In 2003, I had this idea that I might want to go to business school someday, so I attended a [name of Ivy League school redacted] admissions event called something like, “MBA Perspectives for Women.”
The Director of Admissions spoke (“We love unconventional applicants. We’d like more philosophy majors.”) and then introduced a panel of three lady graduates ranging from twenties to forties.
Every fucking one of them, despite dropping $100K+ on an Ivy League b-school, said something like, “I’d love to start my own business someday. But that’s a big move. It’s so scary!”
Honestly, all I can think at times like this is, “Your education has been wasted on a coward, and your presence here is a crime against women.”
To be clear: they were telling a room full of hundreds of ambitious young women to work for the man for the rest of their lives. Ooh, it’s so scary to sell products and services directly to people who want them! You know what’s scary? Having $100K in debt from b-school and being tied to a corporation in order to pay it off. Working for a sexist asshole and not being able to do anything about it without wrecking your career (as opposed to simply firing clients you don’t like). Having your only options be to just quit working, or else pump breast milk in a corporate “pumping room” (or the bathroom!) and pay for 40+ hours a week of daycare if you ever want to have a kid. (Those are fine options for those are happy with them, but the all-or-nothing choice is not a great one, and entrepreneurs and freelancers who make a lot of money have many more options.)
I am also reminded of an acquaintance whose boyfriend, a Haitian immigrant to New York who imported things and sold them at tables on the street (he probably hired people to stand on the street for him), would constantly laugh at what he saw as the effete, over-educated Brooklynites who made everything so fucking complicated. He patiently explained that you should buy things, and then sell them for more than you paid.
In one of the very first Bullish columns (Bullish: How Business Is Like Dating), I talked about how you can start a business for about $40, and some reasons (other than the obvious) why you might want to: to make yourself more desirable to people who want to hire you, or even to snag a nice hiring bonus to the company who “buys” your company should you decide to go back to a full-time job. (I’d also add that starting a company, even it if has few clients and makes little money, is an excellent way to cover a baby-related resume gap, and avoid later having to spend time during an interview discussing your children. If you ever want to have kids, you need to financially plan before your biological clock kicks in.)
So, I’d like to highlight some ladies who have started the kinds of businesses that you can start without renting an office, hiring other people, or putting a lot of cash down.
First, Nayantara Banerjee’s Williamsburg Seamster, which I read about in TimeOut’s Five Affordable Tailors:
What’s better than having a quick, quality alteration? Having someone pick up the goods at your apartment. The Williamsburg Seamster—otherwise known as Nayantara Banerjee—makes house calls in northern Brooklyn and occasionally Manhattan (contact her to see if she’ll trek to your ’hood). After whisking away and fixing your duds (pants or dress hemming starts at $30), she’ll return them in two weeks or less. While she’s currently volunteering in Peru as a sewing instructor, Banerjee will be back to work in late July—and you can be sure she’ll be speedy (she’s completed 170 orders this year already).
I love that, instead of renting space, Banerjee has turned working out of her home into a luxury service for you, since she’ll come pick up your goods directly! Also, simply not being available for awhile while volunteering? A (perhaps unintentional) sweet business move – nothing makes me want my clothes tailored right now than being told I have to wait because my seamstress is busy with philanthropy!
What would you need to start a business in which you do something you already know how to do out of your home? A website, a persuasive name and logo, and … the ability to use the Internet. And the website can even be more of a placeholder – the Williamsburg Seamster is having a conversation with her customers and colleagues on her company’s Facebook page, which of course is free.
Another clever business – Manisha Snoyer teaches French classes through acting, and acting classes in French, and French wine and cheese classes, and acting classes in English to French people at Into This City.
I love this idea because acting studios are easy to rent by the hour – the overhead is pretty small. If you wanted to teach something in an acting studio, you could almost certainly find a place where you could reserve the space way in advance, try to get signups, and then cancel a certain number of days in advance if not enough people signed up – if you negotiate well, you’d risk almost zero dollars.
You might think that not having a classroom would be a disadvantage for a language class. Unless you make it an advantage. From the Yelp reviews: “You will have no blackboard but a lot of mirrors around you. Then when learning the pronunciations, you will not only see the teacher’s mouth but also your own. It helps, trust me.”
And finally, I’d like to introduce Michele Colyn of Etc. Personal Services. Michele and I met a few years ago through New York’s underground comedy scene. Recently, I was informed via Facebook that not only had Michele moved to Seattle, but she had started a business and was doing a lot of things right.
She didn’t spam her friends or pressure anybody into supporting her business. Rather, she posted a series of interesting personal updates about starting a business (updates anyone who was actually your friend would want to hear), and then asked people to “friend” Etc. Personal Services.
If you do this – even if you aren’t in Seattle – you are then treated to gems such as, “For extra motivation while purging your apartment, put Hoarders on in the background.” Oh, and “before” and “after” pictures of people’s desk drawers! It’s clutter voyeurism!
Even her actual ads are rather winsome: “Spent four hours putting up flyers and b-cards in local grocery stores. Help me spread the word! Refer a friend to Etc. Personal Services and if they hire me, get 10% off your next appointment! Double win!”
I actually contacted Michele for an interview when I saw that she was doing something right that I had once done very, very wrong. In Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To, I wrote about my total lack of transparency: pretending I was ten years older, trying to make my company seem bigger than it was, calling myself a “CEO” in a non-jokey way, and refusing to hang out or drink with clients, lest we develop an “unprofessional” actual liking of one another!
Michele’s business, conversely, is the epitome of transparency. She posted this to Facebook:
Completed my first official (non-family) Etc. assignment today! Looking forward to next week… Is that the week you tackle THAT room or area? Want to get the house clean to start the summer off right? Going out of town and need pet/housesitting? Contact me if I can help you be more awesome!
She openly admits that she’s just getting started, and started by working for family. What’s wrong with that? It kind of makes you want to join the club, no?
So, here’s Michele.
Bullish: Tell us about your business.
Michele: Etc. Personal Services was launched in June and is a one-stop shop for housecleaning, organization, errands, pet care or practically anything a person may need help with. My tagline is “Helping You Be More Awesome” and that is truly what my goal is. So far, I’ve been hired to do anything from pet sitting to administrative work, organizing closets to cleaning houseboats.
Bullish: Do you also have a day job?
Michele: Nope. I had started a new project coordination job in February and after two months struggling to meet their insane-ish expectations, we decided to part ways. At this point, I am on partial unemployment while Etc. gets off the ground.
Bullish: Why did you start a business, or how did you know it was time?
Michele: That’s the big question. These past few years have been a struggle for me and my family. My mom was diagnosed with untreatable, but slow-moving cancer in 2007. That was a large part of why I moved back to Seattle from New York in 2008. She was doing alright for the most part. I got a boring, but steady job at the University of Washington as a Program Assistant, but kept looking for a next step that would give me some job satisfaction. Since I was working at the University and got six free credits a quarter, I started taking classes to meet the prerequisites to apply for a Masters in Teaching. I applied last Fall and got through the first round of interviews and even on the waiting list, but wasn’t accepted. Two years of classes and observation hours seemed wasted.
Then last December, my mom took a sudden turn for the worse. She passed on January 2, 2011 at home after a few weeks of my family and I taking care of her. The experience was devastating, but beautiful. There were so many blessings and opportunities for us to say goodbye.
After she passed, one week after she passed actually, I secured a new job. I had the highest hopes that this job at a non-profit would be a great fit. It wasn’t. It was the first time I had ever had a job that I “couldn’t” do, at least up to their standards.
After leaving that job and in the middle of all this grief and disappointment, I finally had a chance to take a mental breath and really think about what I wanted my future to look like, instead of just reacting. I started thinking of past jobs and what I got the most joy and satisfaction out of. Needless to say, it was not the cubicle dwelling assistant-sort of positions I’ve always seem to fall into. What kept coming to mind was the side jobs I did last year while trying to make some extra money. I would put the word out to friends and Facebook that I could “help” them – with holiday shopping, cleaning, organizing, housecleaning. I would leave these jobs feeling fantastic. I had used my mind, body and personality to help people relieve some little stress in their lives. Not a life-saving move, but I would leave KNOWING, not guessing, what effect my labor had.
So I started thinking about what a life would look like being my own boss, making my own hours and creating my own job. I am a bit of bossy boss and feel I know my skills, one of them being marketing myself and the other a deep desire to help. I did some research into existing companies that do similar things. I came up with the name which seemed a great umbrella term for what I wanted to offer. I quickly bought my domain (www.etceteraseattle.com) but took my time figuring out my rates and getting my ducks in a row before “launching”. I am still figuring out some details, but jobs are trickling in and my goal is to be working at least 30 hours a week by end of summer.
So how did I know it was time? I knew it was time when circumstances forced me to really decipher what gives me work satisfaction and life gave me the perspective and strength to try something outside the norm. Life’s too short to not seek happiness.
Bullish: I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. But it is wonderful that you were able to spend so much time with her. When you finally did get a chance to take that “mental breath,” was it as hard to start a business as you thought?
Michele: No, actually. To have a business was fairly simple. Got a name, bought a domain, printed up cards. It is the day to day that I didn’t realize would be “hard”. I am constantly thinking about ways to promote my business and generate jobs. Even in social situations, I feel like I should keep an ear out for opportunities to suggest Etc. Personal Services as a resource. No more leaving work at work. Work is everywhere.
Bullish: Oh, and here’s something – I noticed on your Facebook page that you are very transparent. You’ve told everyone that you’re just starting, and you openly advertised that you just got your first non-family client. I love that – I think a lot of people would have pretended that the family members were actually paying clients and then kind of fudged all the details (oh, yeah, I’ve been in this business for YEARS…). Any thoughts on transparency in running a business?
Michele: With the year that I’ve had, I have quite a team of friends and family that are so supportive of me. They root for me constantly. I like sharing my progress with them, as they are the bulk of my Facebook connections. I don’t have the energy to put up a pretense of longevity or experience. My hope is that once I work for someone one time, I am the first people they think of when they have another job or when a friend mentions a need.
Bullish: Thanks, Michele!
Are you feeling confident that you could get a business running by Tuesday?
And are you realizing that you should? “Safe” regular jobs are anything but. (See Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business.) Having all your income come from a single employer is an extremely insecure position that makes you vulnerable to being bullied by that employer. Just as any company would diversify its income streams and any investor would diversify her investments, so too should you branch out exigently. Your employer has few to no obligations related to your well-being.
Last time I started a business, I got all my branding (logo, business cards, web design) done through LogoSauce – I put up a $200 prize and had designers from all over the world competing to make me the perfect logo by the deadline I chose. Then, I hired the winner as my web designer and she’s been making websites for me for three years. It was awesome and easy. Today, you can make a beautiful website easily on Squarespace or Wix.
In sum, if you want to start your own pharmaceutical company, you’re going to need some investors. An MBA might help. But if you’re looking to – Michele would say – “be more awesome” – then maybe I’ve just helped you save $100,000!
Starting a business isn’t scary at all. We’re all in business anyway; it’s not realizing that that’s scary.
A version of this piece was originally published on The Grindstone