Starting a Business Aspie Style (or What They’ll Never Tell You in Business School)

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.

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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.

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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.

19 thoughts on “Starting a Business Aspie Style (or What They’ll Never Tell You in Business School)”

  1. Great information. I like your last line “Do what works for you.” So often we try to do things like other people do them and it just doesn’t work. When we work with ourselves rather than fight ourselves, we can excel.

  2. I have been self-employed and running my own business for the past 15 years. I am much happier being my own boss and not having to deal with the social interaction of a workplace. Fortunately what I do (market research data processing) matches my skills. I often have to type in computer code that requires repetitive keystrokes over and over again that has a stemming effect. The hardest part was when I started my business and calling people up to drum up business, that was by far the hardest thing to do. It can be isolating at times, but having no boss is worth it. Never did a business plan. Bookkeeping and billing is easy for a numbers person like me (and it is a real pleasure to send out bills rather than receiving them all the time).
    It is easy for me to start working in the morning when I have work to do. Because of the nature of my business I have days that start off with no work. If I get work later in the day, it is difficult to get to that after starting off not working. It is either feast or famine, but fortunately over the years I’ve always had enough work to get by,

    1. I’m relieved to hear that I’m not the only one doing things a little differently. I wonder how many small business owners actually have a business plan?

      It sounds like you’ve figured out what works for you and are doing it successfully. I’m guessing you have a regular roster of clients now, since you said that drumming up business in the beginning was hard. It’s nice to reach that stage where things kind of stabilize and you’re working with clients who you are familiar with. And I definitely don’t miss having a boss either. 😉

  3. My favorite thing about reading your blog is how many things I can identify with. 🙂

    I’ve had two small businesses (sole proprietorships). The first one I started when I was 22. Cleaning houses and windows. I was working for someone and realized that there wasn’t a steep learning curve and the start up costs were nearly non existent. I only advertised a few times. Once I had one person, they’d tell their friends and I’d get more jobs. Most jobs lasted more than ten years, the longest was 25 years and that just ended in June.

    My current business is computer animation and I was self taught in it. I took one class for a specific program I use, and it was excruciatingly slow paced. I needed to be in a small group, or in one on one setting. I learn best by imitating what I see. Either from a teacher or a tutorial video.

    1. It sounds like you got your businesses started much the same way I did. Word of mouth is by far the most reliable kind of marketing for a service business. You can’t beat a personal recommendation. You must have been really good to keep clients that long!

      I’ve learned every program on my computer by opening it up and toying with it then going to look for tutorials to figure out the puzzling parts. I took a stats class at school once and got tons of homework for other classes done while the instructor explained things over and over. A computer class with 60 people in it is just plain silly.

  4. No offense; while I am glad you were able to be successful, I must share that every thing you did I have tried with no success. SBA/SCORE – is no good. My counselor knew nothing of what to do to help me and provided no direction. When I tried to get a different counselor I was told that I had to keep the one I had. Reading books (self-teaching) doesn’t work for me. I am afraid I do not learn that way; it literally goes out of my brain with a snap. I require simple but complete, step-by-step visuals without the fluff taught to me by an expert in order to do things. Most business books seem to give you “65%” of the information you need and you have to figure out the rest. Networking, internships and observations have not given me the information I need, but a lot of frustration and time wasted. I am no good with reading people so finding a business partner that I trust is difficult. I worry that I do not have the social-perceptive skills to protect myself if that person decides to take advantage of me. I cannot even trust my own family (and you wouldn’t want to, either). No husband, so there goes that. The things I do well unfortunately are things I either do not want to do (like be a teacher) or do not rake in the kind of money I need to start a solo entrepreneurship. Because I am working in early childhood education I do not have the time or money to go back to school; I am already in debt up to my ears due to graduate school. Career counselors have no idea how to guide me, especially now (no one seems to understand that being an introvert and having Asperger’s doesn’t mean I want to be a “stock boy” a Best Buy). Do you have any advice for those who are in the same boat I am in? I am desperate. Thanks.

    1. Honestly, self-employment isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough route to take. When it comes to employment, I’m a terrible person to ask for advice because I’ve literally stumbled into both of my careers, almost by accident. Honestly if I had to go out and plan what kind of job I wanted to have/was qualified for, I would be lost. Hopefully someone better suited to answer your question will see this and share their thoughts. Sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance!

    2. I’m still struggling with some of the same issues, so I don’t have any advice, I’m sorry. Just know that you’re not the only one. The only thing that has worked for me so far is look at the job I am doing and try to identify which *tasks* in that job are the ones I do best. I can suck overall, but maybe there’s a tiny part I can actually do well. And then build on that tiny part and even offer coworkers to do that tiny part for them. It might also help to see if you can find a career counselor with some experience in working with people with (some) higher education, because they won’t go the “stock boy” route as quickly. I chose my career counselor because she said on her website she had a “strange affinity with computer programmers and scientists”. 😉

  5. I’m “technically sort-of” self-employed. I’ve worked for a family friend on an ad-hoc basis for many years, though most of things about my work environment are very “self-employed-ish.” I buy and manage my own equipment, I my do own books, I file my taxes as self-employed, I don’t really have to answer to anyone about most job tasks and so on. I have two major stumbling blocks, however.

    1. I suck at marketing myself. The social dynamic of schmoozing with a potential client and trying to drum up business is terrifyingly foreign to me. What’s amazing is that, once a client is convinced by my “employer” or otherwise, everything is suddenly contextualized and navigable. The process of gathering information from a client and assessing project requirements is manageable to me, although, anything out of left field still trips me up. Now, I’d be kidding myself to think that I could run a business without being able to make a sales pitch. On the other hand, if I funneled the necessary energy and mental capacity into navigating the labyrinth of social nuance (and only in the mindset of logical pathways and continual if/then/else/then determinations that makes such navigation extremely mentally taxing), I’d have nothing left for the actual business. How did you manage to sort through this paradox?

    2. I have this weird interest-obsession-boredom cycle that has affected my entire life. I become interested in something … no obsessed with it; to the point where it is on my mind continually. It consumes entire days, weeks, months, years. I eat, sleep and breathe it. Nothing else matters to me. It literally becomes the single focus of my life, where I view *everything* through the lens of the particular interest. I develop it to the point where I’m extremely proficient, skilled and revered. I’m in absolute nirvana when … suddenly, it becomes boring to me. Maybe I’m addicted to the honeymoon period, I don’t know. It actually begins to feel like something I should do because, well, I’m now expected to, but it no longer fills me with that addictive satisfaction and it causes me to feel empty. I’ve calculated that this cycle occurs for me every 4-5 years. I can’t imagine I’m the only aspie who deals with this, though. Does anyone else have a similar situation?

    1. It sounds like you’ve found a good “partner” to work with and have developed a sort of freelance situation. To answer your question about selling – I’m in a field that doesn’t require any schmoozing or sales pitches. I produce products and sell them via various types of advertising and promotion (print, online, etc.). Most days, I don’t even have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. 🙂 In a previous business I had to do more face-to-face sales type activity but I had scripts that I was comfortable with to get me through most of the customer facing contacts. Sales is kind of like acting (or that’s how I think of it) and I always felt like I was playing a role, in a way, with loosely improvised lines.

      I think it’s common to pick up and lose special interests over time. I find that most special interests of mine last 1-2 years, with the exception of a few that lasted much longer. The really tricky part is when you start a business or a job based on a special interest and then it dies. :-/

      1. ok thought it was just me that changed special interests fairly regularly.dinosaurs to astronomy to motorcycles to woodworking to ok you get the idea. None have stuck for more then a few years with the intensity they started.When i kept getting asked what my thing was ,,I apear nt with a broad range of interests.Thanks for letting me know we can change it up.It has also helped not droning on about just one topic in social conversation,This is my first year as an aspie,,can you guess my new special interest ? thanks for all your hard work putting this site together it is not just informative but inpserational as well

  6. Simplest, most logical start-your-own business how-to I’ve ever seen. I tried things the “right” way the first time I attempted to start a business. This time, I’m relaxing into doing it my way.

  7. You basically outlined my business plan! “Here’s what we’re starting with. Observe, experiment, adjust, expand, repeat.” Slowly but steadily I’m growing the business. =)

  8. In the last few months I have been doing a lot of research on Female Asperger’s. The more I read, the more I am becoming convinced that I am an aspie. At first this thrilled me because it explains so, so, so much. Reading this post in particular is very interesting. I am just completing my MBA this month and one of the main things I have learned on it is that I am not a team player, really preferring to work on my own. I have been faking being a team player in the workplace because if you are not, then the negative connotations around being essentially unable to work directly with people cannot possibly be good for your employment status. I’ve been told I have high expectations of other people in the workplace when I am training them, but I never understood this because the needs of the business demand a certain amount of attention to detail etc. and now I actually feel sorry for the poor souls that have been subjected to my training because it must have been very difficult for them. But… I didn’t know this about myself. Now I am feeling a bit upset that maybe everyone has known that I am on the spectrum, except for me. And now I am scared… Because in the last week I have literally just signed the papers to become an owner of this business I have been working in for the better part of a decade and what if I have made a huge mistake? So thank you for this post, and for reminding me that I can do this: it’s my self-teaching, systemising-everything, adapting-everything-to-my-strengths that made me turn this business around and in turn become the best person for it. If I am aspie, I am proud, because my ability to think differently, see patterns and manage complexity unlike anyone else in the business lead me to uncovering my passion and put me on this path. Now, however, I am on a new journey of self-discovery, validation and acceptance with Asperger’s. So I thank you for this site. No doubt I will be glued to it at every possible opportunity from now on!

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