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9 Steps to Turn Your Expertise and Skills into a Business

Being a consultant, contractor or freelancer offers the flexibility of working for yourself

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After spending decades working in a field and accumulating experience and knowledge, you may feel like it’s time for something different. The good news is there may be a market for all of your hard-earned wisdom, and you may be able to sell your skills as a consultant or service provider to other businesses.

Recent years have seen a substantial shift toward older adults starting businesses. In 1996, roughly 15 percent of entrepreneurs were ages 55 to 64. That number jumped to nearly 25 percent in 2020, according to a report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. And a study published in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Business Venturing found that when people launched businesses in their 40s, 50s or 60s, there was a positive effect on the firm’s size and financial success.

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When you start a business doing something you already know well, you may have a built-in specialization and network that can help you get rolling, says Fernando Nunez, a certified SCORE mentor. “You’re starting with more of a specific goal.”

If you’re ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship, here are some steps to get you on your way.

1. Research the market

Before you declare yourself open for business, make sure there’s a market for what you want to sell. “The number one reason that people go out of business is because they run out of money. The number one reason they run out of money is because they don’t find a market fit for their product,” says Ross Buhrdorf, CEO of ZenBusiness, a business-information website. Look at your potential competitors and assess the potential number of businesses that would pay you for your service. What advantages do you offer over the competition? Speak to knowledgeable colleagues, friends, family members or potential customers to get feedback about your idea and what the market for it might be.

2. Find your target

It’s often a good idea to focus on a niche market or two, Nunez notes. A niche gives you a specific type of prospect to target and allows you to learn a certain market sector inside and out. For example, if you’re a public relations pro, you might find clients more easily — and make a name for yourself faster — if you specialize in doing public relations for a particular industry than if you’re a generalist. You can always branch out later, he says.

3. Get good advice

As you formalize the plans for your business, seek reliable, professional advice. You’ll need to make important decisions such as what business formation to choose — in other words, will you operate as a sole proprietor, limited liability company, partnership or corporation? — as well as understand any federal, state and local laws or regulations that pertain to your business. Nunez suggests consulting an experienced attorney or business consultant.

Also, SCORE pairs entrepreneurs with seasoned mentors who can help them understand how to proceed. And websites like ZenBusiness offer business-formation assistance and other information for a fee.

4. Write a business plan

Nunez additionally advises writing a business plan before you launch your business. The process of writing the plan will require that you think about various questions you may not have considered. “Starting off with a plan and going over it with peers to get those questions answered will give you a better chance when you’re starting off,” he says. There are several free or low-cost business-plan resources online; other resources include SCORE, AARP or your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

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5. Determine your price

Pricing your services properly is another key step in getting your business started. When you’re considering pricing in a service business, you need to understand the cost of your labor, as well as your overhead, Buhrdorf explains. “The price is going to be driven by the cost of the labor, whether it’s their labor or someone else’s, so there’s going to be that cost and then whatever their margin or profit is on top of that,” he says.

Your pricing may also affect how your business is perceived in the market — the affordable option, the high-end option, etc. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a useful information series about pricing. Your accountant may also be able to help you determine the best pricing model for your service business.

6. Promote your services

Promoting your business the right way and to the right prospects is essential to the success of your business, says Adam Lyons, founder and CEO of the S.M.A.R.T. Blueprint, which helps experts get more revenue from their businesses. “Rather than waiting until customers search for you, go find your audience,” he recommends. Plus, he discourages relying on marketplace or gig platforms for opportunities, as those may not be as profitable as work you actively target and cultivate.

While marketplace websites may be good channels for some, you may find better clients by actively marketing your business and networking to locate the best prospects. For example, Lyons suggests that if you’re selling wedding consulting, create wedding-related Facebook groups and Instagram pages; follow and connect with customers via a #WeddingIdeas hashtag. Paid advertisements, meetup groups or other marketing and networking opportunities tend to pay off with better-quality leads than anything that comes through passive promotion.

7. Start selling — but pay attention to quality

“Most consultants don’t have a sales-conversion process in place to take potential customers from one step to the next,” Lyons says. Understand the typical cycle it takes for your customers to decide to use a contractor, and draft a plan to take them from first contact to sale. That may include writing a full script that guides customers through the decision-making process, as well as automating communication at certain intervals to check in and provide information.

As your sales ramp up, be sure you’re not overbooking yourself or ignoring the quality of your work, he adds. Referrals are usually important to service-business owners, so doing a good job and getting results are also important.

8. Think like a business owner

Lyons warns that many “solopreneurs” and freelancers still answer to clients as if they have a boss. When you’re working for a client, have a scope of work and understand when you’re being asked to do more than that — and when you should be paid more. “Change your mindset and you’ll start to change and expand your business,” he points out.

9. Keep up with trends and changes

Industries evolve, and it’s essential to keep up with the emerging skills you’ll need to serve your clients, Nunez says. Today, technology, social media, artificial intelligence and other tools are changing the way many sectors do business. But this offers an opportunity for you to grow your business too, he notes.

“Think of the services that aren’t being offered yet, for today’s world,” he says. If you master them before the competition does, your business will have an edge. To achieve this, stay involved in professional associations, read trade media and observe what others are doing in your field.

If you’re thinking about starting a business, advances in technology have lowered many of the barriers to entry, especially in service businesses. Buhrdorf shares a quote from billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban: “Why not me?” For self-motivated people with in-demand skills, business ownership might be just the answer they seek.