Success Happens When You Find Your Niche

Nicole Ouellette’s journey from full-time employee to small business owner isn’t atypical of many other young entrepreneurs. But it’s her perseverance and success that makes for an interesting story.

Nicole, a native of Fort Kent, Maine (as far north as you can go without being in Quebec, Canada) was working at a weekly newspaper in Ellsworth, Maine, when the idea for her small business took root.

When she took the job as a web content editor, she took a huge pay cut. She started a blog about personal finance where she wrote about how she was learning to live on less money in September 2007. That blog, breakingeveninc.com, started out as a fun project and turned into something she really cared about. “I started caring that people were actually reading my blog,” Ouellette says. “That’s when I started marketing it and trying to find a way to publicize what I was doing.”

It wasn’t until someone came into her office at the paper and asked Ouellette to help her start her own blog—and told her she would pay her to do it—that Ouellette thought there might be a market for her skills. “No one in the small, coastal Maine community where I lived was doing what I did—helping small business owners learn how to blog, improve their search engine rank, and leverage social media to their advantage,” she says.

Luckily for Ouellette, this woman was very active in the community and touted Ouellette’s services. Soon she was being contacted to lead presentations about blogging and social media and getting more clients. “It was a very interesting group of people I was helping,” she says. “Word of mouth was great because at this point I was only blogging part time. I saw lots of opportunities to help local people start or improve their business website.”

Ouellette did some math. More time to work on what she really loved, her blog and her thriving freelance business, meant she could make more money. In May 2009, Ouellette quit her job at the newspaper and started her own business, Breaking Even Communications.

Right Place, Right Time

Nicole Ouellette was perfectly poised to turn her freelance career into a small business. “I wasn’t running into any other people who were doing what I was doing—helping small businesses create websites and helping them manage their social media marketing,” she says. “It was a good niche to be in.”

Ouellette says it was a bit of a stretch financially at first.

I was 27-years-old and figured it was OK to fall flat on my face at this time in my life,” she says. “I have no mortgage, no kids. I’m not the kind of person to do really risky things like this. My mom was worried.

But Ouellette leveraged her personality to grow her client base. A born networker, she’s one of those people who has never met a stranger. “I met a woman mini golfing a couple of weeks ago and she asked me to drop my business cards off at her office so she could learn more about what I do,” she says. “I got three phone calls and emails from people who have been referred by her!”

Stay Home, Go Far

Growing up in a small, French-speaking community in northern Maine, and now living in a small community on Mount Desert Island, has helped Ouellette, too. Most freelancers and small business owners rely on the world wide web to market themselves and find clients.  Ouellette does this with panache.

She made friends with a woman from France who started a personal finance blog the same time Ouellette did. They would comment on each other’s blogs and Ouellette even had her send her a crepe pan. “I don’t know if I’ll ever meet her,” she says. “She was doing work with a woman in Spain and introduced us over email. Now I have a client in Spain!”

Ouellette says that about half of her clients are located in downeast Maine, where she lives. She has a few clients in her hometown (a five hour drive away), and the rest of her clients are random people—like the woman from Spain, clients in Colorado, Texas, New York, and in the U.K.

I like that most of my business is local, so that I can see the people I help face to face. I like my remote work, too. I like knowing that I have the skills that make it easy for someone to work with me in another part of the world.

Growing Pains

When Ouellette started Breaking Even Communications, her office was located against a wall in her 220-square-foot apartment she shared with her dog, Sadie. “I was so sick of not being able to just work in another room,” she says. “With no separate office I was constantly looking at my work space, thinking that I should do just that one last thing.”

Even when she moved to a bigger house she still felt she needed that separation—especially when she was looking to hire her first part-time employee. “I didn’t want to have to ask them to work at my kitchen table. I wanted them to take the job seriously and take my business to the next level,” she says. She looked at spaces for about a year before she chose to move to the third-floor office she is in now. “It had parking and a conference space—well worth the wait.”

Ouellette is now in the process of hiring her first full-time employee. “As much as I enjoy working, when I wrote my business plan I knew it was never going to be just me,” she says. “There’s only a certain amount that can be done by just one person. I’m competitive and a hard worker—it’s hard for me to say no.”

Photo credit: Rights Reserved by Maine Ahead magazine.

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