Solopreneur Isolation Syndrome

{Note: I am now blogging at my brand-spanking-new site, SteveWoodruff.com. Just click here to subscribe to the new feed. Bonus – you can also sign up at the same time for my astonishingly brief  yet brilliant e-newsletter, Clarity Blend (see sample), and when you sign up, you’ll get a free download of my helpful new e-book, Make Yourself Clear: Six Steps to De-fogging Your Direction and Your Message.}

I was speaking with a fellow consultant earlier this month, and the subject wandered over to one of the difficulties of being a solopreneur/small business owner.

AloneIsolation. Ever feel alone out there, hacking your way through the weeds? Yeah – join the club.

Now, neither of us would go back to working for others, and we’ve freely chosen the paths we’ve taken. So this is not a lament. It’s just a fact of life. It can get pretty lonely out there when you’re not part of a (localized, physically present) team.

As a solopreneur, I love my alone time, and I also get energized by meetings with clients and partners. I enjoy the intellectual and social stimulation of the occasional conference. I remain in active contact with many colleagues and friends via social networks.

But, I think the issue is more than just physical isolation. From what I see, it’s the continuous weight of having everything on your shoulders – alone.

It’s. All. Up. To. You. 

In a larger company, you can fulfill a certain role while others fulfill theirs. There is concentration and distribution of effort. Shared effort, shared resources, shared direction; and lots of things get done without you driving them or even knowing about them.

For the solopreneur, it’s all up to you. Apart from some things you can outsource, this plane goes nowhere unless you are the pilot, flight attendant, baggage handler, fueler, ticket agent, and air traffic controller. Every day. All day. That gets wearisome. And sometimes, you feel so overwhelmed that you just want to crawl under the covers and take a nap – right?

“Hmmm…I think the dog needs another walk.” “I wonder what’s new on Facebook?” “Time for another Starbucks run!” It may look like a form of escape, and…well, truth be told, it often is. Because building a business in isolation is a heavy load.

And for the small business owner who has some employees but often has no peers to talk to, there is a similar kind of loneliness – plus all the dynamics of supporting and driving a team (one reason why I plan to remain solo!) As I talk to a growing number of folks in that category, my eyes have opened to the need for coaching and peer support. We each carry a lot of weight that family, friends, employees, and clients often cannot understand.

And then there’s the paperwork. Don’t get me started on that topic! (by the way, you might want to check out what MBO Partners has to offer on that front).

I really wonder  how many promising businesses we lose to isolation burnout.

So, what’s the solution?

I’m not sure there’s a single solution, but the starting point is this: just as cash flow is vital to your ongoing success, so is (peer) relational flow. Whether you find your support network locally, virtually, or by a combination of the two, make it a priority to de-isolate. Independence is a good thing, but cultivating a level of interdependence may be the key to remaining sane. We all need fuel, and we all need to fuel others. Periodic breakfasts with people like Brian Moran; regular lunches with some of my pharma clients/partners; brainstorming meetings with Joe Cascio; Skype sessions with far-flung people in my network – these are all ways that help keep me energized. Doing the work I love fulfills me – but in the downtimes, in the business development efforts, in the reversals – it can get discouraging.

But maybe there’s something else that we can get better at doing. Let’s look at our twitter-streams, and see the many connections that we know are solo – maybe we need to more purposefully reach out and ask folks how they’re doing. How they’re REALLY doing. We tend to assume that everyone else is doing just great – but if you’re ready to throw in the towel today because of loneliness and isolation, then it’s a safe bet that 5 other people you know are just trying to keep up a brave front (while crumbling inside), too.

I’m happy to be a solopreneur. I love the freedom to chart my own course. But let’s not be in denial – there can be a downside as well.

So – how are you doing? Really doing? Let’s keep each other company on the journey!

photo credit: Brian Auer via photopin cc

 

The New Intermediation: Specialized Domains

If you have been in a business domain for a long time, acquiring a deep knowledge and broad network, you may well have an opportunity to carve out a unique (you-based) business role for your future. Of all people, you can be one of the new intermediaries.

In an introductory post, I opened up the idea of potential business opportunities that exist by thinking about The New Intermediation. The Ugly Graphic below depicts how this works:

Intermediary1

Just yesterday, I was handed a brand-new business card by someone I’d spent a few hours with several weeks back. This experienced professional was being laid off – there are always ups and downs in the pharma/biotech realm, and some great folks lose positions regularly because of factors having nothing to do with their performance.

Anyway, this person had a deep area of domain expertise, able to fill an information and business-building need that few could touch. I encouraged them to launch a consultancy (they did), and yesterday, I got the news that their first client had signed up for a 6-month engagement!

How awesome is that? From corporate dependence to carving out your own path – isn’t that what so many should be doing right now?

Another friend is steadily positioning himself for a unique intermediary role in his industry (agriculture-related) due to his immense knowledge and hard-won reputation as a very knowledgeable guide for both growers and producers. Make no mistake, however – his reputation as a value-creator is based on incredibly hard work in a specialized domain. This role is not for kids fresh out of college.

Just saw this post by Rohit Bhargava, who is taking on the role of a Marketing Concierge. What is that? An expert who comes alongside the client, and makes relationships and workflow better with their agencies. Read the post and you’ll see why he can do this – deep domain experience. He’s a new intermediary. My friend Tom Martin serves as a digital adviser for higher-level marketers, who cannot possibly keep up with all the digital ferment. Tom is immersed in digital AND knows what agencies/marketers need. He’s a new intermediary.

In each case, people pay their dues for years working for others (building up domain knowledge and reputation), then get to a position when it’s time to be an intermediary. If you’re in your 40’s and 50’s and wondering if you’re being bypassed – if you’re all washed up – think again. This is prime time to be a value-creator by having a foot firmly planted in two realms.

I find that people with this type of depth and track record generally need a gentle push – a little outside permission-giving. “This is your sweet spot. You’re ready now. No-one else can do this like you can. Here’s your market[place]. Go!

Think beyond the next job title in someone else’s hierarchy. Build toward your unique place of adding value “in the middle.” Maybe you should be one of the new intermediaries!

Previous Connection Agent posts on The New Intermediation:

The New Intermediation in Publishing

The New Intermediation: Curation

The New Intermediation: Matchmaking

The Business Opportunities of The New Intermediation

Want To Be Taken Seriously As A Consultant? Don’t Do This.

The last thing you want to do is blow up your own message – right?

It may sound old-school, but: yes, spelling matters.

For crying out loud, the squiggly line is telling you to spell-check. No only do you fail to do so, you actually use the screen shot highlighting your error??

This, in an article about how to be a high-priced consultant.

Here’s STEP 10 – Don’t shoot yourself in the foot if you’re trying to run a race.

(now, off to spell-check this blog post before pressing Publish….!)

Top 5 Ways to Define Yourself – NOT!

Companies and consultants can be remarkably good at vague and unfocused market positioning. Here are five recommended statement-types to help you get a head start on becoming a forgettable commodity:

5. “We are an enterprise-level solutions provider helping customers align their business processes with strategic goals.”

- Ahh, the old high-brow business-speak fog machine. In other words, you charge big companies big money to do something undefined that sounds impressive. But since the snake oil is delivered via a Powerpoint deck (with flowcharts!), that apparently means you leverage industry-wide best practices.

4. “A globally-responsible business partner.”

- And exactly what does this mean, tangibly speaking? And, while we’re at it, how does it affect my bottom line? Maybe you have a recycling bin in the cafeteria and use new-fangled light bulbs, but no WIIFM = no big deal.

3. “Before hanging out my own shingle, I moved from junior associate to VP of my division more quickly than anyone before me.”

- Great yearbook fodder, but that helps me how? The world is full of ambitious ladder-climbers. Enough about you…what about me?

2. “We help you with your marketing, communications, marketing communications, digital media, social media, sales, sales training, train reservations, dinner reservations, recruiting, and global commodities investing.”

- Oh, you’ll work for food. Great niche! Sigh….

1. “Our people are our greatest asset, and it shows in our J.D. Power award-winning customer service scores for the last 3 centuries. We mean business!”

- I’m sorry – what do you do?

You’ve got only a few seconds to make a lasting impression, and to stick in the minds of your customers. People will put you in a bucket, and it is up to you to define that bucket and make it memorable.

You might be exactly what they need – but if you’re shooting low-quality arrows randomly into the air, you’re not likely to hit the target. You either have a clear offering summed up in some high-impact, well-chosen words – or, you’re background noise. And we certainly don’t need any more of that to distract us!

___________

Sound like your challenge? Hire Steve Woodruff for Clarity Therapy!

Recent posts on Connection Agent:

>> Seeing 20/20 in 3-D

>> The Ultimate Competitive Advantage

Is Your Sky Blue?

Why is the Dilbert comic strip so popular? One reason is because there seems to be a thousand kill switches on awesome in workplace (go ahead, click on the link. I’ll wait…).

It’s very likely that you have some major awesome locked up in your mind and heart and character and abilities – and, if you’re like most people in the workforce, it’s being inhibited more than expressed.

That, and the general economic instability, has forced many more people to look at traditional work within traditional organizations and ask, “Why am I doing this?”

Why, indeed! I came to that crossroads almost 6 years ago and decided to venture out on my dream of creating a business built around my awesome. Which is being the Connection Agent.

When I sit down in counselor mode with other entrepreneurs, small business leaders, or people in the midst of career change, I pretty quickly turn the conversation to my 2 “blue sky” questions. Because they reveal what is really going on in the DNA of the person, regardless of past titles and roles.

“What have you done that made you feel like you were right in your sweet spot?” and, “If you could do absolutely anything for a career, that lined up with your abilities and desires, what would it be?”

Often, there is a long pause – as if we struggle with permission to answer such questions! We’re not supposed to be able to pursue our ideals, right? That’s for the 0.001%. The rest of us need to just settle for what we get and make the best of it.

That’s a crock, people.

You gaze at the blue sky because it’s your mirror. And once you have a clear idea of who you really are and where you want to go, that’s when you make the most important decision of your professional life – to take control and begin moving in that direction. Your direction.

Not having a blue sky in front of you is like driving your car with no destination. The best GPS system in the world can’t get you to a non-existent end point.

Much of my work is with the pharmaceutical industry, where layoffs have been relentless for the past handful of years. While it’s painful to see, I am also convinced that a massive amount of undeveloped talent is being unleashed. I talk to a lot of these folks, and when the corporate shackles begin to fall away, a new freedom arises – the permission to dream. The end point is allowed to shift from the next rung of the corporate ladder, to something much more important.

I’m no naive idealist – I know that it can take years to turn blue sky visions into reality (I’ll tell you my story sometime). But here’s the memo – no-one else is going to do it for you. You can work for someone else’s agenda, or you can pursue your own direction – that direction where you can make your unique contribution to the world. It may be inside a company, it maybe building your own company, it may be on your own – the barriers to entry have never been lower and the tools for business-building have never been greater.

There’s a reason I go to conferences like SOBCon and, this year, Blissdom*. The people that organize these events are blue-sky dreamers and practical builders, who attract other like-minded souls into supportive communities. Entrepreneurs – doers – good people – gather, and blue sky together, and make things happen. If you want to map out your own future, you need to be around others who will inspire and support you along the way.

*(I’m just hoping I can survive the hormonal imbalance at Blissdom – the XY chromosome delegates will apparently be vastly outnumbered!)

Hope to see you soon – maybe with a cup of coffee and a blue sky overhead!

——————

Hire Steve Woodruff  if your identity and message need clarity (Brand Therapy)

Recent posts on Connection Agent:

>> Who Are Your Influencers?

>> Are You Having A Nice Conflict?

Please feel free to subscribe to the Connection Agent blog via Reader (RSS) | via e-mail

Twitter: @swoodruff

Not All Business is Good Business

I don’t remember where or when I first heard it, but that phrase has stuck with me like white on rice: Not all business is good business.

Some projects that seem to promise high revenue may (in reality) equal low profit – or a loss. Some work is, if you step back and be objective (closing your ears to the siren song of the dollars), outside your sweet spot, or beyond your current capacity. And some clients aren’t worth the trouble – they create for more chaos than benefit. Been there?

Your company and that piece of business – it’s not always a match. Do you have the courage to say “not all business is good business” – and act on it?

During a recent Brand Therapy session, this truth came home in a big way. While one of the main outputs of Brand Therapy with Steve session is clarity on your Offering, your Message, your go-to-market Analogy, and your company Story, what we’re doing in the process is identifying your professional DNA. Inevitably, what that means is that, in the privacy of the therapy session, we open up the questions that usually cannot be asked publicly – questions about future direction, client successes and failures, aspirations, culture, staff makeup, revenue flow – those things that sometimes require an outside voice and perspective.

In this session, it quickly became clear that there was a certain type of target company – those of a particular size and corporate culture – that were a great fit for this provider’s services (and business approach). But there was this constant pressure to chase all kinds of potential clients, even when there was a grating sense that this business might not be worth the invested effort. You know that pressure, right?

It takes courage to say, “This is who we are, and therefore THAT kind of client/business is a mis-match. Instead, we’re going to pursue THIS.”

Let’s face it – every consultant and company feels the pressure of generating revenue and cash flow, and we are often tempted to take on work that we know, in our gut, isn’t really the best. Over time, our identity and message can become muddled and obscured – instead of bending our efforts to pursue GOOD business with a very clear and compelling identity and message, we become…serial offenders of our own professional DNA.

Not all business is good business. So – who ARE you, and what is good business for you? Let me know if you need a day of Brand Therapy with an expert who knows the right questions to ask!

——————

Hire Steve Woodruff  if your identity and message need clarity (Brand Therapy)

Recent posts on Connection Agent:

>> Social Business is Not Enough

>> Go With What You’ve Got

Please feel free to subscribe to the Connection Agent blog via Reader (RSS) | via e-mail

Twitter: @swoodruff

Go With What You’ve Got (A 2011 Reflection)

I freely admit that, in some areas, I am denser than an iceberg made of iron. In a few key respects, my mind runs with Olympic sprinter speed and dexterity – but in other ways, I learn at a glacial pace, only after so many crashes against the wall that I look like Rocky’s sparring partner on a very bad day.

But this year, I may have finally begun to turn the corner on one thing that I’ve believed (in my head) for many years, but failed to fully embrace (in heart and practice). When building business, Go With What You’ve Got.

You see, I often tell others that you really want build a small, high-quality, close-knit network – a tribe  in Godin-speak – instead of expending all your energy in amassing numbers. I don’t know how many blog posts I’ve written along these lines, and in many respects, I’ve practiced it – but, when it came to my primary revenue-generating pharma network (Impactiviti), I harbored a secret addiction to going wide instead of deep. There’s nothing inherently wrong with widespread recognition and messaging – but then I kept looking at where the revenue was truly coming from. And lo and behold (no surprise to any of you quicker learners out there), revenue was coming from a handful of long-standing customers/advocates. All the mass reach in the world, while good for the long-term, wasn’t really the driver. It was taking care of the people who already believed in me, and who talked me up to others. I finally started pro-actively investing much more time digging deeper than going wider.

Duh.

This simple insight, finally burrowing its way from mind to heart, re-shaped some of my social networking practice as well in 2011. I’ve always invested in the idea of cultivating a close “inner circle” of quality people, but it was difficult to set aside the broad reach model in practice. Somehow, the only thing that gets the applause lines is big numbers. Yet, I already had a wonderful circle of friends with whom I could cultivate deeper bonds. Did I really need to pour a bunch of energy into Google+, or worry about an influencer score, or be concerned about blog readership statistics? Not that any of those things are bad in themselves (well, maybe Klout…right, Sam Fiorella?), but I don’t really “need” mass numbers. I can barely cultivate deepening relationships with the wonderful people I already know.

Huh.

Finally, this “go with what you’ve got” lesson came home to me in a very unexpected new business direction. As many of you know, I have been building, behind the scenes, toward a grand vision I’ve had for years of a trusted referral network for building new business (Connection Agency). Yet, the very week I made this initiative public, an entirely different avenue of new business potential dropped into my lap – something that I already had been doing but didn’t really understand could be a business in itself. Doing Brand Therapy with individuals and companies has turned out to be the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done – yet it came to the fore only because I had some unanticipated extra time in Chicago pre-SOBCon and decided to do some free “therapy” sessions with people. Now, this practice has become a growing revenue stream in its own right, while Connection Agency has been on the slower development track.

Turns out the keys to success in 2011 were under my nose the whole time. As Thomas Carlyle put it so many years ago, “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”

Great advice for both business and leadership as we look ahead to 2012. What are the opportunities already at hand? What are you already bringing to the table? Who are the customers that make your business fly?

In fact, on Tuesday (Dec. 19th) at 8 pm ET on Twitter during LeadershipChat, we’ll be discussing our most important Leadership Lessons from 2011. Here’s one from my lovely co-host, Lisa Petrilli (My Most Life Opening Leadership Lesson of 2011). What’s yours? Feel free to write a blog post about it before, or after, the chat, and share your wisdom with other members of the community!

——————

Hire Steve Woodruff  if your identity and message need clarity (Brand Therapy)

Recent posts on Connection Agent:

>> Twitter Chats and Cocktail Parties

>> Finding Your DNA

Please feel free to subscribe to the Connection Agent blog via Reader (RSS) | via e-mail

Twitter: @swoodruff

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 154 other followers