Tara Gentile was working in what she calls a "dead-end retail job" at Borders, earning $28,000 a year as a store manager, when she decided she'd be better off launching her own business as an entrepreneur coach. Aside from more money, she also wanted the freedom to spend more time at home with her daughter, who was then six months old. Now, just over a year and a half later, Gentile, 28, works mostly from her home office in Reading, Pa., earns about $150,000 a year, and spends much of her time teaching other people how they can do the same.
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Gentile is part of a new wave of people opting to work themselves, driven by both economic necessity as well as a desire to take more control of their income. "The declining economy forces people to think more creatively about how they earn money, and in general, people are questioning the idea of job security more than ever before," says Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity. Entrepreneurial activity is at a 15-year high, according to the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, with growth strongest among 35- to 44-year-olds.
"It's 100 percent the economy," says Tory Johnson, a television journalist and small business owner, about what's driving the interest in entrepreneurial activities. Johnson decided she wanted to grow multiple streams of income after getting laid off early in her career. "I understand the security that comes from knowing you are not reliant on a single source of income, or beholden to one person who can pull the plug," she says. Shortly after her lay-off, Johnson launched Women for Hire, a career recruitment company, and most recently she started Spark and Hustle, a series of conferences for women building small businesses.
Here are nine strategies to help get your entrepreneurial idea off the ground:
Find your niche. "I normally coach people to think about what really turns you on. Maybe it's something in your day job, even if you hate it, maybe there's some element that you really love. Whatever those things are, those are the best things to build your business around because that is what will sustain you through the dips and failures that come with being an entrepreneur," says Gentile.
Guillebeau recommends thinking about what people always ask your advice about, then considering if you could turn that into a consulting business. Then, he says, set up a blog describing what you do, create a Paypal account to receive funds, and you're in business.
Know what motivates you (and it's usually not money). Johnson urges people to think beyond cash flow to get at what drives them. "For me, it was to protect and insulate my family from ever having to experience that sheer pain from a pink slip," she says. "For others, it might be to pay for medical treatment of a family member or someone's illness," she adds. Understanding motivation makes it easier to keep going during tough times, Johnson says.
Embrace the side hustle. Pamela Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, uses the term "side hustle" to refer to earning money through entrepreneurial activities in addition to one's full-time job. Many people have significant financial obligations, she says, and simply can't quit their jobs to pursue a small-business dream. Launching a side hustle not only allows them to pursue an idea with minimal risk, but also gives them a back-up plan if their full-time job suddenly disappears.
"People's perception of the stability of corporate life is eroding, if not totally gone. People know it's not smart to solely rely on corporate employment," she says. And if they do hold onto their jobs, the side hustle provides an extra source of income. A recent survey by Elance, a website that connects freelancers with work, found that about 3 in 10 respondents hold down a full-time job while freelancing on the side.
Ramit Sethi, creator of IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, says after surveying more than 100,000 people, he discovered the main reason people want to earn more money is to have the option of eventually quitting their job. Side benefits include using the new skills to negotiate a higher salary and having more spending money, he adds. He launched a program, Earn1k.com, to help people earn $1,000 per month or more. The course starts at $997, but he says he gives full refunds if participants don't earn $1,000.
Protect your day job. Slim warns people against violating their employers' policies that prohibit outside activity like blogging or selling products that could be in competition with the company's products. In some cases, companies can claim ownership of any products employees create while employed full-time. "First, check for any non-compete agreements," she says.
Take advantage of free technology. Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook, and other forms of social media make it easy to build a brand and a business for little or no money. "It's very easy and an almost negligible cost for anybody to put up a basic website where you can sell a product or service," Slim says. In the past, she says, entrepreneurs were limited by their location; now, you can create in Iowa and sell in California, or even throughout the world.
Grow your loyal followers. Today, blogs on Internet marketing often focus on the importance of building one's brand and readership by forming strong relationships with readers and customers. But Gentile says big numbers aren't the only goal. Her website gets about 1,000 visitors a day, which is relatively low compared with some of the big-name blogs, but it's plenty considering how much revenue she brings in from those visitors.
Stop planning and take action. One common mistake for would-be freelancers is taking too long to start selling a service or product. "People have a hard time knowing how to put out a small test of something they can bring into the market and see if it works. Sometimes they're thinking of a huge detailed plan when really they just need to bring one thing out. You want to get it out into the market as soon as you can to test it," says Slim.
Sometimes, says Guillebeau, people fear getting started because they worry about being rejected by the marketplace. He met one aspiring photographer who delayed setting up his website to sell prints because he worried no one would like them. When he finally launched his site, he made a sale within two weeks, and that helped affirm he was on the right path.
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Stay optimistic. "There's no such thing as overnight success, but if you start out with a lack of optimism, you're doomed," says Johnson. That's why believing a entrepreneurial project will be a success is so essential—you have to keep your energy up to get through the hurdles.
Enjoy the rewards of your labor. About a year ago, Ralph Callaway, 27, decided to leave his IT services job in San Francisco, which involved helping companies customize databases and sales data, after realizing freelancing would allow him to also pursue his travel goals and have more control over his schedule. He has since figured out how to juggle multiple clients, work without the comfort of water-cooler talk, and find new clients on his own. In exchange for overcoming those challenges, he gets to decide how much—or how little—he works each week, and he now earns more than he did as a full-time employee. Says Callaway: "I love what I do and I get to do it in a different way every day."