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Strike out on your own

Consulting, database work are good SOHO options. Career advisor hed: dek: by Molly Joss

Q: I am working as a legal secretary, but have also been an administrative assistant, office manager, and a sales representative for office equipment. I know basic HTML and have lots of work experience with Microsoft Word and other parts of Office.

I would love to have a home-based, database-related business using Access. I am unsure, however, about what I could do from home that would constitute a business. I have good marketing experience and good writing and organizational skills, so if I knew what types of work tasks a home business could perform, I would have a better focus. Any insight on how to focus my “homework”?

A: Welcome to the world of SOHO. Properly equipped with nicely outfitted computers, Web site, and phone system, you should be able to do anything in your home office that you could do in a corporate space.

As a solo entrepreneur with a database business, you could teach companies how to create, use, and maintain Access databases.

If you get really ambitious, you could become an application service provider (ASP) by setting up database servers (they don’t have to reside in your home) for companies. The companies would dial in, open the databases you created for them, and store their data there, and you could do periodic reports and backups for them.

To do these kinds of things confidently and correctly for a broad range of companies, I suggest you think about getting some heavy-duty Office training. You could become a Microsoft Office User Specialist (MOUS) or participate in Microsoft Developer training and maybe become a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). Visit the Microsoft site to learn more about becoming a MOUS or an MCSD.

And since you are a woman (I could tell from the e-mail name), check out the vast resources at the Small Business Association’s Online Women’s Business Center

Also, search the Web for state and local groups that help women get businesses up and running. There are many such groups out there, and they can be a really big help. In states with a lot of IT infrastructure, there are often subchapters that cater to women running computer-related businesses.

Q: I spend a lot of time using a computer for my job and I love it. I think I would like to get a job either creating software for business use or in some way helping businesses learn more about making the best use of computers. Could you tell me if I could make a living doing this–and what “this” is called?

A: The term “consultant” springs to mind when I hear people talking about advising companies on better ways to spend their money or time.

You could also consult with companies that create business and personal software to help them understand what it’s like for non-techies to use the products they make. Maybe you could, for example, convince them that there doesn’t have to be a menu/keyboard shortcut and right-click option for just about everything. To most people, this multiple-choice approach makes about as much sense as having three different ways to start a car.

You can make money, sometimes big money, by being a consultant. You also have the option of working with a consulting firm or working on your own–much as other professionals such as lawyers and architects do. If you decide to work toward this kind of career, you will probably need to get a job for a firm first, and then leave to work on your own later. It’s much harder (I think) to build a client base if you start entirely on your own. You might even want to get a non-consulting job for one of the big consulting firms and work your way into a consultant’s position–just to get started right away on your new career.

Head for the Software Information Industry Association Web site to learn more about the business of creating and selling software programs. IBM and Deloitte Touche are just two of the big firms that have IT-related consulting divisions. Visit their Web sites to find out more about the kind of consulting they do. Also, see this column I wrote about consulting on the ComputerUser Web site,7,1,0515,01.html.

Above all, you’ve got to dig in and learn all you can about the areas of IT that interest you. Go to conferences, network with people you meet there, read books and magazines, and scavenge Web sites for information. It’s got to be a total saturation effort on your part to get to where you’d like to go.

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