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October 18 Program Meeting review – the Business end of TechComm

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by Kennedy Kierans, photos by Marika Piehler

Published: November 2011 in Features, Meeting Reviews

Our company looked for people with good writing skills, some familiarity with technology, good logic and judgment, and ability to deal with jargon. - Sheila Jones

When your work focuses on communicating in straightforward ways, after a while it spills over into the rest of your life. So when three veterans of technical communication came to talk to the STC Canada West Coast Chapter about self employment and working (or not!) with recruiters, no one was surprised by the frank talk.

Sheila Jones, Mike Cook, and Karen Rempel have all worked as technical communicators in one form or another for at least a decade. Each brought a very different perspective to the topics of building your business, finding work, and working for yourself or others.

Sheila Jones, Wordsmiths

Jones said that when she started Wordsmiths in the early 1980s with her business partner, Kathy Sayers, the company “took anything [that paid].” They attended courses to fill gaps in their skill sets, which in turn helped them to get better established. They found work through connections they made by joining professional associations (like the STC), and by advertising their services.

As their business grew, they found a need to contract out to additional writers. “Our company looked for people with good writing skills, some familiarity with technology, good logic and judgment, and ability to deal with jargon.” Many of the writers chose to work with Wordsmiths to avoid having to market themselves. The work provided opportunities for “diversity, training, project management, and so on.”

To win business effectively, they presented before-and-after samples of a project. This showed your prospective client the impact your work can make, because “lots of places don’t know how to measure your skills.”

Their contracts spelled out the scope of the project, and the need for client-provided subject matter experts and existing documents. These contracts came in handy after they were hired, getting them “out of some tricky situations.”

Eventually Sayers left, and Jones downsized the business. Without anyone else to take over, she stopped hiring contractors.

Mike Cook, IS Solutions

The second speaker of the evening was Mike Cook, co-founder of IS Solutions. Like Jones, Cook and his business partner also started out very small. Cook had previously been working in project management while in the UK. Through word of mouth, he continued that work in order to build the business.

He and his partner now specialize in large projects and, Cook notes, “large projects mean lots of change, and lots of deliverables.” As a result, the company has a large group of contractors they work with to provide the necessary range of skills.

They hire based on referrals from people they know and trust, but recognize that it’s more than just skills. “I’m a project manager,” Cook says, “so I know fit matters.” Those personal relationships are so important, in fact, that many of the projects that Cook and his partner now do are joint ventures with consultants they have hired in the past.

And what does he suggest for others, those not (yet) part of their team? “Find a niche.” At the same time, it’s important be resourceful – these are “interesting times” in the economy, and there are “lots of opportunities around which just aren’t very obvious.”

Karen Rempel, Monkey Valley Enterprises Inc.

The evening’s third speaker, Karen Rempel, started her career in technical communications by agency placements. Between the good experiences were some memorable bad ones, including being lied to (and even being verbally abused!). While working through agencies, she found she had to cut her wage unacceptably low at times. This happened even in a case where she originally found the contract, and was later asked to continue it through an agency. In the end, she says she “got sick of people making money off of my efforts.”

She decided to incorporate. That way, she would be able to work with clients directly and give them the peace of mind of hiring a corporation, not a sole practitioner. She also earned more, while her clients spent less. Rempel now speaks passionately about the benefits of working for yourself, and presented specific facts about incorporation and insurance costs, as well as the benefits.

To drum up business, she recommends networking, having a “great website,” posting your resume on sites like Workopolis and Monster, and joining industry associations. Another strategy she’s also used effectively—and very boldly—involves her approach to employers she’s interested in.

She landed her current contract in part by preparing an interview handout – using the prospective client’s colours and logo – which described her role and her deliverables for the client. Once she even put herself right in the org chart of the company she wanted to work for. For more tips for technical writers, visit her website at


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