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Friday, October 23, 2009

Finding your way: Self employment, start-up focus and marketing

Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend who I've known for many years. Formerly employed by a major corporation, over his life, his pay cheques have probably been much larger than mine (we've never discussed specific salary or income levels: bad manners to do that, of course.)

He's seen shifts, changes, bumps and grinds, and experienced the painful reality of corporate life: When decisions are made outside your control, you can be victims of corporate misfortunes not your fault.

His challenge now: He doesn't know exactly what to do, and his explorations in starting up in business for himself have had their share of disappointments.

He started work co-ordinating a renovation project (he is skilled with his hands as well as his mind). Even with a proper contract and clear processes, things went truly bad when the homeowner suddenly decided that the project would end mid-stream, immediately. Pay -- including the thousands of dollars for ordered and delivered kitchen cabinets? "No way," the homeowner said. Lawyers say he is well covered by the contract, and with changes impending increasing the small claims limits within Ontario, he is waiting a couple of months to file the legal papers. But right now he has $7,500 in kitchen cabinets.

"There are people out there willing to work for virtually nothing, and I've been offered $1,300 for the cabinets," he said. "I don't know if this is for me?"

I started the conversation, before knowing this story, asking him what he really enjoys and is good at. He said he could be a great consultant, and maybe he could be a great renovator. Well, those are two rather different career tracks.

I have a potential business/career opportunity in the consulting space. This blog (and my own expertise) are leading to plenty of initial inquires, but I haven't found a way (yet) to effectively guide these potential clients. The problem in part is that many readers here are very small businesses and start-ups (like my friend) without much money for full-scale consulting services. We need to have a system to process the leads and guide the qualified ones for revenue-generating services.

But I have an existing business, and right now the marketing from this blog is focused on guiding potential clients to the services we currently offer. They are useful, of course, but quite specialized, and I sense that while they could be of value to many readers here, the blog isn't really the best way to refer the potential clients to my current business.

I proposed to my friend that we could build a consulting business, in part, by rethinking this blog's lead management system. He expressed interest. But I didn't rush the decision.
I probed deeper to get a real sense of what he really wanted to do.

Does he really want to be a renovator, or does he really want to be a consultant (or does he want to go back to the corporate space?) Is one bad experience as a renovator dissuading him from a really rational career choice? If that is the case, I suggested he join the relevant home builders association, and budget some money (about $3,000 to $5,000) for marketing to build a brand and distinguish himself from the low-ballers. It won't be easy, I told him, but it is the way to go if he really wants to work in that field.

I explained to him that I have always had the good fortune of being "dumbly narrow". In other words, from when I was 10 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist and publisher. It took a while to fulfill these visions, but ultimately I found my way. With the decision in hand, I developed the necessary supporting skills and eventually had my own business.

I could push him to work on the consulting project, and he might be really good at that, but equally I listened to his "heart" and realized that it is wrong to sell this too hard.

So what should he do? Where should he focus? And how can he make the commitment to the course he wants to take, with the ups and downs, and the frustrations and economic risk?
These are easier questions to ask than answer. It is easy to say "go where your heart tell you to go" but there are still painful choices. Life isn't easy at the start-up stage; and things go wrong.

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