When Megan Schoenleber had to send her daughter Marlowe to daycare at two months old because it was too hard to balance childcare with conference calls at her job, she knew she had to make a career change. Although she and her husband were working from home in their corporate jobs, it was tough to juggle taking care of Marlowe, born in January 2020, with the demands of a full-time job during the pandemic, and she wanted more time to enjoy her new baby.
So Schoenleber, who had worked in human resources as a recruiter for a financial services firm, signed up for a program that trained her to start a business as a virtual assistant—an administrative professional who works remotely. She started running her business as a side hustle and gradually focused her practice on work as an online business operations manager.
After she found her first four clients, Schoenleber felt confident enough to leave her full-time job. “Growing up and going to college, I always dreamed about owning something of my own,” she says.
Now she works from her home in Omaha at her own pace—and with plenty of time to spend with her daughter. “This is the best of both worlds,” says Schoenleber. “I get to pick the work I do. I also get to be a mom to her. I don’t have to worry about daycare issues.”
Americans have been starting businesses at a record pace since the pandemic. Some are parents like Schoenleber, who need more control over their schedules than even a work-from-home job will allow. Others have lost their jobs or feel they will have more economic security generating their own income than relying on a traditional job in a shaky employment market.
The challenge for many is knowing how to make the transition from employee to business owner. If you’re looking to launch a home-based business in 2021 but aren’t sure how to tap your existing skills to generate a substitute for your salary, you’re not alone. Many budding entrepreneurs need to put some structure around their dream to make it happen.
For ideas, I turned to Micala Quinn, who runs training programs for women aiming to start home-based businesses, and is host of the Live Free Podcast. She helped Shoenleber make the transition from employee to business owner. Although Quinn’s advice is aimed at mothers, I found it is relevant to anyone trying to leave behind the mindset of an employee and think like an entrepreneur.
Do a skills assessment. “No matter what their current job is, people come to me and say, ‘I have no skills. I don’t know what I could do as a freelancer,” says Quinn. “These are people who have experience. It’s like we turn a blind eye to what our talents and skills are.”
To identify a business where you will thrive, Quinn recommends listing all of the jobs you have had in the past 5-10 years—including unpaid work like being a stay-at-home parent—and to pick the top three to five that you have enjoyed the most.
For each of these jobs, write down the “tangible” tasks you had to do. For instance, for Quinn, a former teacher, these would include planning lessons, conducting lessons and grading papers.
Then list the personal strengths that allowed you to excel at these tasks—those things employers call “soft skills.” For Quinn, these included being very creative and having an ability to get kids excited about ancient literature. She was also a problem solver, able to read a classroom quickly and make changes on the fly.
Once you list both tangible and soft skills for the three to five jobs, look for common threads, Quinn recommends. Then start listing different services you could offer that will allow you to use these skills.
Accept that you may not feel confident at first. Many people with tremendous potential to run a business procrastinate because they never feel, well, ready. “Everyone is chasing confidence,” says Quinn. “I feel like we use that as an excuse to not start or try something. No one has confidence at the beginning of anything.”
But there’s a way to break through this. It’s a change of mindset. “We need to put our focus on having the courage to try,” says Quinn.
So how do you get those opportunities to try if no one knows you’re in business yet? Sometimes, doing projects on a pro bono basis can be a good way to get started. She runs a Facebook group where members can offer their services to each other for free, in exchange for a testimonial and permission to use the projects in their portfolio. That way, when someone asks what type of tasks they can take on, they can say, “This is work I’ve done and can do.”
What if you’re not part of a group like this? You can still offer your help for free to friends or past colleagues in exchange for recommendations—as long as you didn’t sign any agreements with a current employer that restrict your ability to work outside of your current job, such as a non-compete. It only takes a few clients to help you build momentum in a business and get to a position where you feel confident charging for your services.
Be willing to start small. Lindsay White, a former digital marketer and relationship manager for a Fortune 500 financial services firm, started freelancing while working in her old job, in 2019, learning the ropes of running a business from Quinn, as well. Now she works 20 hours a week as a freelance digital marketer at her firm The White Label Creative, bringing in about $100,000 annually while working from home in Tampa, Fla. That’s exactly how she likes it. She has a one-year-old and wants unhurried time to spend with her family.
Although White was accustomed to meeting the needs of a big corporation, she stayed open to working with clients of all sizes when she started the business. “You can’t just go into freelancing thinking you’re going to take the biggest clients right off the bat,” says White. “Sometimes you have to take some smaller fish and dip your toe in the water. I started with a couple of really small clients. After freelancing for three or four months, I landed some of my biggest clients.”
Even with those bigger clients, White has made it a priority to keep her schedule flexible. She regularly outsources projects to other moms in her field. “It’s been really great for my family, being able to be at home part-time and bring in an income and do it all from home,” says White. “I can plan my work schedule around anything else we have going on. I wouldn’t ever consider going back to corporate.”
The nice part of starting a successful business is she probably won’t have to. She’s set up to work when and where she wants—while earning plenty of income to live life on her own terms.