I was asked to be a guest Zoom speaker for the North Alabama chapter meeting of the Society for Technical Communication. My talk was on February 4. I was asked to speak about the process of starting your own business, which I’ve been running without a net since 2014. I won’t share all of my presentation here, but I thought I’d call out some of the highlights and key points.
The State of the Economy
With COVID (and various reactions to it) doing such damage to the economy, one might ask if it’s even sensible to start a business in this environment. Among the stats I picked up from Oberlo.com was the sad fact that the pandemic has rendered 31% of U.S. small businesses (SBs) non-functional. Even so, the number of business started during the pandemic–meaning those registering for the first time–shot up from 3.47 million in 2019 to over 4 million in 2020. More than 50% of people starting their own business did so because they wanted to be their own boss. The work is still out there, and some businesses such as engineering or technical firms still need tech writing done, even if they can’t afford to keep tech writers on staff full-time. I say go for it, but do your planning first.
They don’t teach entrepreneurship in the English department, but they do teach it in the business department. If, like me, you managed to avoid taking business classes, you’ll probably have to use the internet to educate yourself. For example, I found a good template for a business plan on Forbes.com, using the assumption that if anyone is going to know about money making, it’s a magazine for rich businesspeople.
Business plans will ask you high-level questions first like what you want to do and what are you good at before they jump into more concrete things like what do you plan to produce (products or services)? For which types of customers? What do you plan to charge? You need to make sure the market is there and that it can support you, even if it means working with multiple clients.
The goal of marketing is making sure that the right people know what you’re good at doing. One advantage of knowing who your intended customers are is that you can also narrow down where to focus your marketing efforts. In my case, marketing has involved talking to people in my network–mostly friends and business peers–about what I’m doing and what sort of work I want to do. The more specific you are, the less likely you’ll get a recommendation like the one I got from well-meaning family member who suggested I write children’s books (don’t you have to know something about or like children for that?).
The most important marketing “tactic” I use is something I do that is not specifically designed to bring in business, but it’s proved the most effective: I do a good job and I get along with my customers. Word-of-mouth and positive experiences working with others go a long way toward getting recommendations and offers of work even if you hadn’t sought them. Just something to think about.
Managing Your Business
The tasks you manage as the owner of your own business aren’t that dissimilar to your responsibilities as a full-time employee. You have to manage your time well; manage your budget and cashflow so you have money on hand to pay bills when you need to; manage your customer relationships; and make sure you have the resources you need (hardware, software, paperwork, and people) to operate successfully.
Hardware & Software
I actually spent the bulk of my presentation talking about the logistics of running a small/solo business. A lot of things I’ve had to learn as I went along, such as the need to buy good tools (whether it’s pens, desk chairs, or computers) because the cheap stuff isn’t as good and doesn’t last as long. When it comes to software, make sure you have the tools you need to do the jobs you expect. Microsoft Office is a given in most businesses. If you’re doing high-ed page design, you might need Adobe InDesign, PageMaker, or FrameMaker.
Depending on your marketing strategy (again, search Forbes.com), you might or might not need a website or social media presence. For example, if you’re someone with a background in top-secret intelligence-gathering or technology development activities, your customers might prefer that you NOT have a large social media footprint. If you DO need one, make sure your business-related social media posts have an end in mind. If you want to influence a debate, you might seek retweets. If you want people to visit your site, you would provide a link to your content. If you want people to buy a product or procure your services, your website should be set up in a way that makes it easy for customers to do that.
When it comes to incorporation, there are lots of options, from sole proprietorship (which I operate) up to C or S corporations, which can have 100 or more people working for them. Each type of organization has its own special rules, responsibilities, legal forms, and tax rules to figure out. For example, you need to have cash on hand so you can pay estimated quarterly taxes to the government because contractors operating on a 1099 basis have zero tax taken out of their paychecks. Solo entrepreneurs also have to pay self-employment tax along with income tax.
While sole proprietorships like mine have the least paperwork and the most freedom, they’re also the most vulnerable should there be a financial loss of some sort (lawsuit, personal injury claim) because your business and personal accounts are one and the same. Corporations exist to limit the personal liability of individuals in such a way that a business can be ruined but the individuals comprising it can still go on eating.
Running a business includes a lot of other paperwork, too: licenses to operate, business permits, business association memberships (e.g., Chamber of Commerce), business liability insurance, invoices, contracts/business agreements, checks, and debit/credit cards, to name a few.
I am not smart, capable, or interested enough to do all of the above myself. As a result, I hired a certified public accountant (CPA) to handle my taxes and I’ve got insurance agents to handle my business and personal insurance. Larger organizations, from partnerships up to corporations and nonprofits, have many more needs to cover, including legal advice, financing, human resources (which currently includes hiring/firing personnel, benefits, insurance, workers compensation, and training), payroll, project management, and property management for those businesses renting or owning property. Both solo flyers and owners of larger organizations can benefit from bankers, mentors, financial planners, and real estate agents.
Taking Things to the Next Level
Once you get your business set up and running, you quickly discover that you can’t just sit still. You might face competition or discover a need to expand your capabilities. As a solo entrepreneur, you might want to shift from contracting to consulting. You might choose to expand your client base, as I have, or seek other forms of revenue, such as writing a book. Consultants get paid more because they have a higher level of authority and risk than a contractor. You’re not just taking orders, you’re helping a client decide how to run their business. Are you prepared to promise particular results or outcomes? If not, consulting might not be for you. If you’re running a corporation and are thinking of expanding, you might find the need to hire new employees, seek new customers, or expand to new markets. You might, instead of developing a new business unit, create a franchise agreement and let someone else take on the burden. Bottom line: you need to keep developing your capabilities, whatever your business model might be.
If I had one message from my talk, it’s just this: YES, the climate is suitable to start your own technical writing business and YES, you can do it.