Value Added: The Importance Of Showing Up
By Thomas Heath
My wife and I have a code when we talk about successful people. It's a play off Woody Allen's oft-quoted bromide that most of success has to do with just "showing up."
When we see someone who is making something of themselves, we often nod and agree.
"They showed up."
Indra Books of Leesburg shows up.
She ain't rich. But she is nothing if not resourceful and unafraid. And with the business drawing $75,000 a year, she's happy. She is her own boss and her experience offers valuable lessons on reinventing yourself and starting your own business. Her life is one big tax deduction, but we will get to that later.
Autoworkers, Wall Street orphans and Microsoft employees and anyone else anxious about getting a pink slip, listen up.
Books is 39 and runs a concierge service called On The Go 4 U, which will do your shopping, wait for the cable guy, help with the bookkeeping at your business, make your vacation plans and scratch off just about anything else on your "to do" list.
It's her third career, after Spanish teacher and State Department employee.
Back around 2002, "I was working for the U.S. State Department as an [information technology] manager and was shopping at Ann Taylor at Dulles Town Center one day when I was helping a girlfriend pick out some clothes," Books said. Another woman overheard her and asked if Books was a personal shopper. "I said, 'Why, do you need some help?' I helped her pick out pants, a blouse and a jacket in five minutes."
On the way out that day, Books' friend suggested she start her own company and become a personal shopper. That means buying stuff for people who don't have the time or inclination to navigate the retail world. "I said, 'Do you know what I make right now?'." recalls Books, who was earning $90,000 a year with the federal government. "I blew it off as the worst idea of my life."
Fast forward a year and a half to spring of 2004. Books was visiting her sister in Philadelphia. She kept getting sick traveling around the world on federal IT business so her sister suggested she find something else.
Books said she needed a personal assistant in her own life, so they talked about a business built around it. Just for fun, they batted around names and Books paid a few dollars and registered the name OnTheGo4U.com for a possible Web site.
"One mistake people make is they come up with a business name and can't use it for the Web site because it's already taken," she said.
Books' first client came from a colleague at work. It was April of 2004. A woman in Vienna needed help finding an end table for a spare bedroom. Books found it and the client was happy.
The charge: $35 an hour. Books had researched online what concierge and personal shoppers charged in similar markets such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Vienna client was so happy that she asked for help organizing a party. Books helped plan the menu, pick out supplies. She attended the party to troll for clients. She even landed one.
Within weeks, she resigned from the State Department and was off on her own.
"I was 34 going on 35 and knew I could get another job," said the former music major, who gave up the bassoon when she injured her hand. "I am not scared of reinventing myself. I have done it numerous times."
The company does more than personal shopping. It organizes vacations. Helps put together parties. House-sits. Helps businesses with back-office duties such as preparing spreadsheets, answering the telephone or research.
Also, she and some friends recently started Bag to Swag, a consulting service on how to outfit "goody" or "welcome" bags for corporate or other events.
Like everything else she does, Books began her new endeavor with a systematic approach that would make any buttoned-down systems analyst proud.
"I realized the only way I was going to make people know who I was is if I networked," she said.
She joined the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce and attended every breakfast, lunch and dinner on the calendar. She made contacts and attended other business groups, introducing herself and building brand awareness for On The Go 4 U.
Her first clients were friends and family, but she branched out in her networking. (I found her on LinkedIn, the business networking Web site.) She might have one client one week, 20 the next.
"I marketed myself like I had been in business for 10 years," she said. "I didn't discuss the fact that it was a home-based business as opposed to a big company with a storefront. After six months, I was able to assess what events were a good investment of my time and money and what ones I should just say, 'No thank you' to the next time."
She used her IT skills to build her own Web site, saving thousands of dollars. She found an online site and designed her own business cards. It was cheap: $20 for about 500. Her advice: pick the skills you can do yourself and outsource the rest.
"People can't afford marketing materials and go to Office Depot and try to make the cards themselves on their own printer. Or they go in the opposite direction and spend too much on a high-end commercial printer. When you start the business, you are going to change the business and evolve your concept. So you don't want to spend too much."
She researched the condominium market online because building managers often hire concierge services, where they sit at a desk in the lobby and run errands for tenants. She found condominium buildings that were about to open and pitched her company. She trolled for opportunities that were too small or inconvenient for her bigger competitors. She grabbed one condo contract by being flexible on hours.
Books is still struggling on the corporate client side, which is difficult because of cost cutting by companies in the current recession.
"You've got to have guaranteed income," she said.
Books charges $40 an hour now and pays her three independent contractors between $12 and $15 and hour, depending on the job. The company grossed $10,000 her first year in 2004. Business picked up in 2005 and 2006 and she started bringing others on. The company now grosses around $75,000. The company's fifth anniversary is this April.
She's relied on tax deductions to stretch her dollars. Part of her townhouse, her Mercedes, supplies and even some of her clothes are paid for by the business. Books estimates what it would cost her to rent office space and charges that to the business. That covers her townhouse mortgage. The business owns her Mercedes. It even buys some of her clothes -- "my uniform"-- that have the company name and company colors. Books takes a "draw" of about $1,000 a month for her personal life, which I figure puts her in or near the zero percent tax bracket.
Books has faced lots of challenges. She injured herself in a fall and had trouble meeting obligations for clients for about five months. A friend flew in from California for a month and drove her to appointments. A family member in the physical therapy business helped her rehabilitate herself.
Last week, she lost her home phone service and drove her Mercedes from her townhouse -- file cabinet on the seat beside her -- to a nearby parking lot and pulled down the Internet service outside a Panera Bread shop, The concierge business isn't rocket science but it can be fun. She is privy to details about her clients' private lives, their habits and their finances. But it takes good organization skills, aggressive marketing, and adaptability.
"It's a trust factor. People have to like you. They have to work with your personality," she said. "I am good at following directions."
That's another way of saying she's good at showing up.
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