Starting a business of your own, Part I

Some readers have noticed I haven’t blogged much lately. I don’t have a good reason for this. I had some work keeping me busier than usual in the first quarter, which was good! But not enough so that I couldn’t find some time to blog. I could blame it on the fact that I tore my rotator cuff in a freak accident on New Year’s Eve (some young guy I barely knew tried to pick me up and he dropped me). I had surgery Mar. 29 and I’ve been recovering and going to PT twice a week, doing endless stretches and extensions, so it was difficult to get my left arm to reach the keyboard until recently. My recovery feels very slow, but it doesn’t hurt to type now.

I could blame it on the fact that my son has commandeered my laptop since early March, taking with it my flexible ability to write from anywhere. Then last month, the laptop died, so he has been on my desktop more. Also, it’s baseball season, so sometimes I go right from PT to one of my son’s games. The truth is, I can’t blame my absence on any of those things alone. I just had other things that seemed more important. But here’s a blog I promised to write and have had in draft stage for a while now: How to start a business while you’re un*employed.

Fill up that hole in your resume

To keep afloat during my on-and-off un*employment the past four years, I have been able to do a little contract freelance writing and editing work for various clients. Whether or not I actually had contract work, I decided that it was very important for my resume to appear as though I’ve never stopped working. This is my first real piece of knowledge to impart to the un*employed–don’t let an “unemployed” hole show in your resume. Fill it up with a consulting or contract business!

Pick a name

The first step is to simply to pick a name for your as-yet non-existent business. I learned this trick from my father when he was laid off in the 80s and he set up shop as a geology consultant (I think it was American Eagle Geophysical Contractors). In the U.S., it’s legal to just label yourselfdoing business as,” i.e., “Jane Doe, DBA Fictitious Business Name.”  Picking a name is a powerful step for someone who has lost their job identity.

When I was laid off from from Sky & Telescope magazine in Dec. 2006, I had just obtained a custom “personalized” or “vanity” license plate that said, “STELLR” to celebrate my personal interest and profession in astronomy. My chances of finding another full-time job in astronomy editing were (still are) bleak, so I was kind of stuck with this plate on my car that sort of matched my personal identity but sadly, wouldn’t likely match my next job identity. But I really like the plate, so when I picked a business name for myself, I chose “Stellar Editorial Services.” Now my plate makes sense when people match it to my company name.

Build a website

Once you have a business name, you need to market yourself. A website is an obvious tool that you can send to prospects to feature your work. A website enhances your professionalism and gives you a link to place in cover emails to prospective clients and employers. You should do a little research on the best choice of a web hosting service to make your website accessible via the Internet. You must choose a web host (i.e., a server) unless you have your own server at home.You may be able to afford  pay a little, but I chose a host that was free; the “cost” is that they place their banner ad across my site. I picked www.GoDaddy.com as the webhost, and picked the domain name of www.stellaredit.com. The registration of my domain name is the one thing I pay for every year– so that my domain name remains exclusively mine. GoDaddy offers free hosting of my site on their server (although it’s expected to change to a small fee soon; I might be looking for a new, better free host if I feel up to the task of redoing my website).  Things change rapidly, but when I registered and built my website in 2006, paying an annual fee of about $11 included use of a website design-and-maintenance tool called Website Tonight. It was relatively true to its name. Within an evening, I had a pretty cool home page designed that reflected what my business would be about.

With another day or two of work (and a day or two every now and then to build out and update it), and I had a five-page website with a pageAbout Stellar Editorial,” a page with my “Curriculum Vitae,” and a page with a list of my “Published Samples.” Over time, I was able to add a “Testimonialspage, and in the future will add a page featuring a list of my clients. My webpage makes me look so successful, that in email correspondence with the Unemployment Office, they asked me about this “Stellar Editorial” that I used in my email signature, as in, “What’s this? Are you hiding employment?” It’s their job to scrutinize my claim. (*Note to self: delete the automated signature when dealing with the state unemployment office!) I had to explain that I wasn’t hiding anything; the website is just a marketing tool to help me find work. When I have part-time work, I report the income to the unemployment office. Mostly, creating this business “shell” is just me trying to look bigger than I am. It works–I look “so” employed that the unemployment office did a double-take.

I’ve been laid off from full-time gigs three times since starting my freelance business, Stellar Editorial Services, in 2006. I try to keep the website up to date and registered even when I’m working full time so it’s there for me when I need it.

Get business cards

Stellar Editorial Business Card

Vista Print allowed me to create my own personalized business cards for next to nothing.

Next I ordered 250 free business cards from VistaPrint. I paid $4.95 for shipping, but aside from that, they were free. Everywhere I go, I hand out glossy, color business cards proclaiming Stellar Editorial Services, Professional science writing/editing. I used a picture of a globular cluster and a cool design VistaPrint helped me create. The cards don’t even have a VistaPrint logo on them! One step, and presto-chango–you too, can look very official! It’s easy to make yourself look employed. The trick is actually getting work.

Reach out

Even if you can get some regular recurring work lined up, contract work is unstable and the pay for writers is still sometimes frustratingly low. I have had some limited success supplementing my unemployment income (or rather replacing it occasionally to stretch out the time I can collect), but I sure have had lots of experience trying because I’ve been laid off so many times.

It’s difficult to find freelance work or contract work that actually garners a full-time living wage–especially starting out. Unfortunately, making an actual living is critical if you are the head of household, like me, where the bills must be paid from my work alone. My first gig came within weeks of my layoff, when my ex-employer contacted me to finish a book-editing project I’d been scheduled for. That’s happened several times to me, actually: ex-employers contacted me right after my layoff, hoping I’d finish what I had been working on when I got my pink slip. If employers who are forced to conduct layoffs can get their recently “liberated” employees to complete prior projects as contractors, they get it done a fraction of the expense to the employer. You might be tempted to tell them to take a flying leap off the nearest tall building, but when you’re desperate, that isn’t wise. It’s my policy to never burn any bridges, and take whatever work that comes along, provided the compensation is fair.
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It may seem building a website and getting business cards are putting the cart before the horse. But the next step in getting work, marketing yourself, will be much easier if you’ve set yourself up for business first. In Part II, I discuss what you can do to get that working coming in.
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