The pandemic has turned us all into solopreneurs. At least that’s the way it feels. Even if we’re employees working from home, the solopreneur workstyle has crept into our day-to-day routine. We are having to function much more self-responsibly, exercise greater self-discipline, and be much more intentional about how we spend our day and use technology. But this is just the beginning.
The solopreneur workstyle is not going away. I think we would be mistaken to think that we’re all going to be back in our offices when this is over. Remote and virtual work may have real and stressful impacts on our psyches. But companies are loving the positive impact on their bottom line. The genie is out of the bottle.
I’ve written about being more pro-active at work, but wanted to explore this from a different angle.
We’re all trying to be good soldiers about working from home. Mostly, I believe it’s because we think there’s going to be an end to it. If I’m right, though, more of us than expected are going to still be based primarily out of our homes.
Working from home has been a perk you used to negotiate to build a little more flexibility into your life. Post-pandemic, I believe that situation will be reversed. We’ll now be negotiating for more in-office time so we can escape the very real strictures of our home offices.
If we’re going to have to keep working like solopreneurs, we need to get clear on how solopreneurs leverage their workstyle to be productive and effective. No matter what we do, it will be challenging to juggle the various aspects of work and life from your home desk, wherever that may be (because your college student kid is in what used to be your home office and your spouse is working out of the kitchen).
There is plenty of advice out there on how to take breaks and be mindful of the stressors and distractors making it difficult to stay focused.
This article is about appreciating (and acting on) the different work mindset that technology has produced for us. The solopreneur workstyle is forcing us to accept this paradigm shift. Rejecting it, avoiding it, or holding it at arms length is not going to make it go away. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to make it your friend.
What Does It Mean to Be a Solopreneur?
This term gets bandied about a lot, and I don’t think we intend it to mean the same thing as “entrepreneur.” Solopreneurs are freelancers and consultants with a pro-active and technological business owner’s mindset. They’re not freelancing or consulting in between employed positions. They’re trying to figure out how to stay on their own, use the vast web of digital platforms and tools, and construct a viable business workstyle for themselves. And their goal is to stay on their own. They don’t pine for the return to the office.
The solopreneur is looking for the freedom to create one or more businesses, perhaps simultaneously, that could grow into something successful, make them a lot of money, and then do it again. They want to do this by outsourcing services without employees. They don’t want any unnecessary overhead. They live and breathe the vision of taking their business through progressively higher tiers of revenue. They are assiduous students of business creation, marketing, and management in the digital era.
Why the Solopreneur Workstyle Matters
This lean, efficient, hyper-focused mindset is the outcome of cloud computing developments over the past ten years. I think it is only going to become more pervasive, and will challenge traditional workplace conventions.
Assuming we are all going to be spending more of our time working remotely, we are going to have to deal with the same sorts of workstyle challenges that solopreneurs deal with daily. They, too, are trying to figure out ways of getting things done and collaborating with team members virtually. They are juggling way too many digital tools, trying to find more efficient ways of doing more with less (money and time).
The power that cloud computing, AI, and other technologies afford us (5G will be another one in the coming years) has raised the bar significantly on what can be done remotely. Barriers to entry for complex business operations have fallen significantly.
The Solopreneur Power-up
Solopreneurs are empowered by these developments, not intimidated by them. They want to push the boundaries of what can be done using these technologies. So it is incumbent upon the rest of us to at least understand and be open to adopting some of the boundary-pushing and paradigm-shifting mindsets that motivate the hard-core solopreneurs.
For example, just look at crowd-funding platforms. In the beginning, Kickstarter and Indiegogo (and the like) were set up so that artists could raise money to make movies and publish books. Now, these platforms are used as launching and marketing vehicles for globally-distributed consumer products, from luggage to electronics to backyard pizza ovens. And these products are often the brainchild of one or a small team of inventive and enterprising solopreneurs.
Call it a minimalist business aesthetic. The solopreneur workstyle wants to extract the maximum value out of a business idea by spending the least amount of time and money and effort. It is the ultimate expression of “work smarter, not harder.”
Everything happens in the cloud. We do our work while we’re connected to everyone else within common, shared software environments. We take it for granted. Remember shrink-wrapped software?
Software is no longer a set of discrete programs that mimic the analog world of paper reports, ledgers, or projected slide shows. The cloud is now a multi-dimensional sandbox of interacting and cross-functioning experiences where people collaborate and communicate while creating and delivering products and services.
Do you pay attention to the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) of the platforms you use? Do you feel entitled to a pleasing and intuitive experience? Do you find yourself getting frustrated by the number of clicks needed to find something or get something done? Are you constantly wondering or trying to figure out how you could hook up one app to work seamlessly with another?
If any of this is familiar to you, you are following the ethos of the solopreneur workstyle.
Concern about the UI and the UX is more than a question of convenience. Good design is good business. It helps you to do more. The solopreneur is looking for software developers who have their best interests in mind, and who are there to support getting business done beyond what is possible today.
Some Key Concepts
If you understand a handful of basic concepts about getting things done in the cloud, you can pretty much adapt to and learn any specific workflow or set of best practices. No matter what new system your employer or client throws at you, you’ll understand how to master it.
- SOPs Standard Operating Procedures. Teams are (or should be) documenting what they do. This is so the key tasks and procedures that underpin their work can be easily passed on to new team members. Following their SOPs also helps them to execute complex workflows repeatedly without errors. As AI becomes a bigger part of the software we use, SOPs help us to stay on top of the increasing complexity we face in our day-to-day. Your own set of SOPs will free you from having to obsess over whether you covered all the right steps. If you’ve got a dozen projects running, you don’t want to be in a situation where you know you forgot to send a follow-up to a client – but you don’t remember which client.
- Templates. So much of our work is repetitive in the aggregate, while unique in the specific. You go through largely the same process each time you start a new project, but then you have to vary it or customize it to suit the circumstances. Like with SOPs, having templates for contracts, proposals, email sequences, marketing campaigns, and other segments of your work process helps you increase your capacity to do the work while freeing you from the annoying and uselessly repetitive details. Building a library of templates for the work you do lets you focus your attention where it really matters. Along with your SOPs, your template library means you can take on more varied tasks and roles without losing your ability to execute.
- Video & Media. We are all filmmakers now. Much of the time, the fastest and most effective way to communicate is through video or visual media. Tools like Loom, which let you quickly shoot a video of what you’re doing on your screen, or send a quick video message in an email, are powerful time savers, problem solvers, and question resolvers. Additionally, putting a few quick slides together to consolidate information, talking points, charts, or statistics lets you make a decisive impact on the your decision-making process. You need to feel comfortable making media and using these and other tools to communicate visually.
- Communication/Collaboration. Forget Zoom. Sure, it has been the poster child of the pandemic. But how much stuff actually gets done on a Zoom call? Communication and collaboration actually take place inside of real-time chat apps that reside inside other platforms. Slack, of course, is the firehose of real-time chat. But pretty much every new project management platform today is geared towards real-time collaboration and has real-time chat built-in. Understanding how to use chat, and be able to comment on work, delegate tasks, respond to questions, and generally be up to speed with your team (or teams!) is a pre-requisite to success. If you’re stuck on email and digging through the 30,000 messages in your Inbox to find a file that someone sent you 2 months ago, you’re going to have a very hard time keeping up.
- Automation and APIs. Platforms talk to one another through APIs (application programming interfaces)). This means that you can set up a good chunk of the busywork that you do to run automatically. If you are stuck transposing information from one platform to another or need to know when a client or a contact does something that requires follow up, you can automate. Platforms like Zapier or IFTTT can be configured to monitor the platforms you use and automatically perform actions. Every time someone fills out a Typeform survey on your website, they can be added to a spreadsheet. Or you could send them a thank-you email. Or you could send them a personalized note card in the mail with a Starbucks gift card (yes, automatically). Leveraging automation takes mindless work off your plate while increasing your effectiveness. Understanding how and where you could automate what you do frees up even more time. Use that time to do what can’t be automated: building relationships with clients and colleagues, or thinking strategically about staying competitive in your business. It’s the solopreneur workstyle!
Staying Ahead of the Curve: Social Learning
Ten years ago, when we talked about professional development, we were talking about packaged training programs to bring you up to speed on some set of skills you needed in your business. Formal training programs still exist of course – but they are rigid and expensive.
Then about five years ago we heard about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which were supposed to be the college-killers and replace university learning. Well, that didn’t happen (yet).
Meanwhile, video exploded on YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, and people were teaching each other all sorts of stuff online. For free. At the same time, solopreneurs with expertise created their own paid courses and distributed them by advertising on social media, and using email-based (Inbound) marketing.
So as with many other disruptions, the disruption of learning has been an expansion of opportunities. Streaming video has become a buyer’s market where you can watch something for free or by subscription or as a one-off rental. The same thing has been happening in education and training.
Did I forget to mention podcasts?
The Learning You Need to Keep Up
All this presents a big problem for traditional HR-based professional development. Who has the time for or the interest in attending a course on the company’s schedule that may or may not be what you want or need to learn? Plus, you may not relate to the instructor or the syllabus. Plus, you’ve found something you like better on Udemy or Skillshare (two paid learning platforms with thousands of courses), or on LinkedIn Learning (which your company may already subscribe to).
This democratization of learning is great for you, but it also makes things more competitive.
Because it is so easy and affordable to learn new things, everyone’s doing it. And that means that to stay up to speed and on top of your game, you need to spend a certain amount of time thinking about this, and researching what’s available, and how you could use it.
It’s another aspect of the solopreneur workstyle. Learning is now not only lifelong, it is 24/7. You can’t wait for the company to offer the training you need. And you can’t rely on the company to know what the best course offerings are going to be. You have to take the initiative – probably along with others on your team – to figure out what you need to learn, and the best solutions to provide it for you.
Networking as a Lifestyle
Solopreneurs apply their learning to improve their businesses and to think up new businesses to launch. But they are also using their learning to reach out to new people and to build relationships and community around their mission. Since they’re not looking for a job, their network becomes an avenue of expanding leadership opportunities.
If you are only spending time networking with people you already know doing the work you’re already doing, then you are not thinking strategically about your work. You could be exploring new ideas and meeting new people who are doing things differently. You could be collecting new approaches and formulating new plans and strategies to bring to your current job. You could be using your network as a way to support your own leadership and advancement in the work you are currently doing.
Networking is key to your job search strategy. But it is just as important to maintain when you are not searching for a job.
Following the solopreneur workstyle, your network should be a forum of engaged colleagues, all engaged in boundary-expanding activities in their respective fields. By searching for shared values and complementary perspectives, solopreneurs build complexity into their mindsets. This allows them to see new intersections in the ways things get done, or how technology is opening up new opportunities. It gives them the capacity to develop new ideas and new insights that they can use in their work.
The Value of Thought Leadership
Thought leadership is one of the hardest concepts for my clients to grasp and adopt. It involves cultivating your professional voice and your business philosophy and engaging in high-level conversations about your business. This can be online or at conferences or at other industry events. The point of thought leadership is to challenge your network (and yourself) to examine the often existential issues that are affecting your business. This helps build your authority and reputation and draws opportunities to you.
Solopreneurs love thought leadership. They understand that their credibility and success in a transparent digital economy (and culture) depend on their reputation and the quality of their thought process.
By engaging with others through their blogs or podcasts or Instagram feeds or YouTube channels, solopreneurs build their reputations and literally make friends with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people.
These communities ensure constant feedback and interaction around the ideas the solopreneur is exploring and putting forward in their business(es). That feedback is essential to understanding the marketplace the solopreneur is targeting. You don’t need a marketing department to do market research when you have instant and direct relationships with your customers.
Adapting/Adopting the Solopreneur Workstyle
You may not be a solopreneur (yet). So you may be wondering if any of their mindset makes sense for you as you navigate the day-to-day challenges in your current job.
First and foremost, think of the solopreneur workstyle as a bellwether of the times. This approach to and attitude about business represents the leading edge of where things are going. Being a solopreneur is certainly not the only way to create a business today, but it is arguably one of the most contemporary approaches.
Then look at a few of the concepts or paradigms I’ve laid out in the article. See if any of them make sense to you as directions you may want to take. Even adopting a single new practice – like creating a set of SOPs or Templates for the work that you’re doing – could be a great way to start.