Best Small Business to Start: Career Counselor or Coach

Top small-business ideas in a struggling economy.

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Career Counselor or Coach

The silver lining of an economic downturn is that new opportunities for entrepreneurs materialize. "Because nothing is secure [in a downturn], people realize it's time to do something they really enjoy," says Pamela Slim, author of the Escape from Cubicle Nation blog. The job of a career counselor or coach is to help people figure out how to get to a place in their life where they can have real fulfillment. Some in the occupation say they don't distinguish between "counselor" and "coach," while others make a distinction. "Counseling is more academically oriented," explains career coach Louise Garver. Coaching, she says, takes a more holistic view of a client's life and how to pursue goals. New Yorker Ann Mehl began working as a coach this year after working as an information technology staffer for Fortune 500 companies. She sees her job as establishing a friendly relationship with clients and then talking to them about their innermost values and goals to uncover the "mental blocks" that prevent them from taking action.

How much does it pay?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of counselors in May 2007 was $40,710. The BLS notes that "self-employed counselors who have well-established practices...usually have the highest earnings."

What kind of background do you need?
Because the needs of a career counselor or coach's clients will vary widely, there is no one career path that will prepare you best for the situations you will face in this job. But experience in a particular area of business can help you develop a niche. Garver, for example, used to work as a corporate recruiter, where she read many résumés. She is now a certified professional résumé writer and specifically targets people looking to improve their résumés when advertising her coaching business.

A compelling personal story can also help. Tom Volkar of Pittsburgh left his job as a salesman to open his own indoor sports amusement center, which folded after two years. "I lost everything—the business, my house," he says. But he says that loss was essential for him to figure out what he really wanted to do. "I looked within, and I was able to say, 'I can still be an entrepreneur again and create, but I can do it with my style.' " His coaching, which he has been doing since 1998, focuses on helping clients figure out a way to become self-employed. Volkar says his story helps him connect with clients." People like the fact that I've risen from the ashes," he says.

How do you get started?
One challenge in launching a coaching business is defining your marketplace. You cannot differentiate yourself from other people offering self-help advice if you cast too wide a net. "I realized long term that if I wanted to be known as an expert, I needed a narrow focus," Volkar says. Once you have your focus, there are a number of ways to attract clients. If you want to concentrate on your local area, take advantage of the fact that Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce meetings are often in need of guest speakers. You can also take your business online and promote yourself with a blog. Volkar says his blog, which he launched last year, has greatly increased his ability to find clients. "A blog allows you to develop a relationship with people," he says.

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