The number of those who consider themselves self-employed jumped 40% in the ten-year span between 2000 and 2010, and according to FreshBooks, 42 million Americans will be self-employed by 2020.
Solopreneurship is difficult. Whether you’re figuring out how to delegate or trying to write better copy, most solopreneurs wear so many hats it’s hard to just stop and think straight. Hustle mode is the default.
What differentiates service-based solopreneurs like consultants, coaches, designers, and developers who can successfully scale up and lead well from those who flounder? Process.
Everybody wants to be liked and respected, but it’s hard to take solopreneurs seriously who can’t regularly show up and do the work even while appearing to go-go-go. Process failure is the #1 reason why solopreneurs can’t keep their act together.
Acknowledge That Process Is Protection.
The single most important thing that you can do as a solopreneur is to make sure that your clients do not have extra work to do as a result of your efforts. Remember the term “red carpet service”? It meant that you delivered a good experience end to end. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow our clients owe us something (especially if they are late on a payment or pivot on a project or cause delays).
Still. Even if the client is a total nutcase, when you show up, it’d better be like Wonder Woman leaping from the trench – the chaos just stops.
To be clear: you should feel free to fire abusive, mal-intentioned nutcases or adjust expectations until the situation is remedied. But for day-to-day craziness resulting from the natural course of human events, if you’re not weathering the chaos, you’re contributing.
A common scenario: your client gets so frustrated that they take tasks off your plate or don’t ask you to complete something that should be in your wheelhouse.
This happens when you’ve lost their trust in your ability to perform the work, most often because you added more chaos than you quelled.
When you work on other people’s businesses, you’ll almost always find trapdoors, hidden snares, booby traps, and unimaginable horrors lurking just out of sight. Your job is not to look the other way, but to calmly and candidly address and handle those unimaginable horrors while simultaneously suggesting a pathway to fix the issue, without sweating it, and without making whatever horrors you find the client’s issue.
Branding guidelines don’t include typography? Cool. A 5-minute Google search from a screenshot can show you a few fonts that are likely matches. Do THAT before you ping the CEO for the previous graphic designer’s email address while writing a lengthy tome about how much of an idiot that guy was (p.s., it was the CEO’s favorite niece and now they both hate you).
The process to ameliorate chaos is simple:
- Educate yourself as much as possible, as early as possible, as often as possible, in the processes, people, details, places, timelines, to-dos, and motivations of all things involving your clients. Know the business inside and out.
- Educate yourself on all of the above without being asked in advance.
- Whenever possible, look for your clients’ blind spots, knowledge gaps, wobbling plates and falling (not yet dropped) balls, because when they drop/break/cause ninjas to spawn, you and your client will both have 10x the amount of work to do and your client will hate you.
- Whenever and wherever possible, try to find the answer to a question based on previously completed work of the same type, Google, or any other reliable source before you ask your client or your client’s partners.
- Whenever possible, ask for verification of an assumption of the correct answer sourced from methods above when there’s still a question, rather than the whole answer itself, which will reduce the chances of your clients telling you that they’ll just handle the thing themselves.
Acknowledge That Chaos is Inevitable.
Everything is always chaos. Order is a myth. Planning is just bullet points on paper.
The only thing that creates clarity
Chaos, even personal chaos, is literally the only thing we can count on as entrepreneurs.
Inputs are never certain from clients or partners, the only work we can guarantee is the stuff we do with our own two hands (and only then if our assumptions about resources and expectations are on-point).
Clarity is created when you get both resources and expectations matched up with your commitment to do the work.
Speaking of commitment: entrepreneurs do what we do because we’re OK, at least on some level, with managing our own fate. We know that if we regularly don’t do the work, we’re eventually going to lose a client or lose an opportunity. We also know that some commitments are more important than others (and some obligations we take on might be soul-sapping).
One of my favorite lines from Star Trek: The Next Generation addresses this concept directly:
Crusher: “You don’t actually know which way to go. You’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?”Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Attached”
Picard: “No. But there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.”
If we work our butts off too much, we’ll miss opportunities with our families, the ability to be a “present and attentive” spouse, etc. Balance is a total myth, but it’s still on us to at least appear like we know the answer and direction to go.
Clients expect us to show up ready and unhindered by personal obligations. That doesn’t mean we can’t be human in front of them, but it means the majority of our contact with the client should be positive, productive interactions even if our behind-the-scenes world is a raging dumpster fire.
If you’re having more bad business days than good, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be aware that if you ask your clients (as opposed to mentors or advisors or friends) for help with personal chaos, you’re burning trust.
Proper processes like setting SMART goals, creating and sticking to meeting agendas, showing up prepared, documenting issues, and breaking down and assigning to-dos as they occur will keep you on track even when things are burning down.
Acknowledge That Clients Rarely Understand The Thing They Tell You They Want.
You will spend more time than you like pulling your clients kicking and screaming along behind you toward the goal they set in the first place. As long as you’re acting in their best interest, this is probably par for the course as old habits die hard and they hired you to fix broken things.
In the same way that you don’t hate your personal trainer when they kick your butt or your mentor when they call you out, this shouldn’t cause your clients to hate you.
I’ve almost never had a client quietly, calmly accomplish their goals. You have to tow the line for them even when they’re less than enthusiastic, you owe it to them and you owe it to your own expertise.
Proper processes from documentation, goal setting, time tracking, and regular reporting keep you marching ever onward with little opportunity for getting sidelined by heel-dragging. Knowing the client’s business inside and out helps win arguments stemming from the client’s self-doubt.
Acknowledge That Your Best Interest May Come Into Conflict With The Client’s.
You have an obligation to the client to ravenously pursue their best interest, even when it conflicts with your own and especially when it conflicts with their own self-damaging behavior.
This is the one thing that has earned me return business. I kill inefficiency dead, because I meticulously and loudly call it out when I see it. I offer solutions so it gets fixed. I create entire guidebooks around it so the client can identify it when it shows up.
It’s not just about doing the work – it’s about giving yourself permission and the mental space to viciously attack whatever problems you encounter along the way on behalf of the client.
That means do whatever you can, whenever you can, to move the ball forward. If you’ve got a directive, figure out how to meet it. Did you or your client set a goal that can’t be met with the current setup? Bust it up. Build something new from scratch so you can make that goal work. Don’t make excuses. Do the extra work to move the ball forward, even if you don’t have permission.
Identify the best thing the client can be doing to save their business or become more profitable, and get started on it for them – sometimes even if that thing isn’t in scope*.
*yet – because you can renegotiate to get paid for it, after you prove it works. It’s a gamble if it doesn’t work, but why be afraid to bet on yourself?
Create processes around reviewing goals, documenting wins, identifying problems, and reporting these to clients regularly. Keep your eye always on what you can and should deliver.
Acknowledge That Burnout Exists and It’s Happening To You.
Not only are you a business owner, you’re a parent of two, a spouse, a sibling, a friend… and your work will take a toll because it’s not just work for YOU. It’s work for your client and your client’s clients. Expectations (and disappointments) are exponentially multiplied. Victories are short-lived because there’s always ALWAYS more work to do and “done” is a myth. You have to structure your internal workflow to generate rewards for yourself AND you have to build into your contracts a methodology for bonuses or victory parties or windmill high-fives.
Solopreneurs notoriously burn out because of a variant of the Peter Principle also known as “Yeah, I can do that” syndrome. It’s in your client’s nature to want to offload anything and everything they can to the most competent people and it’s in YOUR nature to not want to disappoint. It’s also really hard, unless you structure your contract in a certain way, to grow enough lead time to secure constant work or work on your own business – and those two things taken together make it hard to define and defend boundaries.
Solopreneurs also burn out because early on they have little ability to delegate work and don’t often spend the time to work on their own business to grow it and scale it. In short: you’ve traded an office for a room in your house, and a sweet commute, but you’re not scaling your time and attention to grow your business and your time will eventually run out. Whether it’s because your interest will wane or your kids need more attention or your health or your ability to tolerate others’ nonsense… that leverage and scalability are crucial to removing you from a burn-out pathway.
Set processes to review your own business goals and treat yourself as a client. Dedicate and defend time for your business. Give yourself a “yes” ration for the month to burn through at your own peril.
Acknowledge Your Meager Notetaking Does Not Constitute Proper Documentation.
Clients rarely have a perfectly documented position guidebook or how-to guide for various important tasks in their business, and as a result, have to start over every time someone with a lot of crucial knowledge leaves.
Document your work, and the work of others, so that the how-to, when, where, why, and whatever are crystal clear for the next person to do the work. Assume you won’t be the last person to work on whatever the client is having you do. Be gracious and kind enough to the person who comes after you to leave notes. Teach your client how to do what you do (trust them enough to understand the difference between a checklist and a highly experienced service provider).
This should be done, ideally, during your onboarding process so you can correct bad assumptions before they get too far down the road.
Acknowledge That Your Time Is Valuable.
Most solopreneurs in the service industry eventually discover that hourly rates don’t scale. The best way to review your existing time usage is Harvest and RescueTime – or even just pen and paper.
The best way to scale is to identify the tasks you can document and then confidently hand off to someone down the chain. Those things you’re best at – where you have the most leverage or where you bring a special, secret sauce – don’t hand off. Learn how to do more of that and hand off or automate the rest.
Plan to review your workflow. Build processes around reviewing, planning, offloading, and scaling.
Acknowledge You’re The Keper Of The Keys (For The Most Part).
As a service-based solopreneur, you often have the interesting ability to be able to dictate the agenda and choreograph the next steps for your clients, especially when project managing your own work.
It only helps your clients to receive a weekly-updated to-do list of stuff they have to accomplish or that you’re waiting on them for, where to find the resources to accomplish the project (linked directly or attached to the to-do list), and step-by-step instructions on how to proceed along with a deadline.
You’ll give the client clarity, you’ll make your job easier, and you’ll reduce resistance to the goal. A huge roadblock for action (yours or the client’s) is a nebulous or poorly documented to-do list.
A common frustration for service-based solopreneurs is when clients procrastinate by way of shiny-object-syndrome. If the client identifies a shiny object of the week instead of tackling the earth-shaking project at-hand, you owe it to yourself and to your client to either ask them to scope out the shiny object as a project or to refocus themselves on the goal at hand.
Set processes in place that allow you to reframe the agenda when the client goes off-course.
Acknowledge You Should Not Assign Tasks Without Knowing The People Doing The Work.
Clients have their own agendas, worldviews, kids’ soccer games, and head colds and very rarely have the full bandwidth of attention needed to properly understand the things we ask them to do short of two hour-long meetings and an interpreter. Your client’s clients or partners or employees may not trust or understand you or
Often solopreneurs will task a client or partner or employee with something only to receive a mountain of well-prepared nonsense that has little to nothing to do with the original request and you’re left holding the rope for all that wasted time.
The process error at the root of all that wasted time is a failure to fully scope not just the project and assigned tasks, but also the people you’re assigning to tasks. The proper process for handing off a task to a 3rd party is not “do this, good luck, and let me know if you have any questions.”
A proper project scope would document the end goal, assumptions, questions or research required, costs and resource requirements, check-in points, ownership of tasks and the larger project, known issues and sunk costs, or prototyping that can be done. A proper team scope would document the key players, their skills and interests, their available time and commitment, and questions and concerns.
Acknowledge That Process Planning Is Not Busywork.
So much of what service-based solopreneurs do is build bulwarks against chaos. What you do is amplified or hindered by your client’s ability to accomplish their own goals. If your client is displeased, you’ll be doing a lot more re-work and sacrificing time you need to work on your own business. If your client loves
The biggest opportunity for solopreneurs to lead well is identifying and correcting mistakes/inefficiency when it’s cheap and not yet the client’s problem. Mistakes/inefficiency passed up the chain to the client (x10) or the client’s client or partners (x100) are exponentially multiplied – each action in the chain either lives or dies with processes.
Good processes save money, time, and sanity.
Do yourself a favor and push pause on the hustle. Take a breath, build some processes, and then get going again. It might feel a little stutter-stop at first while you adjust. As you grow and level up, the smoothness will appear and other, newer problems will too (but you’ll have earned ‘em).
About The Author
Nick Armstrong: the Geek-in-Chief behind WTF Marketing, dad, author, Ignite, PechaKucha, Startup Week, and TEDx speaker, audio drama enthusiast, and award-winning entrepreneur.
Nick’s been a part of organizing community events like Fort Collins Comic Con, Startup Week Fort Collins, TEDxFoCo, Ignite Fort Collins, LaidOffCamp/CareerCamp, PodCamp Fort Collins, and more. His local efforts landed him a prestigious spot as one of BizWest’s 40 Under Forty in 2016 and the Colorado Association of Libraries’ Library Community Partnership Award in 2018.
Alongside an amazing team of 13 other super-geeks, Nick built out Fort Collins Comic Con to benefit the Poudre River Public Library District and has raised over $95,000 for the Library to encourage youth literacy through comics.
Nick’s Techstars Startup Week Fort Collins Panels:
- Freelancer/Solopreneur Marketing Strategy 101 on Monday February 25th, 1:30pm-2:30pm @ Downtown Artery Gallery
- Negotiation for Freelancers and Solopreneurs on Monday February 25th, 4:30pm-5:30pm @ Downtown Artery Gallery