Entrepreneurship For Introverts: The How-To Here's how you can make your personality type work for you.
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In 2018, after two solid decades of being an employee, I decided to start my own business, The Loop, a UAE-based enterprise that provides tailored solutions for communications, marketing, and public relations. In those two decades of working for someone else, I had done everything from changing jobs and job descriptions, developing and implementing business strategies, delivering on targets, and leading and managing teams. However, what I had not done was work alone. What I also had not done was business development.
That said, the first few months of going out on my own were fine– there was so much to do though! From finding the correct license and visa (the visa part is a shock to the system if you've always been on an employment visa in the UAE) to finetuning my business strategy, to finalizing a name, logo, and website, I wasn't ever short of things to do through this period.
But once that was done, it was time to get to the actual work: find a paying client. Fortunately, I had the goodwill and a reputation for producing quality work with my former employers, and they were the first port of call for business development. Getting two interesting, challenging, and financially worthy projects was a head start, but as I started the work, I realized a few things. Working in a quiet house on my dining table wasn't what I thought it would be. I had cut my teeth and grown professionally working in busy offices, surrounded by people, with my days interspersed with meetings (something I thought I hated), coffee breaks, and small talk.
I also had people to whom I could delegate work. For instance, I did not have to worry about patchy internet, or the printer that wouldn't work, or putting together countless documents that my girl or guy Friday had done until then. I also knew that I could not continue to rely on the two former employer-turned-clients forever. I needed to "develop" business.
But the biggest challenge was the fact that I knew I was an introvert- and all those psychometric tests over the years had confirmed that. However, I also needed occasional people and conversations to get my brain working optimally. But now, with no access to preferred colleagues/work friends that I could rock on to for a quick natter, I had to find those people. If you've been that quiet kid in the classroom (aka the one who avoids sitting in the front, does not raise their hand even when they know the answer, and never knows how to respond to a compliment), getting to be an adult who's a functional introvert is an achievement.
Indeed, I was a functional introvert. For instance, I would speak at meetings, though only after much deliberation about the quality and utility of my input. I developed and maintained cordial working relationships -and even made some friends- over my 20 years of work.
Naheed Maalik and Rachel Lloyd, co-founders, The Loop. Source: The Loop
All this, however, was not good enough when you weren't just a part of the business, but the face and the soul of one. I was The Loop, and I couldn't hide in my workplace sticking to the claim that developing strategies for building and enhancing brands is a back-office job. I had to create an elevator pitch for my business, meet many new people, and work and develop meaningful engagements with some that would eventually lead to business. In short, I had to strategically develop The Loop's brand, and I was the principal, very visible, and non-negotiable part of that strategy.
"Hell is other people"- this Sartre quote had been my mantra whenever I wanted out of a professional and personal situation that involved meeting lots of people, and making lots of small talk. Now, I had to do both: meet people in set-ups where small talk was the fuel that kept it going.
My first professional networking event was one modelled on speed dating. At the end of it, I had a parched throat, a hoarse voice, and a throbbing head after talking about my business and myself, while also listening to the 20+ pitches from the persons sitting across. But this experience did introduce me to two individuals, whom I met again several times, and one later became a client, and then a friend, in that order.
It also turned out that Dubai was (and is now even more so) a hotbed of networking events- you just had to find the right fit. Several months and a dozen events later, I found a handful that I am still associated with. Five years after its launch, The Loop has also found its niche and consolidated its vision. We know where we are headed, and how we will get there.
In these five years, only a few of our clients have directly come to us via the networks I've been part of. It's been mostly word of mouth, referrals by existing happy clients that do the job. But -and it's a vehement but- networking has been a mainstay in both professional and personal senses. Professionally, it's helped us build our brand, analyze what's out in the market, find partners who complement our services, make connections that add value to our work, find stories and commentators for the media and journalists we work with, and continuously finetune what we offer.
Personally, I've found a tribe. Some are small business owners like myself, and we've shared the angst of feeling rudderless at times and the thrill of feeling buoyant at others. A handful are now friends– the type I speak and hang out with regularly. Looking back, though, the most crucial thing that networking did for me was that it brought me out of the self-imposed "introvert" shell. It gave me a level of sanity on days when everything seemed bleak and unworkable. And it made me an ambivert entrepreneur.
So, if you think of yourself as an introverted entrepreneur, here are my top tips -based off my own experiences- to help you navigate the landscape of business:
1. Focus on your strengths, and use them to grow your business Introverts are focused beings prone to digging deep into any task. Thorough and meaningful research comes naturally to them. And all of these are useful strengths when you're an entrepreneur. My research skills have helped me understand clients and their businesses, and make connections that may not be immediately visible, leading to creative content and campaigns that have served our clients well.
2. Recharge often, and manage your energy Introverts need to balance their time with people, and their time alone. A fellow introvert entrepreneur once admitted to disappearing to go sit alone in the toilet for a few minutes when she needed time alone at a busy event! As such, plan your week so that you keep specific days for meetings and networking events, and the rest for completing your work alone. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be stuck at home- I am more productive working in cafes and co-working spaces, surrounded by a human soundtrack, but with no compulsion to join in.
3. Work with an extroverted partner and have them supplement your weak areas Having a good business partner is a true blessing; if you are an introvert, having an extroverted business partner is the best you can hope for. This is easier said than done, as finding the right person to partner with isn't easy. But if you do, share responsibilities, and play to your strengths. At The Loop though, we are two introverts running the show; so, we share tasks based on our strengths and our state of mind on any given day.
4. Follow up larger networking events with one-on-one catchups If you meet 50 people at an event, you will likely want to meet less than five of them again. Meet them one-on-one; that's what introverts are best at forming individual connections, taking deep dives into conversations, and getting to a level of understanding that's almost impossible in larger groups. A new business is a slow-growing tree, and meaningful engagements are like the fertilizer that helps it grow.
5. Deal with your inner critic The dreaded impostor syndrome sometimes hits most of us, but an introvert's inner critic is a notch above. Introverts aspire to perfection and are self-critical. The constant self-questioning and self-doubt can pull anyone down, and with introverts, the effect is more intense, as they don't share their angst with others. It's a journey, but make an effort to deal with the demon, and quieten your inner critic.
To conclude, introversion and extroversion are both personality traits, and they can either be your superpowers or stumbling blocks in the world of business– after all, it's about striking a balance between being a silent observer and a non-stop commentator. That said, soft skills including the ability to hold conversations and forming connections are vital as an employee- but they are non-negotiable when you're an entrepreneur.