5 Things I've Learned from My Second Year as a Solopreneur
Last week on July 13 we celebrated year two of The 5th Sense! (And by "we" I mean my husband, my dog Bacon and me.) I'm still operating this business solo, and it's been a wild ride.
If I'm being honest, when I announced this venture two years ago, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that the excitement was too palpable to idly watch it slip away. So I rode that enthusiasm train for as long as I could.
This time last year, I shared five things I learned about owning a business in year one, and those major points still hold true — know yourself, prepare yourself, forgive yourself, track yourself and advocate for yourself. Really, everything in that post is just as applicable as it was the day I wrote it, so I encourage you to check it out if you're thinking about starting your own business.
But, to avoid total redundancy, I'm going to share five new things that this second year of business infancy has taught me.
Last year, I talked about the importance of knowing yourself — your work style and what environment makes you succeed. This year was about going beyond just knowing myself and also setting that self up for success.
In year one, I learned that even though I love the work I do, I need some accountability to move bigger projects forward... especially ones that are solely for myself and my business instead of directly for a client.
In February 2017, I shared a post about finding an accountability partner to help create an atmosphere of growth. That post still holds true. I still Skype and set/review monthly goals with my accountability partner Kenan, but this year I added a new person to "team Alex" — a business coach.
If you can get the money together for one, I cannot recommend a business coach enough. I searched for weeks last fall and ended up choosing Sean McCarthy at Colorado Coaching Company. Through a longer in-person kick-off meeting and bi-monthly check-in calls, Sean has helped me totally transform my business. With his help (and much-needed tough love), I was able to double my income and build a client roster that's totally independent from contracted work through other agencies. I now work directly with all of my clients, which was a huge goal for me in year two (but more on that later).
Bottom line — if you're going to be a solopreneur, you must build an army of support behind you. You cannot go at it alone. Which brings me to lesson #2.
Whether you own your own business or not, networking is a critical tool for job growth. Expanding your contacts in an industry will usually pay off in the end, but it can also be a huge, faux-productive time suck if you let it.
In my first full-time job out of college, I had a boss that was arguably the king of networking. He pushed me to do the same, which was a great experience, but I'd often have weeks where I felt accomplished, but all I did was meet with other people. I'd end each day tired and staring down at a totally unscathed to-do list. Networking is important, but it's not your job. Unless you're in sales, it's not your true, "deep work."
I launched my business and moved across the country at the same time, so building a network in Denver quickly was critical for my business' success, but I knew it didn't pay the bills. It may lead to it, but it isn't an instant payoff.
I moved from networking every opportunity I got with anyone who would listen to making a plan and executing it. First, I became the food editor at 303 Magazine and committed half of my working hours to it for an entire year. It was a great way to turn networking into my job. I learned a lot about the Denver food scene (my target market) while making important contacts, developing my portfolio and getting paid along the way.
Now that the year is over (it ended in March), I still write for 303 some, but I'm back to my business full time. I now limit myself to one networking breakfast/lunch/happy hour per week, and I do my best to schedule them out in advance so I know what to expect when planning my week.
That being said, there were many wonderful people who took meetings with me when I knew no one and nothing about restaurants or marketing. So I always do my best to say yes to the opportunities to give back to someone younger or less experienced when they come my way. Just be careful to spot the difference in true "picking your brain" and "trying to get marketing consulting for free."
BE KNOWN FOR ONE THING OR BE KNOWN FOR NOTHING
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me this, I wouldn't need to run a business anymore. If you're going to start a business — especially if you're going to offer services like I do — you need to know two things: 1.) What you do AND 2.) Who you serve. And "everything" and "anyone" aren't acceptable answers.
You can't be everything to everyone. If you try to be, you'll mean nothing to no one.
When I started out, I would take any communications work from anyone who asked — photographers, interior designers, doctors... you name it, I probably said yes to it.
But, the second I started confidently saying, "I help food companies with their communications strategy," more of the "right" businesses came my way. It took time to build that brand and awareness, but it's always paid off. When I bid for client work against someone who helps businesses of all kinds, my specificity in who I am and what I do has always paid off.
I get it though — it's hard to turn down money. I'm not telling you to do that. But, you can choose how you market yourself and your company publically. Before I hired my business coach, I made more than 50% of my income contracting out work as "Alex Palmerton" instead of "The 5th Sense." I acted more as a remote employee underneath other companies than a business owner. I just didn't advertise it. It was a great, great way to get started, but not the path I wanted to take long-term.
If you'd like to hear more about this choice and how it's paid off, please let me know in the comments and I'll do a dedicated post on it.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO PIVOT
(^ 10 points to anyone who loves this Friends episode as much as I do ^)
Although I started out helping businesses of all kinds, my main message has never wavered — The 5th Sense serves food and beverage businesses. However, the details of what goes into those services has changed a few times in two years.
Don't be afraid to listen to what your clients or target audience need and adjust. After all, there's no point in offering services that aren't helping anyone!
It's taken several iterations, but I now house what I do under the umbrella of "Digital Hospitality." Basically, I'm willing to come in as a consultant and help you with whatever online marketing a food brand needs — blogging, email marketing, website copy, partnership management, social media, etc. I'm willing to offer pieces of that puzzle instead of exclusive giant packages, because it's realistically what my target audience can afford. And, if a client needs something else that I'm able to do — from writing a press release to planning a media dinner — I consider the situation fully before saying no.
REMEMBER WHY YOU STARTED & WHERE YOU'RE GOING
And, finally, anytime I'm losing momentum, tearing my hair out, or wondering why the hell I decided to do this, I pause and remember WHY I started this business and where I want it to go in the future.
Nothing reignites passion like remembering and reliving the problem that started it all. After all, at one point, it was hopefully keeping you up at night SO MUCH that you had to act on it.
For me, it was wondering how small food businesses can afford marketing help. I was working my in-house restaurant marketing job for a restaurant group that had ten concepts, and I couldn't stop thinking about what the independent owners or startups must do when they can't afford an agency or full-time help. Remembering that "WHY" and all of the 30+ businesses I've helped along the way always gets me going again.
And, if that fails, I revisit my vision — a private document I wrote to myself detailing what my life looks like in five years. It's a page and a half of my future in excruciating detail, including how this business is a vehicle to get there. If the past can't reignite that passion, envision the future. And, if that doesn't work, consider another pivot until the cycle continues again.
I already said this on my personal instagram, but THANK YOU so much for everyone's support these past two years. Even if we haven't worked together, you're supporting my small business just by reading this, and I can't express my gratitude enough.