Small Business Success Q&A #22: The Skills Library

The Mosaic Economy by Jennifer Leonard

Earlier this month, I introduced you to Michelle van Schouwen, of van Schouwen Associates, who is our newest blogger. Michelle told me that her sister, Jennifer Leonard would be a good candidate to be profiled in one of our Small Business Success Q&As. In addition to running her own business, Jennifer is author of The Mosaic Economy, which describes how various types of economic activity come together to provide a mosaic of jobs and opportunities in today’s economy. She holds two degrees in Economics, and I am very happy to report that Jennifer has agreed to write posts for us, lending her unique perspective to our discussion of the world of small business ownership and self-employment. Here are her answers to our Q&A:

Name: Jennifer Leonard

Company: The Skills Library

Location: Boston, MA

Year founded: 1996

No. of employees: 1


Twitter name: @JenLeonard0000


Business description: The Skills Library provides software and resources for schools, youth programs and nonprofit organizations. Many projects focus on the theme of skill development, reflecting the name “The Skills Library” and the founding goals of the business. Projects include databases, data analysis and reports, curriculum projects, skills portfolio software, and career development materials.

Why did you decide to start your own company? Having my own company allows me to work on projects and issues that I care about, while having professional, personal and financial freedom.

Throughout my career, I’ve sought ways to play a leadership role in community issues.  I have great stories from early in my career about being immersed in the struggles and politics of startup grassroots nonprofit organizations, then in city hall politics in a small city, and then in jobs in education, human services and employment programs.

I had a great “warm-up” to small business ownership in the state agency where I worked for nine years. I was fortunate to have supervisors who encouraged me to be entrepreneurial within the organization and to find creative ways for our unit to support projects within the agency. I found that I was valued as in internal consultant on a wide variety of policy initiatives and programs. This gave me a vision for my business, and when the time was right, during a period of agency re-organization, I went out on my own to start my own consulting business.

What have been the keys to your business success? The people and organizations I work with value me as a key team member. They appreciate that I care about the mission of their work and that I’m willing to dig in to help them create whatever resources, software and materials they need. They feel ownership of the projects I work on with them, and feel comfortable with me. As a result, I find that relationships continue year to year, and even when one project ends, I’m often invited to stay involved with new projects.

Best business advice you’ve ever been given? Information is most powerful when it is shared.

Worst business advice you’ve ever been given? I can’t think of any really bad advice that I have been given, but I can think of advice that doesn’t fit my personality and work style. I find that advice about traditional power-based leadership doesn’t work for my quieter style.

What was the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do as a business owner? Over the years I have transitioned back and forth between having a small part-time staff and being a solo business owner. When I am on my own, as I am now, it is important for me to tap into the ideas, insights, talents and energy of people in my network. 

What advice would you give to someone just starting a business? The advice that I’ve given to people who are starting a business is to look thoughtfully at all aspects of the business plan: the product or service, the customer base, the financial plan. Look for the positive energy that develops when you have: 1) a base of customers who you care about, 2) a product or service that you enjoy providing, and 3) earning potential that is aligned with your efforts, expenses and financial goals.

Like a lot of people, at the beginning of my business start-up, I found that it was natural to focus a lot of time and energy on the fun, creative tasks. As I was getting started, I was immediately immersed in my first consulting project, and this project, plus some initial networking to let people know I was now self-employed, occupied most of my time.

During the first few weeks, I happened to attend a business start-up workshop provided by a local accounting firm. The workshop leaders talked a lot about having systems in place for tracking expenses and revenues and managing time. The line I always laugh about is “Don’t come to me with a shoebox overflowing with receipts and ask for help sorting it out.”  I thought, “Oh, good idea! I should get a shoebox for my receipts!”

But within the first few months I set aside time to set up systems for tracking time, expenses and revenues; invoicing; maintaining project and task lists; maintaining lists of customers and colleagues; and projecting cash flow. I’ve designed and customized my own database for managing all of that.  While the database system has evolved over the years, it has continued to be the anchor for keeping me focused on balancing all aspects of my business.

Favorite business book read in the past year? A few months ago I read The Creative Spirit, by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman and Michael Ray in preparation for a presentation on creativity and innovation. It reminded me of how important it is for businesses and organizations to nurture creativity in their staff and leadership. 

Favorite online source(s) for business information/advice? I like anything that feels fresh and reminds me of the huge pool of talented entrepreneurs who are doing interesting work in every field. I get inspired by and I’m enjoying for personal and professional inspiration. Locally, I read, a site that shares information among minority and female business owners, and I like for its fresh vision for Boston’s creative economy.

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