Welcome to Saturday Business chat. If you’re reading these interviews in order of publication, we’re jumping from pets to books today – if you’ve found this through a search engine, welcome, and do take some time to check out the other people I’ve interviewed.
Dick Margulis, of Dick Margulis Creative Services, is a book designer from Connecticut. He’s an editor, too, and I came across him as part of a very useful and supportive editors’ community online, which I use for answers to tricky questions and general support and sharing. He then saw about my interviews on Facebook, so here we are, as part of the wonder that is social media. Book design is a bit of a mystery to me – I’m obviously called in at the earlier, manuscript, stage, or right at the end, proofreading to check the words on the page work and don’t look odd, the numbers are in the right place, etc. Dick does the bits in the middle that create that book as an object (material or digital) and make it an easy and enjoyable experience to read. Over the years he has, as he says, ‘undiversified’ and refined his offering to match the market and his talents – once again, we find flexibility as the key for making small business work.
So let’s find out about running your own book design business.
What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
Dick Margulis Creative Services. The now-defunct dot com I was working for downsized me in August of 2004. I was already telecommuting for them full-time, and they were nice enough to let me keep the computer, laser printer/scanner/fax machine, and expensive office chair they had furnished me with, as they knew they were not going to need them again. I decided I had spent enough of my life in cubicles and that I could do better on my own. So I hung out my shingle almost immediately.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I had gradually come to the understanding that I was never going to be a good fit as a corporate employee. In that realm, I was a slow learner, and it took me some decades to realize that it’s the nature of corporations, rather than the luck of which particular company I happened to land in, that I’m incompatible with. By 2004, the Internet was sufficiently ubiquitous and computing power was cheap enough that I could go into business for myself without a lot of capital or risk.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
When I was still in elementary school and was home sick in bed (probably with nothing more than a head cold), a visiting friend of my parents brought me a toy printing press with rubber type (you can see pictures on eBay). I became fixated on printing and on typography. I started setting metal types in ninth grade and coincidentally had my first editing gig then too, on the junior high newspaper. I’ve always loved typography and book design and have studied it for decades as well as practicing it off and on in various paid and unpaid positions. Same with editing. I’ve made design and editing part of every job I’ve had, even if it wasn’t in the job description, and people have always responded positively to my work.
When I started the business, I had current experience in technical writing, in marketing communication, and in web design too, and I offered (and still offer) an array of communications services to businesses. But my first love is book production, and that soon became my main focus.
Had you run your own business before?
Yes. My first wife and I had a retail and wholesale herb business that I managed (rather badly from a business standpoint) for nine years before we laid it down, but at least I learned from my mistakes.
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
The reason I was telecommuting was that, while living and working in Massachusetts, I had met someone online who lived a couple hours away in Connecticut, through an online dating site (we’ve been delightedly married since 2005; life is good). When my lease in Massachusetts was up, I moved to live with her in New Haven, announcing to the company that I was going to telecommute. That was in April. By August, when the third round of layoffs came around, I was not shocked to be let go. The company gave me a little severance money and access to an outplacement counseling service (which provided a database of local firms that I made good use of to pitch my services). Then I collected unemployment benefits while I went through the motions of looking for salaried positions, getting my business together in the meantime.
So I had a roof over my head, unemployment benefits to help with expenses, and skills. I quickly joined several online networks, updated skills as needed, and started pitching. Business was a trickle at first, but I wasn’t in danger of being thrown out on the street. I reported all freelance income to the unemployment folks, and they were supportive of my starting a business. So benefits continued until they timed out after a year. That gave me a window in which to build the business. I invested quite a bit at first in Google AdWords to get the word out there, and that paid off. I stopped that after a couple of years and have spent virtually nothing on advertising since then.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
I was well prepared before I started. The one major lesson I learned on the job is that no matter how desperate you are for work, if a prospective client makes your teeth itch, just say no. Trust your instincts, because if you engage with that person, you will regret it. I can still be conned occasionally, but I’m a lot better at qualifying customers than I was when I started out.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
Relax. It will be fine.
What do you wish you’d done differently?
Offhand, I can’t think of anything.
What are you glad you did?
I’m glad that I made the decision to go into business instead of continuing to search for cubicle jobs. It’s truly the best thing I ever did for my physical health, because it completely eliminated all the psychic stresses of reporting to a boss. My heart is healthier. My back is healthier. My knees are a little creaky, but otherwise I feel like a kid again.
What’s your top business tip?
Don’t search for a clever name for your business. What you’re selling is yourself. My business name is Dick Margulis Creative Services. It says who I am and what I offer. People can and do find me quite easily. Colleagues on mailing lists of other freelance editors and designers are filled with imaginative, clever, sometimes humorous business names, but I have a hard time remembering which business name goes with which person. Building a brand, in the freelance world, means associating your own name with a reputation for excellence in what you do. It doesn’t mean creating a swoosh to plaster on shoes, clothing, and billboards. Keep it simple.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
I’ve grown and undiversified, focusing more and more on book production. I’ve dropped web design almost completely, and only rarely does a business engage me for technical or business writing. But I’ve begun speaking to groups about the publishing business, and I’ve kept up with and participated in developments in e-books, self-publishing, and book marketing.
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
I’m overflowing my office space, and we recently cleared out and cleaned up the basement. I think in a year’s time I may have a spacious office downstairs. One with lots of bookshelves and filing cabinets. That’s one thing about this business: it generates a lot of paper that I have to hang onto.
Oh, how I identify with those customers that make your teeth itch when you first communicate with them: that’s one of the things I’ve learned, too. I look forward to hearing about Dick’s lovely new, spacious office in the basement next year. And did we all have one of those little rubber printing presses? Or is that just me? Find out what happened next in Dick’s 2013 interview!
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