There’s a colorful term coined by a Chicago Bulls announcer for a player attempting a 3-point shot: “big time onions.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how entrepreneurs tend to have big time onions. It takes a special person to quit or reject a comfortable, safe job for someone else in favor of a scary, dangerous one for yourself. Some people get so addicted to this thrill that they leave a startup as soon as it’s established (or as soon as it’s clear that it’s failing), only to jump into another endeavor. Sometimes businesses are born out of necessity, and others for fun.
Lean In and many other books like it talk about how women seem to have a hard time making this leap, but I got curious about how race might impact someone’s courage when it comes to making this leap. So I set out to get answers in the form of an informal, unscientific poll from a few friends with side jobs: What is your heritage? Why did you start your side gig? Were you afraid?
One of my goals was to explore minority entrepreneurship, since black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. President Obama has addressed the issue directly and, according to the Senate Small Business Committee, minorities started more than half of new businesses enterprises in the last decade. This trend can’t be ignored, especially by leadership and business writers.
An interesting side issue that came up was the relationship between business and friendship. Often, encouragement from friends is integral to starting a business, or referrals are vital to keeping the business going. But sometimes, as you’ll read from Adrain’s story, the line between client and friend can get a little blurry.
Four business owners agreed to help me out. Here are some of their answers, edited for length and clarity. Two business owners are black, two are white; three are women; and one grew up overseas. Two are still working full-time and pursuing their ‘gig’ on the side, and two are blending an at-home business with parenting. All of them live in the Washington, DC, metro area.
I hope you enjoy musing over these responses as much as I did—and be sure to click over to the websites linked!
First, introductions. What is your racial and ethnic heritage? Do you have a history/heritage of small business owners in your family?
- Adrain Moorer, home childcare provider: I am black American. I don’t refer to myself as African American because my mom’s grandmother was full Cherokee. I have my uncle who owns his own embroider shop, my aunt who owned her own laundry mat and beauty shop (she died 2 years ago). Another uncle owns his own restaurant.
- Austin Graff, social media strategist: I am a Caucasian-American who grew up overseas in Russia/Kazakhstan and attended boarding school in Germany. My family/heritage is a unique blend of good-hearted blue-collar workers, missionaries, and a few small business owners.
- La’Shawna Saint-Preux, travel agent: Black, non-Hispanic. I do have a history of small business owners. My grandfather owned a trucking business for decades, and my family members have done smaller ventures such as Avon.
- Maria Keffler, writer: Caucasian, of predominantly German heritage. I can’t think of anyone [in my family] who started their own business, really. We’re kind of a safe-and-sane family. Work hard, save up, have insurance, retire comfortably. Fortunately my husband is doing those things, so I have the freedom to be a little riskier.
When and why did you decide to launch your business?
- Adrain: I decided to change career paths because I had recently moved to Virginia, didn’t really know anybody but my husband and I was about to have my third child; working at the police department as a 911 operator, third shift was not ideal with a new baby on the way. So I decided to stay home and people started to ask me to watch their children and the rest is history. Seven years later, I have a successful childcare business.
- Austin: I love a good challenge and every new client brought a unique challenge to solve. I love to learn and that’s what still motivates me to do consulting work in addition to my full-time job at Honest Tea, America’s #1 organic bottled iced tea company.
- La’Shawna: I first launched my business in January 2015, because I wanted to earn more money to travel, as well as to create a tax shelter to help me when filing my taxes.
If your goal is to be profitable, is the business bringing in profit yet?
- Adrain: My goal was to get my child in school and make some extra money, and I am happy to say, it has fulfilled my every goal and more.
- La’Shawna: The business did not bring in a profit for the first year, as I learned more about the industry. It has now started to bring in a small profit.
- Maria: I don’t really have any outlay or capital, since my books are currently only digital, so every dollar I bring in is profit. But I’m nowhere near paying the rent or going out to dinner more than once a month (and also taking another person with me). But each year I do end up with a larger balance at the bottom of the spreadsheet than I did before, so I’m hopeful that trend will continue.
Has it been hard to find clients? What were your original expectations for finding clients — did you think clients would be plentiful, or were you nervous about finding them?
- Adrain: I was nervous at first, but it’s been mostly word-of-mouth and the longevity of my clients. Learning the proper way to run a successful business and keeping friendship and business on two separate levels — which is hard sometimes when we both have a common goal that we love, the child.
- Austin: It hasn’t, only because I am not doing my side business full-time. It’s all been word of mouth… if a client feels well served, they’ll refer you to their friends.
- La’Shawna: It has been difficult to find new clients. Most clients are found through word-of-mouth, friends, and family members. It has been much easier to find clients than I had previously anticipated. Most clients see my personal travel experiences, and then ask for more information.
- Maria: Yes, generating an audience is hard. There’s so much out there to read now, and so much of it is free, that it’s hard to get people to part with even a couple of dollars for a book from an author they’re not sure they’ll like.
Was there a network of people encouraging and supporting your launch, or did you strike out on your own? How long did you take to ‘weigh the options’ before doing so?
- Austin: I struck out on my own; but I did have a network of friends, family, and other social media professionals who gave me advice, support, and even clients.
- La’Shawna: There was definitely a network of people supporting my cause. I have almost given up on my business a few times due to time constraints, but they kept me motivated. I absolutely did weigh the options before starting the business, until I realized how beneficial it could be for me.
- Maria: I feel very alone in this venture. Being unable to get a traditional publishing house or agent to take a chance on me led me to become an indie author, which has its benefits and drawbacks. One positive is that I get about 70% of the sale price of every book that’s purchased… but one of the drawbacks of indie publishing is I have no one on my side.
Do you consider yourself to be a bold person, willing to take on risks, or do you consider yourself a more cautious person, weighing risks before making a decision?
- La’Shawna: I am definitely a bold person, who loves to take risks on a regular basis.
- Austin: In small life decisions like skydiving or whitewater rafting, I am drawn to risk. I’ll do anything! However, in major life decisions like jobs, moving, etc,, I am very cautious. Perhaps that’s why I am still doing a stable, full-time job on top of my side business.
- Adrain: I’m dead smack in the middle… I will take a risk, but with caution.
- Maria: I’m more of a cautious, think-it-through person… If I had to be the breadwinner for my family I certainly wouldn’t be pursuing a writing career, at least not primarily. I’d find a serious, reliable, 9-5 job that brought in a steady paycheck, and try to eke out some writing on the side.
What advice would you give to recent graduates (especially Generation Z) who are thinking about starting a business?
- Adrain: Stop thinking the world owes you something, put down your cell phone, and work for what you want. You would be surprised to see what else is out there besides Twitter and Snapchat.
- La’Shawna: Generation Z business owners should definitely market to their peers and use social media to market their business. Also, don’t be afraid to ask older business owners for advice or assistance.
Tell me something! Have you ever attempted something that required “big time onions”? If so, we’d love to hear your story!
Image credit: aravind91
Laura Finch, a native of Wheaton, IL, has eight years of experience in politics and news, including time spent working as a press aide to a U.S. congressman and a stint as a producer for a morning cable news show. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Taylor University in Indiana, a graduate degree in digital journalism from American University in Washington, D.C., and is an alumna of Indiana’s Lugar Series. She has also been published in one book, “The Zambia Project,” about a major student AIDS project completed through WorldVision. In her spare time Laura loves to run along the Potomac and discover new D.C. restaurants with her husband, Andrew.