Would you like to go out on your own as a solopreneur? But afraid you won't be able to make a living? Being a solopreneur can be economically challenging, with 22 percent of full-time solopreneurs in the U.S. making less than $11,700 a year--below the poverty line for a single person.
But it doesn't have to be that way. If you're smart and professional, and good at what you do--and you take the right approach--you can make a perfectly good living in most solopreneur careers. Just ask Nathan Ryan, CEO of mobile and web design agency Toi. Ryan has worked as both a full-time employee in a large company (Disney), a solopreneur, and now as someone who hires solopreneurs for many of the agency's projects.
Ryan believes solopreneurship is the way of the future, and the statistics bear him out. Today, 30 percent of the U.S. work force are solopreneurs, a number expected to grow to 40 percent by 2020. With another 16 percent working on a contingent basis, it seems there will be fewer and fewer full-time permanent positions in the future.
So how do you succeed as a solopreneur? Ryan has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make these relationships work best both for creative solopreneurs and their clients, and he and Toi are hosting a lecture and discussion on the topic in Austin on November 16.
Here's some of his advice for success--and they're things the smartest solopreneurs never fail to do:
1. Before you take on a project, be very clear about its scope.
Many solopreneurs are so happy to get a project or gig that they say yes without asking too many questions. Don't make this mistake.
Imagine a copywriter who is hired to write four pages for a website, he says. "At the end of the two week engagement, it turns out the writer has ended up writing seven pages, and done two more rounds of revisions than she had signed on for, and it looks like the project needs another week of fine-tuning."
This creates an awkward situation where the copywriter faces three unpleasant choices: renegotiate the contract, do more work than she's being paid for, or say no and risk never being hired by this client (or any of their contacts) again. "This is an unclear relationship, it's an unclear scope, and it's the fault line for most relational and other project-related issues in the gig economy," Ryan explains. "It's usually nobody's fault and everybody's fault at the same time."
Problems like these can be avoided if you make clarity a priority from the beginning, he says. "Clarity, to me, is extremely important because it tells you what your boundaries are," he says. "Those boundaries consist of your goals, the budgets and timelines you have to work with, and so on. As a creative, this should be your first question when you approach any job: 'What are your expectations of me, and what are your expectations for the outcomes and deliverables of this project?'"
2. Plan to check in on project scope while the project is in progress.
One way to make sure a project stays on track and within its scope is to plan for checkpoints along the way as it progresses. This is an especially good idea for long-term projects, or projects that have several different elements or phases.
"It's important to know that expectations can and often do shift," Ryan says. "To that end, make sure you've established checkpoints along the way, where you not only check yourself, but check current standing against the original goals, roles, and vision."
If it looks like the project isn't fitting its original scope, or you see potential problems, don't wait to voice your concerns, Ryan advises. "In my experience, that is often more appreciated than running head first into them."
3. Be consistent.
Consistency is hugely important for both solopreneurs and their customers, Ryan says. As a one-person shop, it can be challenging to try and meet deadlines and provide the same quality work time after time. But it's important to get this right if you want your best clients to keep coming back to you again and again.
And you do want that. According to a Contently study, 49 percent of solopreneurs said getting enough work was their biggest challenge. Being consistent and dependable will keep customers with regular work coming back to you again and again. Just about every successful solopreneur career is built on these kinds of dependable long-term relationships.
4. Be human.
"All too often, companies look at their contracted workers, not as people, but as companies," Ryan says. Of course, as a solopreneur, you actually are a company. But the more the people you work with see you as a human being, the likelier they are to treat you like a human being, making sure to pay you on time, and understanding when you can't take on one more last-minute task, for example.
Ryan advises companies to make sure to treat the solopreneurs they hire as human beings. But you can help them keep in mind that you're a real person if you look for opportunities to connect with them on a human level. If you've only connected by email, pick up the phone, or make an for a video chat. Better yet, go meet your client in person if at all possible.
5. Be collaborative.
"The process of creating something is really all about collaborating," Ryan says. Whether you're creating a service or a book or a website, he says, it has to come from a meeting of the minds between the solopreneur and the client.
So don't necessarily expect to take on a job and then go off and do it all on your own. Expect to adjust based on input you'll get along the way. Whenever possible don't think of you and your client as "me" and "them." Think "we" as in, "We will really benefit if this project meets expectations and is completed on time."
Yes, you and your clients will sometimes have different priorities or competing interests. You will sometimes need to advocate for yourself when dealing with a client company to make sure you are treated fairly. But the more you can see that your interests are aligned, and the more you can work together for your mutual benefit, the more you will build the kind of solid relationships that will help you succeed as a solopreneur for a long time to come.