The Hermit Entrepreneur's Toolkit
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We all know what passes for gospel in our brand-driven, always-on culture: “Network your way to the top.” “Just say yes.” “Get out there!”
But what if you stopped all that networking? What if you distilled your business development to the bare minimum and still managed to grow your company? What if -- instead of getting out there -- you could simply stay in?
I'm much more comfortable in my home office than I am selling to a room, yet I own a successful business for which I am the primary sales driver. My business requires me to network, schmooze and take lots of meetings. It means I regularly fly thousands of miles on my own dime to meet a potential client or give a talk. And it means I must keep a robust social media presence even as sharing makes me incredibly self-conscious.
It’s enough to make me want to hide in the bathroom.
Over the years, I've developed a formula that allows me to play to my strengths and nourish my introversion -- to focus less on the outcome of “success” and more on the everyday. I never will be relaxed on flights or stop getting anxiety attacks before a meeting. But I’ve grown a business that can sustain the real me. I call myself a “hermit entrepreneur.”
What’s a hermit?
Being a hermit is a lifestyle choice. It’s different from being an introvert. An introvert still can choose to get out there to build a billion-dollar company (and many do). A hermit is willing to compromise on some things (e.g., that billion dollars) if it means achieving the life he or she wants most days. It’s saying, “I’ll be able to be in my yoga pants three days a week while running a successful operation, and I accept the limitations to my business.”
Let me emphasize that: Accept limitations. Ambitious people can get frustrated, seeing others succeed as they grow slowly. You might feel wildly jealous or even ambivalent about your choices when you see a former colleague score a massive success. If you want to be a successful hermit, you have to accept you won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg.
I love being a hermit entrepreneur. I find my natural equilibrium at home, with my family and my animals and my garden. It's where I feel safe. But I am also very ambitious. I’ve structured my business so I literally can be at the United Nations one day and digging in the dirt at home with my kids the next. I usually work two or three days a week at home. The other two or three I spend "out in the world," selling, speaking, schmoozing.
Ready to stay home?
Here are my essential levers to grow your business, land new clients and do the work you love while keeping business development, travel, networking and extracurriculars to a minimum.
Own your niche.
It’s easier to compete when the pool is smaller and your expertise is greater. You can control your category with less effort, and your clients will come to you for exactly what you offer. That’s less selling for you -- and clear-cut expectations from them. When you’re a true expert in a true specialty, people seek you out. This increases your value in the marketplace and demands less asking from you. It also gives you permission to say no to projects outside your expertise. That's a smart move because those are the "opportunities" most likely to cause undue stress or cost overruns.
Former TV producer Ana Flores created the "hyper-niche” company We All Grow Latina, a powerful online community focusing on Latina social media influencers. By "owning that we are unapologetically about the Latina woman’s experience,” she’s created a powerful business, unlike any in the marketplace. She explains it this way: “With platforms and apps bombarding us all the time, the natural instinct is to compete with influencer marketplaces that are all about reaching everybody. But I think there is much more of a need for expert voices.”
Develop a digital franchise.
Creating "evergreen" online content -- stories with a long shelf life -- is the easiest way to generate a passive business stream. Susan McPherson specializes in helping create social-good campaigns for companies. She created #CSRchat as a way to interview leaders in corporate social responsibility (CSR). This audience lives at the core of her business, and her Twitter chats became sought-after destinations for CSR leaders.
Know your pipeline.
You want to grow slowly, not come to a halt. Keep a pipeline document that records every proposal or strong indication of interest in a new project. For each entry, include the client, contact, last meeting date, scope of work, contract size and potential to close. You'll be able to scan quickly and spot patterns. For example, you might discover you have $250,000 in business-development prospects but only $25,000 in your bank account. Time to get moving and close some business!
My own pipeline document extends years back. It not only shows me potential new clients in play but also allows me to review my win rate over time. I want to know how many contracts get closed and how many warm leads simply die.
Follow the “10 touches” rule.
My husband, an experienced entrepreneur, taught me this one. You can incorporate it in your workflow, too: Every week, reach out and connect with 10 people in your network. Think about past clients, colleagues, friends, mentors. The "touch" can be a phone call, a lunch, a coffee. Or it can be virtual -- even a Facebook message counts. It’s another way to drive business your way, make contacts, stay in the loop and network (all without leaving the house).
Do what you love.
Doing what you love is the simplest way to love what you do. It’s amazing how your shyness can disappear when you’re selling something you really believe in. That something might actually be a someone. Helping people find new jobs is a wonderful way to forge strong connections.
Be ruthless ... with your time.
The wealth of experts in this information age means you could go to a conference or industry event every day. But is that a good use of your travel schedule? Reflect on the trips you've made and the resources you've expended to get there. Which conferences brought new relationships that paid off? Which were simply ego boosts? If you absolutely have to attend, be sure you book tons of meetings to maximize your time there.
Identify your “superconnectors.”
Your superconnectors are people who have referred you a lot of work, introduced you to great opportunities or provided an authentically warm introduction to other amazing people. A yearly event, organization or exceptional newsletter can function in a similar role. Map out your networks and find out who (or what) your superconnectors are. Then, make sure you treat them very well! Most of your future work will come from these sources because they help expand your network and drive new business leads.
Recognize not all clients are equal.
Part of growth is choosing clients who will allow you to maintain boundaries while earning your living. This isn't about “reaching scale" -- it's about profitability and sustainability. You need a cross-section of clients who can speak for you. Think about your client mix in terms of public perception and business development:
- Vanity clients. These are the big names you can brag about. They give you instant credibility in the marketplace and increase your company's value. When you work with a vanity client, you must focus on providing fantastic service. Do that, and income will follow from the other clients they bring to your door. Nothing is better business development than a happy big-name client.
- Long-term clients. Things can get a little stale in a long-term relationship, and your eyes occasionally might wander. But you're always there for each other -- in part because these usually are multi-year retainer contracts. You have deep ties across organizations and institutional memory of shared experiences or client preferences.
- High-margin clients. You'll never brag about these clients (if you're smart). They pay really well, are low-churn and offer a cash infusion in uncertain times. And of course, good work is always great for word of mouth, so make sure you give them your best effort. You never know who knows whom.
- Just-for-the-love clients. Would you do the work for free because you love this client's cause or brand? Maybe you just really want the experience. Whatever the case, price it low or do it pro bono -- and dive in. If you work with nonprofits of varying size, you'll need to identify the right blend of smaller organizations (which tend to offer a lower hourly rate) and larger not-for-profits (which have bigger budgets to handle their more complex issues).
- Short-term clients. These clients are a lot of work to set up and often come with a high turnover rate. Even so, you can't afford to dismiss them entirely. They can lead to long-term work or positive referrals.
Still wondering about proportions? For me, the ideal mix is 50 percent long-term retainer clients (each with a current contract of six or 12 months) and another 40 percent in short-term engagements (projects lasting six weeks to three months). I save 10 percent for pro bono work, just for the love.
Related: How to Prioritize Your Prospects
You must plan your growth carefully -- and then tell the people around you. Share with your team members, advisers and spouse/partner the strategies you've selected. This helps them get comfortable with your expectations and smoothes the way for you to adjust your life accordingly.
Everyone’s boundaries are different. For example, one of my colleagues likes to keep her work correspondence strictly during the 9-to-5. I've learned I need several hours alone each day. If possible, I take that space in the middle of my day. I don't mind if that means clients are emailing me after hours or we talk on a Saturday.
Being a hermit has meant sacrifices, less success relative to some of my peers and a slower path. But I love it. I’ve made a life for myself that I can earn enough money to sustain. Honestly, that's my real version of success.