This is the final part in 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum and the one I’m most nervous about posting. I nearly titled it “Don’t Try This at Home” because when I say this is what works for me, I’m not kidding. Your mileage may vary greatly. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works for you. Starting a business is far from a textbook undertaking and there are as many ways to go about it as there are successful business owners.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably still wondering, but how exactly does this starting a business work? You can find a ton of advice about starting a business online. I feel like it would be irresponsible if I didn’t strongly advise you to read extensively, across many different sources, to get an understanding of what owning a business involves. It pays to know how deep the water is before you dive into the pool.
Having said that, I’ve always been more of a learning on the fly kind of gal. If I can doggie paddle, I’ll dive in and figure the rest out as I go. You can only learn so much about swimming by standing on the pool deck watching a YouTube video.
I’m going to close out this series by sharing the five things I’ve learned in the deep end that go counter to much of the formal business school type of advice you’ll encounter elsewhere. Keep in mind that this is what worked for me–what played to my strengths. It may or may not work for you, but I think it demonstrates that doing what works for you is often more important than doing things the way you think they should be done or the way someone else has told you they should be done.
1. Forget the Business Plan
If you Google “how to start a business” you’ll find lots of start-up checklists and on most of those checklists one of the steps will be “create a business plan.” I have a confession: the only time I ever wrote a business plan was last year, as part of an Entrepreneurship course. By that point I’d been a business owner for more than two decades.
I know that a business plan is necessary if you want to go to a bank or other investors for funding. Other than that, I’m not sure what purpose it serves. To me, it seems like a poor use of time. The business plan that I wrote for class required at least forty hours of work and I was just doing the minimum necessary to get a decent grade. If I was making a serious effort, it would have easily taken me five times as long. And still it would have been based on assumptions that inevitably go right out the window once you get down in the trenches of running a business.
As the old Yiddish proverb so wisely says: Man plans and God laughs.
Instead of writing a business plan for my businesses, I spent a lot of time studying other businesses. I collected ads, called and visited. I looked for patterns in how they treated their customers, how they promoted themselves, how they priced their products and what kind of policies they had. From here, it’s a matter of, as Bruce Lee said, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
Ultimately, if you know your special interest well enough, you probably already have a good idea of what the perfect business in that sector looks like. My guiding principle has always been to come as close as possible to running the kind of business I’d want to be a customer of.
2. Put Your Self-Teaching Skills to Work
Thanks to our lifelong pursuit of special interests, most aspies are highly skilled in self-teaching. We are proficient researchers. We’re good at figuring out how things work. We have a lot of endurance for intense study.
With zero formal business training, I have somehow managed to be involved in running not one but three successful businesses over the years. It wasn’t until the third business was well established that I finally had time to take some business classes. They were educational in the sense that they validated what I’d been doing and taught me the principles behind the practice, but much of the day-to-day running of a business is common sense. What isn’t common sense can be found in books or on the internet. If you can teach yourself how to program a computer or make a dress or build a violin, you can probably teach yourself how to run a business.
What you can’t teach yourself, you can get help with. Organizations like SCORE and the SBA provide free assistance to small business owners. Community colleges offer low cost courses and continuing education seminars on all sorts of business topics. Many cities also have nonprofits or government sponsored organizations that support disabled, minority or underprivileged individuals in starting businesses. Google is your friend.
3. Financing is Nice but Not Always Necessary
Starting a business aspie-style often means turning a special interest into a way of making a living. If you’re deeply invested in your special interest (and who isn’t?), you probably already have most of what you need to get started as a small business.
Imagine an aspie with a special interest in website design. If she’s avidly designing websites in her free time, she probably already has the necessary tools: computer, software, internet connection, etc. To turn this into a business, she may need to make a small upfront investment in getting officially set up as a business and doing some promotion, but even that second part can be done for free.
When you first start a business, you can either invest a lot of money or a lot of time. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. Often the deciding factor is which one you have more of. In fact, from an economic viewpoint, time and money are essentially the same thing. There’s a good reason why so many people get paid by the hour, after all.
Imagine our aspie designer has lots of time and very little money for promotion. She also has a cousin with a pet store whose website needs some work. She volunteers to update the website and her cousin, being a smart businessman, knows better than to turn down free help. Because she’s an excellent designer, the website turns out great and her cousin’s customers notice. Eventually a customer mentions how great the site is and asks who created it because he’s looking for someone to update the website for his dog grooming business. This is how word of mouth works. It’s the best kind of promotion you can get and it’s free. If you don’t have a family member you can inflict your skills on, you can always volunteer your time for a community group, your church, a friend, or the owner of your favorite comic book shop.
There are lots of other things you can do when you have more time than money. When we first started out, my husband and I made our own brochures, kept our own books, mopped our own floors, cleaned our own toilets, answered our own phones, did our own repairs. The only things we paid for were the things we absolutely couldn’t do or get for free or by bartering: utilities, rent, taxes.
In many cases, if you want to start a small one-person business, you can probably get by with little or no start-up money and a lot of hard work.
Start small, keep it manageable and be patient.
4. Work From Home if You Can
That got your attention, didn’t it? I’ve experimented with working at home alone, working at home with a part time assistant, working in a traditional office setting and working in a retail setting.
When I started my current business, I worked at home alone. I often felt that I wasn’t running a “real” business, because “real” businesses have employees and an office and the owner doesn’t go to work in torn jeans and a thermal shirt. Eventually my husband talked me into hiring an assistant because I was working 10- to 12-hour days and exhausted most of the time.
I resisted for as long as possible. He finally asked an acquaintance who was out of work if she’d be interested in some part time office work and basically told me that he’d hired her to help me out. He knew that if he left it up to me, I would happily choose working 7 days a week alone over hiring someone to help me out.
Having someone else in my office four hours a day made me anxious but I learned to live with it. Sort of. It was good to have help. I was less tired, but I wasn’t really any happier.
The thing about having an employee is that it makes your business grow. Soon I was right back where I’d started, working long hours, exhausted and anxious because I had to spend four (and now sometimes more) hours a day sharing my office. My husband suggested renting office space. The business had outgrown both the basement and the self-storage unit we were renting. Something had to give. Off he went to look for office space and the next thing I knew, we had a “real” business.
I went to work every day, from nine to five, like I thought real people did. I dressed decently. I upgraded my part time assistant to full time and hired one more person. The business grew beyond anything we expected. I longed to be back in the basement alone.
Eventually we moved cross country and in the process of upending our lives, I decided that having a “real” business was overrated. I outsourced everything I could and returned to working alone. I mostly communicate with my offsite colleagues by email or IM. While sitting in my office, barefoot, in torn jeans and t-shirt, happy as a clam.
5. Keep it Simple
If necessity is the mother of invention, she is the wise old aunt of simplicity. When possible, choose the simple option over the more complicated. Do what is necessary and no more.
You can organize your one-person business as an LLC, but for most people the simpler sole-proprietor organization is just fine. You can learn how to use all of the features in the fanciest version of Quickbooks, or you can use only the ones that make sense for your business. Or you can keep your books on good old-fashioned paper if you find that easier.
The biggest secret I’ve learned in doing business is that there’s no one right way. Do what works for you.*
*Assuming you’re employing common sense/good reason and aren’t breaking any laws or keeping all of your receipts under the bed in hopes they’ll magically organize themselves.