In November 2016 I took a retrenchment package from my post at Independent Online.
I thought of myself as being about to go freelancing, a time-honoured way for journalists to reinvent themselves.
Four years later, I think about things a little differently: I think of myself as running a one-woman business. If I didn’t hate the clumsiness of it, I might say that I was a solopreneur.
In 2018, I wrote a post summarising what I had learned at that point. In summary, this is what I concluded:
- Don’t make assumptions – don’t assume anything about your skills or the market. Do your research, and do lot of marketing.
- Pick a direction, and then be prepared to change it – based on your research, make a plan and implement it. But pay attention to what is actually happening: your business might not be what you think it is.
- Make a business plan – find a template online, and make a proper plan with figures and objectives and deliverables. You may not stick to it, but you will have a place to start.
- Motivation, distraction, working hours – it is harder than you think to show up at your desk every day. Map out a working week with slots where you are expected to be at a desk. You are running a business to which you are accountable, rather than personally deploying some skills for clients.
- What happens when there’s a crisis? Have one or two things that must get done every day, no matter what (even if is just checking and answering emails). Create built-in safety rituals.
- Fear – learn to live with it.
That was my list in 2018. Now, in troubled 2020, I still think all those things are valid. But I have several more insights to share. I have several more years’ experience under my belt now, and more learnings to share.
I have not changed my mind about the importance of a business plan. I have instead found a way of doing it that works better for me. In broad strokes, this is the process I have been through this year that has enabled me, after four years, to feel as though I know what I am doing, properly and deeply.
I started the year in a state of burn-out. I had basically been taking in any work that I was offered, working long days for not enough money. So I went back to the drawing board, and got a little touchy-feely. Instead of setting myself yet another set of goals, I decided on a theme for the year (abundance). My intention was still to set goals and so on, but I would do that through the prism of doing work that I liked and that brought in enough money to make it worthwhile.
And I decided that going out and networking would be one of my main marketing platforms for the year. Even though I really dislike it, I was determined to broaden my customer base. All the thinking I did persuaded me that I was still getting all my work through people who knew in my years of full-time employment, and that didn’t seem sustainable.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In-person networking went out the window but I was not derailed. I started attending online networking events. A really big job came in. I kept on trucking (and finding again and again how much I disliked the networking). But in keeping with the way I started the year, I kept on at the task of reflecting on what I was doing.
I took a week off in early July, and used the time as a kind of retreat, deciding to go back to the initial niggle of the year: customer base. I have always felt that my broad range of skills means I can do a broad range of work, and have offered all those skills to the market. But it means marketing is complicated, and customers get confused.
And that’s when the breakthrough happened. Google searching on the topic of niche market I found the Solopreneur Diaries website run by Tonia Kendrick. It has a wonderful range of free business tools, and I set to work. I started with her worksheet on finding your blogging niche, and the learning curve began. I identified what it is I actually offer, which led me to understanding what social media platforms I should be targeting, which led me to planning, which led me to Tonia’s 90-day action planner worksheet. Tonia recommends cutting the 90 days down to six week, which you tackle in two-week sprints.
I am now in my third set of six-week plans and feeling good. Instead of making an unwieldy annual business plan, I am making goals as I go, and implementing them in small tranches.
Other things I have learned this year:
ONE – these are the foundations of a business
The single most important thing is understanding who your customers/clients are.
The second most important thing is understanding what your money model is.
Having those two things in mind: set some goals, including one for how much money you want to make.
The third most important thing is making a simple and attainable marketing plan.
The fourth most important thing is having a simple and attainable way to plan how you will implement strategies to meet your goals.
The answers to those questions and the way in which you find those answers will vary from business to business. The important thing is to keep working on them, going back to the drawing board as often as you need to.
TWO – time is everything
I have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic financially better off that when it began. I know that is not the case for many, many people and I am not being smug. The reason that happened to me has nothing to do with the pandemic: it is simply that the past three years of trying and failing and learning and building relationships have finally begun to pay off. It also helps that I can do all of my work from home.
It really does take time to establish a business. I was lucky to have a retrenchment package to give me the space to find my feet. At the outset of any small business, be very, very careful with money. You are going to need as many resources as you can muster for as long as you can muster them.
THREE – realism is important
As part of all the planning and reflection I have done this year, I have taken a long hard look at my money model.
It seems to me there are two main ways to make money for the solonpreneur: selling time/services/skills or selling things. Either you are offering your time for money or you are selling products. The major drawback to the time for money model is that you are limited by the amount of time you have. Even a consultant charging R1000 an hour only has eight or nine hours a day.
If you are selling products, you can theoretically keep expanding your reach or your product range – which means your capacity for money-making is much greater than in the time for money model. But the risk is much greater. You may for instance find yourself with a warehouse full of wine which you cannot sell because the government has forbidden it.
Your choice of money model will then depend on a realistic assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. I am by nature a risk-averse person, and I have accepted that the time for money model works better for me than selling products. That means I will make less money than I might otherwise, but the lesser levels of stress are worth it to me.
FOUR – always have a fallback position, based on a long view
Having said everything I said in point three, I do in fact want to start making a product. I am currently employed eight hours a day on the time for money model, and things are going well.
But I know that that work could change at any moment.
If either of my current contracts ends or fails, I will immediately use the time to start making an online training course. To that end, I am continuing to do marketing (writing and sharing this blog post for instance) aimed at building an audience. This process is the subject of my six-week plans. I have abandoned networking for the moment and am concentrating on a tight circle of blog post + newsletter+ social media.
In effect, I have a side-hustle from my main hustle. All small businesses should have the equivalent.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on business or entepreneurship, but I do know one thing: a constant process of planning, acting, reflecting and planning again is the key to long-term success.