Did you ever wish you had your own business? Bored? Hate your boss? Fear retirement? Maybe you have a really good idea for a product – would you rather sell it to a big company or develop it yourself?
A surprising number of chemists own their own small chemical businesses. As defined by the Small Business Administration, a small business is one with fewer than 500 employees. These small businesses create about 75% of the new jobs added to the economy and employ about 50% of the private work force. The small chemical businesses include custom synthesis, product distribution, testing laboratories, product formulating, scientific translation, and patent attorneys.
With only three employees, V-Labs, Inc. (Covington, LA) certainly meets the definition of a small business. The carbohydrate and flavor consulting laboratory is owned by Sharon V. Vercellotti (president). Sharon explains, “We started in carbohydrates before they were fashionable. Now with the growth of biotechnology, they are astoundingly fashionable!” The second employee is John R. Vercellotti, PhD (vice president and Sharon’s husband), and the third is a combination lab technician and office assistant. They supplement the staff with student workers, both college and high school students.
Jane Thomas’s Wyoming Analytical Laboratories, Inc. (Laramie, WY) has 20 employees working in four labs in Wyoming and Colorado. She was doing coal anaylses at a University of Wyoming lab when a customer suggested that she start and manage a commercial laboratory. Thomas resisted at first, but over a 2-year period, saw that there was much demand for a coal analysis lab. Her business has evolved since 1977 when it was founded: “It started as a coal lab. We did all types of coal testing. Some of our customers needed water analysis, so we expanded into water testing and then into environmental sampling.”
Striking out on your own takes courage and a bit of luck. Ronald Versic says, I am the type of person who enjoys making money. I always sold things when I was in school. At a certain point, I became dissatisfied working for a large business. It was a life-altering experience when I became disenchanted with my employer.” Versic went on to found the Ronald T. Dodge Co. (Dayton, OH) which does microencapsulation – preparing coated particles for industrial, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and other applications. “We do all types of encapsulation, we are oriented toward manufacturing, and we follow high ethical standards.”
The biggest obstacle to starting your own business is money. Chemical entrepreneurs finance their businesses with various combinations of bank loans, government grants, personal contributions, and thrifty lifestyles. Versic said that Ronald T. Dodge Co. was also self-financed. “I put $500 in the bank as capitalization. Then we borrowed against the value of our house. There were no personal loans or venture capital. Now we have money in the bank.” Versic did not take a salary at first and depended on his wife’s job for income and benefits. He recommends deferred gratification so that you can plow money back into the business and finance the growth internally.
The entrepreneurs recommend the ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses (DSCHB) as a way to learn from those who know – the other small chemical business people. DSCHB’s programming at the National Meetings provides symposia on topics of interest to small businesses and opportunities to network. The Division also subsidizes the cost of a booth at the National Meeting Exhibition.
Small chemical business people find their businesses to be stressful but full of variety and fun. “You have to deal with all the problems yourself,” says Jane Thomas. “Little businesses are inherently inefficient,” says Ron Versic. “You have to do things yourself.” He cites safety training of employees as one of the things he does, which another person would do in a large business.
The uncertainty of that next contract is worrying for most small business people. “You have to be confident that someone will call on Monday morning,“ says Sharon Vercelotti. “You don’t know what the client’s request will be. You have to be open to new challenges.”
Nonetheless, when asked if they enjoy having their own businesses, most small chemical business people say “I love it!”
Anne Kuhlmann Taylor, PhD (ACS ’67), is a consultant and technical writer based in Baton Rouge, LA. Previously, she was an analytical chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. Working with CTD Quality Consulting, she writes, edits, and critiques documents for the pharmaceutical industries. She is Councilor from the Baton Rouge Section of ACS and serves on the Committee on Community Activities.