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).

“Busy” is a four-letter word

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a nice column by Elizabeth Bernstein on the use of “I’m busy” as a point of pride. (It’s behind the paywall at wsj.com/articles/youre-not-busy-youre-just-rude-1489354275. Seriously, consider a subscription; it’s a great newspaper. You may not always agree with the editorial page, but the reporting is high quality and neutral. These days, we need to support real journalists.)

According to Bernstein, studies have found that “busier people are perceived as having a high status. ‘We place a high value on hard work and rewarding effort, which is really rewarding activity and not necessarily achievement,’ says Woody Woodward […] Bernstein encourages us to stop using “busy” as a positive description but, instead, to focus on what specifically is eating up our time—and, just as importantly, to own our free time as rightfully ours.

Reflecting on my latest conversation with a colleague, I realized that I was guilty of this. “Yes, work’s really busy right now” I said, when asked how things were. Of course, solopreneurs know that clients keeping us fully employed is critical to success, but “busy” isn’t really the best description of what the optimal state looks like. And sometimes “busy” means I feel overwhelmed, not working on client projects.

So, I’ve developed a new lexicon to replace the word “busy”:

  • “Working on several projects right now; it’s fun to have a variety of things going at once.”
  • “I have a really time-consuming project right now. It’s nice to have the work, and I’ll be glad when it’s done.”
  • “I have a break in my client work right now, so I’m spending more time working on my marketing.”
  • “I feel stretched pretty thin right now. I’ve got some family responsibilities that have me feeling kind of anxious.”

And when I find myself NOT juggling four client projects, a bathroom remodel and house guests, I can embrace that, too. There are days when I feel caught up on my to-do list, I have social media posts in the pipeline, and my clients all have long deadlines. When those days happen, I can step back and decide that today I don’t need to be “busy”. I can use one of the best perks of being self-employed—I can give myself a guilt-free day off.

Think like a rock climber

rock climberI’m from Boulder, where there seem to be more professional rock climbers than people like me who like our feet planted firmly on terra firma. Whenever I drive up a canyon, I can see the tiny figures of people halfway up a sheer rock face, appearing to defy both gravity and common sense.

Our local newspaper has a regular column for rock climbers and a recent one caught my eye. Chris Weidner, in “Don’t just get stronger, get smarter“, offers four tips for mental toughness that seemed directed at us solopreneurs as much as it was to those about to scale the side of a mountain.

1) Make learning your goal, not achievement. While it’s important to focus on what you want to accomplish, pay attention to the landscape and signposts along the way. If you are too attached to meeting your goal by using a specific technique or by marketing to a specific market, you won’t see the indications that you need to veer off in a slightly different direction. Stay flexible and always open to taking in new or unexpected information.

2) Free yourself of wishing behavior. For rock climbers, wishful thinking sounds like “if only that foothold was better” or “if only I were a little taller”. For solopreneurs, it might be “if only the business environment were better” or “if only my clients had more budget”. Instead of putting your energy into the things you have no control over, focus on what you can control and affect. Your attention is one of your most strategic resources, and it needs to be focused on what you can accomplish.

3) In the midst of doubt, come back to what you know. It is easy for solopreneurs to feel overwhelmed; we are responsible for every aspect of our business, and its success or failure is on us. Sometimes we listen too much to our doubts instead of our strengths. If you feel like you don’t know what to do next, take a deep breath and think about your focus. What is one thing you can do to understand your situation better? What one step can you take that gets you in the right direction?

4) Get out there and try hard. I have always believed that failure is a sign that I am stretching myself and expanding my possibilities. Some of my business efforts have worked surprisingly well; others have failed miserably. If I defined myself by my failures, I would have closed my business years ago. Instead, I know that I always have to be pushing my comfort zone, and doing something slightly beyond what I see as my capacity.

While you may never be climbing a rock face, consider adopting the mental toughness required of serious rock climbers.

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?

Improving your ca$h flow

Summer is a slow time for many solopreneurs; our clients are on vacation or taking Fridays off, and they just aren’t calling as often as they do during the rest of the year. That means that many solopreneurs are facing a cash crunch this summer. Our recurring expenses — utilities, ISP, health insurance, etc. — still need to get paid, but the income isn’t coming in. If you were able to anticipate this slow-down, you put money aside to cover your basic expenses when your income is not coming in. But even with preparation, it’s nice to get the cash flow going again. The following are a few thoughts on how to ease cash crunches.

  • Request prepayment of all projects. Many of us do this routinely, or at least get a certain percentage of the not-to-exceed budget up front. However, if you really don’t want to wait for payment 30 days after the end of the job, consider offering a 10% discount for prepayment in full.
  • Learn the name of the Accounts Payable person for each of your clients and contact him or her to find out what you can do to expedite payment. Is there a billing number or cost center you should reference? Do they prefer the invoice electronically? I have found that the smaller the client, the faster I get paid, as long as I’m on a first-name basis with the A/P person.
  • If you don’t already, obtain a merchant account so that you can accept credit card payments seamlessly. Many companies offer this service now, including PayPal, Square and Stripe; while they charge a fee of a few percentage points, you get the money in your bank account within a few days.
  • Include bank wire transfer information when you send your invoice. Your bank or credit union can provide you with this information, and many Accounts Payable departments prefer paying electronically.
  • Pay your expenses with a credit card instead of a check as long as you can pay the credit card bill in full every month. Not only does this postpone payment, but it is much easier to get a refund on a purchase if it was paid for by credit card. Of course, this assumes that you are not carrying a balance on your business charge card. If you have a balance on any of your credit cards, cut up the card and focus on paying down the balance before making any other discretionary purchases.
  • Pay invoices just before they are due. The most efficient way to ensure that no invoice slips through the cracks is to pay bills at single sittings, either weekly or semimonthly. Set up automatic payments when feasible.
  • Don’t take any actions that would suggest to a client or vendor that you are short on cash. So, for example, don’t cancel your business phone line, your web site or any online services that you depend on. You want to always present yourself as a business that will be around a year from now. And remember that your revenue will rise in a couple of months. If you have to spend time re-establishing accounts you canceled, you haven’t saved much in the long run.
  • And finally, take this time to work on some of your long- and short-term marketing projects. If your business is slow, then you have plenty of time to focus on creative ways to remind your clients of why they can’t live without you.

Who’s showing up for work?

We solopreneurs are CEOs of our business, but that stands for Chief Everything Officer. We are responsible for everything from strategic planning to marketing to sales to accounting to – oh, yeah – whatever it is that we charge our clients for.

As I plan out my day every morning, I make sure my most strategic self is showing up. Since I’ve found that my most creative time is in the morning, I schedule my Business Analyst persona for uninterrupted time from 9 until to noon most days. After lunch, my Accounting alter ego may appear to handle invoices and bills, or the Writer will come on the scene to queue up some blog posts and a newsletter article. Some days I need my IT skills to troubleshoot the video editing software, or my Marketing self to work on a new outreach effort for AIIP.

If I approach each day’s tasks with the question “who is the best persona for this job?”, I am more likely to be operating at my peak. If I am dealing with a technology issue, I marshal my forces — my Troubleshooter, Creative Problem-Solver, and We Can Do It personas step up to help me figure out a solution. If I have to conduct some primary market research on my own business, I call up my Explorer, Listener, and Open-minded personas to enable me to find out what I don’t know I don’t know yet.

When you tackle something, particularly when it’s not tapping into your strengths, run an inventory of your internal personas and see which ones you can bring to the job.

 

20 Ways to Kick-Start Your Marketing

Checklist paper and pen.Every business experiences lulls, times when it seems that you barely have the energy to drag yourself into your office, and you can’t stand the thought of having to go out and generate business. This happens to everyone, and it often happens at the end of the year and during the middle of the year, as people are out of the office or in vacation mode and not doing a lot. Here are some of the actions I add to my marketing plan when I need to rev my marketing efforts up a notch.

1. Directly ask for referrals from your existing clients and prospects. “Who do you know who needs to compete better in their marketplace, who I might contact?”

2. Get in touch with your clients, just to check in. I never cease to marvel at how effective this technique is. Our clients often have a need for our services, but need our prompting to engage our services. Remember, our clients have already shown that they are sources of business.

3. Revisit your existing client list and evaluate who your best clients have been, in terms of project budgets, repeat business, and referrals. Think about what these clients have in common and how you found them. Where could you find other clients like these?

4. Look through your social networks. If you have not established connections with all of your clients, now is the time to do it. And see who their contacts are; if you see any that you think may use your services, ask your client for a connection or introduction.

5. If you identify a new issue or concern to your clients’ businesses, design a specific research product or service that would address your client’s specific needs, and send a (hard copy) letter to your affected clients, telling them about your new offering.

6. Write an article for a publication your clients read. It need not be long, and it should be practical and non-technical. Offer tips on staying updated on new web resources in their industry, or review a new information source.

7. Write ten blog posts and queue them up for posting over the next couple of months.

8. Prepare for and conduct three reality-check interviews with prospects in an industry that is new to you. Learn what their specific pain points are and develop an approach to market to this industry.

9. Identify a current topic of interest to your client base: “Best Practices for Using Social Media for Business Intelligence”, “Most Significant Competitive Intelligence Blogs” or “Best Uses for Twitter”, for example. Conduct your own survey of your network; this is a great time to ping your clients, colleagues, and prospects. Write up the results into a white paper, promote it on your website, and notify all your clients of the availability of your resource.

10. Look through all your projects from the last six months or year. Follow up on the issues that are regular concerns for your clients and send them a recent article on the topic with a note to the effect of “I saw this and thought you might find it useful with regard to {our recent project}”.

11. Commit to three networking outings a week. This could be anyone from a colleague to a prospect to a client. Take a friend to lunch and focus on building your mutual networks. Ask him what kinds of leads he would like to hear about; depending on what he does, that might be sales referrals, job opportunities, leads for good employees, or client projects. Tell him what kinds of clients you are specifically looking for. These kinds of meetings are great ways to hone your 15-second “here’s how I will help you make strategic decisions” speech, and they keep that word-of-mouth network humming.

12. Use an obscure holiday as an excuse to send out greeting cards to your clients and vendors. I remember a family friend who sent out cards for Groundhog’s Day every year; if your contacts are familiar with this North American holiday, this can be a fun way of staying in touch. The Spring or Fall Equinox, the Queen’s Birthday, Mardi Gras, or even something as silly as International Respect for Chickens Day (May 4) can serve as a reason for sending a card. And yes, these are real cards, that get stamped and put in the mailbox.

13. On a related note, check the social network profiles of your clients. If they list their birthday, be sure to send a card. And yes, that’s a printed birthday card, not an ecard.

14. Call a fellow info-entrepreneur. Ask her how her business is doing. Ask her what was the most important change she has made to her business in the last year. Share an interesting resource with her.

15. Call someone who is reliably upbeat and positive. That kind of energy is contagious.

16. Commit to reading every issue of several business newspapers or magazines for a month. Cut out at least two articles from each issue that a client may find useful. Send a hard copy, along with a couple of business cards, and a note along the lines of “I saw this and thought of you.”

17. Identify one new association that your prospective clients are likely to belong to, join it, and evaluate how you can volunteer strategically in a member-facing capacity.

18. Attend a Meet-Up or local chapter meeting of an association you find interesting, even if you do not expect to find clients. Consider the visit to be professional development, not just marketing. I sometimes find my best clients when I am not looking for them.

19. Schedule a meeting of your advisory board. If you do not have one, this is a good reason to set one up. Identify four or five people whom you respect, who understand the issues of running a professional services business, and who are willing to give you honest feedback. Ideally, these are people who live in your general area, and can meet with you. If that is not reasonable, build a virtual advisory board that “meets” online.

20. Review all your professional listings, in the professional associations you belong to, on your social networks, and anywhere else you have your company listed. Upgrade and freshen up your listings, revising them to target your current market and to reflect your clients’ current concerns.

One trait of successful solopreneurs

kidsOne of the critical characteristics of a successful solopreneur is the willingness to hold what Zen Buddhists call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind,” in every situation. Beginner’s mind looks with wonder and without preconceptions, assuming that you do not understand or see all aspects of the situation or all the possibilities present. Even (especially!) when you considers yourself an expert, you look at it as if seeing it for the first time. This willingness to let go of the ego-attachment of being an expert lets you see things in a different and fuller way.

In my experience, this means constantly living slightly outside my comfort zone, to acknowledge that each situation is new and what was true in other situations may not be true in this one. Being an expert, even being the expert in a field, isn’t sufficient to build a successful business. While I always feel a bit stretched, it is a good and healthy thing to be reminded frequently that I need to look at situations from a fresh perspective.

 

Earning word-of-mouth referrals

Maybe it’s because I was getting ready for my webinar, From Zero to Clients: Starting (or Re-starting) Your Word-of-Mouth Referral Machine, but I reached out to my network several times last week, asking for referrals for various jobs I needed done. What I experienced showed me just how critical these referrals are for solopreneurs and how important it is to excel if you have been referred to someone.

I needed to find a copy writer to help me promote my online courses. I asked a colleague who was active in the local chapter of the Business Marketing Association, who asked the chapter’s executive director. The person they both thought of came with glowing recommendations. He is great at calls to action, great at copy writing, always delivers when promised. Another colleague gave me the name of a consultant who had done work for her start-up and by all accounts had been great to work with. I had a brief conversation with each person and was struck by the difference in the two conversations. The one recommended by his peers in BMA was direct and to the point. He followed up with samples of his work and a proposal that focused on specifically the job I needed done. I spent half an hour with the other consultant, talking about my business and where it was going. I emphasized that I really just had a straightforward assignment for a landing page; she sent me an in-depth proposal to address all my marketing communication needs for the next six months. While it was a great proposal, it didn’t address my needs, and I went with the one recognized by his peers as being right for the job.
Lesson learned? Referrals from peers and colleagues are sometimes better than referrals from clients (whose needs may differ from mine). As a solopreneur, I want to make sure all my colleagues know who I am and see me as someone worth referring others to.

I had two less-satisfying experiences with other referrals. I was looking for a WordPress consultant to migrate this very blog over to my server. It’s a small job, but one for which I don’t want to invest the time for my learning curve. A colleague gave me the name of her tech consultant with a glowing referral. Not once but twice, we agreed on a time for a Skype call and he didn’t show up, didn’t explain, didn’t apologize. My colleague was embarrassed and I was disappointed.

I had a similar experience with finding someone to clean out the crawl space under my house, where a critter had set up residence. I asked a friend who owns an environmental consulting firm for a recommendation, and she pointed me to one of her regular contractors. As with the tech consultant, my critter consultant arranged twice to meet me at my home, and twice failed to show up. My friend was so annoyed that she decided not to stop doing business with the consultant; his lack of attention to a prospect meant that he lost a long-time client. My friend called another consultant and made him promise to come over to my house and take care of the problem before giving me his contact information. (He worked out great, but his specialty is meth house clean-ups, so I hope to never have to use him again! But if you have a meth lab problem in Colorado, I’ve got your man.)
Lesson learned? When people refer you to others, their reputation is on the line. If you let them down, they remember not to use or refer you again. As a solopreneur, I know I have to be extra-responsive if someone has been referred to me.

What I wish I’d known when I started out

I’m often asked by my coaching clients what I wish I had known when I launched my business. Of the numerous lessons I learned the hard way, these are the 10 I see as key:

  • Make all your decisions with the assumption that you will still be in business in five years. Knowing you’ll live with the long-term results of your choices encourages you to make wise decisions.
  • It’s always about the client’s needs; it is never about your qualifications. Never pitch a service until you know why your client would want it.
  • Create what Alan Weiss calls “marketing gravity” — you want to attract clients, not chase after them.
  • Your clients are paying for results, not activity. Focus on what differentiates you from the $15/hour “professional” services on the web.
  • You have to initiate discussions about money and payment with your clients; remember: it’s business, not personal.
  • Volunteering is a tremendously effective way to market yourself, provided you are member-facing and you highlight your professionalism.
  • Until a prospective client is willing to commit to a project, you’re not talking to a client.
  • Your clients will be the source of your ideas for new products or services. Listen to them when they say, “I don’t know if you do this, but could you…?”
  • Time management is critical. Can you stay focused and productive without an office structure or looming deadline?
  • You will find this an even more rewarding job than you expected!

What do YOU wish you had known when you launched your business?