Recently Elite Web Labs was contacted by local city business bloggers Worcester Business Journal Online to be featured in their recent Rise Of The ‘Lone Wolf’ Economy article.
Pull up the website for Elite Web Labs and you’ll find layers of information: guides to search engine optimization, a portfolio of the company’s work and an abundance of professionally worded copy. “Every business is different,” the site declares, “And we work one on one with dozens of businesses throughout North America.”
What Elite Web Labs is, though, is not so much a “we” as an “I.” Tom Senecal has run the Worcester business on his own for more than four years. He said he has a couple of people who sometimes do some work for him, writing content or doing some design for clients, but basically he’s a one-man show.
The standard image of a start-up business may be a guy in a garage hoping to build the next Google, but many people in business by themselves have a vision that’s less about being a big boss than about keeping away from the entire boss-employee dynamic.
Senecal said he sees what he’s doing now in distinct contrast to time he spent in college, working for a large business.
“I never really wanted that cubicle farm environment,” he said.
Over the past decade or two, self-employment has grown across the country and in Central Massachusetts. In just the five years between 2002 and 2007, the number of “non-employer firms” identified by the U.S. Census in the Worcester area grew 15 percent to 50,261. (That number fell by 5 percent by 2009, but that’s probably more a reflection of the economy as a whole than of the viability of very small businesses in particular.)
Growth was particularly strong in the industry categories that include professional, technical and administrative support services.
The Technology Advantage
John Rainey, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network at Clark University, said technology has shrunk the cost of starting many kinds of white-collar small businesses to a fraction of what it once was.
“It used to cost you thousands and thousands to set up a home office,” he said. “Now you need a computer and a printer-fax.”
Senecal said relatively new technology is a big part of what makes his business viable. For example, he said, he uses an online service and an app for his smart phone to track the hours he spends working on specific projects. The service creates invoices from that data and sends them to clients, saving Senecal from doing his own accounting or hiring someone else to do it.
Senecal said he’s been able to keep his costs low enough to make his finances work. After studying at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Becker College, he said, he worked for agencies and was surprised at how much they charged for the work he and his colleagues did.
“I kind of figured that I could provide the same service for a lot less just by being lightweight,” he said.
Among other things, that means returning calls quickly — even in his off hours or when he’s on vacation.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he said.
Another cost of working for yourself is the need to handle every aspect of the business. If West has trouble parsing the intricacies of SEO, Senecal said his biggest pet peeve is repeatedly explaining the services he offers.
“You have complete creative control,” he said. “But at the same time I have to deal with all the clients directly myself.”
Both West and Senecal said they may eventually consider hiring employees, but growth isn’t a big part of their plans.