by Elizabeth Buie of Luminanze

My decision to go solo pounced on me and took immediate hold.

One evening in the spring of 2007, just after dark, I was sitting on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, in the heart of Rome’s most ancient neighborhood. I was on my first visit to Italy in over four years, and I had missed Rome terribly. While people watching and soaking up the atmosphere I found myself thinking, "I belong here. I need to spend more time here." This led immediately to the realization that I couldn’t make that happen with the amount of vacation time that any employer would provide me. This in turn drove the inescapable conclusion that I would have to go independent. There was no help for it.

My decision had materialized in an eyeblink.

A question haunted me, though: Could I do it, realistically? Not "could it be done" — there were plenty of people doing it, and in my field — but "could I do it?"

I had worked for many years in a very large company (tens of thousands of employees), and had spent the past 18 months in a very small consulting firm. I was enjoying my work, my colleagues, and our clients. But Italy’s call was just too strong. I had to find a way.

The four obstacles to starting a business that Heather Coleman mentioned in her recent post in this seriesfear, confusion, time, and money — played varying roles in my deliberations. Time was the smallest: It was specifically to have more time that I wanted to go solo. Money wasn’t enormous either: With a small mortgage, no dependents, the savings from a thirty-year career, and no plans to hire employees, I had a cushion that insulated me from worries about financial survival — although I certainly needed a reasonable income from the biz if I were going to spend that time in Italy!

Confusion I handled by picking brains. I asked a few people to spend a little time sharing their experiences and perspectives, answering my questions, and offering suggestions and moral support. Particularly helpful were Whitney Quesenbery (WQusability), Steve Charles (Immix Group), and the late Derek Schultz (Media Design Associates).

By far my biggest hurdle was fear (as anyone who knows me well could have predicted). After I had solved the logistical problems, the key to getting started turned out to be setting up work in advance.

That way I could be confident that people would hire me as an independent… and that when I made the leap, I wouldn't be jumping off into the void.

Shortly before I had left on that trip to Italy, a former coworker from the large company had called, saying his new project needed me. When I got home I called and asked him if the project would be willing to take me on as an independent consultant. "I don't see why not," he said; "we have a couple of them already."

Excellent! It was a start. I met with the project’s management, and we signed a contract for two months of work at just under full-time effort.

But the biggest factor was the two ongoing projects I had with my then-current employer that had some time left to run. Because my reason for leaving was about the time off and not about the job per se, when I gave notice I proposed that I continue on those projects as a subcontractor. The boss immediately agreed, and it didn't take us long at all to work out terms that we could both support. One of those projects lasted another 18 months.

So I jumped — not into a void, but into a safety net that began with two months of intense, more-than-full-time work.

"But what about that time off?" you may ask. Well, you see, right after those two months ended I went to Scotland to see two things I'd always dreamed of — the heather in bloom, and the ancient sites of Orkney. Then I came back to continue the ongoing project for my now-former employer and to begin a new project that I had acquired on my own. And so it goes.

So far I've made five trips to Italy since I went solo. I've also started attending conferences again (as a biz owner, I can deduct those expenses) and I've made a couple of pleasure trips to other places. I'm not making any more money, overall, than I was when I was an employee, but I'm making enough to do what I went solo to do, and I work less and have more control over my time. And I'm enjoying life a lot more — both my professional and my personal life.

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Elizabeth Buie is the founder and principal consultant of Luminanze Consulting, LLC. A specialist in user experience, interaction design, and usability assessment, Elizabeth helps her clients make software and web sites easier and more pleasant to use. The company's name, Italian for "luminances," hints at the practice of illuminating the needs of the users so that they can be met. She has degrees in mathematics (N.C. State) and in human development (Maryland).

Website: luminanze.com | Twitter: @ebuie


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