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).

Specialist or generalist? – part 2

knifeswiss-army-knifeIn my earlier post, I talked about finding my specialization not in a particular field but in a special service I provide my clients. That may not be the best approach for you, particularly if the service you provide doesn’t by itself set you apart.

When you start your business, it is tempting to say “I can do anything for anyone.” Why limit yourself when you have lots of skills? You don’t want your clients to pigeonhole you into one tiny niche when there’s so much you could do for them, right? And surely you’ll get more clients by being a generalist, because everyone can use your services.

Actually, every one of those assumptions is wrong. The only way to stand out in a client’s or prospect’s mind is to be known as the expert, the best (and maybe only) person who does what you do. Let’s go through each of the common reasons new solopreneurs give for trying to be generalists, and see what’s wrong with them.

Why not offer to do anything for anyone? The short answer is you can’t offer the same level of expertise and insight to everyone. No one has a deep understanding of every aspect of a profession, whether that’s graphic design, financial planning or marketing communications. You can thrive by focusing on the best aspects of your profession — the fastest growing field, the areas that are least price-sensitive, the professionals who see the immediate benefit of using your services. Instead of casting a wide net and having to throw out a lot of bycatch, you can focus on more selective marketing approaches that attract more of your best prospects.

Why limit yourself when you have lots of skills? Even if you have a wide range of skills, you don’t need to share them all with everyone. Think about what specific skill to talk about in each situation, something your listeners will understand, relate to and remember. For example, I provide business analysis to strategic decision makers; I offer professional-development workshops for researchers and info pros; I provide individual coaching for new and long-time solopreneurs; I write books and articles about the information industry; and I am developing a series of online courses. There is no way that anyone I talk with would remember all those things (or want to!), so I focus on one aspect of my business that would be most relevant to that person. When I am speaking before an audience, I learn enough about the participants to know what part of my skill set to highlight in my presentation and examples. By making one facet of myself memorable, I generate far more word of mouth referrals than I would by giving everyone a laundry list of all the services I offer.

What if your clients pigeonhole you? Being pigeonholed isn’t a bad thing! Everyone is looking for a way to remember things, so make it easy for the people you interact with to remember you by, well, being memorable. You aren’t just another online marketing consultant; you help dentists generate 30% more new clients with strategic social media activities. You are not just any financial planner; you specialize in working with family-owned businesses facing intergenerational conflict. When prospects call you, they know you will understand their situation, you will be familiar with the underlying issues, and you can speak cogently about options and alternatives. You have instant credibility. Your clients want someone who “gets” them; being seen as a specialist makes it more likely that everyone you encounter remembers you as the go-to person for something unique.

Won’t you get more referrals when you offer a wide range of services? Actually, you’ll find just the opposite. Most prospects do not find generalists memorable… they often just appear to be unfocused or as having only a shallow understanding of a wide range of topics. While you may provide a variety of services or have a familiarity with a number of industries, the person you’re talking with is much more likely to remember one specialized thing you do rather than to remember you as that person who seems to do something or other. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather get three calls from people who know they need my services right now than get no calls because no one can remember specifically who I am or when to refer people to me.

Are you at a loss for how to specialize? One of the best ways to identify a niche that is personally, professionally and financially rewarding is to conduct half a dozen informational interviews. These are powerful tools for identifying your best clients and learning how to focus your services to what they value the most.

Specialist or generalist? – part 1

swiss-army-knifeknifeOne of the most common questions I’ve heard from solopreneurs is “should I specialize in a niche or be a generalist?” My advice, almost to a one, is to find an area in which you can focus and become known as the go-to person for that niche.

I learned this lesson myself when I first started my research business, way back in 1991. I was coming from a background in the telecom industry, so I figured I would focus in that area. I reached out to my colleagues in AIIP to introduce myself and tell them of my specialization, which back then was fairly unusual. I knew there weren’t going to be that many times when anyone would get a request for a telecom expert, but I figured they would remember me and could be good referral sources.

Sure enough, I was able to get my business going by being known as the telecom research queen. I was brought into larger projects for my familiarity with obscure resources within the US Federal Communications Commission or the International Telecommunications Union (hey, maybe it’s not sexy, but it’s a living). And, of course, once a client got to know me, they would use me for other business-related projects, regardless of the industry.

They (and I) realized my real specialization wasn’t that particular industry — it was my ability to scope out, research and analyze an industry, and create a report that enabled my clients to make a decision.

What are the unique skills you bring to every job you do? Is it your ability to work with clients to identify their underlying needs when they can’t figure out what they want? Are you the one who can interview anyone about any topic, and always glean amazing insights for your clients? Can you take a vague idea and turn it into a brand identity that transforms a client’s image into something fantastic?

I went from an industry focus to being focused on enabling better strategic business decisions, but you don’t have to leave your field in order to succeed. In my next post, I’ll talk about the value of specializing within an industry rather than being a generalist.

Steps for Starting Your Business

I just read a nice summary of what it takes to start a service-based business, over at The $100 MBA. Omar Zenhom’s Ultimate Guide to Starting a Service Based Business walks you through the mental shifts you need to make in order to turn yourself into a successful business. (Yeah, he thinks of them as action steps, but each step requires an attitude, a mind-set, as much as an understanding of what needs to be done.)

This post covers issues like knowing where your value lies and believing that you offer value, re-thinking your web site, setting rates (gulp), and dealing effectively with clients.

From Author to Publisher

printerOver the past 18 years, I have had six books published by three different publishers. When I decided that I had another book inside me, I considered pitching it to my usual publishing contacts. After serious thought, I decided to self-publish The Reluctant Entrepreneur: Making a Living Doing What You Love through Amazon.com’s print and e-book services. While it usually takes a publisher nine months or a year from receipt of a manuscript to shipment of a book, my turnaround time was just four months—a significant factor with a book that covers social media and other rapidly changing fields.

This choice isn’t for everyone. It was appealing to me as an established author and speaker because I already had a number of avenues for promoting and selling my book. I have developed strong writing skills, so I knew that my manuscript would not need extensive editing. A good friend of mine had already handled the production of several other books, and we established a barter relationship through which she could provide me with the editorial and organizational support I needed. Along with Guy Kawasaki’s remarkably useful book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book, I felt that I had the resources I needed to self-publish.

I chose to produce both soft-cover and e-book versions, on the assumption that the relatively small additional work required to modify the format would make the book appealing to as large an audience as possible. (So far, I have sold roughly an equal number of print and e-books.) While getting the print version formatted to my satisfaction took longer than I had anticipated, the process was relatively painless. Amazon’s CreateSpace platform makes it easy to preview and print draft copies, and I can purchase author copies of the book for $3.50 each—significantly less than what traditional publishers charge authors for copies of their books.

Even though I decided to self-publish, I wrote up a book proposal outlining the scope of the book and of each chapter, spelling out my marketing plan, and committing to a completion date nine months out. In my experience, a clear proposal with accountability and metrics is an essential tool in ensuring that a self-published book gets from idea to publication.

As with all my books, getting the last 10 percent written was the most difficult part of the process. As before, my spouse sent me to a hotel with the admonition that I not check out until the manuscript was done. As always, this approach was successful; I returned home three days later with the manuscript completed and ready for my editor.

Having had the experience of working with traditional publishers, I had a fairly good idea of what would be required in self-publishing a book. Following are the most significant trade-offs I encountered during the process of taking The Reluctant Entrepreneur from concept to publication.

Editorial support. Publishers provide an editor, copyeditor, and (usually) an indexer. I bartered for editorial services, and paid for copy editing of the final manuscript. I chose not to include an index to the book, relying instead on a detailed table of contents (and, of course, the full-text search functionality of e-books). The coaching and writing support I received from my editor was instrumental in getting the book done, and I doubt I could have afforded to pay for all the hours my editor spent keeping me on track. If you are not in a position to pay or barter for time with an editorial coach, consider finding a writing buddy to keep you focused and on track. Be sure that you also have someone who is skilled at editing and polishing book manuscripts; this is not an area in which you want to economize.

Design support. Publishers usually design the book cover and internal format without input from the author. I bartered with Brain Bolts, a local graphic designer, for the book cover and logo for Niwot Press (the name of my self-publishing identity), and my editor and I worked together to develop the book’s internal layout. As with traditional publishers, I chose the title and subtitle myself, with plenty of input from my editor and from colleagues.

Administrative support. Publishers handle the administrative work involved in getting an ISBN and Library of Congress control number (or equivalent) for the book, assigning a cover price, and generating the barcode. Fortunately, these are fairly straightforward tasks, and both Amazon.com and Kawasaki’s book spell out the steps involved.

Advance against royalties. Most publishers pay authors an advance of several thousand dollars against the royalties they will earn from the sale of their book. As a self-published author, I have to invest in the expenses of preparing a manuscript for publication. The trade-off is that I earn more money from each book sale, particularly when I sell books directly. Since the success of the book is dependent on the quality of the writing and appearance of the book, it is important to budget for high-quality editorial and design services.

Sales support. Publishers handle distribution and sales of both print and e-books; I sell copies of my books through my own web site as well. As a self-publisher, I use Amazon as my primary distribution channel, and I keep an inventory of about 100 copies of my book to sell at book signings and speaking engagements. Since my book is more likely to be purchased by individuals than libraries or institutions, my focus has been on reaching out to groups that comprise solo practitioners and entrepreneurs providing professional services.

Marketing support. Publishers provide what most authors consider to be a minimal level of marketing for their book. After all, while I am just one author among many to a publisher, this book is top priority to me. All authors must become comfortable marketing their books; self-published authors are simply more aware of that fact. I developed a six-month marketing plan for my latest book, using many of the techniques mentioned in Kawasaki’s book, APE. I can use the social media profiles I already have, and I have created this very blog and web site specifically for the book. I am participating in the local author consignment programs offered by two large independent book stores in the Denver area, one of which includes a book signing and promotion as well as prominent placement near the front of the store for three months.

Reflecting on the process for getting this latest book to market and comparing it to my experiences with traditional publishers, I am happy with the trade-offs required for self-publishing. I found it tremendously satisfying to be involved in all aspects of the design of the book, and I enjoyed having complete control over the editorial process. And while I miss that royalty check, I believe that I will ultimately earn more through self-publishing. This may not be the route for first-time authors, but I encourage more experienced writers to consider self-publishing for their next book.


ZhivadanAdam Davidson (NPR Planet Money co-host) mused about innovation in a piece in the Nov. 16th issue of the New York Times, Welcome to the Failure Age. What I found most intriguing were his thoughts about the impact of information technology on usually risk-averse professions such as lawyers and accountants. As they see much of their low-value, routine work disappear to Nolo and Quicken respectively, these professions are finding new ways to surface the unique value they provide, using tools that once threatened their business. As Donaldson put it:

[S]ome enterprising accountants are learning how to use some of their
biggest assets — the trust of their clients and access to financial data — to
provide deep insights into a company’s business. They’re identifying which
activities are most profitable, which ones are wasteful and when the former
become the latter. […]

[Lawyers] use data-sniffing programs and their own legal expertise to cull through millions of patent applications or contracts to build never-before-seen complex models of the business landscape and sell it to their clients.

I have to smile when I remember that I was hired to work in the library of a law firm back in 1979 to work on a database of the firm’s internal legal memoranda for later re-use. Bleeding edge back then, complete with keypunch cards. Then I started Bates Information Services back in 1991, when gopher was a powerful discovery tool and Mark Zuckerberg was entering grade school.

Over the years, my business has had to shift dramatically in order to stay competition-proof. My deliverables have changed radically over the years, and my research projects are more complex and strategic than they used to be. I find it comforting to remember that I am in the company of so many other professionals whose are facing similar challenges. If CPAs can be seen as strategic business partners, so can many other reluctant entrepreneurs.

Burn your business plan

Burning paperI’ve never been a big fan of formal business plans. Often, they don’t embed enough flexibility for the entrepreneur to pivot, based on new experience and a changing competitive environment. (Marketing plans, on the other hand, are essential tools in managing and prioritizing an entrepreneur’s valuable time.)

What I have found to be more useful for people who are just starting their business is to ask themselves the questions. Note that there are no right or wrong answers; what’s important is getting a clear picture of who your clients are and how you amaze and astound them.

* Why are you starting a business? What appeals to you the most about being an entrepreneur? What the least?

* Describe what gives you enormous satisfaction professionally. Is it passing along a great insight to a client? Writing a report that you’re really proud of? Having a client tell you how you saved their butt? Describe the most gratifying source of professional satisfaction for you.

* Describe how you picture an ideal day in your new business. What kind of work will you be doing? Imagine the ideal client to work with and describe that client.

* What 3 things scare you the most about starting and running a successful business?

* What 3 things do you dread the most about starting or running a business?

* How are you going to fund your first 6 months of business? (This includes your start-up expenses and overhead.) Are you planning to pay yourself a salary for your first 6 months in business? If so, how soon do you expect to be bringing in enough revenue to start paying yourself a salary?

* How do you plan on creating word of mouth marketing? How will you tangibly demonstrate to prospective clients that you are the person they desperately need?

* Describe one of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* Describe another of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* Describe one more of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* What is your official launch date? This is when you officially consider yourself running a business. On this day, you will send out all your personal letters to your contacts, telling them about your new business. You will announce your business on social media. You will send out a press release. You will officially be In Business. What’s the date?

* How will you decide whether this is a going business or not? Fill in these blanks:

If, by {this date} I have not {started paying myself a salary/have X clients/whatever your criteria are}, then I will {close my business? conduct an all-day retreat to re-think all aspects of my business? revise my business and marketing plans and set a new course?}.

If, by _____________________ I have not _________________________, then I will ________________________.