Do-It-Yourself Job Creation
Contingent workers, consultants, contractors -- however one labels them, they are elegized as casualties of the new economy. Pitied as exploited day laborers. Bemoaned as sad artifacts of the temping of America. Big labor, big business, and big government would have us believe that when the economy rebounds (you know, really) and all those jobs rise from the dead (you know, really, really), these free agents won't blink before beaching themselves on a payroll again somewhere. Isn't that, after all, where they belong?
Only if you haven't been listening to them. Or counting them. Or taking a very close look at what they're doing and why.
Certainly, more than a few in this cohort of rugged individualists would fare better in full-time employment -- if they could get it. But, to be clear, we are not talking about the legion of angry young temps here. Or their even angrier counterparts, the reluctantly retired. We are not talking about workers who want to be employees, or employees camouflaged as contractors, or laborers in the underground economy, though those are undeniable and painful realities for many people today.
What we are talking about is a hybrid breed of business owners, whose enterprises provide room for only one paycheck: their own.
They are not pioneering new technologies or spawning the industries of tomorrow. They are not building empires, and they are not getting rich. But in many ways these solo operators are changing what it means to be in business by inventing new varieties of self-employment.
Professionals, many of them former managers, the soloists are building careers instead of equity. Call it business without the baggage: no employees, no capital, no equity, no overhead. Maybe part-time, maybe full-time. Maybe because they lost a job. Just as likely, because they got sick of one.
It would be wholly undramatic if there weren't so darn many of them. An estimated 20 million Americans now make their primary living as solo operators. Indeed, according to government labor statistics, in the first three quarters of 1993 one out of every five new jobs added to the economy had been created by people who put themselves to work. Job growth in the category of self-employment increased at twice the rate of overall job growth through most of 1993.
The proliferation of solo professionals has not escaped the attention of marketers. In 1992 one-person offices constituted a $7.5-billion segment of the computer-equipment and office-equipment markets. By 1996 the purchasing power of those one-person operations is expected to top $10 billion. According to market researchers, who report a brisk demand for data on these businesses, there's hardly a phone or fax or computer maker that isn't desperate to reach what promises to be one of the fastest-growing markets for such manufacturers. A plethora of electronic bulletin boards, online newsletters, networks, support groups, and professional associations now target an audience of soloists that swells by the day. (See "Advice for the Soloist," page 7.) Even the government admits the phenomenon: the Department of Labor has taken to funding projects to help the unemployed become not just reemployed but self-employed.
Is this a long-term turn toward self-employment or a temporary and predictable response to a recent recession? That's still anyone's guess. Indisputably, there are those who go solo as a stopgap: when the unemployment checks or the severance pay or the hopes of a new job run out. Yet a growing number of economists (and even more employers) no longer expect a flotilla of jobs to come ashore with the next high tide.
Talk to a few dozen practicing soloists and it becomes clear that a significant number of them do not regard their ventures as short-term résumé fillers. Going solo for them is not the employment choice of last resort. Even among the throng who find themselves laid off, downsized, or reengineered out of corporations -- to the tune of 50,000 salaried or management personnel each month last year -- choosing self-employment can be as much an act of liberation as an act of desperation. These "lone eagles," as one research group calls them, are not so much throwaway workers as walk-away ones, tired of laboring in organizations -- in some cases even those they themselves own -- for stagnating wages or inflexible schedules or obsolete promises about job security.
"The so-called security of a regular paycheck is an illusion, anyway," reports Jody Severson of Rapid City, S. Dak., a one-man band and formerly an employer of 15. "Either you're answering what the market needs or you're not. If you're not, you're doomed, whether you're in an office at IBM or an office in your basement."
That logic is only partly Darwinian. Sure, soloists, like everyone else bent on surviving in the new economy, are thinking about their fallout shelters. And a business of one's own, ironically, looks safer all the time. But going solo also strikes a blow for personal and professional freedom.
Those who choose the solo path want a measure of control over their lives, a control that neither a regular job nor a company full of employees will allow. Their financial goals are rather modest: they hope to meet the mortgage payments, send the kids to college, save for retirement. They want, in short, what people a generation or two ago might have been guaranteed by working for a large corporation.
Their ventures are not the growth companies Inc. ordinarily lionizes. They are anything but job geysers. In fact, when these founders set out for the entrepreneurial front, they take no full-time salaried bodies along for the ride, and they rarely expect at the end of it to hold an appreciable asset to sell. Should a full-fledged company evolve out of the flight of a soloist, well, so be it. But the perpetrator could hardly be charged with company building in the first degree.
Yet soloists are, most certainly, starting and running businesses -- about 400,000 new ones in the first three quarters of 1993 alone -- in ways that promise profound consequences for the economy. Already they are changing workplaces and challenging the way we think about business building. They are, perhaps, restoring business formation to its roots. Recall that fewer than 100 years ago, most Americans worked for themselves. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of independent merchants and farmers. Today's soloists are their heirs.
For the foreseeable future, given the relentless pace of corporate downsizing, the supply of, as well as the demand for, such free agents should only increase. As companies large and small continue to atomize their operations and contract out more functions -- in pursuit of more "virtual" structures (and more real profits) -- the opportunities for solo fliers will abound. So, too, will the exigencies of knowing how to navigate such a journey. With nearly half of all workers witnessing layoffs in their own workplaces, and at least one in five worried about losing his or her job, there are few who should ignore the flight plans of the soloists. We all may find, sooner or later, to our shock or delight, that Lily Tomlin is right: "We are all in this alone."
Who They AreNeither employees nor employers, they're not exactly sure what to call themselves. Some answer to sole proprietor. But others tag "Inc." onto their names. Some call themselves consultants. Others, contractors. Still others, free agents. The truly hip claim to be virtual employees or, even cooler, virtual-business owners. The electronically savvy, especially in Europe, profess to "telework." The terms lone wolf, lone ranger, and lone eagle have all been pressed into service. It's a battle of neologisms.
In this instance, all the phrase making swirls around a legion of individualists who are blurring the lines between job holding and business building. They are corporate mutineers, refugees, asylum seekers. They are people like Ellen Leanse, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, who left her executive position at Apple Computer because she couldn't imagine raising her kids while working 80-hour weeks. Not unlike Leanse, Jane King, a veteran of several large financial companies, struck out on her own after the birth of her daughter. (Commuting from Boston to New York City and bringing her breast pump to meetings had become a case study in absurdity.) Jody Severson, a 45-year-old political consultant, left the small advertising agency he had cofounded to unshackle himself from employees, paperwork, and the burden of having to manage anyone else at all. "I got tired of spending every Sunday night sweating payroll. That loses its charm after a while." Bill Collier of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., is now starting a company called Multiprocessor Diagnostics under more- acute conditions: after losing his job of 33 years at IBM, the 58-year-old programmer reckons going solo is his best and perhaps only employment option. (See "The Fear of Falling," page 7.)
Doing What They Do BestWhile the circumstances compelling them might vary -- from having kids to burning out to getting pink-slipped or pushed out to pasture -- the soloists share a similar karma. What can Leanse's bicameral business -- selling beaded jewelry part of the time and providing high-tech marketing expertise the rest of the time -- possibly have in common with Severson's political consultancy or Collier's software business or King's financial-services firm?
For starters, a striking unanimity of purpose: all want to practice their craft. And, secondly, they're all building on the same reliable cornerstone: proven expertise. Variegated as their ventures may be, the soloists are adamant about doing one thing, which is what they do best. Whatever it is they've been doing for years, the thing someone used to pay them for -- which they presumably loved to do and over time had become more than passably good at -- that's what they transform into a business. But without anyone else to cotton to or provide for: no meetings, no managers, no withholding tax due.
"I decided one day about eight years ago I was going to do only what I really liked to do," reports Jody Severson, the political consultant in South Dakota, "which was not managing a bunch of people." He had come to that insight the hard way: at the ad agency he owned at the time.
His years running that business had cured him of any impulse to build another company. "As soon as you start a company, you've got higher overhead, you've got at least a 40-hour week, and you've lost the luxury of choosing the work you want to do. Running a company is just a race to keep the cash coming in, to cover that payroll. There's no freedom in that.
"I told myself I'm not going to take on work I don't want to do and I'm not going to have anyone else's salary to worry about. I want no bosses, no employees hanging like an anchor around my neck."
Severson had a fairly good idea of how marketable his expertise was. He'd been selling his services as a political marketer for years. So when he decided, with the agreement of his former partner, to go solo, he took his political clients with him and remained, as far as markets go, on familiar terrain.
So for Severson, a recovering small-business owner, as well as for the ex-employees in the solo camp, the matter of choosing the right business, though critical, is by no means a black art. It is not a marketing enigma that requires exhaustive research or expensive advice. Soloists need not comb through ads or buy books about how to groom pets at home. It's "falling-off-a-log easy," according to Severson. For those who thrive at it, the formula is an open secret: Deconstuct the old job and reconstruct the new one using only the choicest parts. They simply sell what they've always sold -- to a former employer or to a past customer -- but they cut out the middleman who marked up their labor or their expertise for resale. For soloists, it's a decision to sell the same stuff, direct.
The New -- and Hard -- SellIt is a romantic notion: to walk away from a job and set up a wee, small workshop, to labor only at what one loves and disregard the rest. There is, however, one catch: there must be a buyer for the wares, which means there must be a seller, too. And when there's no one else around, that leaves but one person. Selling does not come naturally to many soloists. Cold-calling and closing are foreign and occasionally frightening concepts to anyone who is untrained or not genetically predisposed to sell. Even those who've spent their previous careers in sales and marketing can find the challenge of selling themselves -- rather than a corporate product or service -- daunting.
"Until you're out there selling yourself without the mantle of a corporation, you can't know how hard it is," says Jane King of Fairfield Financial, in Wellesley, Mass. That's true even of the affable King, who'd spent 20 years selling for her employers. "I was accustomed to marketing and selling something or somebody else. And I was quite comfortable peddling a company with assets of so much or a staff of so many."
Selling her stuff as a soloist was a different matter altogether. "Now I was selling only me and what I knew. There was no protection when people said no," she confides. "I couldn't help feeling they were rejecting me."
She recalls all too vividly entire days when the phone never rang. "I told myself, There are so many idiots out there bringing in business; I know there's got to be a client out there for me." She pressed on, diligently practicing all the time-honored tactics that her years with larger financial houses had taught her. "I was calling and writing and mailing and following up. I was all alone in an office 8 to 10 hours a day doing that" -- for months, as King tells it, before she realized she would have to learn new tactics as a soloist. She could not approach sales as she had in the past. "It took me about a year of wringing my hands over how to get new business to figure that out.
"As a one-woman show without the name or assets of a big company -- or any company -- behind me, I couldn't just get a list and cold-call. I needed somebody's seal of approval. I needed to be introduced."
Eventually, King stumbled onto the idea of selling by referral. She began to speak to groups on financial topics. "I asked people not for their business but for speaking opportunities." In the process, she would garner a captive audience as well as an implicit endorsement from her sponsors. "I could get 20 to 30 minutes of face time with 30 or 300 people all at once." And she could reap one to two solid clients from every speaking engagement, which she considers a fairly decent return.
King's experience illustrates the iterations any soloist is likely to pass through in winning customers. Traditional sales methods rarely work for soloists. They can prove both costly and time-consuming. Besides, few soloists show any native talent for selling. Referrals, on the other hand, often help pick the lock to new business. When that first good account is finally landed, it's a critical coup. "When I got my first client and that client paid me," King recalls, "I could have kissed that check. I didn't know whether to frame it or cash it." (She cashed it.) For King and her fellow soloists, that initial customer becomes the prized cow, supplying the cash flow (provided one learns to collect) as well as the confidence to win the next one. "You move from worrying, Will I ever have a client? to, Will I ever have another one? But that is a more manageable fear."
Where to Draw the LineIn the beginning, survival instincts tell soloists to bring business in the door. Any kind of business -- it doesn't matter what sort. If the check clears, then it's a good account. If the cash flows, then it's the right business to be in.
The unwillingness to clearly define the enterprise is perhaps understandable at first. For soloists, training their sights on one niche seems a costly luxury when cash is scarce and business sporadic. But in the long run it is difficult for soloists to sustain a generalist's or a chameleon's existence in the marketplace. Generalists will frequently find that potential customers have enough of their kind on their payrolls already. The chameleons, constantly positioning and repositioning themselves, introduce inefficiencies into their own operations and create confusion in their marketplace. Soloists should seek to be flexible, yes. But invertebrate, no.
While occupying a niche might seem to limit opportunities, it can in fact expand them. For Severson, the decision to specialize ultimately made his business grow. "I started out as a generalist in the local market, but the local market went up and down and limited my growth. The business could grow only as fast as the local economy was growing, plus there were a lot of local accounts that could not afford me. I figured it would be wiser to be a specialist in a regional or national market, to get a smaller piece of the bigger pie."
The arena in which Severson determined to focus was narrow, to be sure: takeover battles involving rural electric cooperatives. Devising strategies to defeat hostile takeover attempts by large utility companies became his not-so-meager mainstay. According to Severson, that small stream provided a steady flow of clients. "That narrow niche has brought me business from South Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, and Minnesota."
And, paradoxically, it has also led to opportunities outside his intentionally small purview. A utility battle in rural Colorado led to work on airport referenda in Denver, which got him a piece of the governor's race in Colorado and later led to contracts with gubernatorial campaigns in a handful of other states as well.
Like Severson, both King and Leanse realized the need to keep a tight focus on their markets. King homes in on a clientele of small-company owners, while Leanse sticks to installed-base and user-group marketing in her consulting practice. Keepers, Leanse's jewelry business, targets an even more circumscribed customer base: bespectacled women who are both fashion conscious and forgetful. She sells beaded eyeglass retainers.
Battling IsolationNo matter how tiny the operation or how minuscule the niche, the solo enterprise is rarely a game of solitaire -- at least not one that's easily won. Without exception, the practitioners we interviewed considered isolation among their most formidable threats, psychologically as well as professionally.
"It can be lonely," says Jane King. "Anybody coming, the way I did, from a corporate environment is used to having a shoulder to cry on on a bad day or collecting a pat on the back on a good day. You lose that." Collegial ties are often sorely missed and difficult to replace. But the need for them is more than emotional. It's quite strategic. Says King: "It is very important to find other people who are like you. You need a consortium of mentors and trusted confidants, people who can console you when business is lousy but who can also give you useful advice -- tell you yes, it's normal to worry this much about the business, or no, that software program is not a good investment." Perhaps because her phone rang so seldom in the early days, King did a lot of dialing for counsel. "I asked every person I'd ever met if they knew of anyone who had done this. I'd get numbers and more numbers and call. It made an enormous difference to me to connect with others who'd been through the same ordeal."
According to King and several others, joining trade associations and professional organizations becomes an important ritual in fending off isolation and establishing contact with peers who become both benchmarks and boosters.
The soloists' obsession with relationships, under different circumstances, would warrant intensive therapy. But relationships are so essential -- both personally and professionally -- to the enterprises of people like Severson, King, and Leanse that it is not delusional to consider those ties, as Leanse does, "the lifeblood of the business."
Like a circulatory system, Leanse's network continuously pumps leads, referrals, new contacts, market information, and business advice through the channels of her operation. "There's no such thing as a useless contact," Leanse insists. A phalanx of old bosses, former colleagues, past employees, solo peers, vendors, subcontractors, customers, and advisers becomes a virtual marketing and sales force for the company of one. And its value cannot be overstated, especially given that soloists don't typically market by the rules. They don't conduct market surveys or do mass mailings or advertise or field armies of salespeople. They just don't talk to strangers. Unless they know a prospect or at least know someone else who does, they don't pursue that person's business.
The care and maintenance of relationships become paramount. That means that quitting a job or saying no to a customer must be handled with the utmost delicacy. When Ellen Leanse left Apple Computer, for instance, she didn't say good-bye. Or au revoir, either. "Just because you walk away does not mean the relationship is over," says Leanse, who continues to do business with her old employer in what she considers an open marriage, not a divorce.
In the nearly four years since she left Apple, Leanse has run several marketing projects as a consultant to her corporate alma mater. "Keeping the people at Apple part of my community has directed me to one business opportunity after another." A contract with Apple has led to a contract with Oracle to a chain of other projects from there. "It's an ever-widening web." She claims that 100% of her consulting business, called Concepts, Ink, in Menlo Park, Calif., can be traced to referrals.
Even the business she turns down is an opportunity to bond. Leanse considers her ability to respond to a customer's needs, whether she wants his or her current business or not, a vital skill for any soloist. "Even if you decline the business yourself, you have to be able to direct the client to someone who can solve his or her problem." Leanse maintains a network of 15 soloists like herself to whom she can refer or subcontract business.
Leanse's necessary fixation on customer relationships compels her to create collegial ones. By subbing out jobs she can't or won't do, or farming out portions of the large contracts she does take on, she not only avoids the fixed costs of full-time employees but also strengthens her position as a talent broker with clients. "I'm able to get some really good people at a really good price. It adds to my own credibility by demonstrating that I can bring clients the talented people they need."
Beyond her web of business allies, Leanse depends on an informal support group: "If I need encouragement or support, I know where to get it." She has a close circle of other women like her, all of them soloists and veterans of large technology companies. "These people are my virtual colleagues," she says. There are half a dozen kindred professionals with whom she can discuss even the most intimate matters. "We'll share information about hourly rates and getting paid," says Leanse. "We can talk about things you'd never broach in a corporate environment, because there's this camaraderie, a sort of fraternal alliance. There's no competition; there's no envy.
"In the corporate world, I was always preparing my gut for conflict. Now I have none of that. I don't have to go into a meeting and be the killer bitch from hell. I hardly have to go into a meeting at all."
The Unexpected Business of Running the BusinessDespite their desire to leave the hassles of corporate management behind them and focus on the job they love to do most, the soloists interviewed all acknowledged that, their rhetoric notwithstanding, they had, in fact, become managers. "It's something I'm still struggling with: the business of running the business. I've got to project cash flow, decide what equipment to buy, file the right tax forms, and still have time to bring in business," laments King.
Soloists, at least the busy ones, unfailingly reach a point at which they must hire out much of the administration of their businesses. They pay others -- often other soloists -- to file, to bill, to manufacture, to maintain databases, to mail brochures, even to sell.
They cannot, however, delegate an understanding of cash flow. Learning to manage cash can be the cruelest lesson in their independent studies on how to run a business. After years of predictable paychecks, soloists face a new and sometimes harsh reality called intermittent income. "It can be feast or famine," says Leanse, who copes with the vagaries of cash flow by occasionally overcommitting herself. "To make sure I won't have a gap in income later, I'll take on too much business now. You never have equilibrium."
And you can go the better part of your first year without any income at all. "It's the most degrading and awful thing," reports Leanse. "I was doing all this work -- taking time away from my child -- to get the business going, with no paycheck coming back to the family. It took months to get a client. And I felt demoralized most of that time."
Moonlighting or launching the venture part-time can ease the financial pressure. "You should set up the business so you don't have to rely on it for sustenance during the first six to eight months," advises Leanse, who waited at least a year before she saw steady cash flow and even longer before she started to see reasonable margins. "In the beginning, you underbill and over work because you haven't convinced yourself you can really do this or that you ought to be paid well for it."
King concurs. "In the first couple of years, I didn't come close to matching my old salary. And I had always had a pretty good price on my head." She was charging customers way too little, she says. But then, pricing wasn't much of a science. "I'd say a number and hope they didn't faint." Over time, after doing plenty of work for nothing, she lost her innocence about bolstering her own cash. "I was watching my customers' assets grow," says the financial planner. "And I realized, Hey, my expertise must be valuable."
Of course, taming the beast that is cash flow hardly matters if soloists don't master another vital facet of their operation first: technology. For a one-person show, it's not just a productivity tool; it's a survival strategy. These enterprises could not exist but for the artillery of PCs, fax machines, and mobile phones defending and fortifying them. Technology has become the great enabler.
"My computer is my touchstone," says Leanse, who considers her Mac II, with dual-page display and fax modem, the heart of her home office. Throw in the spreadsheet program, the word-processing program, the Quicken package, and the online service, and a soloist sports a complete line of business software.
Not only does technology allow soloists to leverage their output and communicate with customers; it is often their only capital equipment and all they mean when they talk about capacity. It's how Leanse manufactures the marketing plans she sells and how Severson produces the campaign strategies he delivers. These soloists' products are even distributed via technology.
Says Severson, "I'm this overweight Norwegian guy with a laptop who shows up at a meeting, faxes a memo afterward, follows up on a cordless phone, then manages the details with software." Technology erases physical distance and any geographical disadvantage to having his headquarters and distribution hub in South Dakota. "Until the final push of a campaign, I operate by remote control."
Even King, who considered herself "a computer retard" before she went out on her own, found herself forced into proficiency. "You cannot run a successful business of any size without these systems." After overcoming her fear and loathing of technology (with the help of a trainer), she has made peace with her machines. "It makes me so efficient. I can price a portfolio by pushing a button. Why shouldn't I like it?"
Why It's Worth ItSoloists may not confront the challenges of capitalizing or managing a company. But they do face all the hardships of a start-up, and then some, because they can find themselves so mercilessly alone.
"It was very lonely for a long time," says King, who suspects she survived her start-up because she was too stubborn to fail. "I just kept showing up every day, even though I had so few clients that hardly anyone would have noticed if I had closed shop. I didn't know what else to do." On slow days she'd read about Sam Walton and think about what to name her business. "I did that on and off for two years," she says.
Even when their businesses do get off the ground, soloists still have those hellish days. Leanse continually deals with her juggling act: the two businesses, the two kids. There is no escaping stress. Like that week last fall, when she was headed for a major conference with a client and her bead business got its biggest order ever. And, by the way, it was a rush. "Days like those are almost a survival test, to see if you'll crack," she says.
For Severson, the knowledge that he has no trove of equity to call his own gnaws at him. "This business is so uniquely Jody, there will be nothing to sell when I'm 65," he confides. "That's a frustration."
But he takes his consolation in current income. As a soloist, "I've just about quadrupled my income," he reports, which goes a long way in South Dakota. Like him, King and Leanse have exceeded their former salaries.
Add to the soloists' financial rewards the comfort of knowing no one else is making or breaking their careers. "I've got job security in spades," says 50-year-old King, who summered in France last year. "I spend all day doing what I want. If I do everything in four hours, or if I want to spend the afternoon with my daughter, I take off. I don't have to hang out to look good. I don't have to spend time making appearances in the right meetings or setting an example for employees."
Severson enjoys a schedule and lifestyle that suits him as well. "If I decide that Wednesday should be a holiday because it's an odd-numbered day and there's a full moon, then by God, it's a holiday." His perks include a four-minute drive to a prime trout stream, an office overlooking Skyline Ridge, time to work out at the Y, and the autonomy to do business with only those campaigns his conscience supports.
For working mothers such as Leanse, the solo track offers the flexibility to balance a professional life and a family life, practically guilt free. Leanse works a three-day week. "I can be in my office with my little guy coloring on the floor next to me. It's hard to put a price on that.
"When I worked for a large company I let it take over my life. It was an all-consuming effort. Now my discipline is life first.
"I know I'm not moving up a ladder anywhere. I know I'm not building equity in a fantastic start-up that I can sell and retire on next year. That's OK. I'm getting to be a whole person. I don't have a job. I don't have a company. I have a life."
DOING BUSINESS WITH THE SOLOISTS
What's it like doing business with these lone rangers? The CEOs of many small companies find that working with soloists grants them temporary custody of blue-chip talent. "We are running an infinitely more sophisticated organization as a result," contends Dale Winston, president of Battalia Winston International, a $7.5-million executive-search firm based in New York City.
Winston relies on soloists to structure her company's benefits program, write its employee handbook, handle its public relations, design its brochures, manage its information-systems needs, mediate employee disputes, and midwife long-range planning. "By using independent contractors with years of experience -- usually in companies much bigger than ours -- we gain access to expertise and sophistication that was once the private property of large corporations.
"I get Fortune 500 -- caliber talent," reports Winston, but without the carrying costs. "We don't have to hire it full-time. We get to purchase it instead on a part-time, as-needed basis." Meanwhile, she keeps her full-time staff at 14.
Winston and outsourcers like her often enjoy another benefit: the distinction of being somebody's "important" customer. Even small companies can become treasured accounts to a soloist. And Winston, for example, need not worry about being shunted around an organization or waiting for customer service to call back when she has a question or request. Within her stable of soloists, she's always dealing only with the boss.
Winston does, however, pay a premium for the savvy she purchases by contract. "The downside is definitely in the price. We couldn't afford to hire these soloists full-time even if we had the need." And while she doesn't extend benefits or a permanent welcome on her payroll, Winston acknowledges that she does subsidize the soloists' benefits and marketing costs through fees. "That's their cost of doing business. They're entitled to that." -- A.M.
THE FEAR OF FALLING
You're 58 years old, an expert in your field, a respected author, and a longtime employee of one of this century's premier companies, where job security was once considered as abundant and as certain as oxygen. You have spent your entire professional life at that company. You're a technical pro, with skills in programming, system architecture, and design. Your name is Bill Collier, and after 33 years at IBM, the unthinkable has just happened: you're history.
Welcome to the new economy.
Since that morning last March when Collier learned the bell would soon toll for him, he has run the gamut of emotions -- depression, anger, fear -- that buffet anyone enduring the loss of a job. His tenure at IBM had been served, until his last years, under the reliable shelter of the company's no-layoff practice. His expectations of how long he'd stay were unwavering: "I thought forever." Now, at 58, Collier says, "My view of myself as economically secure is shattered. And the world is a scarier place."
Going solo is "the riskiest thing I've ever done," according to this reluctant entrepreneur. "I feel I have no choice. People don't get hired into permanent jobs at my age. If I hope to have a job, I have to create one."
The business Collier launched from his basement, in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., just one month after leaving IBM, is Multiprocessor Diagnostics, a software concern that markets a test program for multiprocessors.
The first release of his product, Archtest, was rolled out last summer, but come fall, he had yet to make his first sale. He says if the orders don't start flowing soon, the financial pressure will hit full force. He'll have to try hourly consulting, or he may head overseas. "I hear about jobs in foreign lands and wonder if I don't have a responsibility to go there." He expects to exhaust his buyout in six months.
Some days he'd take his old job back in a nanosecond -- for the predictable paycheck, to see his old friends more often, to ensure that he doesn't face an impoverished old age, and so he can leave an inheritance to his kids. But the kids are telling him, Go for it. And the freedom, even if he didn't choose it, is giving him a crack at a dream he had almost forgotten.
"I'm finally being forced to do what I always wanted to do," he says. -- A.M.
ADVICE FOR THE SOLOIST
A sign of the times may be found in the cottage industry that's grown up around those who would counsel, support, and inform both novices and veterans in the solo market. Here's a sample of the information and services they offer:
Books: Working Solo, by Terri Lonier, Portico Press, 800-222-SOLO, 1994, $14.95.
Making It on Your Own, by Paul and Sarah Edwards, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 800-788-6262, 1991, $10.95. Also the title of an online newsletter published by the authors, available on CompuServe.
On-Line Information: Working from Home, a forum offered on CompuServe Information Service, an electronic network of several thousand home-based soloists. Features a library of newsletters and articles on an array of business and marketing issues. The cost is $8.95 a month, plus hourly fees.
Newsletters: "Working Solo," Portico Press, PO Box 190, New Paltz, NY 12561-0190; 914-255-7165. Published quarterly, beginning in January 1994. A trial subscription comes with the book Working Solo.
"National Home-Business Report," PO Box 2137, Naperville, IL 60567; 708-717-0488. The cost is $24 a year for four issues. A sample issue costs $7.
Organizations: Independent Workers Association, 448 Ignacio Blvd., Suite 214, Novato, CA 94949; 415-898-1580. A group of San Francisco Bay Area independents, open to nationwide membership at $65 a year.
National Association for the Self-Employed, 2121 Precinct Line Rd., Hurst, TX 76054; 817-589-2475. Operates a toll-free hot line, 800-232-NASE, and publishes a bimonthly newsletter titled "Self Employed America." The annual membership fee is $72.
National Association of Home-based Business, PO Box 30220, Baltimore, MD 21270; 410-363-3698. Provides workshops and offers a support service line. Publishes a quarterly newspaper, Home-based Business, available to members for $12.95 a year, to nonmembers for $14.95. Annual membership starts at $65.
Independent Computer Consultants Association, 933 Gardenview Office Pkwy., St. Louis, MO 63141; 314-997-4633. National organization that provides professional-development opportunities and business-support programs for independent computer consultants. For membership information, call 800-774-4222. Annual membership is $160.
The Global Entrepreneurs Network, operated by Information Exchange, PO Box 373229, Satellite Beach, FL 32937; 407-779-9161. Offers matchmaking services for technical consultants seeking strategic alliances and provides access to a database of soloists. Annual membership is $189.
Maybe if she didn't work for herself, Vivian Shimoyama would have more time to worry about the isolation problem she's supposed to face. But the 36-year-old proprietor of Breakthru Unlimited, a jewelry business in Manhattan Beach, Calif., is so busy making contacts, joining groups, chairing meetings, collecting business cards, and augmenting her already voluminous database of names that she rarely has a spare moment to fret over it.
"I don't have time to feel lonely," claims Shimoyama, who belongs to 10 different associations, spends half of her 70-hour week widening her web of contacts, and boasts an electronic Rolodex of more than 8,000 names.
"I have a database of every person I've ever met at a conference or a meeting," she says. Consider that she attends at least five a week and tries to pocket 10 new business cards at each for a total of 50 a week, and her relentless pursuit of relationships takes on the quality of a rigorous workout.
You get a name. You follow up. You call. You meet. Release. Do it again.
If one organization or association doesn't work, then Shimoyama joins another. "But I don't expect to hit a gold mine of contacts the first time," she says. Forging relationships takes time. As with most investments, the return is seldom immediate.
"Plus, it's got to be reciprocal," says Shimoyama. "I have to be thinking about what I can do for someone else. To whom can I introduce them? Do I have information that might help?"
Although Shimoyama's regimen can get exhausting, she says, "without it, I don't believe I'd have a business." By her reckoning, her two-year-old business owes nearly every one of its 30 accounts to her tireless outreach.
"If you go solo and you're not willing to do this," she says, "you're not willing to be in business. You can't survive in solitary confinement." -- A.M.
THE LAST HURDLE
Cushy benefits packages keep more than a few would-be soloists clinging to lackluster jobs. But going solo doesn't mean forfeiting that safety net -- just paying a little more.
Health insurance: Companies with 20 or more employees are required to offer departing workers extended health coverage for up to 18 months through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA. But such coverage is expensive, since under COBRA coverage former employees are billed for 100% of their insurance premiums, plus a 2% administrative fee. Clinton's new tax law does restore tax deductions for health premiums paid by the self-employed.
COBRA may be the only option for people with "uninsurable" preexisting conditions; otherwise, there are several alternatives. The cheapest coverage is through a spouse's company plan. For more money, but a little less coverage, group plans are available through trade or small-business organizations. Individual health coverage (including health-maintenance organizations) usually costs the most and offers the least.
Dave Vienneau, president of Performance Based Solutions, in Hamilton Square, N.J., advises extending COBRA coverage for a few months while looking for new coverage; that way you're credited with any deductibles you've already paid. (Temporary health plans impose brand-new deductibles and generally offer catastrophic coverage only.) Start searching for coverage through a group plan with any groups you may be affiliated with. For example, a marketing consultant who also publishes articles should check with all local and national marketing, small-business, consultants', and writers' associations.
Life insurance: Company life-insurance coverage can be converted to an individual plan within 30 days after a worker leaves, but independent plans give better coverage for the money, says Vienneau. He recommends shopping for individual packages among insurance companies during that 30-day grace period, focusing on the type of corporate life insurance you're replacing. "Term" coverage is cheaper but doesn't build up cash value; "permanent" insurance costs more, but you can borrow against or cash in the accruing cash value.
Disability insurance: Corporate disability coverage typically ends the day a worker leaves a company, so group coverage and individual coverage are the only options for a soloist. Cheaper group plans aren't very flexible, typically paying a limited percentage of salary after six months. Individual plans can be written however you like, but be prepared to pay more the sooner the coverage kicks in, or the longer and more it pays. Whatever disability plan you choose, don't forget to secure enough coverage to handle business-overhead expenses during the period you can't work.