What I learned at summer camp

group of happy kids roasting marshmallows on campfireI just got back from my annual trip to solopreneur summer camp, otherwise known as the AIIP Annual Conference. I always come away inspired and challenged, ready to try out new ideas and approaches.

This year’s conference focused on pivoting as a strategic approach—something that we solopreneurs do continually as we adjust to our clients’ changing needs and pain points. We were lucky enough to have Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, as our keynote speaker and Anne Caputo as the Roger Summit Award speaker. Their talks sparked rich hallway and mealtime conversations about how we can remain nimble and responsive while staying grounded to what our clients value the most. Here are some of the insights I brought home with me.

  • When I recognize that things aren’t working and I need to change strategies, find out what’s working now. It’s easy to focus on all the things I’m doing wrong instead of looking for the solid point upon which I can pivot. What am I doing now that I really enjoy, that requires my expertise and that has space for expansion?
  • Ambiguity and serendipity need to be part of my strategic plan. Change is a constant, so my best approach is to incorporate pivoting into my planning. I can set a long-term (say, one-year) goal and look at the immediate actions I need to get there, without having to plan every step along the way to my goal. When an unexpected opportunity appears, I will be more likely to recognize and embrace it if I have already built an uncertainty factor into my planning.
  • I’m living inside my stretch zone, not outside my comfort zone. I’ve often said that the most important characteristic of successful solopreneurs is the ability to live outside their comfort zone, but that always sounded so negative. I prefer the idea that I’m living beyond stagnation and within the realm of reasonable risk… in my stretch zone.
  • We all have things that scare us. Jenny Blake described them as fear dragons and suggests that, rather than try to banish them, we simply domesticate them and make them our friends. And Cindy Shamel mentioned the children’s book There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, which reminds us that denying the existence of a dragon only causes it to grow larger. So I am going to become friends with my fear dragons.

I gave a presentation at the conference on time management. I know, the topic sounds boring, but it was a fun session. (I’ll probably do a webinar on it; if you’re interested, email me). I had a number of conversations with people afterward; here are some of the ideas that resonated most with me.

  • Life is short; don’t spend your time killing time. When you work, give each task 100% of your focus. Know what you can do productively to fill those random 15- or 20-minute openings. Likewise, when you’re not working, don’t work. Don’t check email in the evening or when you’re out with friends. Be 100% present with whatever you’re doing.
  • The value of The 12-Week Year is that it puts goal-oriented strategic planning into a set-it-and-forget-it framework. You don’t have to consult your strategic plan every week to make sure you’re on track. Instead, your three-month goals give you short-term guidance with enough flexibility to accommodate serendipity.

If you’re a solopreneur, or even just thinking about it, start right now putting $25 aside every week so that you can attend next year’s solopreneur summer camp AIIP conference (April 19-22, 2018 in Minneapolis).

How’s your solopreneur mindset?

I have often wondered about why some people succeed as solopreneurs and others don’t. Almost everyone I run into has at least the basic skills needed for their business; it isn’t that they can’t do the work. Rather, I see attitude and approach as the distinguishing factors between successful business owners and those who never seem to get the traction they need.

Successful solopreneurs become accustomed to living outside their comfort zone. They regularly scare themselves silly. They know that having a great idea is easy; it’s putting that idea into action that requires guts. They may not be natural extroverts (in fact, most of them probably describe themselves as introverts), but they figure out how to act like an extrovert. They learn how to network in ways that are both authentic and effective. They practice their public speaking skills until they can at least convey the impression that they’re enjoying themselves. They hone their writing skills so they can effectively communicate and engage with their market. In other words, they learn to operate while scared.

Successful solopreneurs always think from their clients’ perspective. When they are negotiating a project budget and scope, they always find out what their client’s most important goal is and figure out how they can have the biggest impact on their client achieving that goal. (See my article on Successful Client Needs Interviews for more discussion about this.) They go the extra distance for a client, whether that means adjusting timelines or priorities, creating a new deliverable, or spending more time to make sure the job was done right. They are committed to having every client be delighted with the outcome of their engagement.

Successful solopreneurs ask “why”… a lot. They question the status quo. When they’re told that no one has ever done it that way, they ask why. They will try something new if it might achieve better results than the way things are currently done. They shake things up and assume that whatever they are doing now will need to be changed within a year. They put a sunset clause in every service and product, and re-examine their usefulness, relevance and popularity regularly.

Successful solopreneurs are future-focused. They listen to their clients to identify their most pressing concerns. They proactively seek out opportunities to create value for their clients rather than just waiting for business to come to them. They aren’t afraid to fail; in fact, their philosophy tends to be “Never fear making a mistake; just don’t make the same mistake twice.” They learn from every experience, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about the current situation.

And finally, successful solopreneurs are committed to having fun. They start with the intention of creating a business that lets them do what they love and that lets them integrate their work into the rest of their life. If something isn’t fun, they figure out either how to have fun doing it or what to do that accomplishes the same thing and is more fun.

As you take an end-of-the-year look at where your business is and where you want it to go, consider how many of the following characteristics sound familiar — or at least attainable. What can you do now to enhance your solopreneurial mindset?

Failing your way to success

failI have been reading Scott (“Dilbert”) Adams’ latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (or at your local library). I found some chapters more useful than others, and I’m not inclined to rely on the advice of a cartoonist for diet and exercise. That said, my copy of his book is full of highlighting where I found his ideas particularly useful of thought provoking.

His approach of failing your way to success resonates with me, particularly when I look at my failures as steps forward. As Adams commented, “I’ve long seen failure as a tool, not an outcome.” I fail on a regular basis; in fact, if I haven’t made any mistakes lately, I assume that I haven’t been trying enough new ideas. Of course, failure only succeeds if I actually learn something from it.

One of the things I could have only learned by trying and failing was that, if I want to be seen as high value, I shouldn’t be nickle and diming people. I wrote a collection of eTools on various aspects of running a business (they’re over at my store) that I thought were pretty good. I priced them at $9 and anticipated a nice steady stream of revenue. Hahahahahahahaha! Then I realized that I would benefit far more by giving away my ideas than from charging for them. People still pay me for my ideas… in the form of presentations, workshops, consulting engagements, and business analysis. I’ve made more from one workshop I landed because of my reputation and expertise than I ever would have made through selling $9 eTools.

I hate telemarketersA lot of my early marketing efforts for my research business also failed. Direct mail? Yep, tried it, got no response. Lesson: people don’t buy high value professional services based on postcards, regardless of how cleverly designed or how frequently they are sent. Cold calling? I tried that technique while working for a small research firm and learned that, well, I’m not cut out for telephone sales.  And–surprise–people don’t buy high value professional services based on a cold call, either. (See my free eTool, Friends Don’t Let Friends Cold Call, for more on this particular lesson.) Advertising? Back in the days when people actually used phone books, I advertised in the yellow pages. All I got from that were calls from people who thought I was a free on-call librarian and who were shocked that I expected to be paid to conduct research. Once again, people don’t buy high value professional services based on directory listings.

Eventually, I learned my lesson that attracting clients is much more effective than chasing after them. If you want to see some of my ideas for marketing techniques that don’t involve cold calling, see my 20-minute podcast, “10 Tips for Kick-starting Your Marketing“.


Does a 9-5 job look tempting?

Many entrepreneurs occasionally yearn for the (perceived) stability of a regular job, where they just show up five days a week and get paid every two weeks. Maybe it’s during a time when you are experiencing a client drought, or perhaps when you are working far too many hours for what you’re getting paid. You find yourself over at CareerBuilder.com or Monster.com, browsing through job ads.

diverI consider this a symptom of a need to commit. My spouse often uses the analogy with her clients of being “in the pool or out of the pool”. Either you are willing to jump in and swim, or you will sit and dangle your legs over the edge, unwilling to fully engage.

To extend this analogy, looking through job listings while you are running a business is like being in the pool but still hanging on to the ladder. Yes, you’re in, but you are never going to actually swim until you let go of that ladder. It will still be there if you decide you can’t swim anymore; your focus needs to be on swimming in the pool.

If you feel yourself succumbing to the apparent allure of becoming an employee, think about what it is that you don’t like about your business right now. Rather than divide your focus and energy between finding a job and building a business, choose which avenue you want to pursue wholeheartedly. The following concerns are often mentioned by entrepreneurs who are considering traditional employment. See if any of these sound familiar to you, and consider your options for getting refocused on what you really want to do.

  • Are you scared because you don’t have enough (or any!) clients? A lack of clients simply means that you haven’t yet figured out what your clients most value and how to effectively communicate your expertise. If your current marketing approach isn’t working, you need to conduct some research to find out what your clients really want and how they describe their most pressing needs.
  • Are you not able to cover all your overhead expenses? The financial realities of being self-employed have hit you. You suddenly find that you have to pay the employer’s portion of your Social Security (FICA) taxes; you are now charged the full cost of your health insurance payments. Be sure that you have set your billing rate at a level that ensures you can pay for the additional overhead of self-employment. See my free eTool, What’s My Hourly Rate? How to Set Your Professional Fee to Ensure You Make a Profit for thoughts on how to price yourself.
  • Do you miss the stability of a regular pay check? First, remember that no employment is guaranteed. Instead of relying on one employer for all of your income, you are building a base of multiple “employers” (we call them clients). And if you want to reduce your cash flow fluctuations, explore ways to create ongoing relationships with multiple clients. What can you provide every month that your clients value and that they can’t get anywhere else?
  • Do you miss the atmosphere of the office and the presence of colleagues? Some entrepreneurs get their fix of office buzz by working in coffee shops and other busy venues. They appreciate the stimulation, while still being able to go back to their quiet home office after a couple of hours of noise and activity. Other entrepreneurs seek out local networking groups and other face-to-face meetings where they can interact with other people on a regular basis.

Being an entrepreneur means getting a daily reminder of your strengths and weaknesses. You regularly push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Your business continually evolves as you learn how you can provide the highest value for your clients. You will always be learning new skills to better serve your clients’ needs. And you will always be challenging yourself in new ways, some of which may have you reaching for the ladder out of the pool. Take a couple of deep breaths and decide whether you want to climb out of the pool or push yourself off the side and into the deep end.