Mary Ellen Bates is arguably one of the best-known information professionals working today. Her workshops are standing-room-only, and her books, blog, and columns have helped countless independent info pros and those considering this option find their way.
Following are the answers Mary Ellen gave to questions about her career path:
What is your current position or professional role?
It’s a personal point of pride that I don’t have a job title, but I will admit to being the founder and principal of Bates Information Services Inc. I help my clients make better-informed strategic decisions through research and analysis, and I offer business coaching for both new and long-time independent info pros.
How long have you been doing this work?
I started my business in 1991, after having worked in special libraries for more than a decade.
What career path led you to this work?
I worked in special libraries for 12 years, primarily managing corporate information centers. I loved the research, but didn’t enjoy managing people or working within large organizations. While attending a Special Libraries Association conference back in the late 1980s, I saw an exhibit booth for the Association of Independent Information Professionals, and I knew I’d found my future.
Before I started my business, I spent a year doing all the preliminary planning. I saved up an initial investment in the business, and I networked like crazy. Then I just set a date for my launch, gave my employer a month’s notice, and haven’t looked back. I have been an independent info pro for almost 20 years and I can’t imagine a better job.
What do you like most about your work?
It’s hard to identify just one thing. I love being able to challenge myself, to explore new ideas, to determine the direction of my career. I can create a living by doing what I find fun, stimulating and fulfilling. Who could ask for more?
Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna, but there isn’t anything about my work that I really dislike. While marketing is a constant, I have created a marketing strategy that feels comfortable and genuine for me. Cash flow fluctuates, but it’s just something I plan for. And although I’m doing this interview at 11pm, I was able to spend this morning hiking in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.
What do you see as the various career paths LIS professionals could follow with this type of skill set?
For a number of reasons, most independent info pros start their businesses mid-career rather than at the beginning of their professional life. Interestingly, I have known a number of info pros who have gone the independent route and then, for any number of reasons, decided to close the business and become an employee.
Most of them say that their new employers particularly valued their entrepreneurial skills – the ability to negotiate, to manage clients, to develop and live within a budget, and to manage time. Once you’ve started a business, you realize that you’re capable of really stretching yourself.
What personal characteristics do you feel are important for someone doing this work?
I see three different skill sets being required of an independent info pro: entrepreneurial skills, the ability to run a business, and either a deep familiarity with finding and analyzing information or a strong set of subcontractors. There aren’t that many people who are naturally strong in all three areas. In my experience, the entrepreneurial instincts are the most critical. Both the ability to run a business and to provide the information services can be learned or subcontracted; an entrepreneur’s fire in the belly can’t be taught or outsourced.
What type of education (grad school courses, additional training, etc.) would best prepare someone for this type of work?
Becoming an info-entrepreneur is usually easier for someone who has worked in the information industry for at least a few years. If you are an LIS student considering this profession, take courses on entrepreneurship, marketing (particularly as it applies to special libraries or independent info pros), project management, competitive intelligence, and perhaps a course on business writing. Focus on the skills you’ll need in a few years, as well as the ones necessary to land a job today.
What advice do you have for someone contemplating a career as an independent information pro?
Being an info-entrepreneur can be the scariest job you’ll ever love. When I launched my business, I felt like I was stepping out into the unknown; I had no idea what to expect. I simply took the approach that failure was not an option, and I found a way to learn what I needed to know.
The best preparation for becoming an info-entrepreneur is to challenge yourself regularly. Seek out opportunities to stretch yourself. Volunteer to do public speaking, especially if the thought of it scares you. Take on leadership roles within your workplace or your community. Start adding value to everything you do – become familiar with writing executive summaries, creating charts and graphs from statistics, developing slide decks, and so on. In other words, get accustomed to the feeling of being at the edge of your comfort zone, and yes, it takes practice.
Anything that, looking back, you wish you’d learned in grad school that you didn’t?
Not really. I somehow had the foresight to take courses that would jump-start my career and make my résumé shine, and that had long-term usefulness. Back then, the key courses were in database design and programming; now, I would take courses in designing information services, strategic management of libraries and information architecture. Think about what you skills you want to bring to your next employer.
Where can we follow your career?
I am the author of six books, most recently the second edition of Building & Running a Successful Research Business.