I recently held a Q&A Session on career development in an online forum for some members of the Burning Man community.
If you’re not familiar, Burning Man attracts a colorful assortment of participants, but skews heavily towards tech, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Most of the questions were from people wanting to know how to reinvent their careers. The details of their situations are unique, but the underlying themes are universal, so I’m going to share a couple of them here over the next few weeks.
This first one is from an entrepreneurial 20-something in NYC.
Question: I’ve got a consulting company (web app development) that I have been trying to systemize and expand for a couple of years, but with mixed results. I have read through the E-Myth Revisited and other books of that nature, but I have not had the success I would like. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance.
My Answer: Such a great question, and one that is near and dear to my heart!
Based on the one title you mentioned, I’m guessing we’ve probably consumed a lot of the same material on entrepreneurship. I’m personally a big fan of Ramit Sethi (he’s a smarty pants with lots of good things to say, if you can stomach his arrogance) and Pamela Slim (she has a new book available). My partner is a devotee of Tim Ferriss, so I’ve gleaned a bunch of information from him regarding the 4-hr workweek approach (which I think has great merit for some business models).
Since you’re a tech consulting company, I’m also going to guess you have a lovely website and a presence on all relevant social media, as those things are pretty standard.
The rest of it really comes down to three things:
- Your brand
- Your connections
Sounds simple, but make no mistake – this is hard work, both internally and externally.
A big part of branding is the “inside job” of getting comfortable marketing you and your company as leaders or experts in your field – as people who are doing something innovative and valuable. There are lots of subtle things people do to disqualify themselves and minimize their offerings. Comb through your written materials and rehearse your various pitches with a trusted audience to make sure you aren’t selling yourself short.
A tip along these lines is that people will believe what you show them. Using myself as an example: I spent years providing HR & OD consulting services in a corporate setting with a “name brand” company. I started my private practice in 2008 and for the first few years, I told people that I wanted to get back into doing that type of consulting. Earlier this year when I became full-time self-employed, I altered the script and started saying that I am a consultant, not that I want to be a consultant. And, boom, referrals and gigs. I didn’t oversell myself, but I did make a conscious decision to change my word choice and position myself differently. The change was noticeable immediately.
As for who you know, I can’t stress the importance of this enough. I saw in your profile that you’re an active organizer in your local tech community, and that’s great! My question is: what are you doing to connect with decision makers and people with influence and power outside of your peer network? It’s really easy to connect with people at your level and a couple above, but if you’re looking for bigger contracts, you probably need to expand your sphere. Attend professional events – association meetings, local business owner groups, chambers, serve on the board of a non-profit, volunteer through civic & private organizations.
Even better than all of the above: find mentors who are already where you want to be. Those people don’t have to be your competition. If you can connect with someone who’s already established as a business owner in a similar or related industry, they will be an invaluable resource.
Make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who elevate you. You’ll have an opportunity to give back, but while you’re growing and establishing the business, it is critical to have people who have already “arrived” in your corner.
Perseverance (aka hanging in there when you want to jump off a cliff)
What you are doing is hard. Most people don’t do it because they think it’s too damn hard. There are lots of easier, softer paths out there (at least for a little while longer). Being an entrepreneur takes time, energy, persistence, tenacity, and a whole bunch of other stuff that can be all-consuming. It’s okay that you haven’t been able to truly soar after a couple years. It takes a long time for most businesses to really get off the ground, and the vast majority will fail several times before they succeed.
Keep in mind that everyone tells their story once they’ve succeeded, so we get it wrapped up in a shiny package with a neat little bow; very few people talk about the struggle while they’re in it. But most of us struggle. And it’s likely that you’ll continue to have ups and downs even once you’ve “arrived.” Some of that is simply the nature of being an entrepreneur – there’s a hypomanic quality that most of us have. It’s practically a prerequisite for starting your own business. But it can take a toll (seriously, read this article right now). One of the most helpful things for me is having the courage to be vulnerable and share my struggles with other people who can relate. Having a support system is huge. There will be days that you want to give up, and having a network of people who can empathize and keep you psychologically afloat can make all the difference in the world.
Hang in there. The longer you stick around and the more established you become, the more likely you are to be successful in the long term.
I wish there was a magic secret. Fortunately, wisdom, tips, and hacks are easy to find online. Access to information, strong relationships, and internal commitment (even when it sucks), are what’s necessary.