I had to hit rock bottom to start a business. Even though I’d always wanted to do my own thing, I couldn’t get myself to until I had nothing left to lose. Depressed and stuck, I finally became too sick of surrendering my personal growth and financial mobility to the will of external forces.
It’s been about three years since I started. I’m alive and much better off. There aren’t words for how humbling this journey is and equally, how amazed I am at where we are today. Anyone can start a business. Making a living at it and steadily growing that bootstrapped biz year over year, from nothing? That takes having a realistic idea of what you’re up against, and a measured approach to defying the odds.
If you’re among the rapidly growing number of folks who’ll join the ranks of freelance service provider or business owner in 2020, you’re more than likely able to relate to what rock bottom feels like. Good news: You make the greatest gains when your back’s against the wall. This fact will be proven to you over and over again.
I’ve taken a lot of great advice and I’ve ignored just as much. Keep the following fully-vetted counsel in mind whenever you’re trying to get in your own way (you will), and then keep going.
You don’t need a crystal clear vision for the future.
Focus on the intersection of what you like to do, what you’re good at, and what people (at least some people) need. As soon as you hear yourself say, “but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do,” remember that you don’t need to see yourself doing the thing you’re doing today 10 years from now. That’s not a prerequisite to maximizing the current opportunity. Evaluate your best next step and take it.
As long as you’re clear about your boundaries, values, and that you’re more afraid of mediocrity than failure, consider this permission to take a bet on yourself, even if you have no idea wtf you’re doing.
I had a general idea of how I could get people to pay me for something I was good at. I like some parts better than others. I had a “why” that looked like:
I want to get paid to do work I like and that I’m good at. I want to be growing. I want to build a place I love to work alongside people I love to work with. I want to be part of the solution to the fact that I don’t think there are enough great places to work. I want to keep moving in a direction that steadily increases my options.
People will tell you that you need some “big, hairy, audacious goal,” but that’s been enough to generate 1.3 million dollars of topline revenue in just my first few years.
Three years later, I like what I see ahead of me but quite frankly, I never would have dreamt up where I’m going from where I’ve been. It’s taken every minute of experience I’ve gained in these years to understand the value of the direction we’re heading.
Keep moving forward with your values at the forefront. The vision will slowly come into focus.
Expect more from your mindset.
In entrepreneurship, the highs are high and the lows are low. My favorite mindset mantra is “99% of people will quit before I do, I won’t quit, therefore I can’t fail.” I wish I could remember where I heard that. You’ll talk yourself out of good ideas. You’ll fail to talk yourself out of bad ideas. You’ll notice you create problems that don’t actually exist yet, and if you’re not careful, the energy you expend cycling in an unhealthy mindset will eat you up. Learn to look out for this.
Resistance means you’re getting close to a breakthrough. I repeat: The cycle of building a business is drag, push, breakthrough, repeat. The drag you feel as you’re progressing will grow. The more resistance you feel, the closer you are to breakthrough, and the more likely most people will give up right there—right before they break through. Learn to look for resistance as a sign that a breakthrough is coming and don’t you dare stop.
Reinvent work-life balance.
Let go of your old understanding of what “work” is and pursue an integration between your work and life that’s deeply gratifying. Learn how to reframe. Get clear on your why. Solve problems in the right order. Surround yourself with high-powered people who are on the same path as you.
My friends and family have listened to more than their fair share of me moaning about how much I work, but I’d venture to say that I’ve slowly gotten more pleasant to be around. Year one was a honeymoon. Year two was a horrifying grind, to be honest. Year three I learned to reframe and rewire unproductive neural pathways. Because I keep going, my work continues to look more and more like the stuff I want to be doing. Last night I spent hours brainstorming about our 90 day plan, by accident, and loved every second of it. I was doing a life thing I love: sitting in a hammock, drinking a bev, listening to the birds, thinking critically, with my husband just a few feet away doing his own thing.
Solve problems in the right order.
Just starting out? If you’re a service provider, stop noodling on your website. Get a landing page up with info on how to talk to you—spend no more than a couple of hours on this.
Go talk to your target market. Sell something. Fulfill something. Get feedback. Then, start to craft your offer by using real conversations and experiences to drive how you do so. Then, start to build your official website (after at least five clients). Set up an automated lead generation system. Do more work. Hone your offer. Invest in process. In that order.
Relentlessly commit yourself to high quality work.
When in doubt about your next step, refocus around how you can provide the greatest value to your customer—what do they really need? This will unstick you from any problem you are trying to solve. Then sleep on it. Are you energized? Cool, go forth. No? Tweak. Then go forth and remember that you’re not trying to arrive, yet. You’re just connecting the dots.
On that note, find a few business resources you trust—one or two per topic—and block out the rest of the noise. There are a lot of fake experts. There are also a lot of real experts. But they all have different strategies and more than one works. If you’re constantly chasing different peoples’ points of view, you’ll never take enough action to develop your own.
Do you want to build a business and a team?
You can make more money than you’ve ever made and live a pretty cushy life as a freelancer or a consultant, and that’s a beautiful thing. I was making 20% more before I started hiring a team and I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days where I think about how much simpler and cushier that would have been. But I’m betting on the long game and I want to community-build, so ultimately I knew I wanted to keep going and I was willing to make sacrifices for that.
This goes for everything, but talk to as many people as you can about their experience doing each (freelance vs business-building) so that you can build a pros and cons list according to your personal lifestyle goals.
What’s the worst that can happen?
That’s the beauty of starting at the bottom—you’ve got nothing to lose. Let me guess: You’re one of the hardest-working people that you know. You get frustrated when you want to contribute more and know that you’re capable of doing so, but are told “no” about starting projects that don’t fit within the written rules of your role. You’re undervalued and underutilized.
I want you to think about the bosses you’ve had for a minute. Think about how much of yourself you have given to them and the businesses you work for. How many times have you gotten out, really, what you put into it?
When you work for yourself, the answer is 100% of the time. At first, it might not come back as salary, but the personal growth is nothing short of insane and the money will come.
Give yourself 12 months.
Say it out loud, and go make it happen. And if you’re worried that now’s an impossible time know this: there’s never been a better time to start a business. Just make sure you don’t set out to do it alone. You can, but it’ll take you the rest of your life and you’ll never get to enjoy it. Invest in mentorship to speed up the process. Listen. Do the work.
You’ll be amazed at where you are 12 months from now.
Let me know how it goes,