Thanks so much to Mr. Chipman for taking the time to answer everyone’s burning questions!!!
A: Starting an IT business is no different than starting any other, I believe, although I have never started any other business so could be entirely wrong 🙂 Broadly speaking it is quite simple paperwork, (a) pick a name for your business; (b) register with NS government – which is fairly cheap – costs ~$70 per year (c) then register with Canada Revenue Agency for an HST number so you can collect HST. If you are starting small and don’t expect to earn more than $30k in a year, I believe you don’t even have to register for HST – you just have to declare the self-employed income on your personal income tax forms at year-end. (You might want to research this in detail yourself to be certain 🙂 (Side Ref: This site seems pretty accurate and detailed: http://sbinfocanada.
about.com/cs/startup/a/ regnovascotia_2.htm but you also should read up at the NS Joint Stock Registry website – see the next question for the link ..)
2. Do you have to be a certain age to register your own IT business?
A: I don’t know if there is any restriction on age for business registration. I would guess there is not actually but you probably should talk with someone at NS registry of joint stock companies for a proper answer from a real authority. (http://novascotia.ca/snsmr/
3. How do you get your clients?
A: To be honest, virtually all my clients are word-of-mouth. Having a website is ‘good’ – I think of it as a “more detailed business card”; possibly a small google ad campaign, or possibly other media; but for the scale of what I do – plain and simple, word of mouth is the number one channel. This means, when you start your business, think of *everyone* you know, this may be friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, anyone you ever worked with or for / the guy you bump into when crossing the street – and let them know (briefly) (a) you are starting your own business; (b) broadly/briefly – what services you offer; (c) please call me if you think you might have something I can help with; or anyone you know might need my help. Happy clients are really important, because (1) they often become repeat customers; and (2) they are likely to give you good referrals which are “serious, interested, and ready” to actually get your help with something. Good referrals are golden, because they usually want to get to work. People who are ‘shopping around’ and are not quite serious, or not quite sure – can be a drain on your time and energy (preparing quotes, proposals, etc) – so it is good, if possible, early in the game – to pay close attention and be aware, “do I really think this person is going to move forward with this work?” – and if you are not sure- ask; or try to get more information; in a direct way; and then don’t be shy about stopping ‘(unpaid) dev/lead work’ with a prospective client who is just sitting on the fence. You can spend a lot of time chasing people; it is far better to assess early in the cycle, are they serious; and if not – move on. There will be other people out there who are not going to sit on the fence!
4. How much are start up costs?
A: For me, start up costs were pretty minimal. It will depend slightly on what services you plan to offer; and what your expectations are for ‘how much stuff you need’ to get the job done. If you already have a computer/laptop – that is probably your biggest out-of-gate requirement. Then you need to consider “ongoing operating expenses” such as Phone; Internet access; Web-Email Hosting; Office space fee (home office? big rental space? Small membership in local SMB co-op? Parking in the coffee shop ? Printer, consumables, etc?) I use a VOIP based phone service to keep that cost low; and an inexpensive web-hosting provider (there are plenty out there). Keep an eye on your budget and it isn’t hard to keep expenses down. Don’t be tempted by “gold plated goodies”. Just be certain to keep receipts for all your expenses, as those are important at tax time.
5. How long did it take before you had a stable income?
A: I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘stable income’ 🙂 In my experience you need to consider income across a 12-month period of time. My first 12 months was ‘kind of slow and ramping up’ – but since then – across 12 month periods – income has either been stable or trending slightly upwards, for the most part. With contract work, I’ve found that work is very ‘peaky’ – some of the time, there simply is no work. Other times, there is ‘too much work’. So you will have busy periods, and quiet periods. You can’t let this get you down, because it is ‘normal’. Certainly when you are in quiet periods it means you have more time to devote to “client development, lead generation, networking” and also to “self-training, testing new things, learning”. Part of the challenge of running a 1-person business is to adequately juggle your commitments, even when it gets busy with paying work. It is also very important, to always remember to document your work – well – always – and then to invoice your work promptly and consistently; so that you will in fact get paid for work you have done. Many clients will expect to have ‘net30’ terms (ie, they won’t pay you for 30 days after they get your invoice) so this inherently means there will be delay for getting paid for your work even if you do invoice promptly. So it is really critical to keep on top of your paperwork, always; and to actively balance the amount of “paid work” and “unpaid work” that you are doing. *Unpaid work* is one important part of the business – following up with past clients, trying to find new clients – trying to find new leads; possibly preparing quotes for prospective clients or meeting with prospective clients to learn about their needs / on the hope that they will move forward on a project. Just be sure to keep a balance; don’t do too much ‘unpaid consulting’ and don’t establish yourself as someone who ‘happily does unpaid work’ – because – then you will most assuredly be very busy, always, and get paid – nothing.
6. What do you do if your clients need something while you are on vacation?
A: I have a number of colleagues who also do I.T. Consulting work, and typically when I’m away on vacation, I will ensure that they can cover for me in the event of a dire emergency. This is not such an uncommon thing to do; and often there will be some reasonable expectation of returning the favour (ie, when your colleague goes away – you will cover for their clients). However, the reality, is that most of the time, things don’t actually break and blow up all that often. Core server hardware needs to be deployed with a certain level of appropriate fault-tolerance/redundancy (ie, redundant hard drives or power supplies for example) – and most of the time, things do actually keep working just fine, even though you are not there. Ultimately, your goal as a consultant is to provide solutions to clients which are for the most part stable and smooth running, without any human intervention. If you set things up to require regular tweaking and tuning, then there is something wrong.
7. How do you keep up with new technologies in computers?
A: It is a bit of a mix for me – I often enjoy reading about new things and am often ‘surfing the web’ for fun and leisure; so that helps. Obviously if you enjoy the material, then this doesn’t really count as work – more as a ‘fun hobby’. I also make sure I have reasonable access to resources for ‘testing and dev work’ – for me this means a “Small office server” (Ebay used PC that cost ~$100; with pair of redundant disks – those cost more than the ‘server’ – and then I can run new virtual machines for testing, easily – and my own business file server lives on the same box as well, where I keep files for my project work, clients, invoicing, etc. “Playground” equipment doesn’t have to be a big investment, as long as it is done strategically; and it does help provide opportunity to test and learn new things. I find it is also useful to attend suitable presentations and seminars when they happen in the area – this will be a number of times through the year; can serve also as a social/business networking opportity; and sometimes does provide good new information in addition to the business sales pitches that are usually part of the deal.
8. What do you wish you were told about IT before you went into it?
A: That is a really hard one to answer! I’m not sure, to be honest. Possibly, that many of the hard problems are really not technical ones – they relate to people, communication, and figuring out what needs to be done. Or maybe something as simple as trying to get two people talking. 🙂 There are of course hard technical problems too. Sometimes, it can be hard to remember to communicate clearly, especially when things are not going well; or if a client is unhappy; in which case it becomes all the more important to communicate well.
9. What do you like best about having your own business?
A: The total control of your schedule; the freedom it gives you and the autonomy.
10. What do you like least about having your own business?
A: A few things, I guess: I sometimes miss ‘work social interactions’ because you do work a lot on your own; but you can manage this / develop work relationships with other people doing similar work. It is also a bit tiresome, sometimes, when work is on a ‘down swing cycle’ – even when you know it is part of the ‘regular pattern’ – it can be discouraging sometimes.
Have your questions not yet been answered? Well you are in luck! Mr. Chipman was kind enough to answer two bonus questions too!
11. What proportion of your IT training had women in it? Do you know if that has changed?
A: I had very little formal IT training so I can’t actally talk intelligently to this one. I have the impression that there are more women in I.T. currently than was the case in the past but I have fairly little concrete evidence to base this on. Sorry!
12. How did you pick your business name?
A: I had a few ideas; chatted with friends and family; tried something out – NS Registry rejected the first one because it wasn’t ‘descriptive enough’ for a non-incorporated business to use (there is a requirement – if you are not incorporating – that the business name has to be vaguely descriptive and related to indicate to prospective clients what it is that you do). So I wouldn’t have been allowed to call my business, “ZenTek” for example. (That wasn’t my first pick by the way 🙂
Thanks to everyone who submitted all these great questions and BIG THANK YOU to Mr. Chipman!