Starting a Technical Writing Business from Scratch
by Ruth Nickolich
What does it take to start your own technical-writing business? Chutzpa! Insanity! I began mine by getting a loan from my local bank for my first computer to set up a home office. It was a Micron desktop 386, the fastest computer in town! That was nine years ago. I now have a nice office, a sizeable staff, and all the work I can handle, most of the time.
Start Big or Start Small
Not everyone starts his or her own business the way I did. I started small and have maintained somewhat steady growth over the last nine years. My background is in education. I have a degree in English and Journalism, but I worked as a technical writer with a local company for a few years, and later as an independent contractor before starting my company. I made the decision to form my business while working as an independent contractor. That is when I formed Precisely Write, Inc., a real corporation. I wanted to look and feel like a real company and to separate my company and personal assets.
So I took the dive. Another thing that motivated me to start my own company was my past experience working for large companies. I knew I hated company politics —the meetings about meetings, the undermining by co-workers of other co-workers, all those types of situations that go on in large companies.
At that time, a friend of mine was working as a technical writer in New York. We had been sending copy back and forth to each other for editing before giving the final versions to our clients. Since we were already helping each other, I proposed we start a company together. We worked as partners for about five years before going our separate ways due to family issues. (My partner now had a new baby and needed to devote more of her time to family.) However, as a company, clients sometimes expected me to be more than a one-woman show. So at first, I had to put in some pretty long weeks — sometimes 80 hours — to keep up with the demands. After I incorporated the business, I spent the next eight years working from my home office.
Many of my current contracts come from companies that don’t have a technical publications department. And, even companies that do have such a department may not have the tools, the expertise, or the resources to complete a project on time and within budget. This is when a technical-writing company like ours can fill that need. Managers and CEOs are appreciative when you help them meet a deadline and stay within budget.
Remain Flexible and Ready for Change
Technical writing has changed and will continue to do so according to client needs. Anyone starting a technical-writing company will need to realize this and remain flexible enough to keep up with current trends. This includes keeping your staff well-trained in the newest software and in the latest practices.
Years ago, a tech writer was a tech writer. Now a tech writer must also be a graphic designer, an editor, a proofreader, a content modeler, and must really work to stay on the cutting edge. The team I have currently assembled are high-level experts at software documentation, but we have recently moved into single sourcing and content management. So in addition to writing, my staff has to know all these things, along with XML, SGML, and all the other ‘MLs.
In the past, most of our clients just needed user manuals, Quick Reference Guides, and online help. Now, in addition to needing written documentation, they are seeing the value in content management tools as a way to organize their vast amounts of information and allow them to produce more deliverables with less effort and expense.
Companies have so much documentation they’ve had to find ways to reuse information and to manage their content as a business asset. Single sourcing is one way to write the information once and use it for many different documents and media types. This saves time and money and helps them get products to market on time. Content management helps put all the pieces of content in a database for easier retrieval, and keeps all content consistent throughout the organization.
Public companies are now being required to document almost everything they do and how they do it. So, we also work with companies to complete their Sarbanes-Oxley documentation so they stay compliant with those requirements. With the FDA and other regulatory bodies breathing down the necks of corporations, consistent information is a must.
I belong to organizations such as Women’s Business Enterprise, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, Society for Technical Communications, Content Management Professionals, Women & Hi Tech, and the local chambers of commerce. I attend as many conferences, seminars, and conventions as I can afford and fit into my schedule.
There are plenty of opportunities to get your name out there through press releases, trade shows, and local chambers and boards. I’ve found that, for me, the large conventions aren’t always very beneficial, but we’ve made some contacts from them that we hope will turn into future business. It’s important to keep in touch with any contact you make. But the best way to get new business is through client referrals and just plain old-fashioned hard work. Clients need to see a return on their investment and nothing provides a better return than the fact that we truly care about them and deliver what we say we will deliver.
When you need fresh ideas, networking, training, or any type of support from others in the technical-writing field, there are several organizations to turn to, such as the STC, CM Pros, and organizations for small and minority businesses.
Go for it!
While working from a home office for the first several years, I worked through remodeling projects, through the noise that comes with a growing family, and I worked pretty much all the time. Finally, I decided I needed to separate my personal life from my professional life. That’s when I decided to move into a separate office space. Almost as soon as I hung out my first shingle, my business took off. I increased sales by about 300 percent in the last year. I had heard from other small business owners that this happened to them, too. So I’m glad I took a chance and did it. It has really paid off.
The reasons for starting my own company are very clear to me — I get to do my own thing, I’m free to assemble a very good staff of people whose talents I value and admire, I have the option to grow as much or as little as I want, and most of all, I am the best boss I’ve ever had.
Ruth Nickolich is the founder and president of Precisely Write, Inc., a technical communications company. She is in her tenth year of business, enjoying 300 percent growth in sales in the last year. She is WBENC certified and is a member of several professional organizations. Ruth has written user, maintenance, and training manuals for software, hardware, electronics, medical diagnostics, automotive, banking, real estate, insurance, and pharmaceutical products. She is currently involved in implementing content management projects. Ruth is a member of STC, CMPROS, Women & Hi Tech, and is a board member of her local chamber of commerce.