I’ll be honest, quitting my job and starting a small business in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t what I had planned for when I signed up for Dataquest. When I started I was looking for a route to broaden my career path and give myself a way out of a job that I wasn’t enjoying. My original plan was to combine my existing skillset with data science for my next job.
However it turns out looking for a new job during a pandemic takes time, and I started doing project work using my data science skills to financially support myself while I sent off CVs. Slowly the number of projects began to increase, and now I’ve found that they’re enough to make a new career in itself. While it may not be something that I’ll do forever, being able to work for myself and work on projects that I enjoy has been really satisfying for me, and has meant my focus moved away from sending CVs and towards building my small business.
Obviously, this budding small enterprise didn’t come from nothing, and what I’ve found works well for me may not work in the same way for everyone else, but I wanted to share a few simple steps that helped me start down this path, and feel would be helpful for anyone looking to start a small business or even just make a bit of money on the side:
1. Combining skills
I’m currently two-thirds of the way through the Data Scientist path, so at the moment I don’t feel ready to pitch for pure data science work. However, like many learners, I’ve got pre-existing skills and experience from other jobs, and was able to merge my accounting, policy, and economics background with my newly acquired data science abilities to answer policy questions and investigate emerging trends. If you are in an area/industry where data science skills are not widespread, then there are likely to be plenty of opportunities to combine your skills and solve long-standing problems or uncover new insights.
I’ve found clients really value work where you can both handle large volumes of data and understand the context well enough to support your findings, and just as importantly know which results are red herrings.
If you’re a learner who is a student and doesn’t have prior work experience, I’d recommend volunteering at a local non-profit, place of worship, or campaign group to build up some context and workplace skills.
2. Building up networks
A lot of opportunities, like jobs, are never ‘publicly’ advertised, and are instead sourced from within pre-existing networks. So it’s critical that you start to build up connections with individuals and organizations in your field(s) of interest.
I already had some contacts from previous jobs, so for me it firstly involved reaching out and discussing my new skills, and finding ways that I could use these to add value. I was pleased to find that news of valuable work spreads fast, and have mostly won new work from being introduced to people in my contacts’ wider networks.
If you are not interested in doing work within your pre-existing network/industry, or don’t have one yet, then start to build one with individuals and organizations in fields of interest. This could involve going to industry events, writing and sharing blogs on relevant sites, volunteering time/expertise at local organizations/community groups.
3. A problem solving mindset
One of the challenges of starting a small business is constantly having to demonstrate you are worth paying for. What I’ve found helps is having a mindset where I am constantly looking to add value. This could be through solving a problem, uncovering a new insight, or telling a data-backed story. Once you can clearly explain how you will add value, it becomes easier to assign a financial price to it.
Whilst this does seem hard at first, it’s not that different from being employed. When it comes down to it most jobs are there to add some value to an organization, whether it be a data scientist using their skills to boost sales and identify important patterns, or even an intern reviewing calculations or code. If your job isn’t adding enough ‘value’ to an organization then it isn’t likely to be there for long!
Even (in my experience especially) if you’re a volunteer at an organization there will be plenty of problems to solve, particularly ones which involve data analysis or organizing e.g. mailing lists, accounting spreadsheets, expenses, website traffic, tasks that can be automated.
4. Building up credible experience
Due to my prior work I had some public projects that I could point to as credible experience. With a small business you are effectively the key asset so it’s important that you can be trusted to do a good job. When I finish a project I ask for feedback and a letter of recommendation which clearly states: what value was added, how I went about doing it, and what my individual contribution was (if part of a team). It’s even better if there’s a public output (a blog, model, report, pictures) too!
At first you may not be paid for these pieces of work, that’s fine. The key point is that each piece of experience you have documented makes it easier to win the next piece of work, and more likely that you will paid for it. Make sure you share your progress within your network too, as this will often generate more work.
If you’re a student/job seeker having provable outputs and recommendations (for say adding value to a small non-profit you volunteer at) will make you a more attractive (i.e. less risky) hire for an employer, than a student with amazing grades but no demonstrable experience.
In effect the Dataquest philosophy is built on this approach, of showing skills through practice and publishing, and not via a very expensive certificate (i.e. a degree) that forces the employer to trust that it means that the candidate can apply what they’ve learnt to doing things.
While I’m still in the early stages of my new business, going on this journey has shown me the benefits of actively seeking to apply these data science skills, beyond just the financial gain. Working on independent projects has allowed me to enhance my learning and give me more confidence, as well as broadening my networks to meet and work alongside people I may never have otherwise engaged with. Even if you have no intention of quitting your job in a pandemic, it is a worthwhile experience that I would highly recommend!