Declaration of Independence

How downsizing led two planners to start their own businesses

Critical Success Factors
David C. Baker, a management consultant with ReCourses in Nashville, Tenn., works with small marketing-services firms -- including fledgling meeting planning startups -- to help them start their businesses and run them efficiently. Baker, who recently published Managing Right for the First Time (RockBench), a how-to on the subject, believes there are a number of key goals a planner should seek to accomplish in order to succeed.

Bolster your bank account. Not only does a small start-up need to have roughly $1,500 for the basics -- hiring a CPA or attorney to file the incorporation paperwork and a bookkeeper to set up an accounting system -- Baker recommends setting aside enough living expenses for four months, plus funds to cover any projected marketing costs, such as building a website.

Get job #1. If at all possible, have a client or two lined up before hanging up your shingle.

Specialize. Pick one or two areas of expertise, such as sales meetings, customer events or golf outings, and focus on finding clients in just those areas. Generalists, Baker believes, face more competition and are more readily replaced. What's more, when generalists compete for jobs, "it becomes a game of who's the cheapest," he says.
Learn to say no. With a cushion of cash, you'll be able to turn down any projects that don't pay a reasonable amount or that don't fit your business objectives.

Price it right. Pricing should be based on an hourly rate of between $100 and $160 per hour. When quoting budgets, estimate the number of hours necessary and apply the rate.

Tweak as needed. Estimating work hours and establishing pricing is tricky -- and a key reason why many startups fail. "It's always some mix of underpricing and overservicing," says Baker. "They don't take a sustainable approach, and they just burn out." -- G.L.

In the best of times, starting up a small service business is fraught with risk, fear and -- at best -- dubious prospects for success. Today, however, with the economy still struggling, public opinion forcing organizations to change free-spending policies and rapid technological changes leaving entire industries in tatters, going it alone can be a truly daunting proposition.

Yet many are still willing to try, either by choice or necessity. Two brave souls who recently launched independent meeting planning businesses are Deb Poe and Arleen Edwards, CMP. Each of their journeys began in similar fashion, with their full-time jobs disappearing due to downsizing and budget cuts. And although they took different paths to get there, both have found the journey toward self-employment rewarding and believe the move will positively alter the way they work -- and live -- for what they hope will be the rest of their lives.

Deborah  PoeDeborah PoeFinding family value

Like many of her peers, Deb Poe didn't begin her career as a meeting planner. A native of Columbus, Ind., she worked in a variety of disciplines for large corporations, including logistics and sales, before taking on responsibilities for the occasional meeting in the marketing communications department at GATX Corp., a rail car leasing and finance company in Chicago. Before long, she was managing all of GATX's corporate meetings and customer events. It was then she knew she had found her true calling.

"What I really like is that meeting planning involves creativity, but you have to base it in reality," says the Oak Park, Ill.-based Poe. "You're doing it to accomplish a business goal, so you have to have those goals in mind but still try and bring some sense of wow to the meeting."

But last November, GATX reduced staff, and Poe's position was eliminated. Poe had to make a choice: Look for another job, or try something different. The answer wasn't long in coming. "I decided that what I really wanted to do was handle corporate events and meetings, but to do it on my own," she says.

The deciding factor: the power to control her own schedule. "You're trading stability and a salary for flexibility," Poe says. "It depends on what point of your life you're at, and that determines whether you're willing to make that trade." With two children -- ages 7 and 10 -- and a working spouse, the opportunity to spend more time with her kids was too good to pass up.

Poe found the practical aspects of creating a business relatively easy. Naming her company Poetic Events, she created an LLC, had an accountant set up a bookkeeping system and had a simple website built, all of which cost about $1,500. Somewhat trickier was taking out an appropriate insurance policy. Often, she found, insurers were not familiar with the function of meeting planning and what needed to be covered. "There was ambiguity in what we were insuring for," she says. "It was a challenge making them understand what my company does."
The hardest part: finding clients. As often happens when full-time planners take off on their own, some of Poe's first solo gigs -- a customer event and a conference in Phoenix -- came from GATX, the employer that had let her go. She has also renewed contacts at prior jobs, including Amoco Corp., now a subsidiary of BP, to let them know of her availability and the services she can provide.

"In this business, so much of getting work is contacts, people you know and who you've done work for or have met at events in the past," says Poe. "The challenge is spending time networking. That's why I joined Meeting Professionals International, to renew those contacts and keep on making new ones."

Such networking has led to one upcoming project, arranging spouse tours for a conference coming into Chicago.
While Poe appreciates the flexibility that comes with being one's own boss, she recognizes the importance of structure in order to succeed. Thus, she makes sure she works about five hours a day, three days a week. "I look ahead at the week, see what else I have going on with theh kids or personal commitments, and choose which days to work." If she's not working on a meeting or event, those work hours are spent prospecting for new business.

Ultimately, Poe envisions her yardstick for success as an independent would be managing four to five projects a year out of a small office space, with two part-time employees. "It may be tough to get to that point," she says, but she believes the combination of income and the free time that level of business would provide would be ideal. "It is just going to take some time to get it going."

Arleen Edwards, CMPArleen Edwards, CMPConverting free work into income

In all her years in the corporate world, Arleen Edwards never imagined herself owning her own business. A native of Cleveland who moved to the Bronx in New York City at age 3, she had always relished the stability and benefits that came from working for a large organization. "One of my greatest fears was giving up security, because I have a family and I was the sole provider for that family," she says.

Edwards began her career in accounting, working in the finance department of what is today JPMorgan Chase in New York City. It was lucrative work, but by the late 1990s, she began to feel a growing dissatisfaction. "I wanted to get away from working with numbers to be a little more mobile and communicate with people," she says. She underwent a battery of interest-inventory and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality tests. Event management was one of the optimal career choices that emerged, and it struck a chord.

She soon discovered that her bank managed a series of conference centers, and she began looking into how to transition into that department. In order to gain experience, she signed up for some event planning classes and volunteered as a planner at the National Minority Supplier Development Council, a non-profit in New York. Soon she was in the conference services department at JPMorgan Chase, eventually rising to general manager of the bank's conference facilities.

But in 2004, JPMorgan Chase merged with BancOne, and all conference center jobs were outsourced. For the first time in her adult life, Edwards was unemployed. For two years, she relied on temporary accounting assignments to pay the bills, eventually landing a full-time position in 2006 as director of conference services for the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. But last June, that job fell victim to budget cuts. And so began a slow process of determining what to do next.

"People always encouraged me to do this on my own," she says. "I just never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. So it took a few months of really thinking about it before I made the commitment to pursue it." With her two children nearing the point where they were to enter college, Edwards realized she would have more time to herself -- and that there would never be a better time to strike out on her own.

Although she has yet to land any major contracts, Edwards believes that for her, the most important factor in eventual success is enforcing nine-to-five discipline. Each morning she wakes up, gets dressed and goes downstairs to her computer, where she begins by checking e-mail and creating a to-do list for the day, as well as updating similar lists for each week and month. She takes a break for lunch, then it's back to the grind. "Some days I'm more productive than others, but you have to roll with it and never give up," she says.

For now, the workday is spent networking. Using LinkedIn, Edwards hunts down former colleagues from her years at JPMorgan Chase and makes sure they know what she's up to and that she stays on their radar. She joined MPI, became a Certified Meeting Professional and attends the organization's events, as well as any others that seem pertinent, like those put on NYC & Company, New York City's official tourism organization.

"It's about developing relationships, not just taking a card, but finding out what we can do for one another and seeing where there might be a good fit," Edwards says. "You're always looking for some sort of synergy. And you have to stay focused. When I go to these events, I'm not looking to make friends at first -- I'm going there with a purpose."

One important aspect of attending events is simply to maintain live contact with other people, something that becomes scarce when sitting at a desk in one's home. "There are days when you definitely miss having people in your presence," Edwards says.

Another important avenue for networking is volunteering. Edwards has maintained a relationship with the National Minority Supplier Development Council, even interning for the organization when she was between JPMorgan Chase and the Hartford CVB. Through the council's membership, which includes numerous entrepreneurs, she's received invaluable advice about all aspects of starting her business -- dubbed Advanced Meeting Services -- including technology needs and website development.

As her network of contacts in the nonprofit world expanded, Edwards came into contact with another organization for which she had volunteered as a conference event planner. Now, negotiations are underway for Edwards to become that group's exclusive event planner -- and be paid for it. "There will be great satisfaction when I get that first contract," she says. "That is going to be huge for me."

Until that day comes, and forever after, Edwards will work as hard as she can to realize her dream of becoming a successful independent planner. The most frustrating part of the process, she says, is the lack of response she gets when she reaches out to potential clients and contacts. "I follow a lot of discussions and I hear the frustration, and a common thread is that people just don't respond," she says. "I understand that people travel, but when I call and they don't respond, that gets to me. But there are reasons for everything."