Technology and the Thriving Sole Proprietor
Tucker Street Associates began in 1989 when I moved from the ranks of full time (60 hours
a week) corporate employee to part-time, independent training consultant. The part-time
was part necessity and part choice -- I had just married a widower with four teenage
children and I wasn't about to try to juggle a move to a new state, caring for four
extraordinarily active and independent children, and learning how to be a marriage partner
all at the same time.
Time progressed; we moved to Massachusetts (a return to my home state), and the kids got
older and either I adjusted or they just needed less time. My stints as independent
consultants for various organizations grew to be very much like working for the
corporations. In other words, I become disenchanted with my work and with my bosses -- and
they became exasperated by my frankness and unwillingness to keep quiet when most of their
other consultants did.
Inevitably, I saw that these 'clients' of mine billing me to their clients at astronomical
rates, and I wondered why it was that they should take over 75 percent of what I appeared
to be worth to their clients. As the last company I worked for slowly went under because
of a lack of consistent marketing, I decided that I needed to listen to what most people
had been telling me for years -- that I should start my own business.
Management consulting looked good: high daily fees, extraordinarily interesting work, no
travel. The problem was that there are slew of people who come to Boston to go to school
and then decide to stay here because it is such a wonderful place. Now, these people have
generally managed to get doctorates by that point. All I had was a masters degree in
advertising from a Michigan university that was not located in Ann Arbor. At any rate,
after a few failed attempts to get clients as a management consulting, I decided to go
back to my training and do marketing. The size of company I went after became much
smaller. Networking became a source of new business. And, although I could not charge as
high a rate as when I was a contract consultant, the rate I did charge made sense for the
kind of overhead I had and the value of what I was then delivering.
The challenges for marketing smaller businesses are just as complex as for larger
businesses. Perhaps the major difference is that that there just isn't the kind of money
available to spend on marketing. Large corporations tend to s spend 5 to 10 percent of
their revenue goal on strictly marketing-related activities -- not including sales
activities. When I tell my clients that, they visibly blanche when they do the
calculation. There just isn't that much money available. In the end it is a dollar/time
trade-off. If someone is willing to spend time, he or she can usually accomplish a great
deal on the marketing front.
Ah, but this is off the topic, I think. The topic is technology and the thriving of the
sole proprietor. I am a sole proprietor. Some of my clients are sole proprietors.
Very soon after I began my business, I was looking for prospects -- for me and for my
clients. The marketing strategies I developed with my clients were based on specific
target markets. These markets were the key to the success of any tactical communications
program we decided on. It was difficult to find out who, exactly, these businesses were. I
bought lists from well known list companies who sent me frequent catalogs on very cheap
paper. The lists were horrible, with huge returns because people were gone or addresses
had changed. We had to pay for over 5,000 names even if we wanted only 500. It was a
Then I received an invitation from a company that promised to revolutionize how
business-to-business marketers bought lists. I went and was enthralled. It seemed too good
to be true. I could do research, get lists of companies, and do analysis without actually
paying for names once I had the program. Then when I knew exactly what I wanted, I could
buy the names because I had this neat little gadget attached to my printer port that
calculated how many credits I needed and how many I had left. To me, it is an amazing
piece of technology because it is a bottomless pit. I make a phone call, give my credit
card number and wala, I have a number that magically increases my credits. As a Star Trek
fan, I thought I had beamed onto the set.
Needless to say, I had to have the program. The problem was it was -- that year -- the
equivalent of 5 percent of my gross revenue. I think I waited until I got back to the
office to actually make the decision but buy the program I did. Then developed and printed
a brochure for it which I used the program to develop the mailing list. I used the program
to telemarket -- getting two of my largest clients from cold calling. My telemarketer now
uses the list. Probably 75 percent of my clients have used that program in some fashion. I
believe that not only has it given me capabilities of a larger marketing firm, it has
given me a competitive edge.
Electronic 800 fax mail boxes, voice mail, fax machines, graphics programs for process
flow charting, databases, the Internet -- all these enable smaller businesses to run with
the buy guys. Not only from an image perspective but also from an efficiency angle.
The reason I began this column is that I just purchased a software program that cost the
equivalent of a fast, powerful computer. It will also be around 5 percent of gross
revenues this year. Prompted by the needs of a new client to purchase it, I know I will be
able to use it for most of the rest of my clients. It is a program that huge agencies
use. It is a program that will increase my efficiency unbelievably. It will enable
me to build my business through technology rather than through the addition of staff. And
so I will remain a sole proprietor.