WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Self employment is what you make it

Her voice mail message was hurried and harried, like most. It was understandable, though, since it was at least our third round of phone tag.

“Hi, Cari. You’re It. Again. You must be on the other line, since it went right to voice mail. I’m going to press zero and see if someone can page you.”

I laughed out loud as I deleted the message and called her back. “Didn’t work, did it?” I asked.

I’m self-employed and work from home. My office is a converted extra bedroom. There’s no sophisticated battery of phone functions, no secretary to pick up an extra line.

But I had projected that image. In my caller’s mind, I was sitting in a partition furniture warren, the boss three cubes over, the requisite Coke machine down the hall–in short, ensconced amid and supported by all the trappings of 9-to-5, work-a-day America. After pondering self-employment for a couple years, collecting the courage to leave my full-time job earlier this year and weathering the ups and downs of six months on my own, I felt like I had finally arrived.

Since I gritted my teeth and jumped, I’ve found a lot of people daydream about a moment that feels like that. Even if they haven’t thought past the glorious “take-this-job-and-shove-it” moment, self-employment or owning a business is a fantasy for many. It’s also becoming a reality for plenty–particularly women.

The National Association for the Self-Employed reports that the number of self-employed women grew five times faster than men and three times faster than salaried women between 1988 and 1996. The Center for Women’s Business Research says that between 1992-97, the number of women-owned firms increased 16 percent, more than double the 6 percent increase in all U.S. businesses. (A word about the difference between owning a business and being self-employed. There really isn’t any. If you’ve got $1,000 of self-employment income annually, the Census counts you a business owner.)

“Nationwide, this is a growing, growing thing, self-sufficiency,” said Barb Vanderzouwen, a small business coach for the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.

Locally, Vanderzouwen teaches a two-week telecourse entitled “Self-Employment: Are You Ready?” as well as a four-month sequence that covers everything from management and marketing to writing a business plan. In her classes, she’s noticed women often have a natural aptitude for self-employment. The many roles they play–spouses, mothers, employees, volunteers–allow them to acclimate more easily to the multiple hats self-employed people wear.

“Many of them, if they’re single, are in business by running their own lives,” Vanderzouwen said.

Women in northern Michigan have other forces compelling them to seek their own paychecks, too. By and large, employers in the region still run on traditional work schedules, which frequently aren’t friendly to women raising children.

Finally, there’s the demographic changes enabled by technology. Freed from physical workplaces by e-mail, teleconference calls and pagers, people can leave the cities where jobs were concentrated.

“People are saying, ‘I want to live where I want to live,'” Vanderzouwen said. “Of course, Traverse City is just prime for that.”

I think it’s important that technology enable, not prod, self-employment decisions, however. Having a high-speed Internet connection and a cell phone that allows me to make calls from my bike seat (and I have) didn’t inspire me to abandon the cubicle. Rather, it was desire for more time and flexibility to pursue personal interests. To travel. To bike and hike and kayak and ski. To spend more time with family and friends.

In the time I spent working, I wanted a new challenge, one I knew wouldn’t be forthcoming in the career where I’d spent 10 years. I was quite competent, but had gotten too comfortable. And I simply wanted to see if I could do it. Notice none of that had anything to do with having a killer idea that would lead to venture capitalists swooning at my feet and retirement at 40.

And while financial issues can’t be brushed aside, they shouldn’t enter the self-employment decision too soon.

“There’s a lot of personal development in being a business owner. It’s not about producing 7,000 widgets,” Vanderzouwen said.

The trouble, I think, is that a lot of people go from the “take this job and shove it” moment straight to the fantasy of spending three, maybe four days a week giving orders for the widgets, then cutting out for a long weekend. There’s not a lot of dwelling on what happens in between.

That’s what Vanderzouwen’s classes (call 922-3723 for more information) and the oodles of career guidance counselors, books and websites (type self-employment into www.google.com) are there for. That’s also why this column is here. Over the coming months, it will explore questions and issues related to self-employment. Up in October: Myth-Busting: making sure you want to be self-employed, rather than just thinking you want to be self-employed.

And now, my deadline met, voice mail secretary standing by, I’m off for a bike ride.

Cari Noga is a freelance writer, grant writer and public speaker based in Traverse City. Got a question or suggestion for her on self-employment? E-mail her at carinoga@hotmail.com. BN