As a starving undergrad at Rutgers, I had an editing business that paid for my living expenses. Back then, my entrepreneurship was out of desperation so I could eat… but looking back, I appreciate the instinctive actions I took to get people to pay me for services. If I could do it all over again, I would change a bunch of things. However, even with no business education, here are a few things I did right:
- Scope the need. One day my Korean language instructor, knowing that I was an English major, asked me to read over his paper for one of his graduate classes. I reviewed his essay and returned it obliterated with red markings. From that point, he appointed me his official editor. My Korean instructor was a well-educated international graduate student, who like so many of his peers, had strong technical ability but poor English communication skills. I went to Rutgers, a gigantic school with thousands of international graduate students: typically working as T.A’s (teacher’s assistants), trying to earn their masters or PhD degrees. They were generally brilliant mathematicians, engineers or scientist, but awful writers and communicators in English. Unlike the typical college student, these students had the funds to pay for services such as mine. Most of these students came from pretty well-off families. In Korea, for example, if you were able to travel to America to study, there was a good chance you came from money. And, education being the most valued commodity in Korea, these students were willing to pay a premium for their education/ education-related services. Thus, I had defined my niche: Korean international graduate students. Even in my young, inexperienced years I knew I didn’t need to target the entire student population. I knew that if I could build a brand among just these students, the repeat business alone would provide the modest income I needed. Today, if I were to relaunch this business, perhaps I would target all international students at Rutgers, or international Korean students across all colleges in the tri-state area. But being narrow at that time really paid off for me.
- Define my services. I researched the competition via the web, yellow pages, whatever I could get my hands on and realized that if my Korean instructor had searched for an editing service instead of me to help him, he would find that most of them were way too generic and inapplicable to his need. And what a gold mine of an opportunity I had found! While I was building my service offering, I was getting requests left and right to read over papers. I had something going for me that none of my competitors did for my niche: I targeted students (most editing services target professionals or businesses). I targeted Koreans and spoke Korean (most editing services have no cultural niche). I understood the psychology of these students. They were frustrated with the dichotomy of being brilliant in their native tongue, inarticulate in the American tongue. I positioned myself as someone who would not only proofread but edit – which involved understanding their point and helping them convey it.
- Marketing strategy. I formed alliances. I bartered services. I partnered with a computer engineering major who built me a website for free. I created a name for my business: Han-Editing (Han, means Korea in Korean). I put my creative skills to work and created a logo: a cool HE that overlapped in some neat graphic way. I printed flyers in English and in Korean and posted them all over student centers, the mail building, bus stops… I made business cards and handed them out like candy. I networked with student associations and had them post links to my website onto their websites. I thought about my niche and created a cheesy slogan to appealed to them: “Refining your words. Defining your voice.”
- Major milestone. The moment I knew I had hit an important mark was when I was hired to help someone work on her dissertation. It was a hundred page dissertation with very technical concepts. It took me days just to read and decipher what it meant – not to mention trudge through the grammatical errors and awkward usage of the American language (this tends to happen when foreigners try to translate their language word for word into English). But nonetheless, it was a huge win for me. I felt like I was on top of the world. A few months later, my client called me to say that she was nominated (approved) to be granted her PhD and had been selected to speak at some convention due to her groundbreaking studies shared in her dissertation. She called to thank me. You’re welcome! Then she wanted me to help her write her speech. Cool! Then – get this – she also wanted me to record myself reading the speech so that she could enunciate the words properly. Really?? I was just floored by the amount of need within this niche. I never would have thought that someone would want to pay for something like that.
My graduation was right around the corner from that milestone. My brain was flooded with ideas for business expansion. I had to decide whether to really dedicate my heart and soul into making my business successful full-time or to try my luck in the “real world”. It was an extremely difficult decision for me, but in the end, I felt I just didn’t have enough experience to do something like that. Looking back, it was the right decision. I was lacking in the knowledge of acquisition strategy, success metrics and business analytics, positioning, brand management, legal and compliance aspects, technology, client management, I can go on and on. I also didn’t have a passion for what I did. I loved what I was able to offer clients: the value of a well-written document. I just hated the method by which I had to do it [editing is quite boring]. Also, like many novice business owners, I had the raw talent but was overwhelmed, intimidated and scattered. Some days, I would just sit and think and stare into the air: what do I do next? What to do? I had no understanding of project management, the logical, calculated, and proven steps to develop a thriving business. So I moved on. One day, maybe if I am one of those people who build businesses and sell them, it would be one of my gem ideas. I’ll just keep it in my back pocket for now.