Getting Started with Self-Employment
December 9, 2003 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Are you self employed, or a small business owner? If so, what do you do, and how did you get started?
posted by oissubke to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Depends on the business, and what, specifically, you'd like to know.
posted by BlueTrain at 10:14 PM on December 9, 2003

i thought that was pretty damn specific. or are you just trying to leave the impression that you are some kind of ubertrenauer?
posted by quonsar at 10:42 PM on December 9, 2003

Don't be an ass, quonsar. Starting a web-based retail business or italian restaurant or accounting firm or bar or antique store all require different amounts of money, different demographical information, different skills. Do you need a staff; are you a minority; are you poor; have you done this before; how soon do you plan to open, etc.

There are about a billion different types of small businesses.
posted by BlueTrain at 10:52 PM on December 9, 2003

bzzt. re-read the questions.
posted by quonsar at 11:00 PM on December 9, 2003

I used to have my own under the table business installing and configuring PC's in my local area. Small network, home computers, etc.

I got started out of my moms garage by using good customer service to increase sales, and it worked. I didnt get to the point of a legitimate business, but so what? I could still say I was self-employed.
posted by Keyser Soze at 11:01 PM on December 9, 2003


posted by BlueTrain at 11:03 PM on December 9, 2003

The biggest worry I have whenever I consider going solo is all the tax work. Is it really accureate to say that roughly half of what you make as, say, a freelance web designer/developer or home computer consultant should be saved for taxes?

I'd be worried enough about make cash just to eat, much less for taxes. Or health care, for that matter.
posted by Hackworth at 11:09 PM on December 9, 2003

Depends on the business, and what, specifically, you'd like to know.

BlueTrain, I think you might have misunderstood my question. I wasn't asking how to start a business, I was just asking what some of the other entrepreneurs around here have done, and for their stories about getting started.

I've got a lot of admiration for folks who are self-employed or small business owners, and I just wanted to see what kind of stories entrepreneurial MeFites had to tell.
posted by oissubke at 11:17 PM on December 9, 2003

I was a self-employed web designer (working by myself, no employees) for 8.5 years. Got sick of it. Took a 9-5 job (office admin) and hated it. Lasted 13 months and just quit in August. Now I'm doing as little work as I can to get by (web design again) and trying to make it as a screenwriter.

As for how I got started in web design.... In 1995 I heard about a contest for best web site. First prize was a new computer and I needed a new computer badly. It was Friday. Deadline was Monday. I bought a book on HTML and over the weekend I made a web site and entered the contest. Since I was broke, I returned the HTML book to the store. I lost the contest but left the web site up just for the hell of it.

A week or so later it was given the Canadian Web Site of the Day Award. I thought that was pretty neat. I started updating often. (I didn't know it then as the term hadn't been created, but my site was a blog. It was called [sic] and I killed it in 1997.) A few months later the site won the Canadian Web Site of the Year Award (based on a voting system). The prize was a kickass Softride bicycle. The company that gave the award (they were called 10Q Media) put out press releases. After that, the phone just started ringing. My first client was YTV (this was before they even had a site).

The most valuable thing I learned in my 10 years or so of doing web shit is that winning awards is a good way of getting your foot in the door so I'm going to do the same thing with screenwriting by winning this contest next year. Wish me luck. (And mark my words.) ;)

On preview: Hackworth, get an accountant. it's the smartest thing you can do regarding your taxes. Mine kicks ass. As for the amount you'll need for taxes, that percentage will depend on how much you make.
posted by dobbs at 11:25 PM on December 9, 2003

I'm self-employed, oissubke, and have been for about two and a half years now. After my last layoff, the job market was tight, wage scale in my area was depressed, and I just didn't feel like getting back on the corporate treadmill again.

I work in marketing communications, PR, writing, project management etc. Not a lot of overhead needed to get started, and I mostly relied on a network of contacts built over the years. I also have a good network of freelancers that I work with. The most difficult thing for me has been managing workflow/cashflow...once or twice, things looked pretty dire until I learned the secret to attracting new business: try to take a vacation.

I tried this about 10 years ago, and really hated it at the time...I recall spending way too much time at Kinkos-type places using faxes and sending express mail. And I felt isolated. The web makes all the difference.

Because I am inordinately fond of food and shelter, I'm still in a phase of taking anything that comes over the transom, and I hope to be more selective over time, shaping my book of business...I'd like to do more web-related work and less print work. We'll see. I do miss paid benefits!
posted by madamjujujive at 11:26 PM on December 9, 2003

Are you self employed, or a small business owner? If so, what do you do, and how did you get started?

Yes, draw cartoons, graduated animation school and wasn't hired anywhere.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 11:44 PM on December 9, 2003

Self-Employed PC/Satellite/Modchip retail shop owner here, if that helps. Opened in August, been doing well (IMNSHO).

Let's see, got started from my interest in PCs since age 4... Then got interested in electronics. Took some highschool courses in it. Did some small time business on the side. Took some college on it. Never finished it (I intend to one day). Decided to make money the hard way, though 18 hour days at $300 a month.

Oh wait, was this meant to be a success story? :-)
posted by shepd at 12:00 AM on December 10, 2003

Get some nice PJs if you're working from home, and frequently remind friends about the fact your commute from the bedroom to your office/study takes about 2 minutes.

Don't tell them how little you make.
posted by johnny novak at 1:14 AM on December 10, 2003

I'm self employed as the President of my own web design and consulting proprietorship. I like calling myself President because it just sounds cool.

I got started by learning HTML and CSS during the roughly 2 years I spent in my previous job: doing technical support for over 200 ISPs scattered across North America. I started a blog so I could have something to do between calls on the slow nights and keep up with friends in Toronto. I read a lot of sites done by web developers and designers of different mediums. I picked up bits and pieces along the way.

Once day in June 2003 I had reached my limit in tech support. It's a terribly stressful job that has an average employe turnover rate of somewhere around 9 months. I figured I had beat the odds and done well enough to do double that.

I had an increasing desire to do web design professionally. At a local blogger meeting I realised that if I wanted to get into the business I couldn't just wait around for one of the local firms of note to hire me, I had to take the bull by the horns and do it myself.

Without any money saved, I quit my job and filed my papers with the Attorney General. With little more than a laptop and a dream I started walking around to every business in my town, picking up and passing business cards left and right. Finally, a local naturopathic doctor bit and I had my first client.

Since then, I've counted on great customer service and the odd bit of luck to build my business. I will admit that as the son of a succesfull entrepreneur and CEO of a software business, I had what I call a "kitchen table MBA". That gave a natural business sense that has helped me a lot. I can also give credit to Jevon MacDonald, Peter Rukavina and the great guys at silverorange for their advice and support. That's not to mention the greats of web design that taught me via their weblogs. I'll have to post my opml file sometime to give some small credit.
posted by will at 4:38 AM on December 10, 2003

will -- if you have an in with the silverorange guys, tell them to lower their license fees so I can afford them! :-) I've always loved their software, but the price makes me shoot milk out my nose.
posted by oissubke at 5:41 AM on December 10, 2003

I've got two businesses I'm a principle of:

Molecular Media - a small multimedia house, which does video and audio production, staging and other associated contract-style work. This company was started, with friends, as a result of being in an after-school program at my high school which specialized in doing multimedia work for other high schools in Florida. We formed the company because the advisor of the high school program decided to stop providing the services, so there was a ready client list. 13 years later, and we still do school events for fun (and small profits) and we make decent money doing similar work for corporate clients.

Shocker Group - a small web hosting company. Work friends and I formed this company a little over a year ago because we wanted to host our own websites without having to worry about them being connected to our then-employer's bandwidth or servers, and to give ourselves a ready environment to sell our development and design talents through. We're still very small, but it's paying for itself and is growing steadily.

Disclaimer: I also have a day job, so I can afford to make mistakes and not devote 100% to my personal ventures.
posted by tomierna at 7:18 AM on December 10, 2003

As an unsuccesful freelance arts journalist, I can only offer advice on becoming the same ;)

I started by doing work experience at my local paper and television company while still at school, then worked on my university newspaper to the extent that I forgot about the university bit and failed my degree. That led straight to newspaper and magazine work, which in turn led to work on various wanky style magazines. For various reasons, I'm now back writing for smaller publications, mainly on visual art and music.

I guess that's the standard career path - I don't know too many journalists who've succesfully switched from other careers later in life, but everyone who I worked alongside as a student journalist now has a career in the field, be it tabloid, broadsheet, magazine or broadcast work. There's even a couple who write for the web.

As a freelancer, you get paid buttons unless you work very hard (which kind of defeats the purpose of picking such a layabout job!) but all the things you would usually spend your disposable income on - in my case CDs, vinyl, books, gig tickets - come for free in the post according to the area you specialise in.

Tax can be a hassle, but a good accountant will clue you in to the benefits of self-employment - in the UK at least, pretty much everything becomes a legitimate deductable expense if you are self-employed and work from home: electricity and gas bills, the depreciation in value of your laptop, magazine subscriptions...

And, to be honest, extra non-journalistic work helps out too - playing records in nightclubs, PR work, advertising copywriting, consultancy-type things - so I guess I'm more a freelance whatever-I-can-get-paid-for than strictly a journalist. I think that's quite important if you're taking the self-employment route - find a niche, but don't over-specialise, and never turn down an opportunity because it doesn't fit your idea of what it is you do.

So, yeah, from my experience, being a self-employed jack of all trades and working from home is just great - unless you actually want to earn a decent amount of money, secure your future and look after dependents, that is.

Oh, and johnny novak is right - good pajamas are key, as is a dressing gown with large enough pockets for cigarettes, lighter and TV remote.
posted by jack_mo at 7:22 AM on December 10, 2003

Quite a few years ago, I bought a bookstore. It was in poor shape due to lack of interest of the previous owner. I had bookstore experience, and got half the purchase money as a loan from the previous owner, who was a motivated seller, and the rest from family. Got some technical assistance from the Small Business Admin. Got help and advice from everybody I could think of.

I had a blast, learned more about business than I could have learned in school, and made a pretty good living after a few lean startup years. I never had a money-losing year. Decided to sell the business when I was having a baby, and sold it profitably.

Buying an existing business had a lot of pluses. Dealing with the IRS as an employer really, really sucks. As Dobbs says, get a really good accountant. Makes a huge difference.

Try to think about what kind of environment you want to spend your days in, and what kind of work you really want to do. If you want more info, email me. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 AM on December 10, 2003

I was a freelance technical writer for five years. My advice: don't. If you do anyway, my advice is:

1) Either hire an accountant, or know something about accounting and like doing bookeeping. If you either
2) Have at least a year's salary (from your previous job) in the bank before starting and be prepared to cut your standard of living drastically.
3) Watch what you buy. Don't buy things you don't need right now just because they're good deals and you might need them later because you're thinking of branching out into something or other. And when you buy, buy what will do the job, not the top of the line. Don't buy anything if you can't pay cash for it (the exception might be a major capital purchase, but there should be relatively few of those in a small computer-based business). Turn down every credit card you are offered. Most importantly, don't buy a new computer unless you really can't do your work with the one you have.
4) Assiduously save the receipts for EVERYTHING you buy that's even slightly business-related. Let your accountant decide whether it's deductible or not.
5) Do not miss ANY estimated tax payment, ever.
6) Set hours and stick to them. Unless you establish otherwise, your friends and family will assume that since you work at home, your time is infinitely flexible and you are always available for socializing, child care, and so on. You must under no circumstances allow them to do this. An hour here and and hour there and pretty soon you can't get any work done.
7) Get a copy of this book. It's a bit dated but still has a lot of good advice from a true entrepreneur.
posted by kindall at 11:38 AM on December 10, 2003 [1 favorite]

1) Either hire an accountant, or know something about accounting and like doing bookeeping. If you either

... don't know or don't like bookkeeping, the accountant's cheaper than trying to do it yourself.
posted by kindall at 11:39 AM on December 10, 2003

kindall's #6 is key. I have done a lot of different freelance and contract jobs. I got my own business license when the City of Seattle required it for a contract position I did with them. Things I have done while owning my own "consulting" business include the following. Not all of these required me to own a business.

- freelance on-site tech support in Seattle
- freelance writing for magazines, mostly library magazines
- being a computer installer/trainer for the City of Seattle
- I edited a book about radical librarian culture
- I score the California Achievements for ETS
- low-tech web design of the My First Website variety
- freelance research for businesses
- textbook writing for elementary schools
- graphic design for print advertising

At my income level I had to assume that I would owe 25% of my self-employment income at tax time. You can get away without paying estimated taxes [i.e. paying the govt quarterly what you think you'll owe them] for one year, then they will come after you, or can [this is in the US, btw]. So, save receipts, get an accountant or use really straightforward software [I use Quicken's turbotax come tax time] and remember things you buy and use for work can be deducted. Back to what Kindall was saying: people assume that since you work at home you are a loafer at some level which is funny because I loaf more at my day job than I ever did when freelancing. So, make sure people know when you are at work and treat that time like work time, and require them to do so also. This is crazy-important if you have a live-in partner of some sort. They will not be able to understand why you can't do the laundry when you are working from home.

I really liked the work and the variety but the uncertain income made me crazy so now I have a part-time well paying librarian gig with benefits and I still do a lot of freelancing on the side.
posted by jessamyn at 12:27 PM on December 10, 2003

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