Deaf Business Owners Express Need for More Resources

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Across the nation, small businesses are sprouting up left and right. This is especially true within the deaf community, which has seen an explosion of Internet-based companies. With this evolution, deaf small business owners are starting to find themselves needing better resources and a stronger network. Hearing business owners are fortunate enough to have several options for sharing business resources: local chambers of commerce, networking groups such as Business Network International, and easy access to local communities. Deaf business owners, however, have unique obstacles in addition to the typical start-up challenges: communication issues, networking, and being part of the Deaf community without sacrificing friendships or business.

“When I first started up, I had no idea what a business plan was, where to go for merchant credit card services or how to find the best rate, how to get the best rate on book printers and a whole host of other decisions that I needed to make,” says Salem, Ore. resident Damara Paris, who owns Paris Publications (formerly AGO Publications). “Two years into the business, I finally met another publisher who gave me good tips on book brokers.”

Paris eventually found a local group consisting of retired business owners in the state who donate time to assist start-up businesses. “I had communication with one man who gave good business tips but didn’t understand my unique needs as a Deaf business owner,” she says. “For instance, when meeting with a book broker who is hearing, who pays for interpreter access? How do I educate people, and fast, on relay, interpreting and other deaf-related issues? Who do I trust to handle my finances? Things like that were paramount, yet I had difficulty finding deaf business owners who I could share with at the beginning.”

Maintaining Relationships
Another issue that many deaf business owners struggle with is maintaining relationships within the deaf community while operating a business. Paul Koster, of St. Peter, Minn., owns S and M Windows, Doors & Remodeling, Inc. He feels that deaf small business owners have issues that are unique to the community. “One of the biggest struggles is dealing with loyalty and trust. Deaf people often expect me to give them major discounts or will ask for added-on services after I’ve given them the final price bid. When I explain that I can’t let them have the extras for free, or give them such a discount, they complain that I should give them that because we’re both friends and deaf,” he says. “And if I don’t do that, then they’ll go back into the community and say bad thing about me or my company. It’s a real challenge balancing these things.”

Elise Whitworth of in Austin, Texas, agrees. “Although the majority of our clients aren’t deaf or in the community , we have noticed general trends and issues in working with deaf clients,” she says. “We usually try to give a fellow deaf business owner a boost by giving a reduced rate or some other favor, which often goes unappreciated. Also, there is a bit of a lack of respect for our time as professionals. For example when we quote for a $300 job, throwing in some extras for free, more often than not we find the client expecting a certain level of attention, lots of ongoing additions for their website, and more, to the tune of something like 75 man hours. For a $300 job that’s four dollars per hour! There’s no way our business can succeed like that. There have been quite a few quotes that were very inexpensive but the potential client declined the bid because it was ‘too expensive.’ It’s these kinds of unrealistic expectations that we think are holding back deaf business owners from thriving in the community.”

“I think it’s very important for deaf people to support deaf owners,” says Joel Barish of DeafNation, based in Frederick, Md. “I call it ‘Deaf Economics’ – with more people supporting deaf businesses, there will be more job opportunities for deaf people because deaf business owners are more likely to hire deaf people more than anyone else. As a result, they can empower each other by working together or supporting each other. At the same time, with this support, visibility and networking will grow beyond the deaf community into the hearing community. It’s unfortunate that many people can’t see the bigger picture and will only chase the cheapest rates or prices instead of supporting deaf-owned businesses.”

“Now with my saying that, some people might find it odd that the hearing-owned Sorenson Communications, which provides Sorenson VRS, is a major corporate sponsor of DeafNation Expos, but here’s how I see it,” Barish explains. “They have created job opportunities for so many deaf people, and with their sponsorship, DeafNation is able to offer opportunities to deaf businesses who then can market their services and products at our shows, have deaf people volunteer at our shows, and have gatherings with performances, seminars and activities for deaf people. And with their sponsorship, other relay providers are becoming more and more marketable in their services. So, in the bigger picture, because of healthy competition, we’re able to empower deaf businesses.”

Taking Advantage of Available Resources
These trade shows are a major boost to many deaf-owned businesses such as Harris Communications, a national shopping source for assistive devices for deaf and hard of hearing people in Eden Prairie, Minn. Owner Bob Harris says, “It is not possible for many businesses, including mine, to set up a local store in each city in the country. In doing so would be prohibitively expensive. The best alternative is to go to deaf trade shows so that deaf people can attend these shows and have the first-hand experiences to see our products. Unfortunately, it is expensive to attend these deaf trade shows, especially when you factor in staff, transportation, booth fees, shipping costs for your products, and lodging. Still, it’s a good resource to take advantage of.”

Harris started his company more than 20 years ago, and remembers how he learned the ropes. “I went to local trade shows to observe how booths were set up, how booth workers presented themselves, how products were shown, and the like. Also, I attended local government-sponsored workshops/seminars for small business owners and requested interpreting services in advance. Plus I read business magazines and articles. I took sort of a self-help, self-instructional strategy to learn the nuts and bolts of owning my company.”

The Internet is a new resource that Harris has seen emerge as an influential asset for deaf people owning companies. “Deaf small business owners are in much better shape than where I was more than 20 years ago,” says Harris. “They can access a lot of business resources via online sites. They can register for courses in a wide variety of business fields at local community colleges, universities, etc. with the assistance of an interpreter.”

Harris believes patience and careful planning are key resources for a successful business. “As long as you can market your skills, whatever they are, there is no reason why you cannot set up a business,” Harris says. “The way I set my business up was through lots of small steps and lots of patience over the years. This way allowed me to modify my business strategies with ease and let my sales grow in a proper fashion.”

Another resource founded in 2001 is the National Deaf Business Institute, which was founded for deaf people to develop skills they can use to start, manage, and grow a successful business or organization. Even though the organization contains an all-male board, board director Louis Schwarz of Schwarz Financial Services in Bethesda, Md., considers NDBI a good starting point. “NDBI officers have been traveling to DeafNation Expo shows and inviting deaf business owners in these areas to come to a dinner. Many of them have admitted that the networking dinner was the best they ever had, because when it was over, they had built relationships and shared resources,” he says. “We will continue to do these dinners around the nation with the hopes of reviving and maintaining networking among deaf business owners.” He adds that although the NDBI website has been somewhat inactive lately due to technological problems, the board is actively working to revitalize it.

Schwarz cites the Gallaudet Leadership Institute (GLI) at Gallaudet University as a good resource. GLI, in partnership with Merrill Lynch and collaboration with NDBI, initiated a yearlong entrepreneur leadership training program last summer. Courses include financial accounting and management, business law, and entrepreneurship. “This program was very successful, and will be continued,” says Schwarz.

Whitworth believes that in addition to a website like NDBI, a national organization with a structure similar to those found at chambers of commerce and the Better Business Bureau would be beneficial. “There are a lot of deaf-related scams out there that need to be exposed, as well as support in bringing customers, financing opportunities, and so on,” she says. “A national conference providing seminars dedicated to running businesses, tax reporting, facing unique challenges, and writing and grammar in business would be awesome, too. However, this will succeed only if true network opportunities and activities are firmly in place. An attendee to a recent major conference told me how disappointed she was by the event because everyone grouped up with those they already knew. She said, ‘Why call this a networking event if there is no networking?’ Even the hospitality chairperson gave her only five seconds of her time to answer a question curtly before turning away to chat chummily with an old friend. So such a central resource is badly needed.”

Words of Wisdom
With all these challenges in addition to typical business start-up struggles, experienced deaf business owners have some advice for potential business owners. Barish says, “First of all, you have to have money to start a business. Period.”

Schwarz also recommends developing a long-term business plan and having sufficient funds for the first few months. “Really, you have to spend money to make money,” Barish says. “Without money, you can’t market, and without marketing, you can’t make money. So to start up, you really need to be prepared.”

Another key component is to know as much as possible about your market and competition. “Research, research, research your business options. Then research some more,” Paris advises. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help! It took me two years to swallow my pride and ask for help or guidance. Had I done this at the beginning, I could have saved money and frustration.”

“Be brave. Don’t worry what other people think, just do it and if it doesn’t work out, that’s fine; it’s a learning experience that you can apply in the future,” says Whitworth. “But more importantly, know your stuff. It will show. If a client wants you to do something you’ve never done before, tell them that you haven’t done it before but will be able to, with some time, charge the very minimum and use it as a learning challenge that expands your skill set while getting paid for it.”

“Be honest,” she adds. “If you’ve made a mistake, tell your client, apologize and do whatever you can to rectify it, at no charge, of course, or give a refund. That, more than anything, will earn respect and a good reputation for you.”

“I think the best we can do is that we can mentor others so they can avoid the pitfalls we’ve experienced, and pass on the information we’ve cultivated to help our fellow deaf business owners thrive,” says Paris. “After all, they are the future of our community.”

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