Friday, December 03, 2010

Should I make the leap? ask would-be indie communicators

"Do you have some time to talk to me? I'm wondering whether I should strike out on my own."  Being a good entrepreneur doesn't leave me a lot of time for mentoring, although I've had many of these chats with would-be communications entrepreneurs. It's come up a lot since the economic downturn came along to help sharpen your thoughts on the matter.

Everyone's reason is different: For some of you, this is the permanent sand-in-your-shoe question. For others, someone has pushed you into asking this question, via a layoff, a reduction in force, a bad management scene, a regime change. Some of you are in great communications jobs--great on paper, anyway. Some of you are my clients and want to put the shoe on the other foot. Some of you read this blog, hoping to figure out how I do it, or why. (You're welcome, by the way, to do that.)

For me, independent work began with freelance writing early in my career.  I actually made a lot of money and had so much fun at it that, when I was lured away, I promised myself I would work independently again--and get back to doing my own writing, since I was about to spend the next few decades representing others.  So when the time came to ask The Peggy Lee Midlife Question ("Is That All There Is?"), I already knew the answer was to work independently again.
But this is about you. Here are some of the questions would-be independent communicators ask me most often, and a few they aren't asking, but should:
  1. Is there enough work out there?  Yes. However, when you ask some of my independent colleagues, they'll discourage your attempt to join our ranks--which is one way to keep the competition ranks thin. But for me, there's plenty of work out there. If you've done your research, however, you know the answer yourself, and this isn't your real question.
  2. Would you have started your business if you knew the recession was coming?  This is impossible to answer.  I would like to think that I would have.  The salient fact:  I believe in my ability to make my business successful and I can tolerate a lot of risk--the rewards are greater.  If you don't, your chances may not be so good. Keep thinking it through.
  3. How did you decide which services to offer? I spent a long time making some short lists: services at which I excel; services I don't prefer to do; work I promised myself I'd get back to doing someday; and services others would pay me to do that matched up accordingly. I wound up with a very short list of what I offer, and a long list of places to which I refer people who do the things I don't choose to do. This keeps me sane and saves a lot of time.
  4. How much time do you spend marketing versus working?  Also impossible to answer. If you are asking because you don't like the idea of marketing yourself, think hard about why you want to work independently. People will hire you because they trust you to do what they need you to do. Marketing yourself involves having and creating good relationships. There's not a time clock on that.
  5. Do you really have much control over your schedule?  I get this from the already employed-by-someone-else crowd.  The answer is "More than you'd think."  The real difference is not the time, but who calls the shots.  My boss is very good about managing my time, and my time off. She plans awesome vacations and cool breaks for me, and insists I spend time every day exercising, reflecting, and resting--as well as working like mad. She enrolls me in professional development that builds my skills and replenishes my creativity. If you are not good at those things, your boss won't be, if you know what I mean. You have to know how to work hard and how to play hard, and when to stop either one. And for those who say you have to work 20-hour days, I say, it depends on what kind of business. You get to choose.
  6. You can't turn down work in this economy, can you?  I alternate answers: "Oh, just watch me," and "Yes, and you have to, at some point."  You turn work down that you're not qualified to do, that you don't have the bandwidth to accomplish, that requires too much work just to get the work, when the clients are people you cannot work for under any circumstances, when you're asked to do something unethical, when you don't offer that service (even if you could, but have decided not to).  If you don't know what that list of "no" situations looks like, do some more thinking.
  7. Do you have time for lunch to talk over things with other entrepreneurs?  If I'm not traveling, I generally eat lunch at my desk while watching online videos. Same as you, baby. There's work to be done and clients to get. Beware of spending too much time hobnobbing. Get to work, then get a really good social life with people who do something else entirely. Go take a walk at lunch. You will have a million things to think about if you go out on your own, so get cracking.
To the ear of one who's already doing it, the questions above are all reflective of the hopes and fears of the would-be independent.  They hope there'll be piles of work opportunities lying around and fear they will have to take on work they don't like (the first is not true, the second may be true), or hope they can have long soulful lunch conversations but fear there isn't enough work out there to pay for lunch (the first is not true, the second may be true). Or fill in your own hopes and fears here.

The questions they aren't asking, but should be asking, look more like this list:
  1. Do I know how to go out and get the work that's out there for me?  Whether there's work out there is one thing. Whether you know how to get it is another. As a first step, you should be using all your networking opportunities to ask, "What are you working on? How's it going?"  If you can listen well, you'll hear opportunities in the responses of your contacts and potential clients. Then it's on you to follow up.
  2. What motivates me? How can I get me some more of that?  The thing you will need in boundless supply is motivation. Floods and heaps of it, and a way to replenish it when times get tough. Knowing what motivates you--money, security, prestige, creativity--also will tell you more about what kind of business you will have and the decisions you'll make around that business. Worth knowing before you take the plunge.  By the way, your motivation is not "Because I was laid off and this is all that's left to me." That's a reason, but as motivation, you need something to work toward, not something you're running away from. Figure out what really motivates you. You'll need it.
  3. What's a crisp description of what I do now?  Hurry up and figure this out, even before those business cards are ordered.  You'll be repeating it over and over again, if you're lucky and smart.
  4. What am I used to in working for someone else that I'll miss when I'm out on my own?  One of my indie colleagues knew he would not last five minutes working at home, so a downtown office was number one on his list.  Others miss the camaraderie, which you can get in a coworking office, at the gym, or in regular meetups. Need someone to bounce ideas off of? You may need a business partner or a board of advisers. You very likely will find you miss your HR, general counsel and accounting departments far more than you ever thought you would, so, hire help in those areas. Think through what I call "the water-cooler issues," some of which are social, some of which are infrastructure  Day to day, they matter.
  5. How long do I think it will take for me to get where I want to be? Is that realistic?  A friend of mine started a business so fantastic I became an immediate client. After a year, she gave it up. "I just thought I'd be a success by now," was her reason.  A year is nothing, friends. If you don't want to give it more than a year, reconsider. (I still get calls from friends asking if she's still offering her services--because they want them.) Don't be afraid to switch gears and try something new if plan A doesn't work...but do enough research to get realistic, first.
  6. How much help will I need to pull this off?  You may not need staff at first, but you do not -- as many would-be indies tell me -- "need to do it all myself first."  There are loads of services, virtual assistants, and automated options to help you be efficient. Where do you think you get the time to market your services? (And even that can be farmed out.)
  7. Is this business really viable? What are my plans B, C and D?  Here's just one example of how to look at this question: Many entrepreneurs tell me they would not start a business without the ability to be on their spouses' health insurance plan, which is a fine approach if you can swing it. Your next question, in that case, should be what will you do if something happens to your spouse or your spouse's job with the nice insurance?  Having plans B, C and D is a must.
For a larger dose of fiscal realities, read 9 reasons why Boomer businesses fail. Then, after all that asking and answering, trust your gut. Exploring options, even if you don't take them, is a great way to remind yourself what your options are--and that you do, indeed, have them. Just by thinking about independent work, you're creating an option.

The truest thing anyone told me before I started this round of independent work was "You'll never be bored again. This may be the most intellectual thing you ever do, and you've done a lot of them. But this will top them all." He was right--and that's part of my motivation, since I hate being bored.  Nice how that works out. (Again, challenging need not mean workaholic. See the work of Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week. Great ideas even if you don't work for yourself.)

This post is just the tip of the iceberg, really, but it wouldn't be fun if you didn't find out some things on your own. Independents with advice to share and wannabes with questions are welcome to leave them in the comments. 

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