The business now known as Words into Type began almost by accident in 1975. Here's the way I described it in a profile I wrote for inclusion in Small Business Management: An Entrepreneur’s Guidebook, by Leon C. Megginson, Mary Jane Byrd, and William L. Megginson (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2003).
Staying Small: Words into Type
Not all small businesses are formed with entrepreneurial expectations. When Suzanne Barnhill began “taking in typing” in 1975, her only goal was to make enough money to buy supplies for her new IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter. A new mother who had stopped working when her son was born, Barnhill had used some of her savings to buy the typewriter, something she had always wanted, but she hadn’t counted on the cost of consumables. “The first time I had to buy more ribbons and lift-off tapes for the machine,” she says, “I knew I would have to go to work to support it!”
The decision proved providential. Because she lived between a small college and a large university, Barnhill had no trouble getting work. After putting up notices on bulletin boards at both schools, she found she soon had her hands full with student papers and graduate theses. The income, though modest, was sufficient. Like a farm housewife’s “butter and egg money,” it provided a certain measure of independence.
Even more important, it allowed her to be a stay-at-home mom to her son and the daughter who followed three years later. Because she worked at home and on her own schedule, she could chaperone school field trips, be a “room mother,” and still get her “paying work” done. “Now that the kids are grown,” she says, “they tell me they appreciated my being there when they came home from school. But they were also proud that I had a ‘career,’ and my frequent preoccupation with my work also resulted in their learning to entertain themselves, do their own homework, and generally become the self-reliant adults they are now.”
Advances in technology inevitably changed Barnhill’s business, which she came to call Words into Type. After a brief flirtation with a memory typewriter, Barnhill became entirely computerized, a move that greatly widened her horizons, making it possible not only to produce better-looking text more quickly and efficiently but also to incorporate graphics of various types. Although subsequent moves had taken her out of the academic arena, book manuscripts took up the slack, supplemented by correspondence, reports, presentations, and a variety of other business documents. Currently Barnhill finds that a large portion of her business is in preparing camera-ready copy for very-short-run editions of personal memoirs and family histories, as well as for books published by a local small press.
Through it all Barnhill has refused to take on more work than she can comfortably fit into her varied schedule. “I like to say that I work full time but get paid only part time,” she says. Much of her work is donated to volunteer organizations such as her Rotary club and the Friends of the Library. “I really enjoy these jobs most,” she says, “because I can spend as much time on them as I like without worrying about how much it will cost the client.” But she quickly adds that her clients don’t get substandard work. “I always try to make my products the best they can be. If I see that a job is taking longer than I think it should (or than the client may be willing to pay for), I’ll just stop the clock and continue to work until I think it’s right.”
Although such an operation might be viewed by some as a “hobby business,” to her clients Barnhill appears completely professional. All work is produced on time (in one case she even completed typing a manuscript with several stitches in two of her fingers), billing is businesslike, and extra services are performed as needed. Her basic service always includes editing (which is her business’s competitive edge), but Barnhill can also ghostwrite, make copies, prepare documents for mailing, send faxes, and so on.
Barnhill prefers the term client to customer because, she says, “A customer is someone who is always right. But a client, etymologically, is someone who is dependent on you. My clients rely on my judgment and usually accept my recommendations for improving their work. My business slogan is ‘Helping you put your best foot forward on paper,’ and that’s what I try to do. From correcting their grammar and spelling to suggesting elements they could add to make a book better, I think I definitely add value to my clients’ work.”
Needless to say, such an operation is not very lucrative. Although working at home greatly reduces the overhead, there are still expenses: a new computer every few years, Internet access and a dedicated fax/modem line, consumables for two printers and a plain-paper fax machine, and supplies of paper, labels, envelopes, and so on. Also, because she is self-employed, Barnhill must pay double for Social Security. Barnhill is aware that she is probably undercharging for her services, but she chooses not to increase her rates because this would make the cost prohibitive for some of the clients she most enjoys working for. “Sometimes after taxes and expenses it seems I’m just barely breaking even,” she says. “But my income does allow me to pay my own personal expenses, buy things for the house, and contribute some ‘extras’ for the children that they otherwise might not have had. The paying work also subsidizes my volunteer activities. And the fact is, even if someone were to demonstrate that I’m actually losing money on the operation, I still wouldn’t quit because I enjoy it so much. Whenever one of ‘my’ books is published, I get a terrific sense of satisfaction. I don’t think I’ll ever want to retire.”