Saturday, April 15, 2006

Owning your own business

My brother was visiting us this week and we had time to hang out and talk. We both have our own businesses. Ron owns a couple of optometry offices in San Diego and I have my consulting business. Different businesses to be sure, but we both are in business not only to make some profit to support our families, but also we care about our customers. This probably sounds "corny", but never the less it is true. My brother has had many customers for over 20 years, and it bothers him to think of selling his practices to completely retire because of his long-term customers. I tend to do many small jobs, usually to get someone through a crunch, to help jump-start a new project or to perform some maintenance on an old project; I care about doing good work and for always giving flat-out honest opinions and advice. I manifest care for my customers by turning down work that is not in one of my fields of expertise.

Even though I made much more money working for large companies as an employee (partly through stock), it would be very difficult for me to now give up owning my own business. Certainly, being self-employed is not for everyone because of differing financial requirements and personalities. I am a reasonably public person because of the books that I have written and a fairly popular web site (try searching for 'Java consultant' or 'Ruby consultant') so I get emails, then telephone calls from people who want to quit working for a company and become self-employed; I don't like the idea of strongly affecting someone's career path, but I do share my experiences and typically ask people first how important these things are to them: flexibility in work schedules (+ your own business), steady income and reduced financial risk (+ employee), paid for benefits (+ employee), predictable work hours (+ employee), and being in control of your own life (+ your own business). I have a different kind of business since I live in the mountains in a small town (advantage: no commuting time; disadvantage: work limited to what can be done remotely) so I may not be of much help when talking with people who want to do on-site consulting. I eased into being self-employed over a long period of time, taking on off-hours consulting jobs while still working for a company. I basically transitioned from solving a few large problems for one employer to solving many small and medium problems for many customers.

I have been talking to you about practical issues of owning your own business. I really admire people who have higher ideals in starting companies to meet some social needs such as producing and distibuting organic food, supporting environmentaly low-impact lifes styles and products, etc. While I think that it is occasionally possible for large corporations to be socially aware, I think that smaller companies have a better opportunity to integrate into communities and service local needs.

While the risks involved in owning your own business are obvious, there is also some degree of stability once you can get started. You might not earn much money during times of economic downcycles, but then you will not lose your job! I think that there is a built in efficiency when you can decide why you want to be in business and what customers (or types of cutomers) you will service - this allows you to stay more focused.

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