Five years ago today, I officially became a solopreneur. When my lease became effective on March 1st, 2013, I had no idea what the next five years would have in store for me. I was prepared for failure or success, but I’m grateful that I’ve found success and so much more.
I am often asked what it takes to be successful in this field, or just as in independent business owner. I have taken the past week to reflect upon that, which I share with you here.
- Cultivate an energy of abundance.
When I began studying massage therapy and Reiki in 2011, I had a good job at the University of Chicago, which included a healthy salary and benefits. I could have continued with business as usual, but I knew I had something that I wanted to offer to the world that meant me stepping out of that comfort zone.
That said, I knew it was a bad idea to rush in, and so I came up with a plan that would put me in a good position financially. That way, when I met potential clients, I could approach them with equanimity, knowing that I would be fine whether or not they decided to use my services or not. Had I left U of C when I wanted to, instead of being patient and starting my business as a side gig, I would have felt desperate, and potential clients would have felt that energy and been repelled by it. So, if you’re thinking of taking the leap, come up with a plan that will make you feel secure, and stick to that plan to set yourself up for success.
- Know what you want to do, start doing it and follow the signs.
This is a bit of a variation on the idea of not worrying too much about the “how.” It is about getting clear on the bigger picture of what you want rather than focusing on the details. When I finished massage school in late 2012, I didn’t have a plan. I liked doing massage therapy and Reiki, but I didn’t see how I could quit my job at U of C and still support myself. So I figured I’d just get started and see what opportunities arose. I set up an extra room in my apartment as a massage and Reiki space and began working with clients who were friends, or friends of friends.
By February of 2013 I had a lead – completely unsolicited by me – on a space near Lincoln Square. My friend new an acupuncturist there, and they were looking to rent a room to a massage therapist. I shrugged it off, thinking I wasn’t ready, and then a different friend told me about the same space! I knew enough to recognize that this was no coincidence but rather the universe trying to get my attention. I gave in and set up an appointment to go see the place, and less than two weeks later, I signed a lease. That space is the same space I work out of today, and I couldn’t have asked for a better fit.
After that experience, I tried to be more intentional about asking for guidance and following the signs. When I got the clear go-ahead from the Universe/God (and had met the criteria I’d set out in my plan – see #1), I decided to leave my job at U of C. If I had really pored over the numbers, health insurance, taxes, retirement and everything else, I wouldn’t have taken the leap. But I did, and within a year or so, everything fell into place for me to take the big leap. I’ve been a full-time massage therapist and Reiki teacher for almost four years now.
- At first, say “yes” to everything, then know when it’s time to say start saying “no.”
When I was just starting out, I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way. Whether it was offering free massages after a local 5k, presenting a free energy self-care workshop to mental health professionals or accepting an invite to a random networking event, I always said “yes.” Even if the particular opportunities I said “yes” to didn’t provide direct value, I was putting my money where my mouth was. That is, the energy of my actions was in integrity with the energy of my intentions, and thus opportunities continued to come my way.
I even regularly said “yes” to seeing clients on my days off, something I now very rarely do. As I’ve become more established in my field, I have shifted gears, knowing that if I say “yes” to everything, I will become burnt out and will no longer be able to offer the value that I provide. I still say “yes” a lot – probably too much – but I have learned to become more comfortable with saying “no.”
- Recognize the value you offer and accept compensation for that value.
As I transitioned from a salaried position to a fee-for-service solopreneurship, I had to become comfortable with accepting money in exchange for my time, energy and expertise. The best way to do this, I’ve found, is by focusing on the value you offer rather than the fee you charge. The money is secondary, simply the other half of the energy exchange between me and my clients. Charging a rate that is fair – not too high and not too low – conveys respect for both me and my clients.
- Check your workaholic tendencies.
Since the whole of the success of my business is on me, and since I truly desire to be of the highest service possible to as many clients as possible, balance can be elusive. I have a tendency to always want to do more – see one more client on an already full day, make my website just a little bit better, tweak my Reiki classes every time I teach, attend that workshop that I really don’t have time for, pursue that great idea I just had.
I have gotten much better about not seeing clients on my days off and giving myself enough time between clients, and I’m quite good at remembering to take vacations. Yet I – like most humans – am still figuring out how to stay balanced. What I’ve found most helpful so far is defining my boundaries clearly and sticking to them, as well as pursuing activities and relationships outside of my work that I truly enjoy. One positive side effect of moving from a salaried employee to a one-woman business is that I am more discerning about how I spend my time because my time is truly mine.
- Doing the personal work is more important than ever.
Working in a field like mine, the personal is the professional. Who I am in my life outside of work comes through in my work, and vice versa. If my personal life is a mess, or if I’m not taking good care of myself, it comes through in my work. Even if I’m the only one who notices, it chips away at my confidence and takes away from the enjoyment I normally take from my work.
What does personal work mean? To me it means being vigilant about my physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health. And it means forgiving myself when I start to slip in one of those areas, which then allows me to course correct.
According to the American Massage Therapy Association, the average massage therapist burns out in five to seven years. It takes a strong commitment and careful attention to self-care to not become one of these statistics. There is no one-size-fits-all self-care plan, and it is important to be fluid about it, to learn to listen to yourself and notice what you need. This could be anything from yoga to meditation to therapy to vacation to a social outlet to simply slowing down and remembering to be present.
As I keep doing the work, I bring that growth and learning to my clients as well, which is one of the perks of being in the holistic health field. The personal is the professional.
- Always be learning.
In order to keep myself motivated and engaged, I try to always be learning something new. This may come in the form of formal continuing education classes, but it takes many other forms as well. If I pay attention, there is something to be learned from each person I work with, whether something that enhances my own professional skill set or simply learning from who they are as a person (that idea that everyone is a Buddha, i.e. a teacher).
I also engage in other ongoing learning activities, including yoga, self-Reiki, reading, on-line resources, podcasts. Several months ago I started incorporating essential oils into my practice, and in addition to taking a course in AromaTouch therapy, I simply try to learn about a new oil every week. I like to visit other holistic practitioners and, while benefiting from their work, also learn from their approach and technique or modality. I recently took a yoga nidra class where I learned to practice a form of meditation that helped me to understand my Reiki practice in new ways. And finally, one of the things that teaches me the most (and also scares me the most) is teaching, and so I am trying to do more of that.
- Stay connected.
Even as a relatively introverted person, it’s easy to get lonely as a solopreneur. I left my job at U of C at the same time that my closest friend in Chicago moved to LA. That summer felt a bit like a free fall, as my practice wasn’t yet very busy, and I had cut way back on running so no longer had the built-in community that came with marathon training. Add to that a non-9-to-5 schedule, and I felt like I was in free fall. I realized quickly that I needed support.
Thankfully I had the camaraderie that comes with working in a clinic with other solopreneurs who do similar work, so my work wasn’t as solitary as the work-from-home solopreneur. Still, there is something a bit lonely about being the only one who is really invested in the success of my business. While I didn’t miss the frustrations that come with working on projects with a team, I missed the shared investment and the sharing of ideas and support. I also spend a lot of time in silence in a small dark room working with my clients.
So I accepted an invitation to a networking group called Business Networking International (BNI) and soon was a founding member of a new chapter. Those weekly meetings kept me connected with a group of over twenty business owners, many of them also solopreneurs, who supported me and who I also supported. I looked forward to Thursday mornings at 7:15am, despite the early wake-up call.
Eventually I became quite busy in my practice and decided to leave my networking group. I still maintain contact with and exchange services with a number of them, and those connections have led to other connections to local businesses and business owners.
Now my main challenge is to maintain balance and not become overwhelmed by the volume of work and the tasks to keep a successful business running. When I start feeling out of balance, I make it a point to stay connected with others, both personally and professionally. If I’m feeling particularly disconnected, I tend to isolate myself even further, and it is in those moments that I make a point of reaching out and connecting. In essence this is really a form of self-care.
- To steal one from my networking group, BNI, “givers gain.”
We can either approach a situation wondering what we can get out of it, or we can go in thinking about what we have to offer. This one goes hand in hand with #1 because if I am suffering from a sense of lack, it is much more difficult to feel like I can afford to give something to others.
So how do I bring this principle into my day-to-day? In general I try to remember that I am in this business to be of service. With each client or potential client, I take the time to listen and understand their goals, then do what I can to help them with their goals. I try to leave my own stuff outside of the treatment room and simply be present with the person in front of me. In so doing, I end up gaining because my work is more gratifying when I am focused on it, plus my clients are more likely to see results, which means I am more likely to attract others who are looking for results. See? Givers gain.
I also try to take this concept beyond service provision and apply it to business practices and life in general. This means compensating people fairly for their services and products – and being grateful that I can afford to do so. It means donating gift certificates to organizations I believe in, including The Breathe Network, YogaCare and several local elementary schools. It means supporting other local businesses, even if their prices are a little bit higher. It means taking the time to meet with people who want to transition careers or who want support in amping up their Reiki practice. It means providing referrals to people who do good business. It means saying thank-you – whether with a discount or a gift – to people who support me and my work.
- Practice gratitude.
In the end it all comes down to gratitude. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I do, for the life I have built, for all of the signs that led me here, to all of the people who have supported me along the way. Remembering to practice gratitude, to feel it even when I am sad, exhausted or anxious, confused or just plain stressed, is what keeps me steady and grounded. I didn’t always feel so grateful. It has taken practice. And with that practice, I have come to understand that I am stronger and more capable than I once believed myself to be. I wish the same for you.