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 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.

By Dan Beyers  |  January 25, 2009; 8:00 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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Above the Law? Is Bank of America secure as they say it is??
After reading this blog please tell me something about yourself, and thanks for reading my blogs

Why aren’t banks secure?
The whole idea behind keeping your money in a bank vs. in your mattress is that a bank is secure. The banks are FDIC insured for accounts up to $100,000.00 which is higher now due to the economy. The issue these days is that we are getting our identity stolen right at the bank. Here is an example below of one who had over 200 accounts opened up under his name and a huge amount of cash…yes I said cash taken out of his account without having to verify a valid ID.

What is the answer? Do we keep our money in the mattress? Do we make the courts do something? Tell me your thoughts…..

Georges Marciano Co-Founder Guess

Posted by: o8justiceforall | January 26, 2009 10:09 AM

Many small businesses bump the glass ceiling when they try and go corporate. You don't work with clients, you work as a preferred vendor for contract services. If you even go near an internal client, contract services will blackball you. Price is an issue and price is not an issue, it depends. Generally contract services only want to deal with a couple of vendors that provide a specific service. The rates are fixed and service amendments added to contracts. Oddly, even if you do a super job, you may never be asked back. Being a corporate service provider is a tough buiness.

Posted by: Beacon2 | January 26, 2009 12:33 PM

wonderful encouraging story during this time of re-inventing ourselves..please publish more like this

Posted by: mcchandler | January 26, 2009 1:03 PM

Absolutely brilliant post! I love reading stories like this. There are so many of us who yearn for self-employment, and it is stories like this that not only inspire us to our own action, but also to help us recapture our faith in our own abilities. It also tickles the brain to help us come up with different ideas for our endeavors. Please feature more stories like this. Thanks!

Posted by: abundance4all | January 26, 2009 2:39 PM

While this story featured is somewhat encouraging I have to question the sanity and logic of operating a business like this.
Does this lady file a 1099 to her "vendor employees" or does she withhold?

Granted she got sick traveling to various foreign countries in her former job so she decided to offer her services, but grossing 75K versus having income from the government of 90K with all benefits is very difficult to turn your nose up at especially in these times!

More than likely she will be folding up the tents and going back to work for the government if she can get her job back at the same pay grade.

Posted by: Sideswiped | January 26, 2009 3:23 PM

"The business owns her Mercedes."

I also run a business but when I thought about the business buying a car my accountant suggested not to but buy the car myself and charge the business mileage everytime I use it for business. That eliminates the need to maintain records of how much the company vehicle is used in business vs. personnal and the mileage I reimburse myself for is still an expense to the company and income that I do not have to declare on taxes.

Posted by: ahashburn | January 26, 2009 4:16 PM

Can you actually "pay" yourself for the estimated rent? I find that questionable, especially given the scrutiny the IRS pays to "home offices." I believe there is a standard formula for a deduction of a 100 percent dedicated home office, so I would be surprised if it indeed covers her mortgage--unless she bought low and doesn't owe much money.

Posted by: showmeindc | January 26, 2009 4:26 PM

"Books estimates what it would cost her to rent office space and charges that to the business. That covers her townhouse mortgage."
Is it just me, or does this sound like a blatant flaunting of IRS rules for home office deductions? IRS Summertime Tax Tip 2008-03 on the IRS website seems to shoot that down. She is only allowed to deduct the part of her mortgage, property taxes, etc. that is attributable to her business. I have a home office, and I would love to write off the estimated cost of renting office space without actually incurring that expense, but I prefer to stay out of prison for tax fraud.

Posted by: woodguy | January 26, 2009 4:28 PM

Wow, to sides to every story. On one side we have a growing business owner fighting her way forward with a business she created from scratch. On the other side we have folks employed by corporate or Government entities that can't envision taking a risk and trying to create a greater security for themselves or their family. The world needs both!

As a business owner myself for over 10 years I can tell you that with the "risk" of starting a business comes the potential windfall of starting and building a great business. Not everyone makes it, this is true. But there are ways to greatly improve your odds for success (certain franchises can contribute to this). The first one is making sure you are getting qualified advice, business owners like myself are often willing to assist and mentor.

But please note: business owners should only take advice from successful business owners. Any other advice is rarely qualified, as well intentioned as it may be. Friends, family and onlookers that are employees will lovingly try to "protect" those that try to step outside the societal norm of being an employee. They may not mean harm but they do try to make sure the future business owner keeps being an employee, just like them.

I can't imagine at this point in my life giving up my businesses (multiple at this point) for the true insecurity of a job. I have friends that have great jobs(title sounds good), with great pay(compared to other employees) and great benefits (your pay is adjusted to cover the cost of your benefits). Not one of them is immune to downsizing(this is where you lose the good title, pay and benefits).

I have also seen many outstanding employees of various companies get stuck in the purgatory of unemployment when they are let go by a company cutting costs. They stay unemployed waiting for some company to come to the rescue of their paycheck, some wait for years. Employees can lose everything waiting for their next job, I would rather use my allotted risk on building a business.

I see no bigger risk to my personal security than taking a job that limits my ability to earn, pick my own benefits and build for my future. Sure, my business had a ramp up period where a job does not, but it also has no ceiling on how much I can earn. I can't be downsized from my business. After receiving all the financial benefit I desire, and building whatever amount of retirement fund I wish, I can sell my business for a multiple of profit.

How much will you sell your job for when you are done with it?

Doubt my advice? Google my name, you may find some of my endeavors as well as mentions or quotes from me in many newspapers, business journals and magazines like Entrepreneur Magazine.

Find good advice, know your options, locate a valuable mentor. You may be better suited to be an employee than business owner, only time will tell. Some of you may have wonderful adventures ahead as you drive your own destiny.

George Knauf

Posted by: gknauf | January 26, 2009 4:32 PM

I too paused at that charging-equivalent-of-office-rent graph, maybe something to ask my tax accountant about - but my understanding is that is not kosher with the IRS.
Cheers to her though for making a real success of it and in just a few short years. I admire her networking skills and that reminds me I need to pay more attention to my own Linken In account and Facebook pages.
- Kathy Jentz, Washington Gardener Magazine

Posted by: KathyMJ | January 26, 2009 4:48 PM

Many bright, energetic entrepreneurs fail at an enterprise because they have sought good advice from other business people but failed to seek basic business guidance from capable accountants and experts at keeping business records. The tax deductions mentioned here are, for the most part, not even close to being proper. It is frightening, then, that they seem to relate in such a significant way to the profitability of the business. Nobody wants to be a wet blanket when discussing what is otherwise a life-affirming story, but this is a glaring hole in the business plan that should be fixed as quickly as possible.

Posted by: Verenda1 | January 26, 2009 5:17 PM

Interesting column. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and your column continues to showcase these business people and the range of businesses. Ms. Books was brave to leave the stability and security of her government job and venture into self-employment. Best of luck to her!

Posted by: MDC2 | January 27, 2009 11:58 AM

Loved the article. Am a self-employed small biz owner myself and am also mystified yet intrigued by the deduction of office space issue! Can this please be addressed possibly in another scintillating article? I am actually looking to start a new biz, as I "cannot" return to 9-5. Would also love to hear one goes about finding qualified professionals to help them chart their course and not only create a biz but manage the day to day, as well as maximize deductions! Cheers! and thank you for article.

Posted by: gardendesign | January 28, 2009 8:22 PM

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