Be Your Own Boss

Tired of the old 9-to-5? These entrepreneurs have traded traditional office jobs for a different way of life.

Brooke Lark for Unsplash

Visit any coffee shop in Arlington, Falls Church or McLean on a weekday morning and you’ll see them—patrons in jeans, hoodies or yoga pants getting their caffeine fix while tapping away at a laptop, making phone calls or perhaps even meeting with a client. They’re a new breed of professionals who have eschewed conventional office jobs in favor of setting their own hours and redefining their idea of work.

“A lot of people have decided for one reason or another to go off on their own and do their own thing,” says Tara Palacios, director of Arlington Economic Development’s BizLaunch, the county’s small business and entrepreneurial assistance network. Founded in 2002, BizLaunch offers workshops, seminars, mentors and other resources to help local entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses.

The enterprising folks who turn to BizLaunch come from all over. They may be former government, nonprofit or private-sector employees; stay-at-home moms looking to reenter the workforce; or newly arrived immigrants. And their ventures are just as diverse, from professional services firms, restaurants and day care centers to retail stores, online ventures or niche businesses. In the last year, Palacios says, BizLaunch has seen a 30 percent increase in demand for its services, from an average of 600 consultations per year to about 800.

That spike really isn’t so surprising. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria ranked 25th in the country for new business creation in the 2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, and D.C. is No. 7 among the top 25 cities for women entrepreneurs—ahead of Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta—according to the Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index. Virginia claimed the No. 3 spot in a 2016 Thumbtack study touting the top 10 states for women entrepreneurs.

Granted, not every BizLaunch client starts out with dreams of launching a new business, Palacios says. Some decide to go out on their own because they’ve been laid off and can’t find another job. And building a new venture from the ground up isn’t easy. Being the boss means handling (or subcontracting) it all—accounting, sales, tech support and more. “People think they can start a business in a year or two but it really takes two, three, maybe four years before it is profitable,” she says.

What’s it like to start your own company, set your own goals and manage your own time? We spoke with six local residents who are doing just that.


HR consultant Rachel Alansky at Northside Social in Clarendon. Photo by Erick Gibson.

She didn’t want to outsource the job she loved most—being a mom.

These days, Rachel Alansky’s teenagers, Hannah and Jake, barely need her after school, except for the occasional ride to a friend’s house. But things were different when Alansky started Seamless HR Solutions a decade ago. At the time, her children were 3 and 6 years old, and her full-time job as director of human resources for Billington Imports (a Springfield-based wine distributor that has since closed)kept her frantically busy. So busy that she and her husband, Kevin, a marketing executive, had to hire someone to pick up the kids from school, help with homework and make them dinner. “I was outsourcing the part of my life I wanted to do the most,” she says.

By the spring of 2009, Alansky had grown tired of paying someone else to spend quality time with her kids. She decided to quit her job and go solo, pledging to give herself six months to land her first client. “My biggest challenge is, I’m not a salesperson, but I’m a really good networker,” says the entrepreneur, who lives in Arlington’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “I decided the best thing I could do was talk with everyone I know and tell them I was going out on my own.”

The word-of-mouth approach worked. Today, she has about 16 clients, including the Alaska Wilderness League and Turning the Page, a nonprofit with offices in D.C. and Chicago that distributes thousands of free books to help low-income families build home libraries. As a consultant, Alansky sets her own hours. When her children were younger, that freedom allowed her to volunteer at Ashlawn Elementary and walk the kids and their buddies to school each morning. “I got to hear them talk with their friends and I heard stuff I never would have heard if I was coming home at 6 p.m.,” she says.

Now 45, Alansky uses her workday flexibility to work out. Several mornings a week, she runs to an exercise class at Orangetheory in Falls Church and then takes her time walking home, often stopping for coffee and maybe having a phone call with a client.

Finding a comfortable balance was tough in the beginning, she says. “It definitely took me a good two years to get into the rhythm of how to work from home and how to say no to clients between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.” But she’s since discovered that her clients pay little attention to how or where she works as long as she is available when they need her. “My clients don’t care if I’m fitting them in between the gym and the grocery store.”

Categories: People