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Solopreneur Story: My 3rd Year in Business

Here's what my solopreneur story looked like in 2015 as I marked 3 successful years as a small business owner. What a journey!

“The path to success is often meandering. It can appear to be a series of random events and only in retrospect can one look back and connect the dots.”

Kind of unbelievable to think that three years ago this week, I left the successful startup I’d been working for to do something new. And what an awesome adventure it’s been so far!

The day I left I wasn’t sure what my future looked like, I just knew that I was incredibly unhappy, overworked and underpaid for what I accomplished for the companies I’d served. I had learned a lot in the first 14 years of my career, and knew that if it were to continue, it’d have to look much, much different.

I’d given my boss nearly 3 months’ notice. I met with a life/career coach. I sat down with industry colleagues who were working for themselves. And I even did the Live Your Legend toolkit‘s worksheets to figure out what the hell it was I wanted out of life (actually not cheesy like it sounds – I still refer back to it today).

Along with this, I'd interviewed for a variety of jobs  – a nonprofit partnership role (I withdrew when they said the job was on average 75 hours a week for 2/3 my current pay), an HR manager position (I was declined and told I should apply for a program manager role I had no experience in), a remote recruiter role for an e-commerce giant (I withdrew when the interviewers treated me like a robot and were insanely rude), and a very, very similar position to what I was in with another tech startup (I declined their multiple offers when they tried to get me to sign the equivalent to an indentured servitude agreement - not a hiring bonus, just a contract which said if I left in <2 years I’d be required to pay them $10K – something they only required of their NON-tech and offshore staff).

While this was happening, a colleague introduced me to someone who needed recruiting help and I thought well hey, I could put together a contract and help him out while I’m figuring stuff out. Plus hey, I’d learn a bit more about 1099 work. In this first gig, I filled five positions in four weeks.

Ding! Hell yeah.

So I stepped off the precipice, exhilarated and terrified, knowing as the saying goes that I’d either be caught or find my wings.

I found my wings, indeed.

After a few of these contracts, I realized I was in my niche. Good money doing what I was best at without the bureaucracy of going to irrelevant meetings, working hours that were incongruous with candidate needs, and freedom to lead and develop the processes for people who were paying me for just that. And as one wise soul reminded me, “Aimee, they pay you to hear what you have to say, tell them what you think (even if they don’t end up following your advice).”

"If you don't build your dreams, someone will hire you to build theirs." ~ Tony Gaskins

Over these years, I was able to see why everything I’d done before this had contributed to my success as a solopreneur. Sure, I sucked at longevity in companies – I got frustrated with bureaucracy, poor treatment, lack of equity, sexism, ageism, egos running amok, strange hierarchies and bad behavior. Most times I left on my own accord, and a couple I was shown the door. And you know what? I’m not ashamed of that anymore.

You know how you (hopefully) learn as you get older that the way people treat you has nothing to do with you, and all to to with them? While I’d learned this personally by my mid-30s and it made sense, for some reason it took a while longer to see that it was the same professionally. And what really did it was the fact that I came out of all my jobs – even the “bad fit” ones – with great recommendations and relationships that have lasted for years, and that when companies do things for the wrong reasons, I’ve seen time and again that karma’s a bitch (noting the company that fired me after my whistleblower complaint showed up in the news just months later for unfair hiring practices, ahem…).

"I used to walk into a room full of people and wonder if they liked me. Now I look around and wonder if I like them." ~ Rikkie Gale

While there’s no way I’ll be everyone’s BFF (nor honestly would I want to – I’m not that level of people pleaser), I’m proud of my longtime relationships, and try to encourage that sense of connection to my coaching clients. You seriously never know where people will pop up next in your life.

  • My coach? I worked with her 25 years ago.

  • My wedding singer? The local jazz singer who was my customer when I was a salesperson at Nordstrom in my teens.

  • Two friends? Former coaching clients?

  • A former coworker? Her husband worked for a company that became a big client of mine, and when that client’s hiring manager left for a new company, I was retained once again.

Relationships matter.

And during this journey, of course there were lots of lessons along the way. Some companies were totally on it and have been WAY fun to work with, a rare few would try to get away with not following the contract, and others had both awesomeness and craziness combined – the usual startup :). Best advice I ever got early on? Invest a good lawyer to write a contract that ensured delivery, service, and accountability – on both sides. Don’t negotiate your business model to please others. Along with this, which has worked well for me, I continue to occasionally seek the advice of my coach when my confidence lags. Because of this, I’ve been able to do great work and focus on continuous improvement in myself, and keep my eye on the prize.

Along with this, my coaching business got way more attention which I loved, and over these three years, I’ve helped 123 individuals create strong job search strategies, improving not only their resumes but their LinkedIn profiles, cover letters, networking skills, and more. I’ve introduced so many cool people to other cool people (my favorite part of the job) and partnered with other coaches (including my own) to put together a strong network of help for my clients. And it’s kept me a very, very busy gal.

Writing my book for job seekers was a tremendous project as well that I took on, and in 2015 my goal is to finally wrap that up and self-publish (I know I mentioned this a while back but those reading my more personal blog posts know what else has been on my mind during first half that’s distracted me a bit).

Lessons were everywhere.

"Shit ton is my favorite unit of measurement."

~ Bill Murray

I also tracked my successes, with recruiting metrics as follows:

  1. # Clients: 20

  2. # Hires: 45 - 1/3 are women

  3. Average Time to Fill: 29 days

  4. Retention/Promotion: 4 hires have hit their 3rd anniversary, 8 hires have hit their 2nd anniversary, 3 hires have hit their 1st anniversary, 5 hires have since been promoted!

  5. Client Growth: 7 have grown to the point where were able to hire their own in-house recruiter; 5 were acquired, have shrunk significantly in size, or are no longer operating.

I’ve found my voice and have been getting braver and unapologetic about who I am and what I have to offer, and have established myself as a resource with a strong network of others who do what I do. Why? Because I’m not always going to be the right fit for a company’s needs, and having recruited and coached for so long, can appreciate the diversity and talents of people who, like me, are passionate about what they do. I never want to be a “one size fits all” consultant because it’s just not how the world works – everyone has their strengths and I know what mine are. I’ve also been doing it long enough to know my value and that certain things are not negotiable.

"I would rather be completely exhausted from the hard times which breed success...than well rested from achieving nothing."

~ Unknown

And yes, I know there are still things I need to work on. Don’t we all?

  1. Finding ways to head things off at the pass will always be a goal of mine, as there are always new people that I’m meeting, and remembering that my business model’s uniqueness means that clients don’t always know where to fit me in, how to best communicate, or what level of interaction should occur.

  2. I also need to continue to focus more on assessing new recruiting clients TRUE hiring knowledge, skills and abilities in the hiring process – something I love doing! Even with the number of startups and other small businesses I’ve helped, there is no one roadmap to success, and that diversity is why I do it. We together come up with best practices that fit their needs and improve the overall quality and speed of the hiring process, and as more recruitments come up, we stay agile and honest about what is and isn’t working.

  3. And finally, digging deeper on prospective client reputation before engaging. You see, occasionally there will be a recruitment that will be technically easy to find candidates for, but the reputation or actions of the employer and/or hiring manager will end up being one that I’ll learn through the process is detrimental to my success as a recruiter – and my reputation for working with great companies. What sometimes happens now is when I start recruiting for a new client, and publicize this, folks come to me because they know I’ve got pretty good instincts about who’s good and who should be avoided, and I end up having an awesome pipeline for these clients for other roles. So the thing is, I can submit an incredibly diverse and talented pool of qualified candidates, but when through the process, candidates for a particular client come back to me over and over telling me that the hiring manager and/or executive has a bad reputation or treated them poorly in the process, I’ve got a problem. While I can’t always predict their behavior and sometimes it’s the candidate who’s part of the problem, I’ve learned to do more homework – a client reference checking process of my own – and more interviewing of the hiring team in advance of agreeing to a contract.

"I got my own back." ~ Maya Angelou

“Bossing Myself Better”

Finally, self-care as a solopreneur is an ongoing priority. Make sure you grab the oxygen mask first so you can help others, we all know this intellectually but sometimes we need reminders. I am a big fan of the article, How to Boss Yourself Better as a Solopreneur, and author Whitney’s 11 Simple Steps to doing so, which I’ve noted below along with a journal entry of sorts as to how I’m handling each of them.

1) Identify your areas of opportunity. See above. And keep them in mind every time I go into a new engagement.

2) Set office "hours" (or days). For me this is not hours as much as days. Whenever possible, I try to match my work schedule to my retail-working husband’s, which ensures that I have not only time with him, but that I work smarter during the hours that I allocate to work. Fortunately he is very accommodating and will pick up my half of the housework when I’m in a hardcore work mode, as I do for him when he’s been taking on extra shifts. This understanding and work/life balance is essential.

3) Create realistic agendas. See #2. And with that, going easy on myself when a recruitment doesn’t go as planned. I’m very hard on myself when I don’t meet my average time to fill, even though 9 times out of 10 it’s because the hiring manager is taking well beyond our agreed-upon turnaround time, or because we offered the job to someone but the candidate rejected it (so we had to keep interviewing).

4) Plan out incentives. Huge! Each time I fill a job I have a small treat that I promise myself, and when I get a “surprise” fill – i.e., I fill a job I wasn’t retained for, as occasionally happens, and get a check above and beyond what was anticipated – an investment is made. Most recently it was our long-postponed (and much needed) bathroom remodel project. Last year it paid for my final trip to Australia to move my then-fiance to the States, and the year before that it paid off my student loans (yeah!!!). Maybe not sexy to some, but being debt free (minus the mortgage) is a huge incentive to me that I achieved through super sharp budgeting!

5) Give yourself time off. Again, super important. We have one “real” vacation this fall but other than that, after all the craziness last year of my husband’s international relocation and getting married and going on honeymoon, trips in 2015 are minimized. So our “time off” is now one Zipcar trip (we don’t own a car) per month where we explore a new area in Oregon or SW Washington – most recently that was exploring several of the covered bridges in Scio! Doing this is vital for me to recharge and thereby give my 100% to my clients, equaling strong performance and greater career satisfaction. After all, I work to live, not the other way around!

6) Revamp your work space. Some will cringe, but I still primarily do most of my work out of my big chair in the living room. Yes, I have an office – our dining room that I converted to a space with a table, printer and a few files – but honestly, there’s a reason I am a solopreneur, and creating a cubicle at home is not one of them! One thing I did stop doing, however, is trying to work for an hour or two at a local cafe. While some like this, I found that I need a few hours of undistracted work time, and my belief is that people who spend half a day at a cafe and treat it like their office are being hugely disrespectful to small business owners and the other patrons who want a place to sit (but can’t because there’s a huge line of a-holes on their laptops who give you dirty looks if you talk or laugh at a normal volume while they order maybe two coffees and a scone over half a day). Not that I have an opinion or anything, ha...

7) Have your mission statement handy. Last year I really clarified my mission and added it to my business cards, and love how it is a constant reminder of why I do what I do. My mission is to “create real connections, build strong teams, and empower individuals.” Remembering that and ensuring my clients know my purpose as a service provider is vital. The clearer I am, the better I deliver. 

8) Minimize distractions. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of distractions. The only time I really do is when I don’t communicate to my husband that I’m working, so it’s my own fault when I get off track. So my statement is usually like this “I’m going to ignore you for a bit and do some work” and he knows to basically pretend like I’m not in the room. He’s my biggest supporter, so it’s never been a source of frustration for either of us.

9) Connect yourself with positive communities. Heck yeah. And for me, while I often recruit for tech-focused companies, I’ve found that typical tech networking groups aren’t always the best fit, but rather the people who are also solopreneurs. My marketing friend recently turned real estate agent who is getting her “sea legs” in her new role. My coach who is also a one-woman show and who I introduce many people to. My STEM and diversity champion friend who is balancing an amazing amount of work in the community to make a real impact (inspiration, y’all!). They support me and I support them – we cheer for each other, and that’s huge.

10) Forgive yourself, often and sincerely. The hardest and the most crucial. I can’t always be everything to everyone, and on rare occasions sometimes I have to walk away from a client who just doesn’t truly know what they want or are acting unethically or in other ways that put my business at risk. Understanding that success can look a thousand different ways is important, and that so many factors make a recruitment work. Not everything is within my control, so going easy on myself is a constant reminder, because as most solopreneurs know, we are hardest on ourselves. Which leads to the final tip…

11) Practice the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated, and with that comes communication to increase that empathy. The more I understand, the more I’ll be understood myself (eek, I may be ripping off a bit of 7 Habits in that statement…?) and the gentler I can be as a consultant. The idea of agility in recruiting and coaching is tremendous, and knowing when to be flexible and when to call something out has been a necessity for both my sanity and success. Recently I had a coaching client who was fighting me tooth and nail every step of the way, and it was clear that no matter what I said, she wasn’t really interested in my advice because she already thought she had all the answers. Because of this, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to help her and that she needed someone else, and so I cut her loose and referred her to a colleague who I thought might be able to provide her with a different perspective. Ultimately, my goal is to help people get closer to where they want to be, and if that’s matching them with someone other than me, so be it. Hey – that’s what I’d want if I were in their shoes!

So I’ve talked a LOT today at this 3 year marker. Where will I be in another 3 years? What’s my 5 year plan? Who knows. Who cares! Beyond “being happy”, I leave that up to me to continue to figure out as I go along. Because 10 years ago I never could have IMAGINED where I am today. And I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.

“Who are you going to listen to? You know what you desire and you know the life you want to lead. Quit waiting for approval and to build up your confidence.” ~ Cindy Nash-Hooker, from her interview on the Fearless Females Forum

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