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Solo Entrepreneurs: Big Bucks From Tiny Computing Startups

One-person companies are earning upward of $1 million in revenue annually. How do they do it? With high-speed Internet connectivity, mobile apps, automation, and a little help from their customers.

Have iPhone, Will Work Solo

As the first one-person business to make the Inc. 500 -- Inc. magazine's annual list of the fastest-growing private companies -- Jim Fairchild does no marketing, has no Web site, works out of his home, answers his own phone on the first ring, and is resolute that he is going to remain solo for the rest of his professional life.

"I made the decision years ago to work out of my home when my kids were small, and my wife decided to home school them. I wanted to be part of that," said Fairchild. He had a business partner at the time, but bought him out and for years has been the sole employee of Coggin & Fairchild Environmental Consultants, in Elgin, Ill. He made $3.6 million and was No. 121 on the Inc. 500 list in 2006. How does he do it? By keeping things simple, leveraging relationships with other companies that he uses to build specialized virtual teams for specific contracts -- and knowing which technologies are necessary for running his business, and which ones would just distract from his core business of cleaning up contaminated ground water and soil for corporate and governmental clients. Although he physically handles the testing and monitoring work personally, he pulls in contractors as needed to do the heavy lifting of actually cleaning up sites.

"I like to do things in a single step, and that usually requires me to have information at my fingertips," he said. "If a client calls me with a question, I want to be able to answer that, on the spot, without having to call him or her back." Obviously, the Internet plays a huge role in this, Fairchild said. Much of his work is for companies that must obey environmental regulations -- both from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as numerous state and local jurisdictions -- and all that data is posted on the Web. But because Fairchild is constantly away from his office, he needed mobility to have ubiquitous access to this information. For simplicity's sake, he didn't want to carry around different devices for different purposes. For that reason, he now leaves his laptop at home, and traded in his cell phone for an iPhone.

"I needed an all-in-one device," he said. He forwards his office phone to his iPhone, so that he's always available to clients; he checks his e-mail obsessively; and he can look up anything he needs on the Web from anywhere. When he needs to pull in contractors for a job, he e-mails or texts them and, because of the relationships he's built over the years, usually gets instant response, whether it's a price quote or an on-site meeting with a client. And he's placed electronic devices at all the sites he's monitoring to track the pollutant levels, which he can monitor from his iPhone. He creates, signs, and sends his contracts over the Internet, and uploads any documents -- including complex technical specifications -- as needed from either his iPhone or his office computer. "I keep everything electronic, so I never have to print anything out or file any papers," Fairchild said.

Fairchild used to feel he had to hide the fact that he was a one-person enterprise working out of his home. "That's why I kept my partner's name on the company even after it was just me," he said. Now, however, it doesn't seem to matter. "There's so many people doing this today that no one blinks," he said.

Despite this utter reliance on technology to achieve his work, Fairchild is not a gadget freak. He's not interested in acquiring technology for technology's sake. "I don't feel the need to upgrade every time something new comes out. Because of the time it takes to get up to speed, I have to make sure it offers a specific advantage before I'll buy," he said.

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