Happy National Small Business Week, my fellow small business owners, small business supporters and small business patrons! To celebrate, I’m uplifting a fellow small business owner who has an inspiring story and does meaningful work.
Kevin Dalin started Tech4Impact in 2013, combining his passion for technology and rehabilitation counseling. His company provides assistive technology, training and digital presence services for agencies and individuals. His services help make life — at home, at work and at school — accessible for people with disabilities.
Today we chatted about his windy path to starting his own small business, his struggles, the constant joys, and what keeps his life and his work integrated in a healthy balance.
Samantha: Hi, Kevin! Thank you so much for talking with me today. Let’s travel back in time for a moment. What were you up to before you even conceived the idea for Tech4Impact?
Kevin: I spent 18 years in property management. My whole career choices have been a unique wild ride. I actually went to school for engineering at Milwaukee School of Engineering. After my first year, I moved into an apartment building, and ultimately I worked part-time for the property management company. At the same time, I wasn’t certain engineering was the direction I wanted to go.
A lot of times, you’ll see freshman orientation shown in movies. Someone will say, “Look to the left. Look to the right. One of you won’t be there at the end of the year.” I took that as one of you will fail. But I realized that it was more or less that life happens, you change your mind or circumstances change.
I finished my degree, but I wasn’t really that into engineering. I ended up staying in property management and climbed the ladder. I enjoyed the multi-faceted activities of property management.
Throughout these two decades, did you ever think, “I want to start my own business someday”?
There was a time when I thought I would hang my own shingle out for property management. It was just a fleeting thought, though.
Tech4Impact is miles away from a property management venture! How did your path lead you to your small business passion?
It’s one of those things where I burned out in property management. Also, I started to become really nonfunctioning. I experienced a disability referred to as bipolar disorder back in 2009. So I spent the next couple of years not doing so well and trying to figure out what was next for me.
During that time, I entered a program that really helped me move along and regain confidence. As part of that, I really wanted to give back to other people. As I started exploring what that might look like, I found a graduate program at Drake in rehabilitation counseling.
Did this program pave the path for Tech4Impact then?
At Drake, before you get accepted, you sit around a table with the program’s professors. One professor — who is actually one of my mentors now — saw my mechanical engineering degree, and she asked me, “What do you know about assistive technology?” I answered nothing, and I hoped it wouldn’t keep me from entering the program. I thankfully was invited to learn more about it, and I did.
About that same time, I was working with Iowa Advocates for Mental Health Recovery, building a website for them as a volunteer. I realized that I really enjoyed that, and my son really enjoyed doing computer repair stuff. We decided to start a hobby business and called it Tech Junky Solutions.
As I moved along, I just always thought it was a hobby business — we’ll just do this on the side. I figured once I graduated, I’d do rehab counseling as an employee. I imagined my career as sitting in an office and helping people with their employment goals.
Ah, the side hustle. I experienced something similar before I went full-time with Zao. How did your hobby business transition to a full-time gig?
As time went by, I realized I could smash my two passions together. This smashing together is really what Tech4Impact is today. Ultimately we became about making life more accessible.
The company started as a hobby business in 2013. It was rebranded in 2014. I finished my degree in 2015 in the fall, and really it wasn’t until then that I started devoting full energies toward the business.
A lot of people who want to start a business — be it a full-time small business or just something on the side — they often stall and think, I don’t even know where to begin. Did you experience this or did your business more or less begin organically?
For some part, the business happened organically. But honestly, there were many moments when I was like, I have no idea… For example, having been in property management, I was familiar with accounting processes, but I never set up one on my own. I think what I discovered most about tackling things out of my comfort zone was that I could figure it out. I invested hours, hundreds of hours, figuring things out. But I could do it on my own.
And that’s how I came to work with Zao525 when I was rebranding for the third time. We arrived at a location that I wouldn’t have arrived at my own. It was a neat collaboration. That was the first time I outsourced something that I didn’t do on my own.
Going into a job and working for someone else can offer some flexibility and challenge, but what do your days look like as a small business owner?
Since Tech4Impact is a small business, my days consist of getting the things done that need to get done — whether that be figuring out my own website, figuring out my office, taking care of accounting, networking, speaking with a client or learning a new technology. It tends to be pretty diverse. In general, I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I get easily bored, so having that flexibility to do a lot of different things that I enjoy is major. I don’t feel like I’m put in a box either.
A lot of times when working for a company, there is some flexibility, but the greatest amount of flexibility is when the company is what I want it to be — with the greatest constraint being whether or not people are willing to pay for my services.
I also am able to do a lot of things I like to do, like take part in advocacy boards and keeping up with technology. So it would not be unusual to find me relaxing at my house watching YouTube videos on some of the newest technology. It’s nice to do something you enjoy. But that can be a double-edged sword.
I think I know where you’re going with this. Can you elaborate?
This last year and a half, I’ve been working on separating my home life and my business life, which can be a challenge as an entrepreneur. Because you love what you do, you’re always doing it. I had to make sure that there is time carved out to do other things than where my passions lie.
Have you found any strategies to overcome this work-life balance challenge?
At the end of 2015 I went from a home office to an office space. I rent a small area and share a common area with other business people. When I am home, I don’t think about work. When I’m at the office, I don’t think about home — or at least there is more division.
There’s a lot you have to know to run a small business, as well as to stay in the game of your particular industry. Where do you turn to for continuing education?
I turn to a couple of different locations. In January for example, I attended a national conference called the Assistive Technology Industry Association. They do it every year in January in Florida. It’s an opportunity to get together. Although assistive technology is in every state, there aren’t a lot of people doing it, so it’s neat to meet others and learn more.
The other main thing that I’ve done is I’ve found some really supportive mentors that have really assisted me. I’ve been able to reach out and bounce ideas off of them and double check my ideas and plans.
Owning a small business is tough! What’s the passion — the spirit — that keeps you motivated to do what you set out to do each and every day?
As the company continues to evolve, it really comes down to supporting individuals. So really the idea behind Tech4Impact is making life accessible. We’ll travel anywhere in the state of Iowa to do in-person services. The people I work with are excited about wanting to be able to utilize technology but start off timid about what they want to do and their knowledge. Technology tends to create the reaction of I’m computer illiterate or I don’t know how to use it. It’s exciting to see the transformation of someone who is maybe concerned about using technology and to be able to bridge a gap to help them reach a goal. It’s those situations that I enjoy.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.