I vividly remember the first time someone asked me how I’d done it. My friend had been chatting with her boss and excitedly shared how I’d officially launched my first company in the US.
You see, I wasn’t fully new to the game, but the rules of the game look a bit different on American soil.
“I’m sure she had investors. There’s no way she did it without funding,” my friend’s boss replied. That was the first time I’d heard such a thing.
In Latin America, investing is exclusively reserved for apartment buildings and fancy resorts, and while I know it’s true you can technically get an angel investor for pretty much any business idea in this part of the hemisphere, it had never occurred to me that I needed a big sum of money to get started.
The truth is, I didn’t.
If I sit down and take a meticulous look at all the steps I’ve taken to be where I’m at today, I can happily confirm all I needed to start my company back in Argentina all those years ago was a phone and a laptop. Oh! and $150.
Let me walk you through it.
A phone, a laptop (and $150)
I’d been working in digital marketing as a freelancer for about four years before I decided I needed something a little bit firmer. A backup. Something that sounded better than “I do freelance work.”
So, the first thing I did was come up with a list of my skills. What I enjoyed doing, what I did well, and what I was confident in. Then, I turned those skills into services, and when I had a list I felt good about, I thought of a name.
The W List was the winner, and even though I find it atrocious now, it made sense at the time. I would be working with “A-list” clients, talent, and brands who were at the top of their game. My job was to make sure they were also on top of the web game. Cheesy, but you get the idea.
“I sent a lot of cold emails and landed my first client within a week. I was twenty years old.”
I had to purchase a domain name and hosting for a website (this is where the $150 came into play). I’d taught myself graphic design and coding a few years prior, so luckily didn’t need to hire someone. I spent a couple of days setting up the website, I made a company deck outlining services and past work examples as pitch materials to share with prospective clients, and that was that.
I was still living at home, and I remember telling my mom if I could land just one client, I’d be even with the website expenses. I sent a lot of cold emails and landed my first client within a week. I was twenty years old.
Landing my first big client at 20 years old
That first client ended up staying with me for two years, and they were arguably one the biggest names I’ve ever worked with. But here’s the best part, even though I’d built a decent contact list and had a good reputation amongst my past freelance clients, the first client I officially signed under my company was not a referral. I’d sent an email thinking nothing of it, the stars aligned, and they said yes!
If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone. If you’re willing to put in the work, of course.
Learn, drop the ‘L’ and earn
Now, let’s flash-forward to 2019. As I mentioned earlier on, things work slightly differently if you live in another part of the world and want to set up shop in the United States. I had just graduated from a Music Business program at the University of California, Los Angeles, and knew I wanted to start an entertainment company with a talent management arm.
This time, it felt a million times heavier. In California, you can’t just register a name and be good to go. There are about a dozen little tasks you need to complete before you get that green light, and in all honesty, the process can be quite exhausting, but it’s doable.
Google is your best friend. Everything I know, I’ve learned myself. Except for how music publishing works, I’ve got to give that credit to my UCLA professors. However, you can find the answer to basically anything. If you don’t know, ask someone. And if you don’t have someone to ask, ask our good old’ trusty friend: Google.
There are thousands of online courses and classes you can take if you know how to find them. A lot of them are paid, but there are great free options as well. Online courses are great because you can do them at your own pace, learn something new, and end up with a (usually virtual) certificate from a top university.
I’ve been taking classes since I was seventeen and realized it cost nothing. I’ve taken courses on business, screenwriting, management, merchandising, legal essentials, arbitration, and even photography. If you’re passionate about a topic, or even slightly curious, take a class.
If I can start a service-based business with a laptop and a phone, so can you
All right, so… How long did it take to get things up and running in Los Angeles? About a month. There was a lot of paperwork. And fees. So many fees. (Fun fact: In California, you must pay $800 yearly just to be able to have an LLC, even if you make zero dollars.)
Researching your fees and dues before you incorporate can help make sure you don’t screw yourself over and end up having to pay two years’ worth of fees at once, so read up on it. There are so many companies that provide personalized, online legal solutions and legal documents for small businesses – and it’s all done online. It can cost you anywhere from $100 to $500, even if you choose to DIY it, which I don’t recommend, by the way.
Once I got the green light, I wasted no time. I moved the wires I needed to move to bring The W List under the new company, I went back to a couple of clients I’d put “on hold” while I was in school and set out to find new ones. I had work to do from day one.
My first real big business expenses didn’t kick in until a couple of months later when I decided to rent office space and hire an assistant, an accountant, a bookkeeper, and an attorney on retainer. But these things were only needed because the wheels were spinning.
If the company hadn’t been doing well and we hadn’t been generating income, I wouldn’t have had the need for an assistant, a bookkeeper, etc. So, I suppose starting a business is like the saying that goes “take a leap and the net will appear.”
You have everything you need to get started
Of course, my experience is subjective, and my experience won’t be helpful if you’re trying to open a restaurant or a hair salon where you need to purchase machinery and inventory and hire staff in order to kick it off. But if your business is a service, and especially if it’s in the marketing, copywriting, public relations, design, or entertainment industries, I’m sure you already have everything you need to get started.
Why not just stay an independent contractor? Well, if you have a business, you’re paving the road for growth. You want the legal backup of having a separate identity. You need the ability to hire and expand your team when the work becomes too much for you to handle. And of course, taxes. There are numerous tax benefits for small businesses and don’t even get me started on write-offs.
“Be smart. If you don’t have clients lined up, don’t quit your full-time job until you do.”
Be smart. If you don’t have clients lined up, don’t quit your full-time job until you do. A few weeks of working long hours could set you up for the rest of your life. Before your company launches, write a business plan.
If you’re not savvy with numbers, spend some time writing down your core values and what sets you apart from competitors. If you do it well, your competitors will become your colleagues. As soon as you’re able to hire a good accounting team. It’s the one essential I couldn’t function without. Lastly, be selective about the clients you work with. If they don’t align with your vision, they’re not going to take your business where you want it to be.
Be patient, go the extra mile, take chances, and I promise the net will appear.
Kathy Schenfelt is a 28-year-old Latina CEO, and the founder and CEO of SCH Entertainment, an umbrella company that houses The W-List (a digital marketing and social media agency), and Missmanaged –– a boutique talent and music management firm representing 30+ clients worldwide. Schenfelt’s client list has included top global brands such as Lionsgate, Warner Bros. Pictures, LifeTime, and Disney Channel Latin America; alongside high-profile talent and non-profit organizations. Her latest passion project, Guests Only, connects and champions female creatives, business leaders, and change-makers across entertainment, fashion, tech, and beauty. Schenfelt holds certificates in Music Business from the University of California Los Angeles, Business Management from Harvard University, Fashion Management from Espacio Buenos Aires, Legal Essentials from Cornell University, and Contractual Law from Harvard University.
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