Starting a business, or an organization, is top on many trailing spouses’ to do list. I think a big reason is because on the surface it is the easiest route to make an income for our lifestyle. We already face enough restrictions in our lives by following our spouse’s career around the world. Being someone else’s employee just adds another layer of difficulty – it requires us to accept even more restrictions on our life for a paycheck. What’s more appealing than putting what you care about first and leaving all the constraints behind?
The bar to bring in self-employed income is not very high. You can work a full-time job and still make additional income on the side by consulting, teaching, or even making art. If you are interested in creating an income plan that combines multiple income streams, selling products or services that utilize your talents and skills should definitely be a priority. Nevertheless, becoming your own boss full-time is not for everyone. I believe you should ask yourself the following four questions if you are considering making the leap.
#1: How are you fulfilling an unmet need?
Whatever you intend to provide, there has to be a need for it. Your value comes from filling a void that nobody is paying attention to. Your business should always be about the people you serve, not just about your own profit.
More importantly, you should start a business dedicated to this need because it cannot be addressed by an existing organization. Starting something from scratch takes a lot of time, energy, and resources. It’s usually much easier if someone rallies behind you and pays you to do it. Of course, an existing organization comes with its own baggage and may not be able to support you as full-heartedly as you wish, but it’s not a bad idea to look for a more resourceful partner for your venture.
On the other hand, being self-employed full-time doesn’t mean that you have to be a pioneer in everything. I became a co-owner of my current firm through joining forces with a partner who started on his own a few years earlier. By taking a chance on each other, we brought a lot of synergy to our practice and saved me the trouble of reinventing the wheels. Having a home country based partner also made running a business remotely a whole lot easier.
If you want to start a business but are not sure in what field, always circle back to the original question – what are the unmet needs that you are uniquely positioned to be a solution to?
#2: Who are you serving and where are they?
The Internet has made it possible to serve everyone from everywhere around the world, but not every need can be met that way. Before you go ahead and start charging people for your goods or services, it’s important to educate yourself on any regulations that may apply to you or your field. Whatever regulations there may be, they will be heavily dependent on whether you are business or consumer serving, and whether you intend to serve local or your home country customers.
If your customers are individual consumers, be aware of the laws and regulations in place aimed at protecting consumers for your industry. From attorneys to chefs, teachers to doctors, many professions have country specific licensing and registration laws that make it difficult for trailing spouses to operate a business locally, especially if we move around regularly.
You may face fewer restrictions with your business if your customers are other businesses, although it’s not always the case. One of the more common obstacles for trailing spouses is the onerous restriction placed on foreigners operating in country. Moreover, some countries prevent out-of-country citizens from serving their home country customers if they are not present in country. So depending on where you are, you may be able to only work with your home-country customers, or locally, or maybe neither. Know the rules before you proceed.
If you have a choice, look for ways to provide value in a way that is globally accessible and exempt from regulations in most countries. This will make operating your business much easier.
#3: Would you and could you take the risk?
According to the Small Business Administration, only one third of the small businesses survive past 10 years in the US. It’s likely that your business may not be successful or last long enough to give you significant income for your effort. It’s important to accept this fact before you start, although it doesn’t stop many from trying. I’m guessing if you have low risk tolerance for entrepreneurship, it’s likely you would not consider starting a business in the first place.
However, I’d argue that trailing spouses are a group of people with very high risk capacity. It means that even if we fail at our venture, it is unlikely to have great impact on our family’s financial wellbeing. Yes you may forego the salary you could have earned, but it’s also likely that you are thinking about starting a business because the employment scene is bleak for you. As long as your household has planned on living on one income, and you don’t put a dangerous amount of your own savings in your business, you have very low down side risk but high potential gain.
Every family’s situation is different, so ask yourself honestly how much you are willing to lose with this business but still keep your family financially secured.
#4: Do you have the drive and support to keep going?
Having been self-employed for three years, the most difficult time for me was not when the business progressed slowly, but is when I can’t turn my brain off. For a salaried employee, a snow day is a free day off. You actually have a higher return on your effort and you feel no guilt about not working. However, as a small business owner that can work from home, it makes no difference that the world comes to a standstill in a storm. My business will only grow if I put the time and energy into it. I can choose not to work, but I also won’t get any return out of the day. Your concept of what a good workday is changes.
There are also times when my effort has no monetary payoff. When you work for others, you expect to get paid. When you work for yourself, it’s very likely you won’t get paid. Every small business owner probably has gone through moments like this: “Why am I doing this? It’s so much easier to work for others and not have to worry about the outcome of my effort”, especially when you have a spouse that is an employee with a good paycheck. Somehow you remember why you started doing this, and find the mental energy to keep fighting.
Lastly, spousal support is as crucial as your drive. I’ve come to believe that without your spouse believing in your decision to become self-employed, you will not succeed. There is a lot of self-doubt and wasted effort in the process, and you need two to be stronger than one. If even your spouse thinks that you should stop wasting time on building something of your own, it’s very difficult to keep going or maintain a strong marriage. In addition, you should also have a good network of people where you can go to when you feel frustrated and want to quit. Running a business is getting over one valley then the other, so make sure you have good companions to pull you up when you can’t do it on your own.
Read below about how the other trailing spouses start and maintain a business, and their thoughts on the following four areas of focus for your income strategy. This section will be updated as I receive new contributions.
- How do you diversify your household income?
- How did you make trailing a positive and an opportunity?
- How did you build your brand? (What worked and what didn’t work?)
- How did you build your network? (What worked and what didn’t work?)
If you wish to contribute, please fill out this contact form, and let me know whether you wish to be attributed or stay anonymous. I am also happy to link back to your website or blog post if you have already written about similar topics.
Here are some real life experiences from business owners who are Eligible Family Members of employees of US Government in overseas posts.
Michael Ginsberg, a sustainability professional, shared his thoughts on how trailing is an opportunity:
“…you are in fact not giving up your career – you are giving up a job(s) to get a career. You have time to develop yourself professionally in any way you want, take the jobs you want, or focus on other areas of your life…Read More”
Melissa Mathews is the President and Founder of The Mathews Group, a strategic communications agency operating on a virtual platform. She shared how she transitioned from traditional office work to running her business anywhere in the world.
“I contribute income from my virtual public relations agency. In most years, my income is about equal to my husband’s (though without the benefits). It allows us to save more for retirement and do some “extras,” such as really cool traveling!
When we became an expat family, I was ready for a change. I had just had my first child (of three), and I was eager to leave the traditional office work environment. I’m not sure I would have had the ability or courage to do that otherwise! Once we were settled overseas, I started freelancing, which evolved into the business I run today. I am proud that I also provide flex-work to my team of six, currently all moms who appreciate the virtual arrangement as much as I do.
We often get feedback from clients that they simply working with us. We chalk that up to doing really good work, with no drama. The fact that we are “virtual” doesn’t seem to be an obstacle for clients. Instead, it allows us to be flexible, creative and do high-level work for reasonable (but not cut-rate) prices. We recently refreshed our brand and website, and we built it on the “good work, no drama” theme, drawing on the experience we’ve gathered in our six years of business.
We get most of our work from referrals, and from clients who move from one company to another and take us with them. We’ve leveraged our existing professional networks from prior jobs — including the people we’ve hired, nearly all of whom were colleagues in previous positions. LinkedIn, our website, and social media are all important ways we keep our network strong.
Seven years ago, when I started freelancing from our first overseas post, I thought I would have to apologize for and justify the way I work. Now, I celebrate it. There has been an explosion in virtual — law firms, therapy practices, dance studios, etc. — are all leveraging technology to do the same work (maybe better) that they could do in a traditional work environment. Even large corporations are embracing virtual work arrangements. So, don’t be shy! Be proud of the way you work! You are on the leading edge of a major shift in the labor force. You are a trailblazer!”
#4: Beachbody Coach
Mary Ellen a Tsekos-Velez is employed at the same organization as her spouse overseas. However, a full-time job does not deter her from diversifying her income source.
“We are a tandem couple. For now I run this business on the side; however, if I am forced to go on leave without pay -which is likely- this will be one possible source of income. You have to see trailing as an opportunity to try something you have always wanted to do and never had a chance to.
I run free online health and fitness accountability groups. It’s fun and it helps me stay on track with my fitness goals. And I love the Beachbody programs. I think you need to do this because you think it’s fun or else it won’t work.
Building a network is a work in progress. My Beachbody team provides great training about how to reach out to people using social media. I try to get to know friends if friends and people in online groups with similar interests.
If anyone wants to learn more about Beachbody I’d love to help. If you want to improve your own health and/or you enjoy helping others, please contact me!! I hope to create a team of enthusiastic, healthy world travelers!”
Anna Sparks, an international career coach, diversified her income through more than a business:
“Other than my spouse’s income, we have income from:
- Small business income – Anna Sparks Coaching
- Class income – I also teach boot camp style exercise classes
- Rental property income
I have never felt like the “trailing spouse.” I always wanted this lifestyle just as much as my husband does. In fact, last time we decide where to go next, I made a big push to stay overseas (which we did) when my husband was ready to return to the US for awhile.
I built my brand by being active on social media, giving free services(like monthly webinars), doing presentations to large groups. I have tried to get email sign-ups to a list which is working okay. Advertising on social media is still a little tricky and I don’t have the number of clients I would like to have. I took a class called Make It Work Online which really helped me launch the logistical part of my business instead of wallowing in the set-up stage for a long time.
I built my network on social media by giving a lot to others. This is my style anyway so it worked for me. I established some key contacts with other people in my industry.”
Hear from Marcelle Yeager about how she started not just one, but two ventures.
“I finally started a business! I’d always known one day I would, but couldn’t decide on what. The prospect of this lifestyle convinced me that it was time, and I did research and started Career Valet, which helps people get in the door for interviews. I now have a second venture, ServingTalent, a full-service recruiting agency for professional military and government spouses, that I co-founded with a military spouse last year.
At the start of Career Valet, my former partner and I did a lot of social media marketing and relationship building with partners, primarily in the United States. This included Twitter chats, webinars, and newsletters. While it was fun, we didn’t see much return from this. The thing that really helped to build the brand was writing articles on career development for and being quoted in online and paper publications.
I’ve built my network by not being afraid to reach out to people I don’t know but want to, and to ask friends for introductions to people with whom I feel I might be able to partner with. There are many complementary businesses and opportunities for cooperation out there, no matter what field you are in. In-person events are always the most effective, but phone calls work well too. Strictly using email communication is not going to get you very far.”