I started my own business in 2012 after spending many years as a software developer and project manager for an IT consulting firm in Philadelphia. With that company, I had climbed my way up to a management position, but by the time I went out on my own, I was excited to cultivate my own roster of clients and actually make software again. I’ve essentially been a solo consultant ever since. I say “essentially” because I have had a few subcontractors work with me over the years, most notably a subcontracted developer who has been with me consistently since 2017 at about 15 to 20 hours per week. But the flow of work is completely dependent on my own sales and marketing efforts (or lack thereof), and I’ve learned a couple of important lessons along the way.
When you head out on your own, the idea of doing both the sales and the work can be daunting. You have to be in the moment, focused on the task at hand, and in the future making sure there’s enough work on the horizon. That can seem, and often is, pretty tricky. But what many people don’t realize is how quickly your capacity disappears. A few good clients can be all that is needed for a full plate when you only have one (or say, one and a half) mouth(s) to feed. So often, solopreneurs spend more time dealing with the problem of figuring out how to get everything done for their clients than finding more clients. The time spent looking out to the horizon lessens, and the time doing the actual work increases. Which leads to my second lesson.
It’s really easy to get a little too comfortable with your active roster of clients and forget that any of them can go away at any time, for any number of reasons. By 2014, after a couple of years in business, I had a solid roster, including one client that provided me with a steady and ongoing 15 hours of work per week. I could dial that work up and down as needed, leveling out the peaks and valleys of project work. For almost five years I enjoyed a consistency that kept my plate full, reduced the need for me to do any aggressive marketing or sales, and allowed me to be picky about taking on other clients and projects. Then one day, the truly unexpected happened. I got the call that my steady-as-she-goes client wasn’t going to be able to continue. It took about six weeks to finish out the backlog of other work I had queued up, and I didn’t ramp up my sales and marketing efforts fast enough, leading to the kind of valley I hadn’t experienced in years. Fortunately, I was able to go back to several clients on my rosters and shake some work out of the trees. I also aggressively pursued a few leads that had come in and secured a few more projects for the next several months. But those projects have beginnings, middles, and ends, so I need to keep an eye on the horizon and be prepared for what’s next.
Takeaways: when you head out on your own don’t just ramp up your sales and marketing efforts to attract clients, also be prepared for managing all of the work that will be on your plate when you get those clients. Going from an empty plate to a full plate can happen very quickly. Keep your client roster as diverse as you can and be sure you don’t get too comfortable with the work that came with that roster. Any client can disappear at any time! Be prepared.
The ebb and flow of solopreneurship can be stressful enough for some to get out of the game. I’m not one of them. I enjoy the challenge of finding work, executing projects, and managing client relationships. But, no matter how confident or experienced I am with my work, if I put too many eggs in one basket, get too comfortable with an active roster of clients, or lose sight of the horizon, I can easily fall victim to the ups and downs of solopreneurship.