Self-employment: Finding Success in the Gig Economy

January 28, 2013

When starting your own company it’s not enough to have a great new product or service. It’s not enough to have ample financing. What you also need is sound business sense, the “5 M’s” of self-employment. What are the 5 M’s?

Marketing your services

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Develop a diverse client base in terms of industries you sell to and the size of client organizations you target. For example, during the 1980s the bottom dropped out of the oil business for several years. As a result many chemical companies and consultancies, large and small, saw their sales to oilfield service companies decline substantially. Having a diverse client base would have helped lessen the impact of this sort of situation. Having contingency plans to implement would allow you to quickly compensate for the loss of major customers.

I derive much of my income from my freelance technical writing. During the recent recession I saw my income from sales to both companies and magazines drop substantially. To compensate for this I expanded my sales to government agencies and the nonprofit sector. Luckily I did not have to start from ground zero since I already had some sales to these sectors before the economic slump hit in 2008. I also monitored my sales closely and was able to take timely action to expand my client base because I saw my sales to certain sectors begin to decline in the fourth quarter of 2007.

During the 1980s when my technical writing sales to the oil industry slumped, I was able to compensate by recruiting new clients in Europe and marketing to pharmaceutical industry trade publications. However, because most European countries have been harder hit by the recent recession than the U.S., these strategies did not work for me this time around. Instead I increased my marketing to units of the federal government.

Managing money issues

When you are selling services, it is often difficult to decide what to charge. There are several strategies you can adopt. First, you can learn what your competitors are charging for the same or very similar services and adopt a similar price structure. Alternatively you could take the approach of offering a premium service and charging a higher price. This is the approach I usually take and it often works even in competitive bidding situations if you clearly explain what you are selling and why your service is more cost effective at a higher price than competitors. For example, I occasionally charge 25% to 33% more than my competitors in competitive bidding processes and still win the work. Of course, this approach means that I must provide the added value that I promise.

Sometimes it is difficult to obtain a fair price for your service. For instance, in 2011 a major oil company saw freelance writing projects being offered at $25 per hour on Craig’s List. Neglecting the greater difficulty of technical writing, they offered technical writing projects at this fee. I and some other technical writers turned down the work when it was offered at this low hourly rate because it was substantially lower than the going rate for this kind of writing. The oil firm hired people with limited or no technical backgrounds to work on the projects. They got unsatisfactory documents (chapters in a training manual for example) as a result. I don’t know how this situation was eventually resolved. However, I do know they approached another technical writer and me to whom they offered the original low fees to edit and improve these poorly written documents.

The sharp drop in income during the recent recession led some experienced consultants and technical writers desperate for work to reduce their fees. However, now that the U.S. economy is growing again, albeit slowly, these chemists are finding many of their clients are refusing to pay their pre-recession fee levels. Thus they face the unpleasant choice of losing clients or working for lower fees.

Meeting clients’ specifications

When designing projects for clients, it is essential to agree upon the specifications of the project, project budget, the timetable for completion of various parts of the project, schedule of payments and reporting requirements. Having project management skills is often essential in managing projects to the satisfaction of the client as well as yourself.

It is worth spending time up front clearly defining the client’s specifications and agreeing on how you will meet them. These are the biggest factors in determining whether the client will be satisfied with your work and willing to assign you additional projects.

Minimizing scope creep

Scope creep results when new features are added to a project’s scope after work has started. Scope creep is usually caused by inadequate planning at the beginning of the project. Often each change request is small and the entrepreneur accepts them to keep the client happy. However, a point often is reached when the changes become numerous enough that the project requires much more work than originally agreed upon. The additional work can delay project completion and cause the project to go over budget.

Meeting deadlines

To achieve commercial success it is often essential to complete the project on schedule. To help assure this, project managers often adopt project milestones and dates for their completion. Milestones are intermediate goals that clearly indicate progress in achieving final project goals and completing the project. They are also useful in monitoring project spending relative to achieving project goals.

Following these 5Ms helps increase the overall success of your business while increasing customer satisfaction and increasing the chances of obtaining repeat business.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

Reinventing the Later Stages of Your Chemistry Career

January 21, 2013

Events of the last several years: large-scale restructuring of the pharmaceutical industry, processing of cheap U.S. natural gas, outsourcing of jobs, the recession and other factors, are forcing many chemists to reinvent their careers. This includes those of you in the later stages of your career. For this purposes of this blog, I’ll call these later stages “phased withdrawal from full-time employment.” We definitely need a word to refer to this phase of life. I checked various dictionaries and thesauruses and they offer no help at all. So in the absence of an accepted term and to avoid clumsy phrases, I’ll use the words “retiree” and “retired.”

Del Webb Corporation, America’s largest builder of retirement communities, conducts periodic surveys of people 50 years of age and over to determine their interests in what used to be called “the retirement years.” In 2010 nearly 40% of current “retirees” reported they were actually working. Finances are certainly one reason but others included warding off boredom/keeping busy, self satisfaction, and simple enjoyment. There was also high interest in volunteering. Reasons for this interest include the ones given previously plus “for the enjoyment, feels good, and to help others and give back to the community.”

The growing percentage of baby boomers working in what traditionally has been called their retirement years offers a major opportunity for companies and other organizations that would benefit greatly from tapping their skills. These boomers need not compete with younger and mid-career chemists but instead offer valuable advice and even mentorship.

So what are the options for chemists in both traditional and non-traditional careers?

Back to campus

Many colleges and universities offer their standard courses for non-credit to retired individuals. Many schools allow their alumni to attend these courses for free. (This was a major factor in my considering relocating to Chicago last year.) Besides allowing chemists to pursue long-postponed interests (put me down for history courses), retired chemists can keep their scientific knowledge up to date. They can also take courses to improve other work-related skills such as writing and public speaking. Another option is to improve one’s public speaking skills by participating in Toastmasters clubs.

One can also do other things on campus besides being a student, such as attending lectures by outside speakers. In the case of chemists, these speakers are often outstanding chemists from other universities in North America and even overseas. By being active in your ACS local section, you may be able to develop the contacts or networks necessary to be invited to speak occasionally on campuses about various aspects of industrial chemistry, job hunting and other subjects. I am only one of many ACS career consultants invited to campuses to speak on job hunting and careers.

Part-time work

In an effort to maintain access to their older employees’ expertise, some companies are offering them the option of working part time or even hiring them back on a contract basis. Senior employees now have a way to transition gradually to full-time retirement, often at their own pace, while their employers maintain access to their hard-won expertise. In an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey of 1,000 human resources managers, 69% indicated their firms are trying to keep older workers on staff as part-time employees. For example, Abbott Laboratories “Freedom to Work” program allows older employees to continue to work part-time. Since its launch in 2008 more than 400 Abbott employees have participated in the program.

According to Lesli Morasco, a Director of Benefits at Abbott, this program doesn’t interfere with younger employees’ career advancement. Indeed, being mentored by a part-time Senior Researcher can help younger employees take on bigger and more complex projects. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests that having a highly experienced researcher as a mentor to train a newly hired scientist can help that person master their job responsibilities more quickly.

Companies can even access the knowledge of retired scientists and engineers who spent their careers working for other companies by working with placement firms such as YourEncore ( In many cases these part-time scientists and engineers work out of their home offices rather than relocating to another city.

Professional societies

Professional societies offer another means to remain involved in various aspects of chemistry, such as The American Chemical Society (ACS). Technical divisions and local sections within ACS offer many opportunities for retirees to organize programs and manage other activities to help these organizations better serve their members. Other organizations such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers, National Association of Corrosion Engineers and American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups offer similar opportunities for chemists working in various specialized and interdisciplinary fields. Trade associations such as the American Oil Chemists Society and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of American also offer volunteering opportunities.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

Working Again for a Former Employer

January 14, 2013

There is an old saying, “You can’t go home again.” However, when it comes to working again for a former employer, this statement is often false. There can be many advantages for both former employees and employers when employees go back to work for a former organization. Indeed, one of the best hiring decisions I ever made was to hire a lab technician who formerly worked for my employer. This was because on the first day of the new work she already knew people in other departments of the company particularly in the analytical department and already knew many of the corporate procedures for submitting samples for analysis.

Once, it was very rare for a laid off, college-educated employee to return to work for a former employer. However, recent ACS employment surveys have indicated unemployment rates among ACS members are at historically high levels, 4.2% in 2012 (…/Unemployment-Data-Chemists-Improve-Slightly.html). The result has been a highly competitive job market and fewer jobs due to downsizing, mergers and acquisitions. As a result, chemists need to explore every possible employment opportunity. One such opportunity is to return to work for a former employer.  A Temple University study (not limited to chemists) found that 45% of people would return to work for a former employer after being laid off. Their findings were reported in the online in the journal “Career Development International” (

The researchers examined unemployment effects on salaried professionals, middle managers and executives. Of the 382 respondents surveyed online, 64%earned more than $75,000 a year, 79% had at least a college degree, 79% were the primary source of household income when laid off, and 83%were salaried professionals or in higher positions.

Advantages for the employer

Advantages to the employer include returning employees’ familiarity with the workplace and culture. This means they can more quickly, become a productive contributor and navigate the political processes. They may rekindle relationships with some of their former coworkers. These coworkers are often more willing to help a former  colleague than someone new to the organization as trust and prior working relationships have already been established

Advantages to the former employee

Often former employees don’t have to relocate. This means they don’t have to sell their home in a difficult real estate market and their children can continue their educations in their current schools. The November 5, 2012 issue of C&EN reported the difficult personal situations of chemists who had to relocate to another city or country to obtain employment, leaving their spouse and/or children behind.

Making the decision to return

The Temple University research indicated the importance of fair and transparent layoff decisions in the treatment of downsized employees in affecting the decision of ex-employees in returning to work for their former employer.

“How employers treat employees through layoffs is always important and will become even more so when the economy fully rebounds and it’s an employees’ market again,” said human resource management Professor Gary J. Blau, lead author of the Temple University study. He notes that “employers have a vested practical interest in ensuring the process of deciding who goes and who doesn’t is perceived as a fair one,” especially when social media and review-your-employer websites such as provide more opportunities than ever for laid-off employees to publicly vent their frustration and anger.

The former employees surveyed experienced a wide range of unemployment lengths, with 65% out of work for at least 27 weeks, which the U.S. Department of Labor defines as long-term unemployment.  Another 23% of respondents were unemployed for more than two years – and suffered the most in a number of areas, including: lower life satisfaction, lower re-employment confidence and higher unemployment stigma and depression.

“People are at a point where they’re losing their houses; their wives or husbands are leaving them. They’re in a severe hardship,” said Tony Petrucci, a Temple University assistant professor and managing partner at Gravitas LLC, an executive and board search firm. “People are saying, I may not like this employer because of how they handled my layoff. I’m angry, but I would consider going back to work with them.”

Of course the chemist must pave the way to reemployment by leaving his former employer in a dignified and professional manner. You don’t want to “burn your bridges” to possible reemployment.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


Looking Backward to Move Your Career Forward

January 7, 2013

Welcome to 2013! As you return to the office after holiday parties and extended vacations, it’s a great time to take stock in your career, and understand exactly what you are coming back to.  Are you happy to get back to work because you love what you do, or are you dreading that first day back?  Did you actually miss your co-workers, or do you wish you could get by without talking to them a little longer?

If you realize that you are less than thrilled with what you do all day, it might be time to take a long, retrospective look at your career path so far, and make changes to improve your current situation – or start looking for a new one.

What Have You Accomplished?

Think back over your last few months to the last couple of years in your professional life.  What are your most significant accomplishments during the last 6 months?  How are those different from your accomplishments of last year, or even a few years ago?  What does that predict for your professional future?


What Do You Do?

Have your daily tasks changed over time?  Are you still interested in the tasks that make up your job?  Which tasks feel like they take the most of your time?  Is that because they really do, or because you don’t enjoy them? Spend a week or two tracking your time at work – the results may surprise you.

What Are You Not Doing?

Are there tasks or activities that used to be part of your job, but not anymore?  Was that your choice?  Is it because you have moved on to bigger and better things, or because your skills are becoming outdated?

What Have You Learned?

What new knowledge, skills and abilities have you acquired recently? Are these things you enjoy doing, which will help you develop professionally?  If you haven’t learned anything lately, could that be a goal for the near future?

What Has Changed Around You?

Even if you love your job, every once in a while you need to look at the bigger picture.  What has changed in your company, and in your industry?  Big, dramatic changes are easy to notice, but subtle shifts over time are harder to discern.  Is it only your current employer who is moving in a new direction, or is it the industry overall?

A driving instructor once said that if you want to stay in your lane, don’t stare at the road immediately in front of the car.  Instead, keep your eyes further down the road, focusing on where you want to be in the long term allows you to gradually adjust your course and get there safely.

This is also good advice for your career – look further down the road and see where you are headed, and decide if that’s where you want to be.  If it’s not, now is a great time to figure out why, and make a plan to get yourself on the right track for the long term.

Get Involved In The Discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—brought to you by ACS Careers.