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Kristin Long, MIGHTYminnow

Kristin Long went from being a solo freelancer to developing a strong consulting business by forming strategic relationships with other freelance consultants.  Then she went from freelancing to having a brick and mortar space with employees.  Her story is a great example of how ‘self-employment is the labor market trend.’

KristinLong1Starting in 1998, Kristin built websites for big agencies and corporations until it stopped making sense for her to work on projects she didn’t enjoy with people she didn’t love.  At her last corporate job (during the dot com bust), she was afraid of becoming a cog within a company that didn’t value the human desire to create.  So in 2003 she went out on her own, working as a freelance web developer – from home.

During her first year freelancing she made about $28,000 developing websites and teaching web classes a few days a month.  That was a big step down her income, but fortunately, Kristin had a partner willing to fill in the gaps in the early days.  Like most freelancers, when she started being self-employed she filled out W-9’s and got 1099s from her clients.  Ten years ago freelance work wasn’t as accepted as it is now.  As a sole proprietor doing business under a SSN, some potential clients and bigger organizations thought her too “small time” and occasionally seemed put off by her not being incorporated. That said, the exposure she got from teaching really helped her to connect with a lot of potential clients. After that first lean year or so, Kristin never wanted for work.

Kristin knew her trade, but she worried that she didn’t know enough about running a business.

“How do I deal with taxes?”
“What legal stuff do I need to know?”
“How do I set up my bookkeeping?”

Early on, she decided to seek help. She found the Renaissance Center for Entrepreneurship on the internet.  She enrolled in their business planning classes. She remembered learning s that 75% of businesses fail in their first three years. She was determined to be part of the 25% that stayed afloat.

MightyMinnowLogoAbout two to three years into her freelance life, Kristin changed from using her name and identifying herself as a freelancer to working as a company – MIGHTYminnow. She wanted to position herself/company as a legitimate business so instead of saying “I” when talking about her services, she started to use “we, as in her and her contractors.  She framed the business as a “boutique web development company” instead of a small business or a solo venture.  She knew her strategy was working when a peer, who had a similar business (one person plus contractors), pulled her aside and asked, “your company seems bigger than mine, how do you do that?”

Kristin always had a desire to open a brick and mortar space.  She wanted to start a school where she could teach people to build websites and to expand her web development business.   She tried renting space, but it was difficult to find exactly what she needed with the right equipment and technology. She worked with contractors remotely, but she felt it would be easier to collaborate with her colleagues in person. Her apartment was too small for collaboration. And hosting client meetings in her home seemed less legitimate..

So, at the end of 2011, Kristin formed an LLC.  She wanted to expand MIGHTYminnow and to do that she needed to hire employees.

One day soon after, she was walking with her partner on  Broadway in ‘Uptown’ Oakland, when she saw a ‘For Rent’ sign.  Half kidding she said, “I could open my school there.”  Her partner said, “Why don’t you”.  “Why don’t I?” she wondered.  Kristin was empowered by her partner’s financial advice the previous year, which resulted in becoming a homeowner. This new dose of encouragement pushed her to seriously look for spaces to rent.

It was the right time in her life to take a risk and not to let fear stop her.  She asked herself what was the worst that could happen.  Without a good answer, she decided to jump in with both feet and not to worry about getting all the details right.

KristinLong2When Kristin finally found the right space, she didn’t want to take on major debt to expand her business.  She turned to the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo, to raise $20,000 to expand MIGHTYminnow (see photo left) and outfit her new space.   She reached out to everyone she knew;  a few clients even supplied incentive gifts.  About 100 people contributed to the effort and of them, she knew all but 2 people. It was a true community effort.

In April 2012, Kristin opened up the MIGHTYminnow office at 1440 Broadway in Oakland.  She has plenty of space for classes and to work closely with her two employees, an assistant and another developer.  She hosts a few coworkers in related fields; she organizes and hosts the Bay Area Web Freelancers’ regular meetup as well as other events (like the Oakland Chamber of Commerce mixer.)  A physical office has increased her confidence, especially with clients who may have questioned her legitimacy. Some potential clients have visited the office to ensure that MIGHTYminnow was a “real” company before becoming clients.

Because Kristin spends most of her time developing websites, she feels it is important to carve out time to strategize about the business.  She recently took the Alliance for Community Development’s PROPEL program to refine the direction of her business and engage with other business owners.

Kristin has expanded her business.  She hired a developer and an assistant who helps with marketing and promotions (e.g. newsletters, Yelp!, her website’s SEO); both have increased her client base.  On the training side, one of her biggest joys is “Website Weekend,” a workshop that allows small businesses and nonprofits to make their own websites in a supervised and supportive environment. Kristin plans to add classes gradually, growing the business slowly and steadily.