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Turn Your Skills Into a Business Opportunity

These steps can help you make your entrepreneurial dream a reality

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En español | Whether unemployment is a reality or a worry for you, you're not alone. A May 2020 survey by the World Economic Forum found that 40 percent of Americans are losing sleep over unemployment anxiety.

Fortunately, many experienced professionals have a buffer that can help them tame those worries: their skills and social capital. The experience you've accumulated over your career can put you in a prime position to start a business and build greater job security.

"There has literally never been a time in history where we can make so much happen,” says Cathy Heller, host of the Don't Keep Your Day Job podcast and author of a book of the same name. Although the coronavirus pandemic and the recession have created challenges, Heller notes that barriers to entry for many businesses are low and that those with experience may have an edge in the marketplace.


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Here are steps you should consider if you're thinking about starting your own business.

Decide on a direction

Think about what you do well, and don't let uncertainty affect your perception of your value, says business writer Elaine Pofeldt, author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business. And if your goal is to get out of your current line of work and start something new, acknowledge that, too, she suggests. The skills you've accumulated over your career can usually transfer to another line of work. Small-business owners are typically confident in their abilities. Indeed, a 2019 survey by lending platform Kabbage found that 82 percent of successful ones did not doubt they had the right qualifications and experience to run a company.

In some cases you may want to go in a completely different direction for your next act. That's what Faith McKinney, now 54, did in 2010. She was a janitor for the United States Postal Service when she decided to work on her bucket list, she says. She joined a networking organization, and after the organizer moved away, she stepped in to run it. She found a mentor who helped her improve her public speaking skills. And McKinney kept putting herself out there, ultimately meeting a cameraman for a local web magazine who needed on-air talent and gave her a shot. Because of her relentless skill building and fearlessness, she now works part-time as a television producer in Indianapolis. Kinney didn't want to give up her day job, but she has a side-hustle small business that she loves.

Look at the landscape

Once you've decided on the direction you want to go, research how your abilities can meet a need in the marketplace, Pofeldt says. So what will set your business apart? Investigate potential competitors and gather information about prices. “The quickest way to figure out what to charge is to ask other people at the same professional level as you,” she says.

Getting feedback about what you offer is essential, Heller advises. That could mean speaking to a mentor or people who work with to get their impressions of your strengths. If you're developing a product, sometimes the process is as simple as getting people to try it. Heller's friend launched Unreal Deli, which makes vegan corned beef, after she created the product for her meat-eating husband. He raved, and she hit the pavement to get strangers to try it. Their responses gave her the confidence to approach deli owners. Soon, she had orders from some of the biggest sandwich makers in the area. Why? Because she was willing to take a risk and get the product in front of them. Ultimately, Unreal Deli's founder applied for a spot on Shark Tank and landed an investment from Mark Cuban, which turned her business into a multimillion-dollar enterprise within six months, Heller says.


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Get help

Of course, the road to success requires hard work and persistence, Pofeldt says. But there are plenty of places you can turn to for assistance. What's more, there are many free and low-cost resources that can help you do everything from conducting market research to writing a business plan to landing a mentor. Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) pairs you with a mentor who can help you shorten the learning curve. Regional Small Business Development Centers, Women's Business Development Centers, and state and local economic development authorities all offer assistance to small businesses. And on social media you'll find myriad industry and other professional groups through which you can make valuable contacts.

Build awareness and community

Once you've got your idea and know it's viable, get the word out to your network. This is where your experience and the relationships you've built over time can be enormously helpful, Pofeldt says. “Reach out to everyone in your network and ask them for advice. Tell them that you're thinking about going into a business with such and such niche, and ask what advice they would give you. Chances are, there are things you have not thought about that they will tell you.”

Pofeldt adds that it's important to build a community of entrepreneurs who understand your desire to create a business. “To people that have gone the more traditional career route, entrepreneurship — even running a tiny home-based business — seems very risky,” she says. “So you might not initially have a lot of support around you.” Finding a group of people with similar experiences and insight can help bolster you during challenging times, she says.

With the resources, tools and information available today, it is highly likely that you can find a business opportunity within your current skill set or one that you build. The key is to think carefully about the intersection of what you're good at and what you like to do, then rely on your skills, social capital, resourcefulness and dedication to create a new form of economic stability for yourself.

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