We no longer live in the work world that your grandparents or even your parents experienced. Gone are the days where you loyally work for an employer for 40 years and retire with a nice pension and a gold watch. In 2018 the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reported that at that point, the median time that a job is held in the U.S. is 4.2 years. That number is even shorter for younger workers.
In response to this lack of work-life longevity, many people are looking beyond the traditional jobs for income and professional satisfaction. For example, from 2012 to 2019 the number of Etsy sellers tripled to 2.5 million. In the fourth quarter of 2018, a total of 15.8 million people in the U.S. were working as entrepreneurs.
And while many small businesses have been suffering during the Covid-19 virus slow-down, other entrepreneurs have been feeling lucky that they have control over their own income and can easily work from home.
In this article, I’ll share my experience turning my expertise into a business, and steps for you to do the same.
1. Determine Your Expertise
The first step in the process of taking control of your work life is to determine your area, or areas, of expertise. You do not have to be the best in the world at something to be able to carve out a niche for yourself. What is important is that you believe that you have material or information to share and that you treat customers/clients well.
Whether you are a painter, an accountant, or a dog walker, there is probably a market for your product or service.
The first place to start is with the work you’ve already been doing (though hobbies and other interests are an excellent place as well). It may be that what you’re already doing could be turned into a consultancy role.
For example, my role as a professor and Dissertation Committee Chair gave me the knowledge and skills to help students finish their dissertations. With almost half of PhD students finishing all the work for their degree except for their dissertation, I knew there was a market for my expertise.
Your non-professional interests may be useful in determining your area of expertise as well. For example, if you are a voracious reader, you may make a good editor.
2. Are You Passionate?
Determining an area of expertise is not enough, of course. You have to be passionate and committed to your idea and be willing to put in an enormous amount of effort. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, you may get initial customers, but the odds are that you won’t be in business for long. We can all sense someone who just wants our money. Don’t be that person; it’s not a positive long-term strategy.
Even if you’re not an expert in your field of interest, you may have more passion than others do for your topic or product and can, therefore, outlast the competition.
Nick Ortner, the author of The Tapping Solution and founder of many tapping-related programs and public service foundations, is not a mental health professional. Yet his belief in the power of meridian tapping for stress relief and nervous system regulation led him to advance the use of tapping worldwide. He did not create the technique, but he believed in it so strongly, he has become the person most associated with tapping.
Moreover, his passion for the technique has led him to offer significant mental health assistance to people in dire crisis situations. His passion has not only given himself and his family a good income, but it’s also given millions of people important help.
Is there something you think about the first thing every morning? Is there something (a product, a practice, or an idea) that you wish everyone could have access to? Is there expertise you have that others have asked you to share – and that you enjoy sharing?
3. Market Research
Who else is doing what you want to do? If your business is local, check out the ads in places like Craigslist or Facebook. See who posts signs at grocery stores and hardware stores.
If you plan on offering your products and/or services on a broader scale, this step is still important. Whether local or international, most people are willing to talk to you about what they do and share any insights. Collect all the information that you can.
If you find competitors, what actual services do they offer and what do they charge? If they are charging less than you can afford to charge, try to determine if they are offering comparable services/products or if they are just able to get by on less than you.
Another aspect of business that has changed since our parents’ time is that “competitors” can be our best referral sources. Connecting with those who are doing work similar to what you want to do can help you create a network to tap into for posting articles on one another’s sites, finding source materials for less, and countless other possibilities.
4. Part-Time or Full Time
Are you ready to give up your full-time job and live the life of an entrepreneur? What about starting something on the side?
If you are without a job this may not be a choice.
If you do have a choice it may be easier to test the waters by starting part-time.
Regardless of whether you start part-time or full time, good record keeping is very important. You want to be able to determine if you are covering your costs and actually making money. This is important so that you have the ability to stay in business, and also for income tax purposes.
Don’t worry about finding software, just start with a spreadsheet for expenses, income, and a timesheet.
6. Determine What Tools You Need
“Tools” is a broad term. It could mean a website – having a website is more than getting a domain name and putting up a page. You need to get people to go to your website. If you don’t know how to drive people to your website, then it may be a great investment to hire someone who can help you do just that.
How about physical tools, will you need display tables, a way to accept payment, brochures? Try to determine everything that you need to start – this is different than everything that you might need to grow your business. You may be able to accumulate materials over time.
7. Financial Readiness
Some sources recommend having up to months of expenses on hand when starting a business. One of the biggest reasons new businesses fail is lack of capital. If you want to succeed, you should be planning financially to leap. You may have a concept that can attract outside investors. External infusions of cash are great but remember you will most likely have to give up some control of the business to get the money.
It also doesn’t hurt to start small while you still have your “day job,” to see both whether you enjoy this new venture and if it has the potential to replace your income. Straddling the line between working for someone else and going it alone can be extremely stressful, so if you go that route, be sure to set a limit on the time you’ll be doing both jobs.
Investing a little money to have a conversation with an accountant who specializes in small businesses can save you a lot of time and hassle down the road. Also, the Small Business Association (SBA) has many online/print resources and the Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) around the country. There are several accounting software programs available now for small businesses. Take advantage of as many resources as you can; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
While considering financial resources, make sure that you remember taxes. If you are an employee, your employer has been paying half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes (the total, both halves, is 15.30%). It is usually safe to assume that 35% of your self-employment income will go to some type of tax.
8. Continue to Grow
I went to a craft fair a few years ago and saw some sayings artfully crafted onto fabric and bought two. The next year I returned, eager to see if the seller had added to her line so that I could add to my collection. Everything was the same. The same thing was true the following year. I stopped checking out her material after that. Every marketing analyst knows that “new” is perhaps the most important keyword in business.
If your product stays the same, consider offering it in several different formats. Nick Ortner has a book on tapping, but he also holds annual tapping conferences, offers YouTube videos demonstrating tapping (and advertising his book and conferences), and has recently released an app that offers free and fee-based options.
9. Delivery and Follow-Up
In our instant gratification world, people want what they buy as soon as possible. Think about how your product will be delivered and the options that you will offer before you make a sale. It is too late to do this after a sale; your customer wants their product.
Some small firms are sending personalized notes or emails to customers following a sale. These notes ask the customer if they’re satisfied, ask if they need assistance using the service or product, and offer advice on how to get the most out of their purchase. This type of attention can cement a relationship with a customer.
Similarly, loyalty rewards programs or points-for-reviews programs can maintain connections and encourage repeat buyers. It’s not difficult to automate requests for reviews or even follow-up emails, but few small businesses seem to do this.
Marie Forleo is one of the best examples of how to do follow-through. With every purchase, the customer receives a video thanking them for their business and advice for their next steps. Her warm and friendly manner makes the customer feel like they’ve made a new friend, which goes a long way toward cementing the business relationship.
Is your business a service that depends upon you, or do you provide a service or manufacture a product that can easily be scaled up for increased production? You can only do so many one-on-one meetings in a week, so that may put a limit on your potential income. Can you provide your service to more than one person at a time? In groups? Or, will you need to hire people to expand? Being ready for expansion is the next step after the start-up.
On the other hand, you may decide that you want to stay small so that you can maintain your business all by yourself. Having employees adds another dimension to your work, beyond just payroll taxes. You’ll need to know how to manage people or hire someone who does if you want to expand.
Considering questions of expansion may seem premature when you’re just getting started, but once you get rolling, you might not have time to mull things over. And if you just start hiring people without a solid plan of action, your business could take some fatal hits. Don’t skip this step!
You’ll also want to consider whether you’re the type of person who can withstand criticism, downturns in sales, and bleak outlooks. Will these things depress you to the point of inaction, or will they spur you to try harder? Can you be patient with roadblocks, or will they make you want to turn around and give up?
Besides financial capital, fortitude may be the most important key to making a business work long-term. If you can tap into your determination and will-force in hard times, you will be miles ahead of those who’ve tried to start a business but gave up when things seemed hopeless. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of being better; it’s a matter of staying in the game the longest.
If you are feeling called to start a business in your area of expertise or interest, I wish you much success. Undoubtedly, there will be long hours involved and maybe even some moments of second-guessing. Remember to be prepared for the ups and downs and deliver more than you promise.
If you are doing something you love, all the hard work will be worth it. Especially when you hear from your customers how much they appreciate what you do. That type of “compensation” is priceless, and it tells you you’ve done the right thing.