By Robert J. Meloche
I am the sole proprietor of a business that assists in the design process for a variety of manufactured products in the United States. I intend to remain the one and only employee of that business and to grow it. No, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Let me explain.
I was born to be an entrepreneur. It just took me a while to make it happen. I grew up in a very middle class Midwestern family. My dad was a factory worker, defined in large part by the company that employed him. That was me for a while too. After high school, I went into design work at a major manufacturer and I rose through its ranks into management until the day, in February 2009, when I was laid off. I was unemployed for the first time of my adult life and, in the depths of the recession, the opportunities for another corporate job were slim.
By chance, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor about what was happening, and she offered to introduce me to a design company that was looking for an independent contractor. I had done some small side projects before, but I had never considered being a full-time independent contractor. It got me thinking back to the way I worked when I was a teenager with my own lawn irrigation business. Back then, I found customers, I did the work that needed to be done, and I was paid for it. I began to think that I could be an entrepreneur again.
Of course the world has changed a lot since I was a teenager. There are people now who talk about our country as a “free agent nation”, a place where being self-employed can be as fulfilling as being a full-time corporate employee. A place where you can be an entrepreneur but still be affiliated with an important brand. I began to see that there are many independent professionals out there, doing the work they love in a different way. It made me think of the early days of our country, when the village blacksmith worked his trade for everyone who needed him, and not just one employer.
If only starting a business was as easy as firing up a blacksmith’s forge. I used every penny my wife and I had saved for our family to start mine: Literally every penny we had in our bank account. However, the software I needed to be in business as an independent design contractor was more than I had saved, so I turned to my long-time bank for a loan. I quickly came to understand that it was not going to help. In its place, I found short-term funding from a company called Bizfi, an online finance company. That worked so well, that when I later needed to upgrade my software, I went back to Bizfi for a second round. In both instances, I was able to quickly get a very small amount of capital–under $5,000–in a matter of days.
Many people considering self-employment worry that there won’t be enough work for them to do. But since I’ve been independent, I have never had a moment when I was not busy. I’ve built a strong network of designer contacts and we pass work back and forth. It has given me and my family–they are my rock of support–a lot of peace of mind.
The strength of those contacts was tested a few weeks ago when one of my clients, a major furniture company, said they didn’t need my services any more. My heart skipped a beat, but I made a few phone calls, had lunch with a contact and wound up with enough work to make up for what I lost. Then the furniture company called me and said we have another nine weeks of work. I’m making that happen now too.
What does the future hold? I can’t work more hours than there are in a day, so I define growth as finding more variety in who I work for. Right now, I have three primary customers and, at any one time, four or more small accounts. Many of my jobs now revolve around office furniture and automotive design, but I would like to get into aerospace design work as well.
Robert Meloche is the owner of Proficio Design, based in Holland, MI. For more information about Robert and his company, please visit www.proficiodesign.com.