Don’t go into debt.
I have never had a credit card; my business always subsisted on cash on hand. I borrowed money from parents exactly once to pay my rent three months after I started my firm. Later on, my dad gave me a short-term loan to buy a copy machine and pay my taxes. Both times, I knew how soon I could pay him back, and I did. I am the only person I know who has never had debt. If I had had a credit card at that time, I would undoubtedly still be paying it off at an extremely high interest rate. So if you decide you need more money than you can save for in the beginning, you might approach family and friends with a business plan and ask for help, or try to raise money on a site like Kickstarter, or go to a bank for a small loan—but keep in mind that many new businesses won’t see a profit for five years. Only lay out what you know your business can recoup, or what it needs in order to sustain itself. I never consulted with a financial advisor or lawyer, but many small-business owners do. I just knew that I needed to make a total of $1200 a month to survive, a number I arrived at by adding up my rent, all of my monthly bills, and the cost of groceries and coffee, plus $100. That was cutting it close, but I knew if I could earn that, I didn’t need to get another job.
Think “like a woman,” but occasionally execute “like a profesh dude who is kind of a dick and full of himself.”
Young women who are ambitious and energetic are perfect candidates for starting a business. I also think that women tend to be especially tenacious, and are often good at reading situations and understanding what other people need. Growing up in a patriarchy instills us with those skills, so why not turn them around to serve your business? Sometimes I would find myself being manipulated by a client or having to beg to get paid, and being way too understanding about what basically amounted to them disrespecting me/my business. You get afraid to say what you need, because you don’t want someone to think you are a bitch. But do you think any high-fiving corner-office bros ever think that? NIX THAT LINE OF THINKING! I was backstage at a music festival a couple years ago, and I was hanging out with a bunch of dudes in my line of work. Rather than casually conversing, the convos went like this: “Here is the genius thing I am working on and the next-level project after that.” I found myself (im)patiently listening and wondering: Why aren’t I bragging and hustling about my career? So the next time I was in a similar situation with my professional peers, I did that, and it got me a bunch of work. Occasionally, it helps to channel some super-assertive, braggy energy on behalf of your professional swagger. If you don’t want to emulate a cocksure dude, just be Beyoncé. Do you think she’s shy about getting what she wants?
Be cautious about your online presence.
A journalist friend suggests that you read all your potential tweets through the eyes of your boss’s boss. If you are self-employed, read them through the eyes of your clients. Or have a business-related account and a separate, private account. When you work for people, they may see what you do as an extension of your brand or company. Be mindful of how your comments/tweets/etc. might look to someone who doesn’t know you.
Do not be afraid of the phone.
Sometimes, long, impassioned emails are not the way to go. If someone is being a jerk, if you need to do some negotiating, or if a client is blowing you off about payment, get them on the phone. If you’re going back and forth for an hour, realize that a five-minute chat is time saved. Also, talking on the phone builds professional relationships in a way that a zillion emails cannot.
Get help when you need it.
I hired my first employee about three years after I started my business, but before that, whenever I needed help, I would hire a capable friend or acquaintance. Saying you are too busy to train someone else to help you, even though you are desperate for help, is usually just about control—you are afraid to let someone else do even a little. But being overworked is bad for your business. So if you find there is an aspect of your business that you cannot reasonably teach yourself—doing your taxes, building a nice-looking website—hire someone else to do it. Also, holler at the local colleges and get an intern to work for college credit. Give them some real work so they can learn to actually help you, aside from whatever small tasks you have for them. I wound up hiring almost every intern I ever had that did a good job—and they were great, because they knew the business from the ground up.
But remember that no one is going to work as hard as you do—and don’t expect them to.
In the last few years of running my company, I couldn’t have functioned without Dave as my right hand. One day, around 5 PM, Dave was packing up, and I said something about work that still had to be done—I was a little annoyed because it was our busy season, and I was working until 8 PM most nights. Dave looked at me and said, “Unless you are going to pay me for overtime, I am not going to work overtime.” He reminded me that this was my business, and as much as he loved working in my cold-ass basement with me and believed in what we were doing, for him it was a job, not a dream—and he would never let it take over his life. Don’t expect people to work more hours than you pay them for. Don’t expect people to pledge their souls (and/or free time) to your endeavors. Don’t expect them to care as much as you do about whether the business survives. Even if your business is casual and all buddy-buddy, conduct yourself in a professional manner or else the people you work with will not respect you, and they won’t stick around very long.
Even if you don’t have a schedule, have a routine.
Being self-employed after having worked for other people can feel really weird. You are possibly at home all day, maybe not interacting with anyone; the demands are totally different. It’s hard for a lot of people—it was for me for a long time. Even if you don’t have an organized schedule, at least have a routine: get up, take a shower, get dressed, make some tea, and go sit at your desk or work space. Have a to-do list. I do my best work in the late morning and am creatively useless after about 3 PM, so I do all my errands and office-y tasks in the afternoon.
Take care of yourself.
Don’t run yourself ragged with the all-consuming task of starting your business. Rest, eat, take a break, and walk to the bodega for some gummy worms. Take off and go see a matinee. Skype a friend and talk about something other than business. Cook a totally involved lunch. Get a decent chair to sit in if your business involves being on your computer all day long. Do some yoga and stretch. Rest your eyes. One of the big reasons I have been self-employed for so long is that I can take a nap whenever I want to.
Some of these lessons I learned the hard way, and how you go about starting your business depends on whether you want to crochet bonnets to sell on Etsy, consult for Fortune 500 companies, or manage bands. The main thing I want to convey is that, a lot of the time, all you need in the beginning is ambition and ideas. You can start anywhere and at any age. Doing something you love as a profitable hobby now can very well turn into your radical adult-life career—so think about it. ♦