Be Your Own Boss

Carving a path to entrepreneurship

By day, Chris-Tia Donaldson works as an attorney in Chicago for a global software company.
But in the late evening and early the next morning, she is throwing herself into her own business—a line of natural hair care and body products she developed for African American women.

Donaldson started the business in July of 2009 upon publishing her book Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair, which she was motivated to write after years of frustration with having to hide her curly hair in order to fit into law-firm life.

Her product line, which goes by the acronym of her book title, TGIN, has been a labor of love. But juggling it with her full-time job has not been easy. For Donaldson, it means long hours and little sleep until she can fully transition into her business.

“It’s sucking the life out of me,” she says bluntly.

At 34, Donaldson knows no other way. Having toiled through 70- to 80-hour work weeks when she started her career at a law firm back in 2003, she continues to work those same hours today. But instead of giving all that time to her employer, she is finally keeping some of it for herself so that she can grow her business.

“I want it to be big,” she says, almost with a sense of urgency. “I want it to be a big deal.”

To other women hoping to become first-time entrepreneurs, Donaldson offers this piece of hard-earned wisdom: “It’s going to be a lot of hours, especially if you want it to be successful on a certain level. If you want it as additional income, you can work less. But if you want to eventually quit your job, then, yeah, you have to work these hours.”

Donaldson joins millions of women who seek fulfillment from working not for others but for themselves. That entrepreneurial spirit runs through an estimated 7.8 million women-owned businesses in the United States, a number that has grown 20.1 percent between 2002 and 2007 and has generated $1.2 trillion in total receipts, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), using data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey of business owners.

The process of starting a business is as varied as the businesses themselves. But there are fundamentals that anyone thinking of going down that path should know.

First and foremost is to assess whether owning a business is the right fit for you in terms of your professional, personal, and financial goals. That initial level of soul-searching is necessary before anything else can fall into place, says Mary Cantando, a North Carolina–based business consultant and founder of The Woman’s Advantage.

“I think you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What am I willing to risk?’” she says. “You have an idea, you think it’s going to be great, and then what if the whole thing fell apart? What’s the worst case scenario and are you willing to lose your house over it? That’s how hard it has to be.”

Equally important is coming up with a concrete business concept. While that might seem like an obvious step, Michele Markey, vice president of Kauffman FastTrac in Kansas City, Missouri, says that women often come to her without being able to adequately explain what they’re setting out to do.

“When we talk to some people, they can’t quantify it well—they go on and on,” says Markey, who oversees all the programming at Kauffman FastTrac, an affiliate of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation focused on entrepreneurial education. “They need to communicate clearly what it is.”

Cantando says coming up with a business concept can be as simple as listening to the people around you.

“If someone tells you, ‘You are so good at this,’ you need to open your ears and hear that,” she says. “Take that and then ask, Can you identify a person or organization who will pay for that? How do those two pieces of the formula come together?”

Once the concept is cemented, it’s time to put it into words, and that means writing a business plan. Common elements include a detailed description of the proposed company, an analysis of the market where the company will compete, financing options to get the business off the ground, and revenue and profit projections.

Although some would argue whether a business plan is really necessary, Bruce Purdy, deputy assistant administrator for the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, says having one can make all the difference, especially when seeking outside financing. “If you’re looking to apply for a loan, the biggest thing the lender wants to see is your ability to pay the lender back,” Purdy says. “[The loan officer] will look at your projections, and that’s part of your business plan.”

Indeed, when Donaldson went to her bank to apply for a loan, her business plan helped seal the deal. “When I needed money, I had to have my plan to take to a loan committee to vote on it,” she says. “It represents how serious you are.”

Purdy notes that a business plan is ever evolving, much like the business itself.

“The business plan is predominantly used as a guide for the business, and it’s not static. You don’t frame it and emblaze it in gold,” he says. “It should be a living, breathing document, and you really need to make sure that you’re changing your plan going forward.”

Figuring out how to finance your company is also essential to getting it started. Initial costs can include anything from inventory to insurance to licensing and permitting fees, as well as legal fees.

All of this can add up fast, and Markey says new entrepreneurs often underestimate how much money they will need. Not only that, but women in particular tend to ask for too little when seeking outside financing, in part because many are uncomfortable with the idea of using someone else’s money.

“Women feel like they are asking for money for themselves instead of for their business,” Markey says.

According to the SBA, young companies make heavy use of the external debt market, receiving about three-quarters of their funds from banks through loans, credit cards, and lines of credit.

For women business owners, the picture is a little different. Unlike male owners, they tend to start businesses without seeking financing, according to the SBA. Women-owned businesses are roughly only half as likely as male-owned businesses—5.5 percent for women versus 10.7 percent for men—to obtain business loans from banks.

The SBA points out that this puts women-owned businesses at a disadvantage “because a business’s relationship with a bank at the outset not only provides funds, but often provides business advice and future goodwill.”

Donaldson, who put in at least $50,000 of her own money when she first started out, says she wishes she would have used other people’s money up front instead of her own.

“I wish I would have known that I could have gotten a line of credit,” she says. “I wish I would have known about organizations like the SBA, and community organizations that give out loans.”

One thing Donaldson doesn’t regret is keeping her full-time job while starting her own business. She notes that without her job, she wouldn’t have even been able to obtain the financing she eventually received through her bank, let alone cover all her personal expenses as well as keep her health insurance.

“Some people quit when they just have an idea,” she says. “Don’t quit for an idea—quit when you have a product.”

Cantando points out that, short of being independently wealthy or having a partner who can provide financial support, many women must hang on to their full-time jobs while starting their business as a means of survival.

“Ideally, if you can quit your job and devote yourself to this, that’s wonderful,” she says. But more realistically, “you maybe want to give yourself a time frame—six months—while keeping your full-time job, working weekends and evenings. And if you hit your goal, then quit.”

Donaldson’s time frame was much longer than that. It took two years from when she first conceived of her business idea to when someone was willing to pay for her product. And even though TGIN started turning a profit last year, she is still not ready to give up her day job because it provides her with a much-needed safety net.

The trick, of course, of keeping your full-time job is balancing it with the demands of a start-up. It is crucial that one not disrupt the other.

Jaime Campbell, who with her husband started an accounting and technical services consultancy called Tier One Services, was careful not to let her business interfere with the work she did for her employer, an accounting firm.

Her employer had explicitly laid out in its handbook that employees could not conduct any business on the side that competed with the services offered by the firm.

Campbell made sure not to violate that rule, telling her boss up front about the business she was starting and restricting the type of work she did at Tier One, at least initially, to avoid any overlap. She limited herself to advising her husband strategically in August of 2011 by keeping the books and records for the business while he handled technical services for their clients.

Then in the spring of 2012, she began to offer personal financial coaching services, again making sure not to overlap with her employer’s services. Campbell says she would schedule the coaching sessions by appointment only, often on evenings and weekends. In the event that her services would conflict with her employer’s, she redirected her clients to her employer and ended up becoming a referral source.

Finally, in the spring of this year, Campbell decided to quit her job and fully transition over to her business. Following the birth of their baby in March, she and her husband moved to South Carolina from New Jersey, where they now run Tier One Services out of their home.

The transition has been liberating for 37-year-old Campbell. Now instead of restraining herself so that she doesn’t violate her employer’s policies, she is putting herself out there, promoting her business on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

There is even a noticeable change in the tone of her voice when she talks about Tier One. It is less guarded and instead brims with enthusiasm.</>

“All the things I did previously in the name of my [employer], I’m doing for my company,” she says excitedly. “Now any business idea I can think of, I can do.” DW

Pia Sarkar has worked for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and TheStreet.com. She is currently an editor at The American Lawyer.

Small Business Resources

Several resources can help aspiring entrepreneurs come up with a business plan, in addition to providing them with counseling and training.

Women’s Business Centers, a national network of more than 100 educational centers run by the SBA that help women start and grow their businesses.
www.sba.gov/content/women’s-business-centers

Small Business Development Centers—also run by the SBA, with 950 locations mainly on university campuses—offer one-on-one counseling for more established businesses, teaching them how to take their company to the next level.

www.asbdc-us.org

SCORE Foundation, funded in part by the SBA, comprises 12,000 current and retired executives, business owners, and managers who volunteer their time to mentor entrepreneurs who are trying to break into the business.
www.scorefoundation.org

Pia Sarkar has worked for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and TheStreet.com. She is currently an editor at The American Lawyer.

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