Captioning Company Start-ups: Things to Consider

By Tammie Shedd

Naming your company. Developing a logo. Working as an independent contractor or hiring other captioners. The type of captioning software to use. These are just some of the issues you have to consider when starting your captioning company. 

Starting a business for the first-time business owner can be daunting. One of the first things you will need to do is name your business. Consider if the name you choose will place limits on your business. Will it include the name of the state in which you operate or will it include something more expansive such as “national”?

You will need to decide what type of business you will have. Will it be a sole proprietorship, partnership, company or corporation? An accountant will be able to help you determine which type of business will be the best for you. An accountant can also tell you what tax forms you will need to file, what taxes you will need to pay and when you will need to file the forms and pay the taxes.

In addition to meeting with an accountant, you should call your local and state business offices. Ask them to send you information about the paperwork and taxes they require from you.

You will help yourself get through this entire process if you take one step at a time, write down the information you obtain in an organized manner and continue moving forward. Consider using a notebook to store tax information, important phone numbers and identification numbers associated with your business.

Consider registering your business name with an Internet hosting site so you can protect your domain name. Even if you won’t have a Web site initially, you should still consider registering your name and protecting your right to use that name for a Web site in the future.

Determine how you want your clients to recognize your business. You might consider developing a logo for your business. Design your business cards, letterhead, brochures, marketing materials and other printed forms you might need.

If you intend to set up your own business so you can be the sole employee working as an independent contractor and captioning for several companies, your needs will be different than if you want to own a business that uses employees or independent contractors to do its captioning.

As an independent contractor, you will want to talk with personnel at several captioning companies to determine which company or companies will be compatible with your goals. You need to know what companies expect you to have in the way of hardware and software. What do they require in terms of caption quality? Do they provide training? What type of programming do they want you to caption? What hours will you be working? How consistent will your schedule be? What is the policy regarding working weekends and holidays? Ask them if you can talk with some of their employees. You might be wise to work for multiple captioning companies so that if one company loses the contract for the programming you caption, you won’t be totally without work.

If you decide to develop your own client base and hire captioners to work for you, you’ll have slightly different considerations. What types of caption products and services will you offer initially? What products and services do you intend to offer within three years? Who are your target clients? How do they make their caption services purchasing decisions? When during the calendar year do they make those decisions? This is largely driven by Federal Communications Commission rules and budget cycles. Many broadcasters are required to increase the amount of programming they caption in January 2004 and January 2006. Take a look at and familiarize yourself with the FCC’s rules regarding closed captioning. You may want to print and copy the ruling so you can give it to prospective clients who are not fully aware of their captioning responsibilities.

In addition to targeting private sector clients, you might want to consider applying for federal government captioning grants. These grants require the grantees to perform services beyond captioning, which include training realtime captioners, supporting Consumer Advisory Boards and filing monthly reports. If you want to learn more, visit and look at the application notices for discretionary grant competitions.

You will need to determine what trade magazines you will read. Our top picks include the JCR, Broadcasting Cable, Electronic Media and TDI’s GA-SK. These magazines cover current events in the court reporting/captioning, broadcasting and deaf /hard-of-hearing communities. When you consider how you will advertise your business, you might want to consider advertising in one of these publications.

When you are ready to focus on the physical setup of your office, you will have many more important decisions to make. You will need to know how large you need your facility to be, how many phone lines you’ll need and whether you’ll need cable or satellite capabilities. Next you need to find out if cable and satellite are available where your facility is located.

You will need to make a decision about the type of captioning software you will use. In addition to functionality and cost, be sure to consider technical support. When you speak with vendors, ask specifically how many support personnel are trained to provide captioning support. Find out what hours they will be available to you.

There are many different hardware choices that will be available to you. Make sure the operating system of the computers you purchase is compatible with all of the software you will use for captioning. You’ll have to decide what type of service agreement you need. Will you require on-site service with a response within 24 hours or less? Consider the cost of potential lost business if you have an equipment failure.

There are some very simple and not-so-expensive things you can do that will help create a harmonious relationship between you and your computers. Purchase antistatic mats and put them under your chairs. You will find your chair rolls easier and you will be less likely to create a static charge. Also, either place an antistatic mat under your computer or have something you can touch to release your electric charge before touching your computer or steno keyboard.

Purchase surge protectors. A $20 to $30 surge protector can save you hundreds of dollars in equipment repair and lost work. Make sure you get one that has a place to plug in phone lines. Phone lines need surge protection also.

If you are in the broadcast captioning business, you should have primary and backup equipment. It is just as unacceptable for a captioner to miss airtime due to an equipment failure as it is for a broadcast to lose audio due to an equipment failure. What people often overlook is the need for backup power. There are many different types of backup power sources available. Consider what your needs will be and then select the best backup power system for your facility. Remember to test your backup equipment and backup power source periodically.

Depending on your business, you might employ engineers, marketers or salespeople, and accountants. You might also decide to do much of this work on your own. There is some very good accounting software available that will allow you to do most of your own bookkeeping. You know yourself best. Will you keep good records and pay attention to accounts receivable and accounts payable? When you examine marketing and sales, consider whether you know enough about these specialties as well as your core business to be effective. If not, either learn what you need to know or hire someone to help you. Every viable business has current clients, a plan to keep those clients and a plan to get new clients. How much of the technical support will you be able to provide? Will you need to hire engineers as employees or can you use consultants for the technical tasks you cannot perform?

You need to decide if the captioners who work for you will be employees or independent contractors. Make sure you are clear about the difference and how the IRS will view the people who do your captioning. This is a good thing to discuss with your accountant.

Management of an operation that uses independent contractors is very different from management of an operation that uses employees. In both cases, however, you need to provide high-quality captions that are on-time all the time. Some businesses use only employee captioners, some use only independents and some use both. You need to determine which will be best for your organization.

When considering employees vs. independents, you’ll certainly want to look at what benefits you will provide. Health insurance, pension plans, disability insurance, leave programs and any other benefits all affect your bottom line. What benefits are important to you and your company? What benefits can you afford?

Once you have a clear picture of the type of business you want, you’ll need to create a budget. How much working capital will you have? Where will it come from? Determine what you expect your gross revenue and expenses to be during the first year. You will need to prioritize your business’s needs. Determine what is critical to have during the initial stages of your business’s operation and what can wait.

Starting a new business is daunting only when you try to examine all issues at once. If you think you are ready to begin stepping your way through the process, why not assign an alphabetical letter to each paragraph of this article? Then choose the amount of time you will give yourself to gather the information you need letter by letter. You will be able to see your progression toward the goal of learning the things you need to know in order to decide if owning a captioning company is for you.

About the Author

Tammie Shedd, RPR, is the owner of Visual Audio Captioning Inc. and a member of NCRA’s Captioning Special Interest Group Task Force.