July 3, 2008 -- Being your own boss means different things to different people.
For me, it means kissing those dreaded dry cleaning bills goodbye and working in my sweatpants. For Harris, a Web programmer I met at a friend's wedding, it means never having to set the alarm clock again. For my friend Tammy, a marketing maven and mother of two, it means losing the commute and saving a bundle in day care.
Contrary to popular belief, achieving this kind of career autonomy without winding up on food stamps is entirely possible. And it doesn't even require a four-year college degree or a significant financial investment.
Even better, there's a rich market of customers just waiting to be tapped.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 12 million people work for themselves. And I can tell you from years of experience in the freelance trenches that many of us self-employed slobs need help with everything from setting up a blog to tracking our business expenses to keeping up with our blasted e-mail in-boxes.
In honor of Independence Day, I've outlined five low-cost freelance businesses that you can start from the comforts of your home and market to other independent professionals -- plus, the skills, training and overhead they require. See if one lights a firecracker under you.
My home office looks like the aftermath of an earthquake: My desk is buried in six inches of paper. The floor is strewn with files, magazines, books and computer peripherals that haven't worked in three years. The last time I had to dig out an important tax document from the rubble, it took me the better part of a Monday.
In short, I am a professional organizer's dream.
But organizers are far more than design-minded neatniks who can rattle off the names of 10 models of Ikea bookcase without peeking at the catalog.
"Someone who makes a good professional organizer is someone who's a good listener," said Joshua Zerkel of Custom Living Solutions in San Francisco, a graphic designer turned organizer for hire.
Rather than using a "one storage system fits all" approach, Zerkel suggests the shelving and filing units that best suit the way each of his individual clients work.
To learn more about this tidy profession, check out the National Association of Professional Organizers, which has 33 chapters throughout the country. Chapter meetings are a great place to pick up tips on breaking in, as are NAPO's many telecourses.
I'm assuming you're looking for a way to make a decent living working from home, so let's skip the poetry, fiction and creative essays, and discuss something that can actually pay the bills: copywriting. Most small businesses and freelancers have blogs, Web sites, brochures, direct mail pieces and loads of other marketing materials they need written. And if you're the sort who can make sentences sing, you're sitting in the catbird seat.
Of course, everybody and their mother wants to be a paid writer, so there's no shortage of resources clamoring to tell you how to do it well and get paid handsomely in the process. Unfortunately, not all those resources are legit. For trustworthy tips, see reputable Web sites like Copyblogger, Inkthinker and The Well-Fed Writer. For online classes, see Mediabistro and the Editorial Freelancers Association. And to start lining your portfolio with writing samples, volunteer to update a Web page or tri-fold flier for a friend or colleague (rather than waste your time with bidding war sites like Helium.com).
Static Web sites are so 20th century. These days, we freelancers want Web portfolios that deliver fresh content and personality to our current and potential clients monthly, weekly, even daily. In a word, we want blogs, and we want someone who can customize the standard Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress and other blogging templates into a unique design that reflects our particular business.
Enter blog designers like Cody McKibben of ThrillingDesign.com in Sacramento, a self-taught web coder (he earned a college degree in religious studies and history) who has landed many of his clients "just by talking to people online and interacting on existing blogs."
As with would-be copywriters, the resources for those looking to channel their inner geek abound. Some of McKibben's favorites: WordPress for Dummies, WordPress Theme Design and ProBlogger. And while there's always a better, stronger, faster computer on the horizon (McKibben recently treated himself to a new $2,000 Mac desktop), much of the Web-based design and development software he uses is free.
"If you look on Craigslist, there are literally hundreds of ads looking for bookkeepers," said Cari Jones of Spitfire Bookkeeping in Seattle, who started her thriving business two years ago. (She's right. I checked.)
Jones, a single mother of three, didn't receive any formal accounting training; instead, she learned how to handle invoices, collection calls, expense reports and profit-loss statements in her previous career as an administrative temp and office manager.
If, however, you have a knack for math but lack the relevant office skills, the bookkeeping, business administration and QuickBooks accounting software classes offered at most community colleges can help. (You'll of course have to purchase a copy of QuickBooks, too.)
Another key ingredient of bookkeeping -- or any freelance gig for that matter: people skills.
"Most people are more afraid to divulge their financial information than they are to divulge their personal information," Jones says of her clientele. To cultivate that added trust level, she chooses to work at her clients' offices rather than work solely from her home.
When it comes to the skill set of virtual assistants, anything goes. In the past, I've hired virtual assistants to help proofread and publicize my books, return my e-mail and phone messages, even update my blog. But other VAs dabble in bookkeeping, database management, web design, transcription and any other support service that you can think of.
"Rather than seek out a VA training program, find courses that focus on the specific skills you would like to develop and sell services in," said Christine Durst, co-founder and CEO of Staffcentrix, a virtual assistant training firm based in Woodstock, Conn.
The Fine Print
Depending on where you live, you may need a city and state business license to work as a freelancer (check with your regional department of licensing). Other than that, you'll just need a desk, phone, reliable computer and software, high-speed Internet connection, a Web site touting your services and a tax preparer come spring time.
That said, working for yourself is far more complicated than hanging your shingle and waiting for your inbox to fill up. Some recommendations:
Start your business on the side. Keep your day job and begin freelancing evenings and weekends; it can take several months to a couple years before you have a full freelance schedule.
If you have preschoolers, get a sitter. If your little ones are home, walking, talking and awake, don't kid yourself that you'll be as productive with them around.
Befriend other solo workers. Get to know your local freelancers -- they're your best resource for job leads. Join a professional association, visit the networking site Biznik and attend some freelance meetups.
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com