Many graduate students and postdocs find the notion of going into business for themselves attractive, allowing them the kind of independence that draws many of them to graduate work in the first place. Here are some aspects of working for yourself to consider before you start.
There are two different paths to working for yourself: in the first, you work for yourself while looking for a full-time job, or looking for part-time work for someone else to supplement your own business. This kind of part-time work is often a bridge rather than an end goal, like looking for an interim job before you find your next full-time job In the second, you intend from the beginning to make being in business for yourself your full-time job.
The basics of building your own business of any size are straightforward. You identify a skill that you have or a product you can make that others will pay for; you find out the going rate for that skill or product and set your own rate; you find customers; you deliver the service; you bill them; you manage the business (taxes, permits, and so on). You can offer almost anything as a service or product that someone either wants or wants you to do or doesn’t want to or can’t do themselves. It can be closely related to your current work – teaching someone how to write an essay or use Matlab, or conducting research for someone else – or entirely unrelated – helping people put in their gardens or clean out their basements.
The constraints are equally straightforward. Businesses take time and, usually, at least some money to build; payment takes longer to come in that the business takes to build; you need to manage tasks that employers manage for you (taxes, billing, permits, and so on); finding new customers becomes your first or second job most of the time.
Starting a business part time, while seeking or holding a full-time job for another employer, has some significant advantages. You learn whether your skill can become a viable business (you play and can teach cello, but does anyone wants to hire you to teach it?). You learn whether you actually like doing something for a living, or a partial living (you like playing cello, but do you like teaching Joey?). You learn whether you want to manage your own business (you like teaching Lucy, but do you like, or at least not hate, chasing her parents to get paid?).
If you intend from the start to make your own business your full-time job, that may mean a goal of building a business at a larger scale, say if you intend to commercialize research. The biggest difference between the smaller-scale and larger-scale scope is the length of time and the amount of resources it may initially take to build your business: it may require you to raise significant money to support the early stages of your work, or at the very least to rely on longer-term support from a partner, spouse, or family. It will also likely involve more professional support, such as legal work on protecting your invention, for example, or incorporating your business.
No matter how you decide to go into business for yourself, you should be prepared to fail and start over, perhaps seeing your business morph into something different than you had initially imagined. Maybe you couldn’t find a market in giving cello lessons, but there turned out to be a big one in getting kids to and from their lessons; you found work as a nanny, but then you found a lot more work finding suitable nannies for other people. You should also be prepared to explain what you do, over and over again: to potential customers, to family and friends, to nosy strangers on airplanes. Always remember that flying solo is not really solo. Working for yourself, creating your own income rather than relying (only) on a paycheck, freaks out some people. It’s important to ask yourself whether you are one of those people and, equally important, whether your partner or spouse is one of those people. Communication and flexibility are essential, especially about money and risk tolerance.
There are a great many resources to help you get your business going, and many of them are free for the asking. The single most important thing you can do is ask other people who have gone into business for themselves how they did it, what they know now that they didn’t when they started, and what they would do differently if they were starting today. If you are US-based, the Small Business Association provides a great deal of help and often connects new business owners with local mentors. If you can take advantage of such a service, particularly at no or low cost, do it.