When I was 19, with scarcely six months of actual full-time public-relations work under my belt, I started my own PR firm. In my apartment. I had a phone and a computer and, because it was the ’90s, a fax machine. My net worth at the time was $600, which was my rent, and the promise of approximately $300 in monthly revenue. I had no savings, which meant I had to hit the ground running and figure out how to do what I did and find people to pay me to do it.
That might sound foolish, but I really didn’t have any other choice. Not because I was unemployable—I did fine at the jobs I had previously held (mostly working at record stores)—but because I had too much ambition and was a little too evangelical about my passions to be ringing up someone’s Foo Fighters CDs for long. I knew I couldn’t keep it up; I had to get out or I’d explode. So I gave two weeks’ notice at my part-time job, put out the word to everyone I knew that I was starting a business, and got to work.
I had no business knowledge. I had no formal training or college degree. I had no employees. I had no business cards, credit cards, or investors. I had some contacts, but not many. But I also had something people needed—I knew a handful of bands and record labels that were looking for someone to help them promote their albums and tours in the press. Back then, the only people who were doing this charged about 10 times what I did. I picked up some bands, and we all grew together. I found a niche and filled it. By the time I quit doing PR nine years later, I had a staff of five, made an OK living for myself, and had worked with more than 200 bands and dozens of labels—including some of my favorites (Gossip! Kill Rock Stars! Blur! At the Drive-In!).
Being my own boss totally spoiled me—I have never known office politics, or worked outside my apartment, or had a nine-to-five schedule. When I would tell people I ran my own company, they would look at me like I was bullshitting, because I was 21 or 25. Part of that, I think, is the notion that in order to start a company, you have to be really official and raise capital and have an office and all that. That is one way to do it, but you can also just bootstrap it and turn your hobby/interest/skill-set into a thing that you charge other people for, and maybe that becomes your career. Or maybe it’s just something you have on the side to help you make money, or to keep you sane while you work a job you hate. In any case, here are some of the lessons I learned along the way that might be of use to you if you’re thinking about starting your own one-gal business:
Running your own business requires passion and obsessive dedication.
For the first few years, when I was really building my business, I worked 70 hours a week, including nights and weekends. I had to drag myself away and go do other stuff—like eat or be social or sleep—because the list of things I had to do was infinite. It was necessary for work to basically become my obsession—if I didn’t work, the lights didn’t stay on. I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t totally dedicated to the mission of what it was I was doing: I loved the music I was promoting and wanted to help get it into the world. Building a business requires real temerity—the long hours are much easier if you’re doing something you are passionate about.
You don’t have to be all official.
Depending on what kind of business you are starting—if it is a sole proprietorship, or a partnership with other people—you might want to become an LLC (limited liability company), which protects you and whatever assets you might have from your businesses’ obligations or financial liabilities—so, if someone you’re working with sues you, your business might lose money, but they can’t come after your own personal money, or your family’s. You might also need to get a license for certain types of business endeavors, like retail, food, bodywork/hair, or construction. If you are unsure, check with other people who do what you want to do. A lot of the time, if the business is just you doing something you have some talent and/or skill and/or knowledge for, and your office is just the left side of your bedroom, you probably do not need to be official or on paper when you are just getting off the ground. I was the sole owner of my business, so I never had to get a tax ID or a license. The only thing I did was tack on extra insurance for my car and my apartment, so that if I got robbed or my stuff was otherwise destroyed, I didn’t have to start from scratch.
Have a plan, even if it’s just some bullet-pointed goals and a rough timeline.
The first few years of many start-ups are about just trying to keep the internet and lights turned on—day-to-day survival. When you are dog-paddling your way through every day, you can lose sight of big-picture goals. You need a business plan: a clear idea of what you’re doing and how you’ll make money (or at least how you’ll avoid losing money). You don’t want to get a year into something and then realize it isn’t working after you’ve been sinking money and time into it. The plan is vital to securing investors should you decide you want them, but even if you’re bankrolling the whole thing yourself, your business plan is your mission statement—your reason for existence. If you really think about and write out your biggest goals, and how and when you’ll meet them, it’ll be easier to assess whether any decisions you have to make day to day are in service of those goals. Your business plan shouldn’t be set in stone—you’ll probably be refining it all the time, and updating your ambitions as you dream bigger or smaller. What is your contingency plan? Scale back? Ask for help? Lots of time, people want to jump into their business full time, right away. Working up to that conservatively and organically is a much safer bet; there is nothing wrong with starting (very) small.
It helps to have a mentor.
I didn’t have a proper mentor, but I did have a good friend who was higher-up in the music business whom I could call when I needed help navigating a situation. Your mentor can be a former boss with whom you really connected, or just someone in your line of work whom you admire. Reach out to them to ask how they conduct themselves and their business. You’d be surprised how willing people are to offer advice and to commiserate, particularly if your new enterprise is not in direct competition with theirs. And sometimes you need resources and advice from someone who has already been down the road. There may be alumni or staff at your school that could help guide you in your ambitions. Also, there are all kinds of mentoring organizations and professional networks for women that offer to pair people and resources—these tend to be locally affiliated, and some have membership fees, but Google this. My mentor friend gave me some simple advice that changed the way I did business—like this next tip:
This is your business, not the Salvation Army.
After your initial getting-off-the-ground phase—when you may be doing projects for free or cheap to build your experience/résumé/portfolio—don’t work for less than you can afford to. If you’re manufacturing something to sell, for example, you need to take into account your time, the cost of materials, and labor. Charge what you need to in order to survive. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t cut deals or throw in a freebie occasionally, but don’t make your profit margin so low that you can’t sustain what you are doing. You will grow to hate the work and resent the people you work for/with. I worked at cut-rate prices for years, despite being great at what I did, because I thought it was the punk thing to do and would instill loyalty. Neither of those things is true. At one point I found out what our competitors were charging and doubled my rates for all new business—and no one batted an eye. Charging bargain-basement prices may make people think less of your product or service, too. If a project is going to be a lot of work, charge accordingly. When people approach my friend Joan to work with her, but do not have enough money to actually hire her at a going rate, she offers a consulting rate, where she guides, suggests, and gives know-how, but doesn’t do the work.