LESSONS FROM AN ACCIDENTAL SOLOPRENEUR
I am an accidental solopreneur, though I didn’t know it until Nada told me I was one recently. Even though I tell people I am consulting on my own to various clients, large and small, it didn’t occur to me that I am my own one-woman business entity, a self-employed service provider, where the product is me and my experience and skills.
Stumbling into Solopreneurship
The truth is, working for myself is the last thing I ever thought I would be doing. Unlike scores of my former tech colleagues bit by the entrepreneurship bug, I always saw myself ‘working for the man’. I like being part of teams and enjoy the challenges of large and growing companies. My entire career was built on learning how to make those organizations run more effectively and bringing order to the natural chaos that exist in fast growing and complex companies.
But when I left my comfortable senior management role at a major tech company three years ago, worn out by the LA to San Jose commute, the ever-shifting corporate politics and executive turnover, I knew I needed to regroup and take a breather. It was my intention to take the summer off, hang out with the kids and then find a role closer to home by the time school started in the fall.
Almost immediately, I realized my mistake. The mistake was not in leaving a comfortable and stable corporate job, but in not recognizing that I didn’t really want to stop working. I just wanted to work differently, closer to home and in an environments where I could be more hands-on again. In only a few weeks of ‘post-corporate life’, I found myself anxious and eager to take on a project to keep me busy until the right permanent job came along. I put the word out with a few colleagues and industry contacts and within a few days had a client lined up. A solopreneur was born.
Still At It
Three years later, I’m working with many clients, both large and small. I am a business operations executive from the Media and Tech industries by background, but my projects have spanned organizational design, leadership coaching, product marketing, supply chain design, freelance writing, project management and even setting up a luxury retail store. I earn less than I did at my corporate gig, but not considerably less. I travel a lot less and pick up the kids from school and cook dinner from scratch a lot more.
“While it’s not for everyone, being your own solution-provider can be rewarding, lucrative and a great option for those who seek flexibility without the burden of building and managing a team of employees.”
If you’re new to solopreneurship; to providing a service or solution based just on your own effort and talents, here are some lessons I’ve learned over the last three years:
- You are a business, so act like it. It can be easy to just start getting clients and generating income, but if you are in this for any length of time, it’s important to get the appropriate legal and tax issues in order, including your business name, tax id number, etc. One benefit of being your own business is that many of your expenses related to how you procure and complete your work may be considered deductabile business expenses, including portions of your home mortgage, utilities, mileage and office supplies. Don’t wait until tax time to understand both what can be considered business expense and what records you need to keep to take those deductions. Talk to your accountant about both how to set up your business entity and manage your expenses up front. Make sure to ask about how being self-employed can also affect you negatively. For some loans and other situations, having ‘unpredictable’ income can be a challenge you need to overcome. For instance, many banks want to see at least two years of income from a self-employed consultant or contractor before they will factor those earnings into mortgage loans. Also, figure out how you will secure and pay for your health benefits, life insurance, etc. if you don’t have a partner who can include you in their plans.
- Create systems to help you. There is no shortage of apps, software and online tools to help you track your time, expenses, client contacts and manage invoices and billing. Staying on top of all of this can be the most difficult thing if you don’t spend time coming up with the systems and processes that will work best for you. Make sure to schedule weekly or monthly time to invoice your clients, capture expenses, touch base with potential clients and organize your notes and office.
- Engage your partner. If you are part of a couple, it’s critical to make sure your partner is on board with your mode of work, the way you’ll do it and how your earnings will flow. Be open and transparent about your goals for yourself (how much money you want to earn, how many hours you plan to work, what clients you will be willing to take on, etc.) Make sure your partner understands how this may differ from a standard ‘9-5’ job or your time as a stay-at-home parent and be clear about what kind of help or support you may need around the home. Even supportive partners will often offer unsolicited advice – be patient and open to their point of view, remember that while this may be ‘your’ business, it will more directly affect your partner than most office jobs. Don’t forget to include the kids. Often kids get anxious if they don’t understand what mommy or daddy’s work is. Take time to explain to them how your work has changed and what you do – to the extent they can comprehend it. My kids just think I go to a lot of meetings!
- Clarify your boundaries up front. Being a one-woman shop can often mean feeling the pressure to do it all and do it perfectly. Pleasing a client is essential and it’s hard to say no to reasonable requests. But if you’ve chosen the solopreneur path to preserve your flexibility, it’s essential to be clear and up front about what you can and cannot do and when and how you will do the work. At one recent start-up client meeting, who happen to be all the way across town and full of super-smart and driven team members all a decade younger and none of who had young children, I had to be clear that, unless I had several days advance notice, I could only be in the office from 10-2pm, or while the kids were in school. I was happy to adjust that if I had time to arrange for childcare and more than happy to do work by phone and from home outside those hours, but it was important to me to be home when my kids were. The client was more than understanding, but I did have to walk out of some critical meetings and miss some fun, after hours socializing.
- Jump at the Chances to Grow. One of the best things about being a solopreneur is the sheer variety of opportunity you can embrace. Make it clear that you are open to different kinds of projects in different types of industry that may not be one you are most familiar with. Talk about your core general skills and what types of things you do well (eg. “I’m great at organizing teams to accomplish tasks quickly”, “I love putting on events with lots of participants and content”, “I’ve loved opportunities to write and research”). Chances are your skills are applicable across a wide variety of businesses and industries. When asked to consider something outside your comfort zone that can expand your experience, be open to it – it’s a great way to broaden your experience and be an even marketable provider.
- Finally, have a plan. While many of us fall into solopreneurship, make sure you don’t treat it as a whim. Just as with any business, it’s important to set goals and outline a plan for what you want to do in the mid to long term. Do you want to consider growing your business by adding employees? Do you want to transition into a more traditional role in an established company? Do you want to take on different types of projects and clients? Asking and answering these questions (and writing down the answers) is important for two reasons: 1) it’s impossible to achieve success in anything if you don’t know what success means; 2) you will consciously and unconsciously begin to seek and cultivate relationships, clients and resources that will move you toward your goals once you write them down.
Written by Yvette Martinez-Rea