I operate a solo design shop—have for more than 20 years and counting. Which doesn’t mean that I do every single thing by myself. No, I, like many other solopreneurs have my coterie of adjunct service providers. Great people I can count on for marketing copy, commercial photography, coding, etc. But when it comes to getting business, keeping business and making business happy, I am definitely a solo shop.
So how do I feel about that? Well, there is a plus side and a minus side and I am well versed in both.
Let’s get the minus side out of the way first. Marketing myself sucks! So much so I don’t do it. I think about it a lot. Sometimes I even have good ideas, but then my thoughts turn hairy. How can I ever stand out in the crowd? What’s the point of tooting my own horn in a cacophony of horns? Wouldn’t it better to just sit back and wait for referrals from clients and associates? After all, that is more of a sure thing. Except…how often does a referral wander in? And how many times can you beat the same bushes? So if you are me, marketing sucks. On the other hand, I love meeting new people and I love what I do. Talking about my work is easy and somehow I do manage to sell myself in spite of myself. Which brings us to networking.
Over the years I have joined—oh I don’t know how many networking groups. The problem with most networking groups is they are too much like speed dating with musical chairs. I am never sure if anyone is actually listening or if I will be the one left standing. Nevertheless, I continue to dive in with both feet. Truth is I have gotten some wonderful referrals from connections made through networking groups. When you go fishing you never know if you will catch anything, but if you don’t throw your line, you definitely won’t. And unlike fishing, you might land a truly big fish well after you pulled in your line.
If any of you are reading this in the hopes that I have a magic solution to the “I hate marketing” problem and that I am about to share it with you, you would be wrong. Sorry, there are no magic tricks. Just hard work, persistence and persistence. Did I mention persistence?
Now on to the positive side of being a solopreneur. I love my life, I love my work and I love my clients. I get to make deep connections with good people and organizations, their concerns, their needs and the problems they have to solve. I get to feel like I belong and that I am of service.
Another plus is that I get to drive the process. I am my own art director, creative director and head critic. I have a lot of respect for the people with whom I collaborate and they are often very wise in the feedback they provide—feedback that can shape the final product. Clients hire me because of my esthetic approach and stay with me because I take good care of them and I am not stingy with my time.
Working alone provides the quiet space to really think about a problem and find creative solutions—without the distractions of a typical office environment. So while marketing is my downfall, I thrive in solitude. You really can’t make it as a solopreneur unless you are happy spending lots of time alone and are highly self-directed, i.e., you need to be your own boss.
One last plus—and this is a big one. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from knowing that everything about my business I built from scratch by myself. I may not be the hottest Instagram star, I won’t be listed in graphic design books and fortune 500 companies are not knocking on my door, but I have learned to take my measure not in the outward trappings of success, but in the number of people I have touched. Clients know they can depend upon me to make them look good—on time and on budget—and that matters to them and to me..
So to wrap things up, I have no magic tricks for how to survive as a solo designer. But here are a few simple and self-evident bits I have garnered from experience..
Everything you need to know to do your job well will come from your client, so listen carefully and ask a lot of questions.
You are providing a service which means that someone is depending on you, so you need to earn their trust.
Your work for your client needs to live in their world not yours, so don’t expect them to love every new design trend you try out on them. This is not your “art”.
Be honest, straightforward and coherent when you disagree with your client’s ideas. They are paying you for your best thinking as well as your time. Make sure you able to defend your ideas in terms to which your client can relate.
And finally, when all else fails, be charming. It is truly amazing how far that will get you. My motto in life has always been FLIRT! Flirt with everyone and everything—men, women, dogs, cats, your competition, grandmas, grandpas, babies in strollers, uptight CEOs, daffodils and hummingbirds, even the person reading your blog.
Really, why not?