3 things I learned by starting my own business in a recession

In 2010, I quit my job to go to work for myself. I was super nervous about it — I had no idea if I’d be able to pull it off or not. But I haven’t had a moment of regret; to the contrary, I’m thrilled that I did it.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the ingredients that were necessary to make that happen. Over at Inc. today, I talk what I’ve learned from the experience. (Note: My columns for Inc. are generally pulled from my archives here. This one was originally printed here in 2011.)

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Kyrielle*

    Alison, THANK YOU for point #3. I’ve been happily employed and still had people tell me I should go start my own business doing X.

    Honestly? I really don’t want to do that. I just don’t. I want to work for someone else’s business. I will work hard for them. I will do my best. But they can deal with management, finding clients, and taxes, please.

    (Also, what is with “oh, you should go start a business doing (hobby)”? Some of those fields are _very_ hard to make a living in. And it’s also a good way to spoil a joyous hobby….)

    1. BRR*

      Everything about this. I like being a cog in a machine. I like a consistent salary. I don’t want to deal with everything else.

      1. T*

        “I like being a cog in a machine.”

        This is what I say about working for a huge company vs. a mom and pop shop. I like being a number and not having the C-levels know my name. I’m happy to excel in my own little part of the company. I also hate the politics of a small company. There can be too many big fish in a small pond. As a sys admin at a 300-person company, I had all of the department heads basically giving me orders. Now I have a very clear chain of command and I literally ignore anyone not in it.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      Yes, #3!

      I hate, hate, HATE reading smug blog posts about how people who work for others are suckers, and the only true freedom you’ll have is starting up your own business. Apart from the actual logistical difficulties in starting your own business, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with liking to work for other people… and most successful businesses still have to answer to clients, advertisers, shareholders, etc.—you don’t just do whatever you want.

      More importantly, starting up your own business is awesome! Shaming people for not starting their own business is just impractical. Very few businesses can operate without some kind of support staff, so if everyone took this silly advice and started their own business, all sorts of necessary ecosystems would collapse…

    3. NK*

      Yep. My husband was convinced that he wanted to start his own freelance business. All it took was one client proposal (before he quit his day job, thank goodness) before he realized that while he may be good at what he does, soliciting clients and the administrative aspects of freelancing were NOT for him.

    4. Artemesia*

      The hardest part of any business is generating business. This is a fairly rare skill and for many people excruciating. I don’t want to be a development professional; asking for money is the last thing I would ever want to do day in and day out. Developing business takes a lot of the same extrovert characteristics and skills.

    5. Weezy*

      #3 resonated with me as well. And it frustrates me that entrepreneurship being marketed in minority communities as the holy grail. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve encountered who barely distinguish themselves in regular jobs talking about how they are going to start a business and create “multiple income streams.”

    6. Pinkie Pie Chart*

      I have a friend who loves to cook. So she went to cooking school and became a pastry chef. And then she hated cooking. So she quit and now she loves cooking again. Just because you’re good at something and enjoy it doesn’t mean you want to make your living doing it.

  2. Honeybee*

    SAVINGS. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m saving a little per month so I can pay off some credit card debt I racked up in graduate school, but I hope to have most of that paid down within a year or so, and then I am banking some serious cheddar. I want to be in a position where if I choose to leave my position and take a little gap I can do so. (Also, a house.)

    1. BRR*

      Savings are so important. Not just for starting your own business but in case something happens to your job, medical emergencies, unexpected car repairs etc. I don’t think saving can be under emphasized.

  3. Julie*

    Your point #3 is so key. I’ve occasionally gone to entrepreneurship workshops where the leader says something like, “You have to really want it! You have to go out and market yourself! You have to have that fire in your belly!”

    I think they intend this to be some sort of rousing pep talk, but all I’m hearing is, “Nope. I don’t have that fire. I don’t want to market myself. Oh, well, back to my day job.” :)

  4. T*

    This was my favorite part of the article:
    I sometimes hear people ask, “Why should I work really hard and go out of my way for my employer when they don’t show the same loyalty to me?” This is why: because becoming known as someone who kicks butt at work means that you’ll have people excited to hire you when you need them to be, which will make your life a lot easier in the future. It is a huge favor to yourself.

    We’ve had major morale issues at work lately and this was a good reminder of why you need to keep giving 100% even when your company doesn’t seem to appreciate or reward your efforts. It can feel like you’re sort of rewarding your company for treating you poorly but it’s really about keeping your work at the same high standard. We recently had someone that was considered a superstar totally tank their work for 6 months and then quit. They wanted to stick it to the company that wouldn’t promote them but now our director says she is glad the person left and the company wouldn’t hire them back. Their strongest memories are of the last 6 months.

  5. mehkitty84*

    Thanks Alison! I have actually been toying with starting my own HR Consulting business. It is super scary and I am also saving to do so. I have a few years of experience in HR as well as a Masters Degree, but really think I would excel in a consulting gig. Do you recommend though that I would be better off getting more experience in the corporate world before I start my own?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, yes, yes. Yes.

      You want to have a ton of experience in the field you’re consulting in if you’re working on your own (as opposed to working with more experienced consultants who can guide you, and frankly even then I think that’s a bad model). You’re going to be selling your expertise and wisdom, and that’s a really hard sell without pretty deep and substantial experience. (And totally aside from needing to be able to sell it, you want to actually be good at it, and I think that’s a direct result of experience, being exposed to lots of different situations over time, etc.)

  6. mehkitty84*

    Thanks for the reply! I was afraid that would be the answer lol. I have so far done HR for my field that my undergrad is in and when I got my master’s I started doing HR for manufacturing. I am hoping in 5 years or so I will have enough to then start consulting! Gives me time to save up.

  7. Stranger than fiction*

    Alison thanks for the part about kicking ass at work being a favor to yourself. I think in a lot of office environments today (and I’m totally guilty of this sometimes myself) it’s all to easy to become complacent, especially when you feel nobody’s really taking notice or in a place where nothing ever changes no matter how good your ideas are. It’s still important to shine and have that reputation because yes, you take that with you wherever you go.

    1. Jean*

      At present, I happen to be in a hard place personally and professionally. It’s scarily easy to let my standards slide under these circumstances, but in the end I value my own integrity and self-respect more than some short-term convenience. Thank you for this reminder.

      As for the cynical voice of temptation that whispers, “Don’t try so hard when it’s a (seemingly) no-win situation,” well, there’s a huge difference between doing a good job and being a martyr for one’s workplace. Besides, folks who do a bad job eventually become a burden that one’s workplace will want to lose.

      I’m thankful that every seven days I get a weekend to recharge my batteries and morale.

  8. MR*

    I’m curious to know if you had a client(s) lined up when you left your job, or if you had a list of people you would contact upon leaving or something else.

    It’s something I’m thinking about doing at some point, but I just don’t know how to have clients to go from viewing me as an employee of Teapots Inc. to owner of Teapot Consultant Inc – if that makes any sense.

  9. BakerStreet*

    I think I have no choice but to go freelance. The area I have a degree in has one constantly job searching even while employed. It’s a pain since I don’t go out and you’ll be a poor nomad all the time. This makes networking difficult so many people resort to forums. I would like to change careers and explore another option but I have never made any real money and everyone just says if you charge what you’re worth you’ll never get paid. It’s ridiculous to think you have to shoot off your feet just to get a client to sign on for a project but that’s how it is.

    I’ve always wanted to design and build the things I have in my imagination but since I was born female I was denied the opportunity at every turn. Why? Because I was forced to go to school in a third world dump known as Texas. Would I still like to be an engineer? YES. Can I afford the college education required? No. I also can’t find an employer willing to train a woman on the job but there are plenty of good ol’ boy scumbags helping their friends out.

    I swear if I hear one more idiot claim that there’s no such thing as corruption and that this is the “land of opportunity” I’m going to punch them in the face!

    1. Kyrielle*

      *weary* There is that. Not sure what type of engineering you’re interested in, but have you looked at Coursera, EdX, Stanford’s free online courses?

      Not as good as a degree but possibly still helpful….

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