Conventional wisdom says a successful startup needs to quickly become more than its founder. In order for you to scale, clients need to hire your company, not you.
In fact, your company must be capable of thriving without you. Real success is only found when you are seen as a small cog in a big, bad, customer-satisfying machine.
But just as one size never fits all, one entrepreneurial approach doesn't fit every entrepreneur--like Robbie Abed, an IT consultant and author of Fire Me I Beg You. (Robbie is currently offering a free 12-week course on leaving your day job called Summer of Quitting.)
Here's Robbie's story:
There I was at my desk staring at an email I had received 5 minutes earlier.
Thank you for all your help, Robbie. We decided to use (Competitor X) for this project. I hope we can work together in the future.
I had quit my job a year before to start a digital agency as a solo founder. I thought I had everything figured out before I quit. I did my research and read every article and book under the sun. The industry needed me!
At least that's what I thought.
A full year into the start of the company, and I was at a complete loss. I hadn't just wanted to win this client; I needed to win this client.
What went wrong? While I tried to figure that out, I fantasized about replying to its email like this:
Really? After all that time I spent with you on free design sessions? I was the reason you decided to go the route you took. I'm the one who showed you the research that supported your direction with the project. I answered all your questions. I clearly proved I knew what I was talking about.
My firm is obviously the best choice for this project, so best of luck. I hope (Competitor X) messes it up.
Of course I knew better than to send that email. I lost to someone better than me. Competitor X had a better team and a better client portfolio. My company was just me and a few freelancers. I was still in the "fake it till you make it" stage.
So rationally I understood…but understanding didn't make my problem go away. This wasn't one of those, "It's OK, Robbie. This happens all the time. You can learn from it. Stay strong and you will land more clients."
It wasn't okay because I needed the money to survive. I needed to show my wife that quitting my job was a good decision for us financially. Something needed to change.
I needed help.
I called everyone I thought might be able to help me. I even called the founder of the competitor I lost the project to. (But I didn't have the guts to tell him I was going through a crisis because he won a project I desperately needed to win.)
Yet those conversations didn't really help. I was just mumbling a bunch of words. I wasn't listening to their advice. I was still in shock.
This wasn't how it was supposed to end.
I spent the weekend thinking about all the clients I had won and lost in the past year. Why did some clients hire me and others did not? Failure meant going back to the corporate world as a full-time employee; I could crawl back to a previous employer with my head down…or I could figure it out.
I finally figured it out: Clients had hired me, not my firm.
If I wanted to survive, I needed to change my brand so clients would see and hire me directly. In one weekend, I went from a founder of a company I had poured my heart and soul into and became an Independent IT Consultant. It's as if the company I created never existed.
("Company? What company? I don't know you're talking about.")
I changed my LinkedIn profile, email signature, and personal website and stripped out every reference to my company a client might see. I never used the word "we." Everything was "I" and "me."
One month later, landing a long-term client provided a lifeline and allowed me to stay independent. That client knows nothing about my previous company or my quarter-life crisis. All they know is that they like working with me.
And that confirmed what I had suspected. For me, the best approach is "me," not "we."
Six months later I bumped into Client Y, the client I lost. He said his project wasn't going well. He asked if I could help.
I said, "Sorry, I'm not in that business anymore."
I never could have imagined at the time, but losing out to a competitor was the best thing that ever happened to my business.