Slate Readers' 10 Best Ideas for Starting a Business or Reviving a Career

Collective wisdom.
Dec. 2 2011 10:20 AM

Work With Your Hands. Don't Get Married.

Slate readers' 10 best ideas for starting a business or reviving a career.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

For the past month, Slate has been asking you, our readers, to share your real-world advice and stories about how to make it in an economy where the traditional rules, and the traditional career paths, have vanished. Thanks to the Great Recession and globalization, Americans are coming to realize that you can no longer expect to simply get a job: You must invent your own career, a daunting, thrilling prospect.

Not to worry! Slate readers have some great tips for you. Here are the 10 most compelling and useful ideas submitted to our “Invent Your Future” project.

1. Stop Worrying About Security - Submitted by Adam Price

I was working as an outside sales rep in a failing company. I had just had my daughter and grabbed the job as a quick (no other option) solution after the previous startup I worked for went belly-up. The manager called a meeting at the end of the month and said he couldn't make payroll. A guy behind me literally started sobbing. I had no money and wasn't getting paid. So I started a business. Speak Social, my new company, had three things going for it. I knew social media and marketing very well, it was the perfect time to do it, and it had to work. In less than a year we were very much in the black and we had 10 employees. … I'll tell you from experience that hard work and determination is nothing. Anyone can work hard and be dedicated. That's not being entrepreneurial, that's just being a hard worker. The bottom line is if you are building a business from scratch and boot-strapping it, hard work and determination is a given. What you need is timing, exceptionally good people around you, and a total disregard for your own security. My advice is to go all in. Put in ridiculous numbers of hours, make tons of mistakes early and then don't repeat them, and don't think about plan B. There is no plan B.

I have never been much of a risk-taker. But in December 2010, I committed the career equivalent of an extreme sport: I quit a job—one that I had held for a mere two months—without anything lined up. The experience taught me a great deal about owning up to my career mistakes. After some soul-searching, I had left journalism in the fall of 2010 to join the communications team of a nonprofit. At the time, it seemed like a smart move: The pay was better, the job offered me the chance to develop some multimedia skills, and I deeply admired the organization’s mission. Within a few days of my orientation, however, it was clear that I was a poor fit for the position: The establishment was deeply bureaucratic, the role poorly defined. I was bored, and I missed journalism. I also missed wearing jeans to work, petty as that may sound. Conventional wisdom said to stick it out for at least a year, then initiate a job hunt. Yet the thought of 10 more months was overwhelming; I knew it would be bad for me professionally and personally, and bad for the organization, which deserved a fully engaged employee. So I turned in my notice to my justifiably angry supervisor, and plunged into the terrible economy without a backup plan. (I did, it’s important to note, have enough money saved to keep me fed and housed for a year; I wasn’t entirely without a parachute.) I had to humble myself and admit to my other journalism contacts that my experiment had failed. Much to my relief, however, people seemed to respect my brash decision not to stick with an unfulfilling job. They forwarded job openings and helped me find freelance gigs to fill the voids in my day and my bank account. For six months, I made a surprisingly decent living by cobbling together a half-dozen freelance jobs. Then, in the spring of 2011, I again found myself in a full-time job in journalism, with benefits. There were days—oh, so many days—when I railed against myself for having had the audacity (that millennial sense of self-indulgence, some might say) to quit my nonprofit job, giving up stability and health insurance. But the experience was an important one because it reinforced the notion that it isn’t always foolish to listen to your passions and take a risk—a calculated risk.

3. Work Alone, Live Together - Submitted by Michael Anderson

No decision I made has been more important to the success of my small nonprofit than the one to live in a shared house with two other work-at-home friends (another self-employee and a telecommuter). They've been an essential social support structure in good times and black, and I couldn't have done this without them.

4. Be Single - Submitted by Scott Hampton

One of the ugly truths about being able to do something new is embodied in an old quote which I am mangling and cannot recall the provenance of: "In order for a man to accomplish anything of importance he has to overcome the objections of a million mediocre minds." A certain monomania is required. And this is not compatible with any modern conception of relationships, be you male or female. Each of my startups has ended either a marriage or an important relationship. Most new things fail. And yet, to do something new you must trust your instincts and allow your ego to tell you that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong. Don't expect romantic relationships to survive this. It's just another price to pay. I've done it more than once, it sucks, deal with it. Go out and read about the men and women who have started anything new and you'll find that more often than not they found domestic bliss after they accomplished their objective. Sorry folks. This isn't a Hollywood movie.

My proposal is for those who were high fliers in our previous jobs to work to understand how to brand and market yourself as a high-quality provider to those who could not otherwise afford your services. Everyone likes to get a bargain, but not at the risk of harming their business. By making it possible for those with lower budgets to obtain the highest caliber of service, you will serve huge a market need and pay some of your bills at the same time. Many of us have spent many years building up prestigious reputations in our chosen professions. For me, this included long hours as an associate and, later, equity partner in a well-known law firm. This prestige put me in leagues where I charged exorbitant rates to high-end clients, much of which went to the overhead resulting from fabulous downtown offices and yearly bonuses. But when the gravy train ended for me four years ago, I quickly realized that without the accouterments of the prestigious firm behind me, I could no longer effectively compete for the same up-market clients I had served for many years, even though I could provide the same caliber of service. To this end, when I struck out on my own, I started looking for customers in places that I never would have considered previously. I quickly found that the best place to find clients was in locations where larger service providers did not compete. This meant that I had to approach "lower tier" (at least that's what my high-end law partners and "hoity-toity" corporate legal colleagues would call them) organizations to provide seminars and other free advice. Because the people who belonged to these groups had lower budgets than corporate clients, they were largely ignored by prestigious lawyers and consultants who require a certain threshold level of fee. Nonetheless, these small clients greatly appreciated the ability to receive the same caliber of service that the big companies could acquire at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, my experience and expertise greatly surpassed that of the professionals who generally frequented such organizations, and I quickly became a preferred provider of services within these organizations.

6. High-Value Volunteering - Submitted by Alex Jane

It may not pay the bills immediately, but strategic volunteering can set you up for long-term success. Try volunteering anywhere from a local soup-kitchen to a school. This may be a bit Machiavellian, but see which places seem to have fellow volunteers who might be relevant to the career of your dreams. Focus on those places and then start networking. Same goes for joining nonprofit boards. They often have influential people on them and developing a relationship around a shared passion can help you when you're talking to those same people about jobs

Status is the enemy of contentment. Most smart people crave status and so enter status professions or start high-status businesses. The competition is far weaker in low-status businesses—for example, a small chain of soup carts (organic? low-sodium?) located in high-foot-traffic locations. Businesses like that also have the advantage of being offshore-proof and having high profit margin, low cost of start-up, and cloneability: Get the first cart working well and keep cloning it in other locations until you've made enough money. Don't be greedy: too many locations and the quality goes down. Such businesses also can yield enough profit that you can afford to pay the people who staff your cart well. Treat them well and with respect and not only will they not steal from you, you may be one of those rare people who becomes a beloved boss. Now, that’s status worth going after.

8. The Basics of Business - Submitted by Kai Davis

I took an “Intro to Business” course as a freshman at the University of Oregon. It was a 10-week, $2,000, four-hour-per-week course. We spent the 10 weeks running Excel simulations for a “widget” factory. We were told that this would “Teach us the fundamentals of doing business.” In 10 weeks I learned absolutely nothing about doing business. If you want to learn to do business, you must do business. I dropped out of the University of Oregon’s business program a year later and switched my major to Economics. Now I own and operate two businesses and have a day job as the director of marketing for a Eugene company. I learned to do business by doing business. What are the basics of business? Negotiation—You’re a haggler. You aren’t afraid to ask for something. Sales—You can identify problems and pair a product and service as the solution for those problems. Communication—You can write. You can speak. You can persuade someone. You can present an argument. Marketing—You know how to present facts based on the audience and agenda. I think if you’re comfortable with these skills, you’re adept at the basics of business. Everything else is just specialization. If you want to learn the basics of business—the four skills I outlined above, here’s what I’d recommend: Take $200. Go buy an iPod Touch off of Craigslist. Take photos of the iPod. Sell it for $10 / $25 / $50 more than you paid for it. List it on Craigslist or flyer a campus. Repeat this 10 times for 10 weeks. Over the 10 weeks, test each part of this cycle: Test the photos you take. Test how you write about it. Test how much you’re selling it for. Test how you purchase the iPod—ask for a lower price. Keep a list of every question that comes to mind or change you can test. Ask yourself “How can I sell this for more?” or “How can I prove to the buyer what this is worth?” That’s a lot of work. Yeah. Sure. So is spending four hours a week sitting in a classroom and paying $2,000 for the privilege.

I started my business in early 2008. [After my divorce] I tried to get back in the traditional workforce and found it difficult. So I thought about what I am good at and what experience I've had throughout my working years. This is when I came up with the idea for Roundtuit. I've helped small businesses with their accounting, organizing, research, and any other tasks they don't have time to do but which are vital to maintaining and growing their business. I've also used my skills to design and oversee a kitchen renovation, research and resolve tax issues, and even replace faulty doorknobs. The point is, I took all of my previous experience and turned it into varied paying work. At this point, I don't make as much as I did when I went to an office job, but I make enough to live on and I feel a real sense of ownership and control over how I spend my day. More and more larger companies are going to be moving toward this kind of contract work in an effort to save money.

10. Two Paths, for Now - Submitted by joblue

I have been in architecture for 15 years, mostly working for HUGE corporations (SOM, HOK, NBBJ, etc). Sitting in front of a computer for all those years had me wondering if this was it. I rediscovered working with my hands by building bikes a few years ago. That passion turned into a shop, then a bigger shop (www.718c.com), and now the No. 1 custom bike shop in NYC. Bikes, to me, represented all that I love about architecture (design, technology), with the immediacy of building and the satisfaction of working with one’s hands. Bikes are great for the environment, reduce congestion, and elevate fitness levels. All things that got me into architecture to begin with. My architecture job could be outsourced (and it essentially is when I “work from home”); there is no replacement for the skill in my hands. “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” (Shop Class as Soulcraft) People who work with their hands ultimately have the most control over their destiny. So, I continue down this dual path … working in a nice office in Manhattan during the day, and repairing to my shop in Brooklyn to get dirty.

Lauren Hepler is a Slate intern.

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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