My Story from Starting Your Business from the Unemployment line
My Story...The Beginning...
The idea to write this book was placed upon my heart strongly about a year ago. As the national economy began to rebound for most, but not for all, I found talented friends and former colleagues shut out from the doors of financial opportunity. Seeing this, I felt a pressing call to tell my story of how God made a way from a seemingly impossible situation in my life and created a business that helps His people and gives Him glory.
In the summer of 2003, I had been laid-off from a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, North Carolina. A few months before, I had been contemplating the idea of opening a consulting firm. My friend, Marcus, told me he had obtained a tax identification number (EIN) he used for private contracts and personal business. At this point in my life, I had no knowledge of the practical steps for actually starting a business. I thought it would be too costly, and out of reach for people like myself, who did not have lawyers or an abundance of cash and investors. I did not know that I could obtain a tax identification number and open a bank account in the name of my business the same day. Essentially that’s the purpose of this book, to dispel myths and mis-education on the practical steps for starting a freelance business with little to no capital.
Hopefully, my story can inspire you to take an educated risk and start your freelance business.
The next day, after learning this information, I called the Internal Revenue Service and started a Sole-Proprietorship business. It took only 15 minutes and I was in business. Drakeford & Associates Consulting was born. It was thrilling, encouraging, and motivating to find out how easy it was to start a business in the American market economy. At that time, I did not know that my safe and secure employment would soon be in jeopardy. My thrilling one-day experience of starting a business would be put to the test of faith.
The economic effects from the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001 began to ripple through the non-profit sector. Donations were decreasing, fundraising was scarce, and in one month, three employees at my job were laid off. I was one of them. I found myself on the unemployment line scared, anxious, and stressed. My faith in God was being tested. I thought, how could a God that loved me allow me to be here with no work options and with my house in danger of foreclosure? My mental conversation was depressing. I would jump from being depressed, hopeless, and angry at the man [the system of structural racism that provides whites with economic privileges and non-whites with penalties] (Delgado, 2011). But I would also be hopeful at- times, and encourage myself to use this Sole-Proprietorship business as a tool to drum up financial opportunities.
I began to learn how to work my professional network. For example, as a component of my former job, I would meet with colleges, universities, and potential partners to develop business relationships. It just so happened that many of the people I met were impressed with the way I carried myself, and the abilities I displayed in my work.
Ms. Nan Coleman, the director of the Historically Minority Colleges and Universities Consortium (HMCUC) at North Carolina Central University hired me to do a small project for her organization. HMCUC became my first client and created a glimmer of hope that began to drown out my internal thoughts of self-doubt, depression, and anger. Ms. Coleman saw in me what I was not yet able to see in myself. Her investment in my consulting firm was confirmation that I was on the right path. In a subsequent newspaper interview she stated: “He did a very good job on that report. The Consortium members were pleased with his work and the manner in which he handled himself and conducted the study” (Chambers, 2006).
I remember discussing this event with my friend Dan who encouraged me to press on. After our conversation, together we pulled-up the for-sale sign from my house lawn and, on faith, I believed somehow all the bills would get paid. My faith was the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen. I then decided to meet with Rev. Dr. Scott at Shaw University to present him a consulting idea, which involved providing educational workshops for freshmen students at Shaw University.
I first met Dr. Scott a year earlier, when I visited him at the recommendation of Dr. Patricia Ramsey the Vice- President of Academic Affairs at Shaw University. As I entered his office and began dialogue, it was almost impossible not to observe the artifacts, pictures, awards and books that adorned the walls of his office. As he sat behind a mahogany wood desk, I could see him scanning my eyes. I sat in his office and tried to focus on presenting an offering of educational workshops for his Freshmen Studies program.
I remember as I scanned his office, I saw a dog bowl with fresh water next to a small poodle dog that looked either dead or fake, but it threw me off because it’s chest would periodically expand as if it were breathing. Later I would find out that Dr. Scott’s fake dog breathed on batteries. It was one of his methods of ‘throwing people off their script’ [our socialized and learned responses in discourse] in order to see peoples’ authentic selves. Through the brightly lit stained glass window, I could see shimmers of color reflecting off his military awards, and framed degrees from Vanderbilt University and Shaw University. My eyes stopped on a painting of the last supper. It was the traditional famous painting of the Anlgo-Italian Jesus with the Italian-looking disciples’. Oddly, this particular rendition seemed to have a cut out picture of Dr. Scott’s head placed over one of the apostle’s faces.
I also noticed a newspaper cutout picture of a white preacher, giving a sermon to an all white church. In this depiction, Jesus was sitting in the front row of the audience asleep for boredom. All of these odd items helped Dr. Scott to quickly evaluate people’s reactions and thought processes. I was nervous, and finally at the end of the conversation, Dr. Scott proposed that I prepare my briefing in the form of a power point presentation for he and his Freshmen Studies staff. In a few weeks, I presented his staff with a presentation entitled ‘Sowing Your Gifts’ where I used the model of instructor-coaching introduced by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu (1984) combined with the Apostle Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth model a higher level of teacher investment in student growth. Dr. Scott and his staff were impressed with the epistemology of “Sowing your Gifts”. Shaw University became my second client, and, by the end of the summer, they offered me a position as an adjunct professor. I was 25 years old and a professor at Shaw University. I was teaching college students while becoming a student of Dr. Scott’s “liberation theology”.
My house was saved; my income was restored; and I thought that would be the end of the story. I believed that I would teach at Shaw until I died and the freelance business would have just be a temporary bridge to help me land this dream job. After a year of hard work, I added some innovations to the Freshmen Studies Program including a unified curriculum, teacher training institute, and an expanded community service initiative.
I was promoted from an adjunct professor to the Director of Freshmen Studies and Community Service. All this came with a raise and administration responsibilities. I was ‘cushy’; I was comfortable; I had arrived. I had four Ph.D. professors working under my leadership and I only had a Master’s degree. I began to assume this was because of my unique talent and not God’s grace and provision. The tipping point came when Dr. Scott scheduled me to present in front of the University President’s cabinet. I worked long and hard on this presentation and added some new aspects that were sure to please this specific audience. I was so nervous, I could feel the tension in my body in the days leading up to the presentation. As always, I prayed quietly before I presented and my confidence returned.
The presentation was a smash hit. The University President made a statement that fed my ego, but also began the silent employee infighting process, that would eventually land me back on the unemployment line. The President said, “This is the best presentation I’ve seen since I’ve been at the University.” I smiled, and left thinking I had just secured my job for the next twenty years. But soon I realized that all of the other staff in the room, who had also presented to the President, during his tenure, saw me as the embodiment of a threat to their job security.
A week after this presentation, Dr. Scott was satisfied with the level of organization and effectiveness that the Freshmen Studies program had grown to under my leadership. He appealed to the administration to move this program back into the academic affairs division where it belonged and out of the Chapel where he had been tasked to improve the program. This was the correct decision for the organizational structure of the program, but it also meant I would have a new boss, one who was potentially threatened by my presence. Two weeks after this move, my new boss decided to eliminate my position and offer me lower position teaching twice as many classes and making half my salary.
I could not believe that all my hard work, innovations, and success was rewarded by my position being eliminated. This occurred less than a month after the president’s accolades on my work. I was learning the hard way about organizational culture in the American workforce. It appeared easier to sabotage your competition than improve your own work outcomes. It was perplexing and painful that the more I produced, the less secure my job became.
After doing my budget, I realized that the smaller adjunct position would not pay my bills and, therefore, I returned to the unemployment line, but with a new level of confidence in my ability to run a business. Both of these experiences being laid-off made me lose confidence in working for others. I realized that the only true job security would come from working for myself.
In order to be successful working for myself, I had to make some mental shifts, which would be difficult because I had always worked for others. I needed to wake up earlier and work later, for myself, in order to accomplish financial security. The unemployment insurance check, though small, was just enough for me to juggle expenses. I cut out unnecessary spending, like eating out and business lunches that never amounted to new clients. I began to go to the library and read books on business, consulting, sales, marketing, any and every resource available that might help me learn how to grow my business. Thinking back, I would hear my father’s advice as I researched in the library. My Dad would always say “The purpose of college is to learn how to learn. Once you learn how to teach yourself, you can do anything”. I learned the hard way that hiring a secretary and staff to make me look important did not increase my business profits and only made my profit margins thinner due to the additional cost of human resources. I shifted to a freelance subcontract model, where I only hired consultants who were highly qualified. These consultants could complete specialized tasks better than me as opposed to hiring multiple full-time low wage staff that could only answer the phone and send poorly written emails that reflected poorly on my business. Because every industry is different, I suggest finding a business model that works best for you and your family. In order to do that, my experience has been to keep overhead as low as possible. Otherwise, you will have to work hard just to keep the lights on every month. I realized through the internet and web- based freelance services, I could reduce my overhead and start-up costs to give me the time to develop real relationships built on trust. I felt when I had to ‘get’ this client in order to “keep the ship sailing,” I approached the client conversations differently and ended up losing the business because the potential client could sense my desperation. Having six months of savings gave me time to reshape and recreate my business model multiple times in order to find out what worked best for my particular industry. If you plan on leaving a job to start your business, I suggest that you save at least six months in living cost before taking an educated “leap of faith”.
On My Own...
For the first three months, I worked out of my home and was only able to obtain small clients who had faith in my abilities. Many clients were skeptical about hiring someone who worked out of their home. Now times have changed and home-based businesses are more popular today. For my industry, it is still best for me to have offices outside of my home.
I remember speaking at an event in 2006 for the Durham Business and Professional Chain event and meeting Mrs. Glyndola Beasley. She found my presentation informative and offered me office space in her suite in downtown Durham. This was a turning point for my business and helped me get my first wave of high paying clientele. Her faith in my abilities grew a partnership between our companies that continues to work today. Its important to get outside of your bubble and find mutually beneficial strategic partners.
In 2008 the economy tanked and I found my business, like many others, hemorrhaging from a reduction in clients and cash flow. I had planned to expand the company into the Washington D.C. and Maryland markets by 2010. This shift in the economy, due to the recession, made me re-think my long-term plan to expand amidst the financial collapse. To move was a high risk, high reward business decision. I knew the time required to enter a new market and build new relationships would not be easy. I sold my Durham home and began to reduce expenses. For a month I would drive to D.C. from North Carolina, sleep in my car in D.C. Then drive back to North Carolina and sleep in my Durham office. When it was in the budget I would get a hotel. My now wife, Iris encouraged me to pursue the business. She could have discouraged my dreams and advised me to change my course and get a 9 to 5 job. Part of my success, is due to her faith in my business, and support of me pursuing my dreams.
Around that time I was hired by the Maryland State General Assembly to write a grant for a youth afterschool program. The grant was awarded for $1,100,000 and created 44 jobs to serve over 400 at risk youth in Prince George’s County, Maryland. It was the first grant of its kind awarded to Prince George’s County. Almost overnight my business increased and I was able to establish my D.C. Metro office. Iris and I got married in 2010, as the chapter in my life centered on me was ending, a new chapter centered on family, had begun. Thus, the following are reflections on the past fourteen years in business. I present a paradigm of thinking to encourage other freelance-entrepreneurs like myself.