I recently celebrated my 1-year anniversary of starting my own business as a consumer insights & strategy consultant, which has been cause for reflection. There are some things that turned out to be harder than I thought, others that weren’t nearly as hard as others told me they would be, and still others that were absolute surprises and delights. And of course, many lessons learned along the way. My business is still very much in its infancy, but it’s been an educational start!
One thing I think I underestimated is the stress that can come with the business development side of being an entrepreneur. It’s just me, so I don’t have the pressure of ensuring other people’s livelihoods, but just knowing that if I don’t bring in the business, I don’t get paid, is quite a different feeling than getting a regular monthly paycheck from a corporate employer. That said, I really like the absolute direct link between my effort and my reward. I like that if I’m willing to take on more work, I can make more money. That sense of control makes long or odd hours totally worth it, because it’s my choice and my decision.
I also love the flexibility that comes with this type of career. I tend to work in sprints and find that without the endless meetings of corporate life, for the most part, I can work when I’m at my most productive and stop working when I’ve used up all my mental energy. My work time is much more concentrated now so I can fit much more productivity into fewer hours. In an office environment, I always felt obligated to physically be there for a certain number of hours, even if I actually didn’t have anything to do or was already mentally burned-out for the day, which was just wasted time. I work out of my home now, which makes this ‘sprint scheduling’ feasible and also allows for other side benefits, like wearing comfy clothes most of the time, eating lunch from my own kitchen, having my dogs curled up at my feet while I work, and of course, the occasional impromptu dance party just because.
One thing that other independent consultants warned me about was the sense of isolation—either just feeling lonely from being by yourself all day or missing the feeling of being part of a team and having other people to bounce ideas around with. I actually haven’t found that to be a huge issue for me personally for two primary reasons. One, I’m an introvert so I actually enjoy being by myself a good deal of the time (plus, I get to spend time with my husband and very high energy three-year-old son during non-working hours). And two, I proactively schedule regular one-on-one in-person networking meetings as well as attending professional events. I try to have coffee meetings or lunches with professional contacts (new and existing) once or twice per week and attend a formal or informal professional event at least once a month—things like: Meetups, Creative Mornings, NewCo, ProductCamp, etc.
That last point is related to another challenge I’ve identified of being a solo-preneur—how to stay current and fresh in your field of expertise and continue your professional development. Those local events that I mentioned as well as attending carefully chosen professional conferences can provide a big boost of not only creative energy and inspiration but also technical and specialized learning. I somewhat took for granted previously having access to the vast resources of a corporate employer who really invested in people development, including regular training programs and access to best-in-class experts in a variety of fields. Now, I’m trying to nurture my own informal expert network to help fill that need—people I can use as sounding boards, subject matter experts, and mentors; a list that is as varied as previous bosses and colleagues, friends from college, my author/artist/life coach sister, and even my mathematically-gifted father-in-law. It’s my personal “village” and it’s one of my most valuable resources.
The other powerful resource I rely on is my professional network—the collection of all my previous peers, team members and managers who also left our previous corporate employer to work for new corporations, agencies or even start their own businesses. I cannot imagine how I could have possibly been successful in my first year without these connections. Not only did my first clients come from these contacts, but almost my entire project list to-date can be traced back, either directly or through referrals, to this professional network. Consulting is indeed a relationship business and I’m very glad that I had 14 years to develop those relationships before making the leap to my own business.
The final lesson I’m learning is to ask. It’s amazing how far you can get by simply asking: Asking for the introduction, asking for help, asking for information, asking to meet, and of course, asking for the business. As the expression goes, “The worst they can say is no,” and I’ve been amazed by how often people will say yes. Most people genuinely want to help, especially those who are starting out or starting over, and I’ve been amazed by the graciousness of both close and casual contacts—and even contacts-of-a-contact—in giving of their time, guidance, feedback, and facilitating introductions. I’ve also tried to pay it forward by sharing my time and advice with others from my network as well as mentoring in my local startup community.
I’m only a little over a year in to this adventure and I know many more lessons, challenges, and pleasant surprises lay ahead. I guess the number one thing I’m learning is to enjoy the journey and to embrace the possibilities. When we’re children, we believe we can do anything; our entire lives are ahead of us and it seems possible that we could be a ballerina-princess-doctor or, my son’s current aspiration: a fire-fighter/astronaut. As we go through school, we learn—or are told—what we’re good at and what we’re not. Over time, our opportunity funnel seems to narrow until we’re defined by a single college major, then a single job description. My leap into self-employment has enlarged that funnel again as I now have the freedom to write my own job title and description—or even have multiple job titles. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting