10 Things I’ve Learned From 18 Years as a Solopreneur

On June 16, 1997, I hung out my shingle as a consultant and solopreneur. I was 27, and had just resigned a group brand manager position at a Fortune 200 company after 10 weeks of employment.

Clearly, that wasn’t the place for me.

Eighteen years later, I’m happy, business is good, and the best is yet to come.

What follows are some lessons I’ve learned, whether you’re a solopreneur, a consultant or merely curious.

1.  There is no “work/life balance.”

Life balance is the goal, and work is one part of life. If your business no longer excites you, change it or close it.

2.  Take a clear position.

When I started out, I told people I was a “marketing consultant.” What a dummy! That offered no clarity as to what I did. It was a classic case of “strategist, heal thyself.”

It wasn’t until I focused only on what I was most passionate about – core brand strategy, positioning and ideation – that my business really took off. Now, when asked what I do, I respond, “I help brands define what they’ll stand for and how they’ll win.”

Are your colleagues and prospects clear on how you serve?

3.  Your time is your inventory.

Track it rigorously. Analyze it regularly. Invest it accordingly.

4.  Never work for free.

In the late ‘90s, when everyone was high on dot-com fumes, many of us were asked to work for free against a percentage of the client’s future profits (which, of course, were going to be HUGE). I refused every time. Of the half-dozen dot-coms that offered me this “deal,” none survived three years. Anyone who wants you to work for free does not respect you or your time.

Actually, sometimes work for free. I’ve done pro bono work for a local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and that was rewarding and educational. I absolutely won’t let a stranger “pick my brain,” even if I get a free lunch out of the deal. That’s cheap. See above.

Related note: Agencies, never do spec work. The client is asking you for a solution to their problem, for which you will receive insufficient information, time and compensation. Smokin’ deal! Take the time you would spend on spec, and invest it in targeting your ideal clients. Your business will be better off.

5.  Keep a small nut.

For example, I’ve never invested in office space, and that hasn’t cost me a single sale. Low overhead means freedom to choose work that excites you.

6.  Your zone is your own.

I know a solopreneur who puts on a suit every day, even if he’s working from home, and he keeps a disciplined 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. day. Me? I’m a t-shirt guy around the house, with a more flexible schedule. We’re both doing just fine. There are many ways to do this. Find what works for you.

7.  “Work smart, not hard” is a false choice.

Whether you’re lazy or inefficient, the outcome will be about the same. Work smart and hard, and you’ll be tough to catch.

8.  Take the lessons from the lumps.

My horror stories aren’t so horrible – some good happy-hour fodder, but no permanent scars.

On one project, two team members tried to steal money from the rest of us. Two clients have threatened to dishonor a written agreement, just because they didn’t feel like paying. (One of them later requested my assistance with his job search!) In the worst case, an agency president reneged on a verbal agreement after four of us had completed considerable work on his behalf, withholding the deep five-figure sum we were promised. (That’s our fault, for not insisting that our project leader get it in writing from Mr. “My Word Is My Bond.”)

There are plenty of good people in this world, and there’s no need to give a second chance to those with no ethical compass. Learn what you can, close the doors that should be closed, protect your downside, and move forward. (If you figure out how to do this without harboring revenge fantasies, let me know.)

9.  A little grey hair doesn’t hurt.

Just sayin’.

10.  Solopreneur is a misnomer.

I’ve never worked alone. I know a bunch of people whose minds and character I trust, and sometimes we get to work and play together. I’ve got an amazing personal support network. My clients have been terrific. And I get to learn from sharp people I’ve never met, through the writing of people like Tim Ferriss, Derek Sivers and Michael Porter. What a life!

My “without whom” list is lengthy, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do what I love for this long. I’m looking forward to the next 18!

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2015 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.