This month marks my 14-year anniversary of self-employment with Synchronicity Marketing and represents an important milestone: my own company is now the one I’ve worked for the longest.
Contrary to what some may believe, I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. My inclination toward self-employment was far less motivated by empire-building than by lifestyle choices. After two midnight-oil-burning stints in three years with early-stage ESPs, I hung out my shingle in 2013 while at the same time quietly job searching and decided to see which horse won. I had a few offers to return to the corporate world in Chicago (where my career had begun) which, frankly, felt like a re-run. I also had an offer to relocate to Silicon Valley for another (now quite successful) dot.com, and truth be told I still wonder about that particular road not taken. Still, none were inspiring enough to lure me away from time with my then five-year old daughter, which self-employment allowed. The solopreneurial horse quickly gained traction, took off, and fourteen years later has obviously won the race.
My experience working in two scrappy start-ups helped, but solopreneur-ism was a baptism-by-fire experience all its own. When you are the company you very quickly learn the difference between the fantasy and reality of being your own boss. Nonetheless, if you stick with it, the solopreneurial path offers distinct advantages over “workin’ for the man” and allows you to reap the rewards of a career – and hopefully a life – on your own terms.
Before I get into sanity tips, however, there is a single truth you must be willing to accept if you’re considering the path of the solopreneur. In fact, this truth is so universally important that it’s not only a foundation for successful solopreneurism, but is also one of the most critical lessons we learn about life. In fact, most of the sanity and productivity tips I can give you for thriving in self-employment relate directly to it.
So what is this awesome revelation?
Your Most Valuable Asset is Time
No matter the abundance you may have in the form of financial riches, tangible or intangible resources, friend, family or community support, innate talents or genius intelligence at your disposal, there is one thing you do not have in unlimited supply: time. You, like all of us, are limited to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And like we all do, you’ll be forced to make choices in life about exactly how you use that time. Do you put it into the pursuit of Wealth? Adventure? Position? Family/Relationship? Social Change? Which and how much? Life is full of trade-offs, and how we use our time usually indicates where our priorities lie.
Sure, as we go along, we can change our minds if we want and some of us do. But if you’re a solopreneur, how you use your time makes the difference between success and failure. Let me be blunt: it makes the difference between whether you eat or not, whether you’re scraping by or prospering, paying the rent or racking up debt; investing in yourself so getting new business is easier, or constantly pounding the pavement. As a solopreneur, you must value your time as if it were gold. Scratch that – platinum.
If you’re willing to accept that fact, not only do you have a fighting chance of staying sane on the challenging journey of the solopreneur, you also have a solid shot at sticking around. Here are my top seven tips (and a few other insights) for solopreneurial success:
- Know Your “Why”
- Prioritize Your Activities by Economic Value
- Task-Batch and Time-Block
- Know When to Use Money to Buy Time and when to Use Time to Save Money
- Create Leverage (via technology, partnerships or both)
- Invest in Visibility, and Leverage the Crap out of It!
- Striving for a balance between working “in “your business vs. “on” your business
Let’s face it: it’s generally easier to work for someone else than go into business for yourself. So what’s your motivation for taking the harder road? What’s the tradeoff? What does being a solopreneur give you that you can’t get from conventional employment? Is it Freedom? Self-determination? Flexibility? Three months’ vacation every year? Time for your passion project? Family/work life balance? Untold fame and celebrity? Whatever it is doesn’t matter – what does matter is that you know your “why”. Because when the going gets tough (and it will), that driving reason that motivated you to do this in the first place will be the burning ember that keeps your fire alive. Otherwise, it’s just easier to blow the flame out and get a J-O-B.
All actions are obviously not the same. You need to know which are high value, low value or fall somewhere in between. So make a list of what you do in a typical day and week, then scrutinize it to learn what generates revenue. What directly leads to Sales? Partnerships? Which actions are required to sustain the business vs. grow it? Too often, solopreneurs get mired in the weeds of administrative busy work that could and should be outsourced if not deprioritized – like accounting, web site maintenance, social media promotion, “meeting for a coffee” etc. Just because you like it doesn’t mean you should do it, and vice versa. Uncomfortable prospecting and following-up on leads? Too bad, it’s a high value activity, so if you don’t want to do it yourself you’d better be prepared to outsource it. Don’t like speaking or attending events to gain visibility and clients? You might want to rethink that one too. Again, life is full of trade-offs. Invest your precious time in what grows the business so you can become prosperous enough to outsource what you don’t like. Otherwise, you’ll waste time on low-value activities on your way to the poor house.
I want you to go beyond just respecting your time; I want you to be ruthless with your time. Remember, it’s more valuable than gold! Get smart about it and bundle similar activities together, because mentally it’s much easier to stay in flow than constantly switch tasks. Do all your accounting or bookkeeping (if you do it yourself) once a week/month. Bundle your errands together vs. running around every day. Write your blog post, email newsletter and social media updates simultaneously, and then leverage the reach of your carefully crafted content with a healthy dose of cross-pollination. Block time on your calendar every day or week for high-value activities (like getting actual client work done or prospect identification and follow-up). Have virtual rather than actual coffees with new contacts who want your time. And learn to say no if you can’t see how something contributes to your mission and success.
This one’s easy: what do you have more of? If it’s money use it to buy yourself time by outsourcing low value activities, things you don’t do well even if you like them, or things you don’t like. Have more time? Use it to get done what you can’t afford to pay for and can do reasonably well (remembering to focus on your high-value activities first).
You may be a solopreneur, but that doesn’t mean you’re an island unto yourself. When it’s just you as the expert or practitioner, creating leverage is the only way to expand. So use it! Form alliances and partnerships that bring you into new opportunities or in front of new audiences. Maybe you have a silent subcontracting agreement that fills in the peaks and valleys between clients and projects. Maybe you can position yourself as the “intel inside” organizations complimentary to what you do. For example, I have partnerships with several companies that provide digital marketing training and education – when they need an email expert they call me, and I deliver. Or, package your expertise into digital information products you can sell online or via subscription. Better yet, take a lesson from Bill M. himself and create exclusivity or community people are willing to pay for.
In the Internet era, there is absolutely no excuse not to and, thank god, it’s easier than ever before. While this may sound similar to the idea in tip #5 about developing distribution channels for yourself, it’s more about marketing than sales. To generate leads, prospects need to know you exist. So where and how are you visible? Online? In person? Through partnerships? Make it a point to update your LinkedIn profile at least once a month, and create a LinkedIn company page too. Develop a blog or content publishing schedule that drives traffic to your website; then syndicate and distribute that content far and wide (you can publish in LinkedIn Groups, content sites like Medium, the list goes on . . .). Use your business social media accounts to spread your message and listen for problems you can solve. Go to networking events, conferences, and join groups that give you face time in front of actual prospects, not just other solopreneurs like yourself. Maybe even get involved in community or government groups so you become known as the “go to” resource or expert for what you do.
Most savvy solopreneurs eventually realize (contrary to conventional wisdom) that job number one is not to deliver goods and services to clients (working “in” your business), but instead to sustain and grow the company (working “on” your business). Around the time they get that, many expand from solopreneur to entrepreneur because they know they can be more prosperous by hiring people to serve clients than continuing to do that themselves plus run the business. If it’s just too painful for you to not be in the driver’s seat delivering services however, (you really love teaching private yoga clients or seeing patients or coding or writing marketing strategy decks), then be prepared to outsource everything else to someone who can work “on” the business.
Finally, please intentionally make time to relax, recharge, and enjoy your “why” (these are sanity tips, remember?) You may have heard the saying “When you work for yourself you can work whenever you want!”, which loosely translates into “you can work 24/7, and sometimes you will”. Sure there will be periods of intensity, but long-term workaholism is not sustainable. After all, if you’re not reaping the rewards you sought when you started on this path, why are you still on it?