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General business questions

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I would like to get feedback on some or all of the following issues:

The Problem:  I am a civil/structural engineer and the sole proprietor of a
home-based business. I showed a tiny profit last year (yea!), am getting
steady work and know my limits. One of my limits is that I have no clue how
to run a business.

So:  What do other people (sole proprietors in particular but I would like
to hear from others, too) do about the following issues:

What to charge for time picking up blueprints, photos, going to Kinko's
etc?. if I had an assistant, I might be able to charge for their time, but
I can't bill my standard rate for errand running. What about time traveling
to and from a jobsite?

How to charge for getting on the Net for information/advice about a
particular problem for a particular job? How do other people bill that
time? Do they bill that time at all?

Could someone tell me a range of hourly rates for a home-based sole
proprieter who mostly does residences? Is it fair to charge more for
commercial work? What about clients who are EXTREMELY (i.e           6
months) slow to pay but give you lots of work? Should you charge them more?

What about a cap/not to exceed figure? I don't usually eat time on the
simple jobs any more, but the complex (i.e. fun) ones I REALLY do.

Is there a rule of thumb for how much time to charge when the technical
aspects of the project are brand new and you are learning as you do it
(because the deadline is tight and there is no time to do it any other
way)? When I'm learning something new I will not usually charge more than
half the time to the job, sometimes, less (depending).

How do you know when it's time to hire someone? And how do you know whether
that Someone should be an errand runner or a Jr. Engineer? Is there some
benchmark? How do you know when you need a Partner? How do you pick a

I have been developing good habits; ie. run all errands at one time, don't
go answer the home phone during business hours, etc., but I still feel
overwhelmed and inefficient.

Any advice will be very appreciated!

Kate O'Brien, P.E.
Simi Valley, CA