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Solopreneurs: Self-employed in the extreme

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Debbie Peal

Debbie Peal, owner of Debbie’s Critter Sitters in Wilmington, with two of her charges. She said she meets a lot of pet lovers and letter carriers in her work.

By Kathy Canavan

Debbie Peal sets her own hours and she doesn’t answer to anybody – except a few real animals.

Debbie’s Critter Sitters, the name of Peal’s Wilmington business, is actually a misnomer. There’s just one sitter actually.

Peal is a solopreneur – an entrepreneur who works solo or has four or fewer employees. She has no receptionist. No secretary. No employees at all. And that’s fine with her, and a growing number of other Americans.

The solopreneur has gone mainstream, as more Americans want to be their own boss, according to MBO Partners, which tracks independent workers. There are 30 million independent workers – 17.9 million solopreneurs and 12.1 million side-giggers who run businesses but keep their day jobs. By 2019, that number is expected to rise to 40 million.

Solopreneurs generated more than $1 trillion in income and spent $150 billion in the economy in 2014, according to MBO.

Like Peal, many say they like the flexibility they get from running their own show.

“I set my own hours. I can work a lot. I can work a little. I don’t have to answer to anybody,” Peal said. “I have two boys. They’ve both in college now, but, I would have never been able to watch them play basketball if I were still working in an office.”

There’s another upside to doing your own thing – it’s your own thing. As Peal puts it, “I love animals. Now I get to be with animals all the time. I’ve met some of my best friends through pet sitting and being in the animals world.”

Bette Shields was a hairstylist at Dagmar’s in Greenville for 20 years until the shop closed. She rented a chair in a Wilmington shop for three years, but, since Oct. 15, she’s been a solopreneur working out of her own mini-salon at My Salon Suites on Kirkwood Highway.

She’s talked three other stylists into striking out on their own already, and she said four others are mulling it over. “You never know until you try it and you love it,” Shields said. “Everything has it advantages and disadvantages, but this is by far the best business I’ve ever done. It’s great.”

By 2019, almost half the private workforce will have spent some time as independent workers at some point in their work lives, according to MBO.

Ania Haley imports and sells fair-trade handcrafted jewelry and textiles from her native Peru. Her business is also a mission – bringing work to the Peruvian Andes where she was born.

Haley had been working with textile artists for 14 years before she started her Wilmington business, so she knew the product end from the get-go. She hired a web designer to publicize her business, and she relied on the Service Corps of Retired Executives for business advice.

“Every single connection helps me to spread the word,” she said. “The mission I have is fighting poverty.”

According to MBO, about 26 million American workers will consider a shift to their own business in the next two to three years.

Mike Miller, solo owner of Crystal Clean of Delmarva in Dover, made a slow but successful transition. “I got my schooling thorough different companies I worked for,” he said. “I started doing it on my own on the weekends, and then I built it up to the point where I could get a paycheck.

His self-styled apprenticeship lasted from 1984 to 2003: “I learned a lot on the other jobs, because I was doing office work when I was working with the other companies. As far as how to advertise, I just learned from the other companies what to do. Then I decided, “˜Well, I’ve got all the information that I need.’ So I started doing it on my own.”

Miller said he already had customers who wanted to use his services by the time he quit in 2003. Even when he was side-gigging on weekends, he had an apartment complex contracting with him to clean all their empties and prep their move-ins. After all that was in place, he made the leap.

“I like it. When I want to take off, I can take off. I can spend more time with my family,” Miller said. “And I like doing the job and seeing the results and seeing the customers’ faces. Sometimes they’re so happy I could get their carpets clean because they were going to replace them.”

There’s just one drawback: “Working by yourself, there’s nobody to talk to,” Miller said.

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