Sunday, February 18, 2001

Self-employed found niches in '80s, '90s

By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

        Fifteen years ago, in January 1986, I ended my life as an employee and began my own business. It's been a terrific, though challenging, period, and it's a good time to reflect on how things have changed for small business.

        My self-employment life mirrors the path of many small companies.

        I started as a consultant, working out of my home. That business grew until I had clients throughout the country. I expanded, starting an Internet company that I later sold. I then began a publishing company and am now also building an Internet tool for small companies.

        I have employees, distributors, inventory, suppliers, taxes, customers, bills, bad days and some very good days.

Credit technology

        I wasn't alone. During those 15 years, entrepreneurship exploded. It's estimated there are more than 25 million small enterprises and self-employed individuals, and 3.5 million people are starting a business in any given year.

        I often credit that growth to a few key developments:

        • Increased respect: Even five years ago, media coverage of business was about “big business.” Big companies marketed to consumers or other big companies, not small business. Today, people recognize small business is a huge and profitable economic force, and they report about it and create products for it.

        • Inexpensive technology: Before low-cost computers and printers, you needed a secretary and an office even to be a consultant. With a computer at home, startup costs are almost negligible.

        • Overnight delivery service: FedEx saved my life. As a consultant, I was able to serve clients throughout the country, sending drafts of business plans, getting bulky materials, staying in constant touch. It didn't matter that I worked out of my home — the FedEx box up the street connected me to the world.

        • Private mailboxes: Fifteen years ago, a person working out of the house could either use the home address, which could be unsafe, or a U.S. Post Office box, which wouldn't accept FedEx or UPS packages. The growth of private mailbox services, such as Mailboxes, Etc., enabled home-based businesses to have a professional, safe address.

        • Kinko's: I lived at Kinko's for much of my consulting life. I learned desktop publishing on Kinko's computers, printed and bound dozens of business plans for clients, made overheads for seminars, and created brochures and oversized displays. Kinko's enabled millions of small businesses to look as professional as any big company.

        • E-mail: I never loved fax machines. At first they were expensive, with terrible thermal paper. You could send only black-and-white documents, and you still paid for the long-distance phone call. E-mail changed that. It's virtually free; it's instantaneous; and you can send all types of information.

        • Internet: The Internet has years to go before it fully realizes its potential to enable small companies to do business anywhere in the world, but it will. The world has gotten a lot smaller. Each week, I have readers contact me from every continent. E-mail and the Internet make it possible for even a one-person business to do business internationally.

Some things are constant

        There are a few things that haven't changed in these 15 years, however:

        • People preying on would-be entrepreneurs. Infomercials and e-mail spam abound with “get-rich-quick” and multilevel marketing schemes. These make me furious because I know decent, hard-working people will have their dreams shattered.

        • Nothing replaces hard work: Forget advice that it's better to “work smart, not hard.” Successful entrepreneurs work smart AND hard. You've got to put in the time.

        • Your employees are your life: I have been fortunate to have dedicated employees who work hard, long and creatively to make our company a success. Every day, I try to live up to the commitment they give and the faith they show in me.

        • Be back tomorrow: Success is a matter of showing up and doing your work over and over again. I'll be at work tomorrow and have another column next week. That's how I'll make it through another 15 years.

        For free business tips, register at


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- Self-employed found niches in '80s, '90s