Place in the Workforce
The Self-Employment Option
by Cheryl Jewett
So you want to start your own business? Giving birth to the concept—a product or service you want to sell—is just the tip of an iceberg. You’re contemplating an investment—of time, money, and hope—and there are common factors to consider, whether you want your business profits to be your primary income or your pocket money.
Start with honest self-assessment
Managing a business isn’t for everyone. You need to be able to manage both people and money. You also need to understand what fuels you with excitement, because you should love what you plan to do. And you need to be realistic about your physical and emotional stamina.
Do you have backup in case of serious health problems? Even in the short term: let’s say it’s 3 PM, your body has hit that proverbial wall, and you cannot go on one more minute (and you know what I mean). An angry customer is demanding your attention. Who covers for you?
I’m not trying to discourage you, but rather to encourage you to soul-search and brainstorm. Are you a self-starter, an organizer, a planner? If you are not, can you find someone to help you? What are your weaknesses and strengths?
Get down to business with a business plan
If you’ve decided to go for it, you need a formal business plan. This is your company’s resume. The components include your personal resume, a mission statement outlining the purpose of your business, and financial information. This should include a profit-and-loss statement based on your predictions of monthly income and expenses. You need to project the variables, such as part-time office help, bookkeeping services, warehouse and inventory, and the fixed expenses, such as rent, insurance, utilities—and salaries. You need a balance sheet and a cash-flow analysis, plus a sensible projection of when you might reach your break-even point.
You also need the appropriate legal descriptions. Will your business be a sole proprietorship, a corporation, or a partnership? Is a copyright or patent needed? (The Web site for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is www.uspto.gov/.) Is your location properly zoned for your type of business? Is a license required? Any potential lending institution will require all this information.
Your new best friends for developing your business plan could be your local chamber of commerce and your state vocational rehabilitation office. Look for them in the governmental offices section of your phone directory. Also try the www.entrepreneur.com/.
The U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) site at www.sba.gov/ offers a wealth of information in amazingly non-bureaucratic language. Their toll-free number is 800-8-ASK-SBA (800-827-5722). The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) offers their invaluable help through their Web site, www.score.org/, or by phone at 800-634-0245. SCORE gives free counseling plus low-cost workshops on numerous topics. The Small Business & Self-Employment Service (SBSES) is a free service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor, which provides information, counseling, and referrals about self-employment and small business ownership opportunities for people with disabilities. SBSES, located at the Job Accommodation Network, is available through JAN’s toll-free number 800-526-7234 (V) or 877-781-9403 (TTY). SBSES Web site: www.jan.wvu.edu/sbses. (If you don’t have access to a computer with Internet, get online at your library.)
The greatest obstacle to business success has been identified as insufficient money. To favorably impress a lending institution (including your brother-in-law), you need to commit some of your own money up-front. Investing in your own business demonstrates how serious you are and ensures that you are less likely to walk away should things get rough.
Shop carefully for a loan, and don’t be discouraged. The SBA experts will walk you through their pre-qualification for a loan guarantee program. And they’ll connect you with local experts such as the Small Business Development Center.
I highly recommend starting your business small, and at home. Consider leasing rather than purchasing the equipment you might need. It's far wiser to keep initial costs down, avoid drowning in debt, and focus your energy on growing your new business. For other suggestions on financing, check out magazines such as Home Business www.homebusinessmag.com/ and Small Business Opportunities www.sbomag.com/ and visit www.abilitiesfund.org/
Sales and marketing
Marketing involves public relations, customer service, and advertising. Professionalism counts, so if you’re new to this aspect of business you may want to outsource your marketing and advertising needs. No matter who develops your marketing plan, be sure you have good information on your customers’ demographics and the best methods for reaching them. Use the media outlets that your business can afford, since repetition of your message is almost surely needed to ensure success.
Familiarize yourself with your competitors so that you can differentiate your product or service from theirs. Think about what would encourage someone to switch to you for this product or service. Highlight this benefit in your sales pitch!
Maintaining good business records is not only an absolute legal necessity; it enables you to monitor inventory, cash flow, tax-deductible expenses, and business growth. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service offers an excellent publication, #583 “Starting a Business and Keeping Records”. See www.irs.gov/publications or call them at 800-829-3676.
To simplify things from the very beginning, start a separate bank account for your business. Get a ledger, an accounting journal, and business checks. There are several good programs for computerized bookkeeping, including Quicken, Peachtree, and Microsoft Excel. The SBA, SCORE, the public library, the Internet, and bookstores offer solid help on this topic.
If this sounds like more than you want to handle, you need to outsource. Hire accountant services from an individual or a firm that specializes in bookkeeping for small businesses. Ask for referrals from other small business owners.
Consequences of self-employment
The fear of losing hard-won Social Security income and health benefits if MS rears up again can strike terror into your heart. To learn ways to safeguard your benefits, call your local Social Security office or their toll-free number: 800-772-1213. If you choose to work and remain on disability, there are income limits. Be sure to find out what they are. Ask too about the "Extended Period of Eligibility" and continuation of Medicare coverage. WIPA (Work Incentive Planning and Assistance) can help you with benefits analysis. Contact www.ssa.gov/work/ServiceProviders/WIPADirectory.html
A program called the Ticket to Work or Self-Sufficiency Program, is gradually being implemented state by state. Ask if it has come to your state yet. The Trial Work Period, or TWP, is already in effect everywhere, so for at least nine months, you can continue to receive all your Social Security benefits, no matter how high your earnings might be. Further, if you need to return to the disability rolls because of the same or related impairment within five years of leaving, there is no waiting period for the benefits to begin again. Social Security’s Web site, www.socialsecurity.gov/, has a marvelous comprehensive “Frequently Asked Questions” section.There are lots of folks out there to help you. Listen well, learn all you can, and be absolutely positive that you have the resources to give your venture the best chance to work. Then, plot your course, feeling confident and self-assured.