The Life at Work column in the Oct. 20 Business section incorrectly described the Executive Advisor Program in Fairfax County. The program is part of the Emerging Business Forum, which was created by the county's Economic Development Authority, but is not part of the development authority itself. (Published 10/24/02)
It's a common fantasy that owning your own company means you get to do whatever you want, and that this freedom is an unalloyed pleasure.
But, as with most fantasies, things can turn out a little differently. Some aspects that office workers look forward to when they become entrepreneurs -- no boss, no co-workers over the cubicle wall, no administrative assistants asking for timecards or expense reports -- can be the very things many of them find they miss.
Life at work when you're working for yourself turns out to be a whole new monster.
Thomas S. Kim expected a challenge when he decided to launch Silver Method, a Web and software development business. He had worked in the Clinton administration and had hoped for a job with President Gore -- but we all know what happened there.
Kim had always thought about starting his own business, so this seemed like the perfect time.
He got his idea for Silver Method the summer before Gore lost the 2000 election. Kim was spending evenings after work at the local Barnes & Noble with his wife, Nancy, who was then studying for the bar exam and is now a trial lawyer with the Justice Department. There, he picked up a book on Web design. The next night he brought his laptop with him. A few practice tests later, he was able to make elementary Web sites. A month or so after that, he told Nancy he might form a Web design company.
Then, as his job came to an end, he asked his wife if she would agree to support his idea. She thought him a little crazy, but she agreed. He gave himself six months. Silver Method has been in business now for almost two years.
In his new home office, he was quickly surprised by how aggravating and frustrating the mundane parts of running a business could be -- like the day he spent six hours on the phone with a technician as he tried to set up a wireless network. "You don't realize a lot of that stuff you take for granted. You have to assume those roles whether you like it or not," he said.
Kim was used to life in politics, where he was often surrounded by people with similar interests. Now there was no boss and no colleagues. The 26-year-old found himself sitting behind a huge desk on the bottom floor of his Fairfax townhouse -- alone. True, he could hear birds chirping on his deck, but he had no idea how to do the smallest of tasks related to starting a business.
So he took continuing-education classes. He now discusses his ideas with classmates and listens as they describe their situations. He talks through work issues with his professor instead of relying on a manager to help him fix everything.
He also decided to go out and find mentors and a board of advisers.
Kim started by joining the Executive Adviser Program, a Fairfax County Economic Development Authority group that pairs new entrepreneurs with longtime business leaders in the area. Kim was matched with Steve A. Mandell, a partner at the Pepper Hamilton law firm in Tysons Corner.
Mandell, a well-known lawyer in the Washington area, has started several of his own firms and regularly counsels clients on business issues.
Kim remembers reading Mandell's bio after the two were assigned to each other. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, he has accomplished so much,' " Kim said. "I had lots of anxiety, thought this was beneath his experience. . . . I was a little worried he'd be annoyed at the sophomoric questions."
But Kim impressed Mandell. Kim came to the meeting with questions in hand: How should he prepare a financial statement? Should he get insurance? Should he become an LLC -- a limited-liability corporation? (He did.)
Kim came to the second meeting armed with "minutes" from the first meeting, plus an agenda for the second.
"It kept both of us very focused," Mandell said.
To keep himself on task during the workday, Kim made sure his office looked like an office. With a large desk, photographs that would look appropriate in any office, and a large coffee table that works as a meeting area, it doesn't seem like a room in a townhouse.
"People expect it to be fun -- set your own schedule, work in sweats," he said. "But that's evolved. I . . . try to be in reasonable business attire, get up early. . . . I never go upstairs during the day. There may be a cool guest on 'Oprah,' but no."
A downside is that "when it's your own business, you're not able to divorce yourself," Kim said. To help maintain separation, "my wife and I spend as much time upstairs or on the deck as possible."
Kim says he probably always had an interest in business. His parents are immigrants from Korea who started their own business when he was young. He remembers trying to explain business forms to them as they started a string of franchised cafes in the D.C. area (which have been sold) and around Boston, selling breakfast and lunch items.
During high school summers, Kim did corporate catering through his parents' business. "It was a neat way for me to see what was out there," he said.
As an entrepreneur, he gets the work, does the work, and does the administration behind the work -- all things that would be delegated in a larger business. "It's really rewarding because you learn so much more about your strengths and weaknesses," he said.
And that, he said, is the reason he's going to stick with this entrepreneurial workplace for now. "That whole big corporate thing will always be there."
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