Working for the Man: In the Mirror, That Is

Written by on October 31, 2012 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

With so many people looking for work these days, convincing an employer to give you a job can be a daunting task. But lots of folks in Charm City are avoiding that route altogether and going into business for themselves. Here, three local self-starters give their perspectives on being your own boss.

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Making the Decision

Melissa Macchiavelli can work anytime, anywhere.

For Melissa Macchiavelli, a freelancer who manages clients’ marketing programs from her home near Patterson Park, flexibility was the main motivator for leaving her steady 9-to-5.

“My husband and I knew we were going to have more kids,” she says.

Furthermore, Macchiavelli, 41, felt she would have more upward mobility outside of a corporate structure.

“There was also a sort of frustration dealing with the corporate culture and the lack of professional growth there,” she says, explaining that moving up would have meant a more hands-off role managing projects and less creativity.

For similar reasons, 57-year-old self-employed carpenter Kurt Schiller of Upper Fell’s Point left the marine and heavy construction company he had been with for 15 years and went on his own in 1993.

“I felt I would only do better for myself,” he says, explaining that as a non family member in a family business, he couldn’t have expected to buy into the company or advance “beyond just getting a bonus check and a pickup truck.”

Freelance yoga instructor and Thai massage practitioner Christy “Yoga Christy” Thorndill, 37, of Fell’s Point, made the decision for her health. Although she liked her steady, albeit contractual, 9 to 5 job as a Web and graphic designer, all the desk work took a heavy toll.

Her longtime passion, yoga, became something “I did on weekends just to hold myself together,” she says.

Kurt Schiller has been a self-employed carpenter since 1993.

Taking the Plunge

When he decided to strike out on his own, Schiller’s main financial responsibility was a $224 monthly mortgage payment for the house he had bought eight years prior.

“I knew I had to cover $224 a month, the BG&E bill, and, worst-case scenario, a couple loaves of bread and a couple jars of peanut butter,” he says.

Schiller started off doing “a bunch of little oddball kind of jobs” until he landed his first full home renovation—on the 1900 block of Pratt St.—in 1995, two years after he went on his own.

Macchiavelli had already built a substantial load of freelance work when she left her employer, an educational software producer. A professional colleague had put her in touch with a woman who needed freelance help. Also, a former boss had started a marketing agency and asked for Macchiavelli’s help on a freelance basis.

The Benefits

For Macchiavelli, it’s spending more time with her kids.

“Working from home is a pretty good gig,” she says.

Although she has a home office completely separated from her family’s living space, she can spend more morning time with her children, eat lunch with them, and she has “the flexibility to take my son to soccer practice,” she says.

Furthermore, Macchiavelli gets to avoid the corporate career ceiling while remaining in a hands-on role in her field.

“Doing what I’m doing now gives me exposure to a lot of different media and capabilities,” she says.

For Thorndill, a large benefit of working for herself is personal freedom.

“I have much more freedom of lifestyle and self-determination,” she says.

The Challenges

When you are a one-person company, you are responsible for all the administration, such as payroll, taxes, marketing, and record-keeping.

“The paperwork has never been my strong point,” says Schiller, admitting that his wife has done his books for years.

Cash flow can be difficult to manage for those doing high-overhead work, he adds. With his own paycheck not usually coming until close to the end of the job, Schiller says he has always taken a conservative approach to ensure that he could pay all his subcontractors and workers. He has gradually put together a portfolio of rental income over the years

For Thorndill, self marketing in today’s Facebook- and Twitter-centric age is a challenge.

“I didn’t grow up with it; I don’t carry my fancy phone around all the time,” she says, adding that she doesn’t feel natural with the medium. “When I’m getting on just because I’m supposed to post something, I feel insincere.”

Nevertheless, she continues to market herself with these media.

Macchiavelli noted that networking is challenging when working by yourself.

“Working full time for one agency [as a freelancer] doesn’t leave me time and energy to network with other agencies,” she says.

Then, of course, there’s the lack of employer-paid benefits.

“The hardest part was that you lost—if you had it to begin with—health insurance,” says Schiller.

Advice for going on your own

“I would say to do it, rather not do it, and always wonder if you could have,” says Schiller.

Another nugget from the carpenter: “You can survive a bad job, but you can’t survive a bad name. No matter what, do a good job. If you’ve underbid something, that’s your mistake, so you’ve got to swallow that.”

“Make sure you talk to somebody who has some experience [working for himself],” says Macchiavelli, adding that her self-employed acquaintances told her to “know where [her] breaking point is,” and have enough cash in reserve to cover it.

“I had no work for a six-month period,” Macchiavelli says. “What made me able to stay on track was that money I had in reserve.”

Also, she says, find ways to cope with the alone-ness of self-employment. On the social aspects of a 9-to-5, Macchiavelli says, “I knew they existed, but I didn’t realize how important they were or how much I would miss them.”

“I would be clear in your motivation,” says Thorndill, “because you really need drive and passion in your business, because that’s what’s going to get you through whatever challenges you have.”

Thorndill adds that setting goals is important, and it doesn’t hurt to state them aloud to someone every day.

“Things become more real when you say them,” she says.

by Erik Zygmont

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