mostly of people who already had their hands full with work and family – I couldn’t count on them to come through for me if a project became more than I could handle on my own. My office was the living room of my small apartment, and my sole asset was a computer. Exit strategy? Non-existent.
I did have two things going for me – a unique combination of skills, and a history of being laid off. My background was in Web development, marketing, graphic design, project coordination, business analysis, and technical writing – all skills that are easily outsourced (especially in Boulder, Colorado in the ’90s). Little did I know that being laid off as often as I was would give me exactly what I needed to succeed as a consultant.
During my time in Boulder, temp agencies quickly became the most convenient way to find the next job between lay-offs, and eventually my primary form of employment. I became a quick study. I could walk into a client’s project and hit the ground running. Projects usually lasted for six months to a year, and then I’d have a month or two before the next job came along, so I started looking for side projects that filled in the gaps between temp jobs. At the time, I was just looking for a way to keep the momentum going, but looking back, I was starting to approach my career as though I was self-employed.
As I faced for the first time the "big plunge" into full-time business ownership, however, I had a confidence problem. I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. Reading books, magazines and websites on entrepreneurship helped, but it took a solid year for me to realize that being my own boss was a familiar feeling – it wasn’t that different than playing an active role in my career management.
Because I could wear so many hats, and needed opportunities to build up my creative consulting portfolio, small businesses – especially startups – were my most likely clients. I started out by spreading the word and following up with former colleagues, but my saving grace was discovering small business networking groups. There I found other starting entrepreneurs who were eager to exchange complementary services, willing to partner on projects, also actively marketing for projects from which we could both benefit, and equally grateful to have allies.
That summer, as I started my business in Tampa, Florida, five hurricanes came through the region. For three months everyone was glued to the TV, deciding whether to pack up or stay put. Paying a measly invoice to a lowly consultant was the last thing on my clients’ minds. I had plenty of time to question how I was going to make being self-employed work, but I stuck with it because I really didn’t have a choice.
Over the following seven years, I learned the hard way how to pick and choose clients, and when to fire them. I learned to properly value my time (and convince clients to value it as well). When business was slow, I would donate my services to worthy causes to build business connections, demonstrate my abilities, and enhance my portfolio.
Eventually I established some reliable long-term clients who keep the wheels turning, and trustworthy collaborative partners who I count on daily to take over where I’m lacking. My business hasn’t grown much – that was never my goal. But I did end up accomplishing my "someday" dream of working from home full-time, and in the process discovered an array of hidden personal potential. Most importantly, I learned how to take control of my career.
Here are some important tips I learned along the way:
- Start considering yourself as your own boss – If you are getting yourself to work each day and doing your best to pay your bills, you’re acting as your own boss already. There really isn’t that much difference between working for an employer or a client – it’s more about mindset. Consider becoming a sole proprietor, which is the easiest form of self-employment. Check out your state’s small business website – it may be that you don’t need to do anything other than make up your mind that you’re in business for yourself, and just like that you’re your own boss (at least for a few hours a month).
- Work with what you have now – It’s easy to say, "I should have a great business idea, or a solid plan, or a reliable team before I take the leap." Instead, look with new eyes at what you have now, and take it up on the opportunity. For example, you may have bought a book three years ago on event planning that has been sitting on your shelf – taking it out and reading it seriously may be all you need to get your momentum going.
- Find great collaborative partners – Look around you for like-minded colleagues who have strengths where you are weak, and are equally motivated to generate new business. Take a night course in starting a small business, or join a small business networking group, to meet others with similar passions.
- Choose clients carefully – When it comes to doing consulting work, for the most part corporate clients are more likely to understand costs involved with doing the work you do, as well as refer other corporate clients. Small businesses are often more personally attached to their business, and take setbacks personally. They are reluctant to part with money if they can’t truly value the work you do. However, they are eternally grateful when they see the benefits of what you do, and will come to you faithfully for years, where corporate clients can drop you with one word from their manager.
- Use a contract – Find a template for a clear, user-friendly contract with realistic pricing for every business agreement to prevent overcommitting yourself. This will help you keep your head about you when in negotiations on price, time and terms, and it will weed out the clients who don’t value your work enough to pay your rates. This will also prevent you from getting too many clients to manage.
- Create your own microcosm – You may have a grand vision for a unique product or service that you believe requires big action, or perhaps you want to create a business that’s going to grow fast in capabilities and in profit. If you’re putting together a business plan that requires substantial upfront investment, it’s best to start small. Consider creating a mini version of your plan in a pilot program that is manageable and requires less investment. This will provide the documentation you need to create a more persuasive business plan that you can present to investors. In the meantime, take some classes in the legal, corporate, financial and planning aspects of developing a business.
==== About the Author ====
As a member of the BrainTrack.com writing team, Ellen Berry offers sage advice to those interested in a career in business management, among other careers fields.