A Sideline Business: Your Ace in the Hole

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ILLUSTRATION: LAUREN SCHEURER
With tender loving care, your sideline business can thrive and be bountiful no matter how small its beginning.

Once upon a time, hard work, dedication to the company,
and/or a strong union guaranteed your job for life. Today,
it’s far more prudent to assume that sooner or later, you
and your job will part company (if you haven’t already).

When that occurs, will you feel victimized, depressed, and
desperate? Or will you be ready to seize the opportunity
for a great new beginning? Your choice. It is my firm
belief — and long-term experience — that developing and
maintaining a teeny, tiny sideline business of your own, what I call
an Ace in the Hole, is the best investment you can make for
your future.

You don’t need to burn any bridges, mortgage the farm, quit
your job, hire attorneys and accountants — or even
necessarily invent a better mousetrap. You just need to
pick a reasonable path, take a few well-calculated, very
low-risk steps, and let your Ace grow slowly. Along the
way, you’ll get two bonuses: extra income and more tax
deductions.

So why isn’t there a business booming on every kitchen
table? Despite America’s reputation as The Land of
Opportunity, you probably believe that starting a business
is costly, risky, and regulated, and that you’d be nuts to
try. Nonsense! Allow me to demystify the process:

1. Start now.

Begin by simply giving the possibility of creating an Ace
in the Hole some serious consideration. My friend Al Lococo
always dreamed of retiring into his own business and gave
the notion a lot of thought. Eventually, Al came to believe
that he really could be his own boss. So, about 18 months
ago, he decided to retain his job but moonlight in a small
computer business. Al filed his chosen business name at the
county courthouse, opened a business checking account,
registered with the state sales tax people, and converted
one room of his house into a workshop/office. His total
investment was “pocket change,” but Al’s Ace was
in place, and public.

2. Find a niche.

Your journey to entrepreneurial glory can’t begin until you
have a product or service that people will happily pay you
to provide. Do you already know what your Ace will be?
Great. But don’t rush to place a full-page ad in the
newspaper just yet. If inspiration hasn’t struck, there are
lots of ways to find it. For example, skim through the
yellow pages, scan the classified ads in newspapers, walk
down Main Street — or through a mall. Pay attention
to how others are making a living on their own, and tune in
whenever you hear, “I wish there were someone I could call
to ….” Then, make a list of things you know how to do.
Really! Be serious, be silly, be creative — but fill
up at least a page.

Put a star next to a few things on your list that you’d
enjoy doing. Then pick one to try. Although Al could have
easily parlayed his love of old cars, for example, into a
perfectly reasonable business, he wisely decided to build
on his love of computers.

While there’s a benefit to doing something better, cheaper,
faster, or with a dazzlingly brilliant twist, the only
requirement is that you serve a real need at a fair price.
Reinventing the wheel is not necessary.

3. Stop to look and listen.

Talk to everyone you know about your idea — but don’t
take everything you hear to heart. You’ll get good advice,
helpful insights, and a hefty dose of discouragement.
Still, great ideas lurk in strange places, and disclose
themselves when least expected. Al initially decided to
transfer his computer expertise into a desktop publishing
business, which he named “Viable Visuals.” But, because he
was flexible, and open to opportunity, Al soon found a more
appropriate niche. He happened to mention his new business
venture to his doctor. During a physical, the two men were
chatting about computers and the doctor said, “I’d like to
hire someone to make monthly backups of the data on my
computer’s hard drive and to check my PC for viruses.” By
the time Al’s pants were back on, he’d found a great
service he could provide to local doctors …and other
small businesses, including mine. He also received a clean
bill of health and acquired his first paying customer.

4. Slow and steady still wins most races.

Set your sights on developing a modest “backup” source of
income — not on creating a new corporate empire.
Micro-mini businesses expose you to micro-mini risks. Since
Al enjoyed and could keep his fulltime job, he was in an
ideal position to start small, while he slowly and steadily
nurtured and focused his business. Then, when Al was offered
a generous, early retirement package, after 28 years on the
job, he was ready. Now he’s working at his Ace full time and
loving it.

5. There’s a lot in a name.

Take your time picking out a name and logo. I believe that
Al’s “Viable Visuals” moniker might have worked for desktop
publishing, but it doesn’t come close to describing the
computer backups, upgrades, trouble shooting, and virus
protection service Al’s actually providing. The last
handicap any business needs is a “bad” name.

6. If at first you don’t succeed…

The nice thing about a tiny business is the ease with which
you can change direction, purpose, or speed. So don’t hold
on to an idea that turns out not to work. Try another.
Eventually, one idea will be right for you. Al thought
desktop publishing would be his ticket to a smooth passage
from the corporate world to his dream of self-employment.
Fortunately, he wasn’t afraid to alter his course.

If you keep at it, regularly putting in time and energy,
you’ll find an Ace that will make you money, give you tax
breaks, and protect you from the vagaries of our economy.

7. Appearance counts.

You, and what you produce, should look great. That doesn’t
mean you need a glossy brochure, a Tinsel-Town video, or a
$1,000 outfit. But do avoid chewing gum or blowing smoke in
the face of a potential client, especially one who’s trying
to decipher the estimate you’ve scrawled on the back of a
mud-soaked envelope.

8. Triple-check your work.

Mistakes are costly — and leave everyone wondering
what else you might have done wrong. Can you be trusted in
the future?

9. Always do what you say you’ll do, and
more.

Customers appreciate speedy service. When you have a
problem, say, a deadline that can’t be met, give your
customers the scoop right away. Say you’re sorry with a
discount — or a free gift. In fact, throw in extras
even when you don’t screw up.

10. Be accessible, very accessible
to both existing customers and potential new ones. And
remember, it’s not just customers who count. Win the
respect of suppliers and you’ll get faster deliveries, plus
valuable referrals. While no one drops everything to answer
a letter or speak to every caller, do reply promptly.
Remember how you felt when last you paced, waiting to hear
from a doctor, lawyer, or mechanic? Take every caller’s
questions seriously. Back in 1989, Al took a call from a
woman with an amazing number of questions about his loan
software. Later, he found out that she was working on an
assignment for a large computer magazine. Al’s technical
support helped him secure a great review when he really
needed it.

11. Zero in on the special needs of those accounts
you already have.

Sure, keep trying to attract newcomers, but take this old
cliche seriously: 80% of your business should come from 20%
of your customers. Treat every one of your clients like a
VIP.

12. One last thought.

New adventures add to the excitement of life and keep us
from growing stale. Starting your own business can be
wonderfully exhilarating, especially if you believe that
it’s not whether you “make it big” that matters, but
whether you make it fun, or meaningful.


Don’t Be Stopped by the “You-Can’t-Suceeed-in-Business”
Myths

The conventional wisdom starts with the old saw that most
small businesses fail because they’re “undercapitalized.”
Hogwash. Begin small and part time, then grow slowly, and
you won’t have to put the touch on friends and family
— or plead your case to banks or venture capitalists.
In truth, if you start small enough, the only thing you’ll
have to fear is success. You won’t have to get bogged down
in plans — be they marketing, business, financing,
operating, decorating, or floor plans. You won’t need to
spend a lot of time or money on: advertising, employees,
insurance, stationery, business cards, logos, lawyers,
bookkeeping, contracts, office space, or phone systems, to
name but a few. If and when you need a little help, there
will be someone with an Ace, ready to handle every dreaded
detail.

No need to try to keep your eyes from glazing over as you
read boring tomes on accounting for the small business,
market research, or capital formation. For down-to-earth
advice on Ace building, there is one book I heartily
recommend: Homemade Money by Barbara Brabec
(Better Way Publications, 1992). You also don’t need to
worry about finding the perfect location. In this age of
faxes, modems, and toll-free numbers, most businesses can
be started — then successfully operated — right
from your home. Don’t worry, wonder!

Where will your Ace lead? Will it be all you’re dreamed
about — or more? Will you decide to stick it out in
the 9 to 5 rat race, or head out on your own? Time will
tell.