The Perfect “Chicken Entrepreneur” Strategy

Michael Masterson has often written of the benefits of being a “chicken entrepreneur.” He uses this tongue-in-cheek expression to describe someone who starts a business or creates a new source of income while remaining at a full-time job or otherwise minimizing the risks.

Today, I want to tell you about a variation of that strategy that has proven successful for me and many others. You might call it being a “chicken salad entrepreneur.”

I’m the quintessential business coward. I have no management or leadership skills. Moreover, I never wanted to take on all those challenging business tasks and responsibilities: raising capital, hiring and firing, dealing with suppliers, and so on.

When I was in school, I expected that I would one day get a “real” job with an ad agency. As a result of some fortunate contacts, however, I became a freelancer with my own copywriting practice – for more than 30 years.

I soon discovered that there was a demand for my marketing expertise. So I embarked upon a series of lucrative and enjoyable sidelines: public speaking, corporate training, consulting, and critiquing. In these “presentation activities,” as I call them, I share what I know – and I’m paid well for it, between $2,000 and $10,000 per assignment. What’s more, the jobs are often fast, easy, and fun.

While researching my e-book, The Versatile Freelancer,I interviewed numerous other professionals who have double or multiple careers. They range from a career counselor who speaks, consults, and trains… to a book editor who coaches authors and critiques their manuscripts.

The “chicken” factor at work here is evident. For all of us, the risk of diversifying our careers was minimal, requiring a tiny investment of time and money – sometimes none at all.

Now, how about you?

Do people tell you that you’re a natural teacher? Do you possess the necessary skills and enthusiasm? Would you enjoy it? Ask yourself: “In my current job, are there elements of consulting, training, coaching? Are there people and companies that could benefit from what I know? Would they be willing to pay me for that knowledge?”

Do some research and apply some creative thinking. You may be surprised by what you discover.

If you’re hesitant about your presentation skills, fear not! You don’t need to dazzle your clients. You only need to have marketable knowledge and experience, and the ability to communicate it. And keep in mind that, if you have serious stage fright issues, consulting and critiquing can often be done via phone, e-mail, or written reports.

There are other benefits. For example, you can sometimes recycle content from one presentation activity or assignment to another – and get paid for it over and over again!

Let’s say you receive a fee for a corporate training presentation – and then realize that it can be repeated almost verbatim at another company or at an industry conference. This is not unethical as long as you’re not disclosing confidential information or duplicating material to which you’ve sold exclusive rights. Getting paid more than once is an established and accepted practice. It’s simply the adroit use of leverage to expand your time and multiply your earning power.

Despite all the advantages, this sort of career may not be for everyone. I couldn’t do it – until I had reached the point where I had something to say that was of value to others.

How will you know when you’ve achieved a sufficient level of knowledge and expertise? One tip-off is that people will start asking you questions such as, “How much would you charge to come to our company and…?” That’s a clear signal that the market is ready for you.

Caution: If you moonlight, as most chicken entrepreneurs do, be sure you’re not violating the terms of a current employment agreement – a non-compete clause, for example. If you have any doubts, talk to a lawyer. In addition to legal considerations, be aware of possible ethical conflicts.

Now… how do you get your first assignments?

Referrals are always best. A good way to start is by capitalizing on your existing business contacts: co-workers, industry colleagues, friends, online social networks, and so forth.

Beyond direct networking, the next most successful tactics for gaining exposure and building your reputation are writing articles for trade publications and speaking at business events. Both are low-key approaches that promote your services in a professional way. In contrast, cold calling and paid advertising can appear unprofessional – and may not generate enough business to justify the costs.

The late Howard Shenson, renowned as “the consultants’ consultant,” wrote: “I have long been an advocate of indirect marketing techniques. … I believe that the direct, hard-sell techniques [cold calls, advertising, direct mail] are not as effective as the indirect strategies, which are more like public relations activities. As an added bonus, these indirect, low-cost/no-cost techniques are much less expensive.”

In advocating the indirect approach, Howard wasn’t relying on guesswork. He did periodic surveys and received responses from thousands of consultants about what sorts of marketing efforts they used and what worked. The results? The lowest-paid consultants marketed themselves via cold calls and paid advertising. The most successful and highest-paid used the public relations techniques: writing and speaking.

There are many advantages to diversifying your career into consulting, training, and coaching. One that might be especially appealing to you right now is that it can give you some protection against a weak economy or a recession.

How so? You’ll have a wider portfolio of skills and services to offer. You’ll have not just one source of revenue, but multiple streams of income.

And there’s another reason. In tough times, companies trim their staffs. To fill the gaps, they are likely to hire freelancers.

Many of the people I interviewed for my book told me that their businesses were unaffected by current economic conditions and that they are doing as well as ever, or even better. In most cases, they credited their survival and success to their versatility. Because they have multiple careers and income streams, when demand for one declines another often picks up.

So if you’re looking for a safe, low-risk way to increase your income while keeping your “day job,” and which might eventually turn into a full-time career, this might just be your ticket.

[Ed. Note: Don Hauptman writes ETR’s Saturday column, “The Language Perfectionist.” The above article was adapted from his e-book The Versatile Freelancer: How Writers and Other Creative Professionals Can Generate More Income by Seizing New Opportunities in Critiquing, Consulting, Training, and Presenting. The book comes with a free bonus report and a 100 percent money-back guarantee of satisfaction. Order your copy without risk here.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.