Running a One-Person Business

Tom Peters

By design or of necessity, more and more people are considering self-employment. Regardless of the motivation there’s no better first step than perusing Running a One-Person Business, by Claude Whitmyer, Salli Rasberry, and Michael Phillips (Ten Speed Press).

The uplifting and practical message is that self-employment, though hard labor, can be a labor of love. “For those who feel life is more than making money, the one-person business is an exciting business form,” say the authors, who have advised hundreds of one-person enterprises. “It is business as lifestyle—business as a statement about who you are and what you value.”

The book explores the basic requirements, topped by what the authors label “tradeskill”—literally skill at trading, which incorporates persistence, a willingness to face facts, a bent for minimizing risks and a passion for hands-on learning. To wit “Most people we know with tradeskill like to do their own books, and they pay daily attention to financial material.”

With such an opening, it’s no surprise that the first topical chapter is titled “Bookkeeping.” It begins: “Bookkeeping is the most important part of any business. … Most people focus on marketing first, but this is a dangerous strategy. Why? Because almost anything you do to promote business will work. And the better you are at promotion the more business you can get. But without smoothly functioning financial … systems in place, the increase in volume can swamp you and put you out of business overnight.” The authors provide a detailed chart of accounts to get you started, and even offer tips on choosing the correct ledger. (Each chapter ends with a helpful list of sources to pursue for further information.)

The next chapter, “Financial Strategies,” gives lucid guidance on pricing, providing job quotes, preparing proposals—and billing. The authors warn neophytes to “focus on doing just one business, (and) within that focus create a variety of income streams.”

Whitmyer, Rasberry and Phillips guide amateurs on such mundane but essential questions as “answering machine or answering service?” And in the chapter “Setting Up Shop,” they proffer well-considered advice on whether to make your office in your home. The answer: It depends.

A brilliant chapter on marketing begins, “The first step in marketing is to be able to describe your business clearly. You should try to do this in 35 words or less. If you can say, ‘I advise small businesses, with from one to 10 employees, on management issues such as personnel, marketing strategies, time management, support services, and financial projections,’ then your friends and admirers can more readily, and with total confidence, refer prospects to you.”

Running a One-Person Business especially shines in a provocative chapter on “Emotional Support Systems.” The solo practitioner, the authors begin, “can fail for a number of reasons. … The most common reason, though, and the least discussed, is emotional stress. … Pretending that emotions have no effect on business is naive, and it definitely won’t work in a one-person business.”

One of many practical solutions is finding “planning buddies” who offer each other “a special kind of friendship that is unconditional. You agree to meet weekly and to serve as a catalyst for one another, but not as therapists or counselors.” Rather, planning buddies should “catch up on each other’s activities in the preceding week. … Allow each person to tell the other about any hard times. … Tell each other what your plans are for the coming week, and use this opportunity to set a goal.”

The last chapter, “Staying a One-Person Business,” metes out, among other things, 10 good reasons “not to hire an employee.” No.1: “Loss of emotional freedom. When you hire an employee, you add a whole new dimension to your own work. Now you must concern yourself with making sure that your employee’s job is both interesting and meaningful. You may find yourself thinking about this dilemma … into the wee morning hours.”

Whitmyer, Rasberry and Phillips don’t downplay the pitfalls of self-employment, but in the end they are cheerleaders. “First, the work itself is most likely fun, so you can just linger over the parts you love most,” they write. “Second, you control the pace. … You should be able to slow down and do the diverting things that catch your eye at the moment. Talk to the postmistress, watch a butterfly, play with a child you pass at the park, skip a rock across a stream … and spend an extra half-hour getting to know a new person you met over morning coffee at the local coffee shop.”

“Few callings in life offer as great a chance to have fun as a one-person business,” the authors conclude. That’s good news. In this age of ceaseless corporate bloodletting, like it or not, the time of the one-person enterprise has come.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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