The best boss I ever worked for is me.
I should know. I’ve been working for myself for one year, and I haven’t had a single disagreement with myself. Of course, my only employee is me. I work out of my Falls Church home — in a basement cubby. There are thousands of men and women in the Washington area just like me who found the fortitude to start one-person businesses.
You can, too. It’s not that hard.
I know — you don’t believe me. You think it’s too risky. You think it’s too complicated. You think it’s way too scary. It may be all of that. It was for me — particularly the first three months. There were more than a few days when my dog, Shadow, gave me that, “Shouldn’t you be at a real job?” glare. But after more than 12 months as a full-time freelance writer — who has figured out how to cobble together nearly two-thirds of my former annual salary as a USA Today reporter — I have my own way of describing my new life: wonderful.
You probably want to know: How can you get from where you are to where I am? How do regular folks leave the security — or insecurity — of their jobs and start profitably working for themselves? Well, one year doesn’t make me an expert. So I’ve reached out to others. I’ve spoken with local people who started their own businesses. I’ve spoken with experts from the Small Business Administration and from the small-business mentoring group, SCORE. I’ve even reached out to a couple of workplace gurus who have written books on the topic.
First, however, a reality check.
Most small businesses — particularly one-guy or one-gal operations — tank. The odds of you — or me — hanging out a shingle and still having that shingle in place five years from now are shaky. Roughly half of all new businesses survive five years, and about one-third survive 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the data get worse. One-person operations — which federal bureaucrats prefer to call sole proprietorships — have turnover rates three times as high as employer firms, mostly because it is so much easier for non-employer firms to start and stop, the Small Business Administration says.
With odds so lousy, why take the risk?
“Being an entrepreneur is a sober and sobering decision,” says Tom Peters, the management guru and co-author of “In Search of Excellence,” a best-selling business book. Peters left McKinsey years ago to run his one-man shop before more recently hiring an assistant. “But don’t get carried away by the thought of being an entrepreneur. The local plumber is an entrepreneur.”
Even then, it’s critical to be able to explain what makes your product or service special — in about the amount of time it takes to watch a Vine video.
“If you don’t have a clear understanding of your product or service, it’s not going to work,” says Karen Williams, head of the regional chapter of SCORE, which mentors small businesses.
Develop an elevator pitch that instantly crystalizes what your company does, says Natalia Olson-Urtecho, the Small Business Association’s regional administrator for the Mid- Atlantic. What’s more, she adds, “Don’t be afraid of failure. I don’t know a really successful entrepreneur who hasn’t failed.”
Of course, you’re not starting your own business to fail — but to succeed. There’s another important reason to consider self-employment: personal fulfillment.
“Working for yourself allows you to be true to your personal values yet still pay your bills,” says Claude Whitmyer, co-author of “Running a One-Person Business” and co-founder of the University of the Future. The former professor has been working for himself as an education consultant since 1994.
His most critical piece of advice: Even if you’re working alone, you can’t do it all alone. “We have a tendency to think that we can do it all ourselves. We can’t,” he says. The very first thing you have to do is pull in to a group of like-minded people who can give you technical and emotional support, he says. The best way to do this is to network via social media.
That’s what Joe Bernstein did.
At 34, Bernstein looks and sounds like the kind of guy who was mystically transported from an era of love, peace and bellbottoms to an era of apps, smartphones and social media. Don’t let his beard fool you. The self-employed life coach — who formerly was a retail store manager selling pricey Bose headphones — is a self-made success story. Less than a decade ago, he weighed 340 pounds and inhaled Big Macs like the rest of us inhale oxygen. Today, he weighs just under 180 pounds and runs his life consulting business, Drop the Armor Wellness, out of a Washington apartment.
Six months ago, when he was starting his life coaching business, Bernstein emailed everyone who was part of his personal network. He told them what he was doing and offered four months of free life coaching. The gambit worked. Nearly a dozen friends and associates took him up on his offer — one-quarter of whom remain paying clients.
“To create clients, you have to be willing to ask everyone you know,” he says — even if those clients are initially free. “Everyone says that once you get something for free you’ll never pay for it — but that’s not true.” It was the free life coaching “samples” that Bernstein doled out that resulted in his first set of clients. Their positive social media posts brought him more business.
Bernstein works from his dining room table — via laptop and cellphone. He Skypes many of his clients — including several who live in other states and a few who live in other countries.
The hardest part of starting your own business: making the decision to do it.
“You have to believe in yourself and take a risk, knowing that if you fail, you’ll succeed somewhere else,” Bernstein says, with calm contentment.
Angel McCoy gets that.
Back when she was in third grade, she would stare up at the sky and study the stars. The Hyattsville, Md., resident fell in love with all things weather-related and penned a letter to Charles “Topper” Shutt, chief meteorologist at WUSA Channel 9 in Washington. He invited her down to the station for a visit. She was smitten by the profession. Never mind that as an African American girl still in grade school, McCoy wasn’t exactly seeing gobs of weather forecasters on TV who looked like her.
Undeterred, McCoy got her degree in meteorology from Penn State and soon had a job with a federal contractor working for the National Weather Service.
After several years at that job — then working for an office in the federal government responsible for leasing portions of the ocean for renewable energy — McCoy realized that she had become such an expert in this niche area that her best opportunity for advancement was to strike out on her own.
That’s not such an easy decision, however, with two babies in the house. So even as she kept her government job, she took out a trade name application for her new consulting business, McCoy Environmental Group. With her husband’s encouragement, she finally left job in January and has invested $8,000 in her new business — including traveling to a meteorological conference in New Orleans, where she gave a one-hour presentation.
She’s within a whisker of landing her first federal subcontract with a major federal contractor.
That, says SCORE’s Williams, is the best way for sole proprietors to win federal contracts — to subcontract with bigger clients. That’s because the federal government’s most critical evaluator in awarding contracts is past performance. “As a start-up, you don’t have past performance,” she notes.
But nothing comes easy to most one-person companies.
McCoy says she gets lonely working alone at home. “You don’t have any co-workers to go to lunch with.”
With no boss filling out annual evaluations, you become your own judge and jury — and that has its own complexities, says Bernstein, the life coach.
“It’s easy to be too hard on yourself,” he says. Some days, he’ll spend hours putting out feelers for new business and come up empty. His goal is to always have a dozen clients in the mix, but often he falls short of that. “Being your own boss is an emotional see-saw,” he says.
The paperwork and administrative gobbledygook can be overwhelming. Shortly after Peters left McKinsey, he says, he forgot to bill people for five months “before I figured out why I was running out of money.”
I totally get that. My wife, Evelyne, a former accountant, had to show me how to create and send invoices online. The only time I’d previously collected money for my services was when I was a 10-year-old Cleveland Press delivery boy and constantly went in the red because I was too shy to remind deadbeat customers to pay up.
Now I track payments like NORAD tracks missiles.
I’ve also learned that, at its heart, my business is a daily reflection of me. It’s one thing to have fancy logos and flashy Web pages. It’s something else, entirely, to constantly deliver quality work on time — at a fair price.
So it’s your turn. If you’ve been thinking about starting your own business, first try it on the side. Don’t quit your day job until you are convinced that you love it and you are good enough at it that people will actually pay you to do it.
One last thing. Remember, nothing lasts forever. Even as you keep up with your old contacts — constantly foster new ones. Keep learning new skills. And regularly thank every customer with simple acts of kindness. A thoughtful email here. A kindly phone call there. But you must mean it every time.
Perhaps that’s why I just won my company’s boss of the year award. There were no dissenting votes.