Paula Pant discusses her big leap into the small business pond and how it was actually a process of testing the waters one dipped toe at a time.

A decade ago I had all the facets of a great life. I worked a traditional 9-to-5 job where I could wear jeans and flip-flops to the office. I made minimal pay, but had minimal responsibilities. Sure, my paychecks were small, but I didn’t struggle to pay my bills. I was a single and frugal individual, indulging in some small treats and still saving 15 percent towards retirement.

I could have maintained my comfortable position for years. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel an incredible restlessness.

I wanted to travel. I wanted the freedom to work from anywhere on the planet, with only a laptop and an Internet connection. I wanted to become my own boss, make my own hours, and have no limitation on my income potential.

So seven years ago, I quit my cushy job and plunged into the unknown. I spent two years traveling overseas and living on savings, and then returned to the U.S. to start my own company.

I foraged the internet for freelance and consulting opportunities and gradually built a self-employed writing and marketing career from a small desk in the corner of my bedroom. I initially took any type of contract work that I could find, and as my client base grew, I developed the leeway to become more selective about the projects that I pursue.

I started hiring assistants and transitioning from self-employed to company owner, growing a boutique firm that offers services ranging from search engine and social media marketing to copywriting and image design. My team is based across the U.S., from North Carolina to Utah.

Do You Have the Entrepreneur Bug?

I always dreamed of running my own business. But I also questioned that vision. How did I know if this was just a pipe dream or if I really could take the plunge?

Once I had considered the big questions of if, how, and when, it was a lot easier to tell if starting a small business was the right choice for me.

Are You Ready to Launch Your Own Company?

First and foremost, I asked myself a few key questions:

Am I self-motivated and driven? Would I be able to make my own schedule? Would I wake up early and/or stay up late to focus on working? Am I passionate enough to do whatever it takes to turn my vision into a reality?

Am I comfortable learning as I go and leaping before I’m entirely ready? Am I willing to admit when I don’t know something and seek out help from experts? Does the idea of having responsibility feel a little exciting?

Am I flexible and willing to wear many different hats? Am I willing to change course if my initial strategies don’t pan out?

I answered yes to all of the above questions (albeit with some hesitation, and a few “yes, but …” replies.)

If I had answered no to most of those questions I would have put on my flip-flops and headed back to my office job.

I felt more confident that I could start my own business, though. If you do, too, here’s what to do next:

Market-test the idea. Of course, I think all of my ideas are brilliant, but unless enough potential customers agree with me, I wouldn’t gain any traction. Before I invested too much time and money, I conducted some market research to see how interested people really were in what was selling.

Don’t worry – market research isn’t as daunting as it might sound. I simply polled my potential clients. I built a website to test a landing page. (I run a service-based business. If you’re thinking of starting a product-based businesses, you could test-drive the idea by setting up a booth at a local fair or farmer’s market before opening up a brick-and-mortar storefront.)

Selling online is a cheap and easy way to get started. I set up a simple website and sent potential clients a survey asking what they think of the service idea. I asked for any suggestions for improvements and tracked how many visitors my website drew.

Work on the idea on the side. I didn’t quit my day job until I had determined my small business could bring in enough money to support my cost of living. I test-drove the idea during evenings and weekends.

I went through some growing pains as I tested my initial plan; some worked and some were a flop. But I worked out the bugs before I made the leap to working on my business full-time.

Not only did this help me stay more secure financially; it gave me more freedom to experiment with my business without worrying that a misstep could put me in the red.

Build a safety net. My business seemed promising enough to pursue full-time but I still went (and still go) through periods of feast and famine. There are months when my income will drop 20 or 30 percent below its current average, and months where unexpected expenses take a chunk out of my bottom line. I prepared for these ups and downs by building a savings fund that I lived on when I first returned to the U.S. to focus on starting my company. These days, I continue to keep a cushion in my bank account that represents about four to six months of both personal and business expenses.

How did I build this chunk of change? I worked on my business part-time during evenings and weekends and acquired paying clients. By earning extra money on the side , I was able to put all this extra money into my emergency fund.

Keep expenses low. The first few years were the toughest; I had to live lean and stretch whatever I made as far as possible. I lived in a small apartment and drove a beater car for a few years while I launched my business.

Use free advertising. It’s relatively inexpensive to set up a website, blog, and social media account on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. These are great ways to communicate with your customers (current and potential) by offering valuable or interesting information, starting discussions, and announcing upcoming promotions and specials.

I infuse my personality into my online communications so my customers feel they’ve connected with a fun, engaging person and not just another company. I publish content that’s genuinely useful, rather than purely promotional. (One good rule of thumb: Publish nine helpful articles or status updates for each promotional piece.)

Track everything. I created an analytics account to see where my clients are coming from, such as a particular social media platform.

Thinking of breaking free from the 9-to-5 world? Already broken ties? What has been your biggest hurdle, or what do think will be tough? Plan of action? Let us know below, then check out our upcoming classes on freelancing, career choices, and small businesses!

Paula Pant quit her 9-to-5 job, traveled to 33 countries,
launched a business she runs from her laptop,
and uses the profits to invest in real estate.
She shares details about these adventures and more on
her website, Afford Anything.

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