Episode 7: The Myth of the Solopreneur

Back in action with a meaty episode, Isaac dispels the myth of the "solopreneur" and advocates for finding community and hiring help to make sure your business thrives. He interviews Brianne Mees of Tender Loving Empire about the family she's formed over the last ten years, and the growth lessons she's learned from an unconventional independent business.

Somewhere in the last decade or so, the glamour and sexy appeal of the “entrepreneur” pushed its cousin—the lowly, boring “small business owner”—to the back burner to simmer in a fit of quiet desperation recognized only through economic statistics and political promises. And it’s no surprise. Entrepreneurs traditionally start a business with the intention of growing it quickly and maximizing profit. In the startup world, this usually results in selling the business to a larger tech company and making all the early investors happy by lining their pocketbooks. Small businesses, on the other hand, are rarely seen as very profitable, don’t have access to a lot of capital, and tend to rely on the financial support of friends and family to survive.

The problem here is that most makers and handmade business owners don’t have lofty dreams of growth, mass production, selling the business off to the highest bidder, and swimming Scrooge McDuck-style through oodles of cold hard cash. While you may identify with the work ethic and joy of pursuit that comes with being an entrepreneur, scalability, profitability, and an exit strategy are usually the last things on your mind. Enter the term “solopreneur”—a catchall identity that’s been lapped up by the creative small business owner as a way of describing their independent way of making a living doing something creative with all the joys and freedoms that come with self-employment.

Now, solopreneurship does have a place in the maker business model—all the way at the very beginning. Most of us start out completely self-funded or fund-as-you-sell (bootstrapped, to borrow a term from entrepreneurial jargon), and that’s okay. Creative business like this starts with one person, and a lot of the work in developing a product line or personal brand is an individual effort. That’s great for the first year or two because your revenue is starting from zero and working its way up, and you can scale your own workload with that. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. To paraphrase a startup founder: “Don’t obsess over the office furniture before you get customers and make money."

But here’s the problem: the idea of a solopreneur draws its roots from the do-it-yourself mentality, and in the longer-term world of creative small business, that’s a dangerous line to walk. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: When you’re doing it all by yourself day in and day out, single-handedly running ALL aspects of your business, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The DIY mentality breeds an unhealthy culture of martyrdom by encouraging you to be a generalist in your business. You need to SPECIALIZE in what you make.

As a maker, being a solopreneur is unsustainable. Burying your creative self under website maintenance, product photography, PR work, marketing, sales, accounting, billing, shipping, purchasing, ordering, packaging, running errands, meeting, researching, designing and creating is a surefire way to shoot yourself in the entrepreneurial and small business foot. And if you go this route, one day you’ll look back, like so many “solopreneurs" have, and realize that you’re no longer doing the work you love to do. And then you’ll start questioning how you got here and how you might ever get back to the simple, creative life.

The truth is, you CANNOT do this alone—you need help. You need support. You need to focus on doing the things that you do best, the things that matter, and leave the boring business crap to someone more qualified.

“It’s so hard, though,” I hear you say, “I’m a control freak, a perfectionist, a workaholic. I have a hard time trusting anyone to help me in my business because I think can do it better.” This may be hard to hear, but you need to hear it. How can you expect yourself to be a perfectionist and have total control over every single aspect of your business? Did you study graphic design? Have you spent four years of your life learning the ins and outs of bookkeeping and accounting? Are you an expert at marketing, or product photography, or copywriting? Are you a natural born salesperson? Is working so hard that you’re sacrificing everything else worth it in the long term?

I didn’t think so.

You cannot perfectly manage and execute your business in every way imaginable. You cannot do this alone. You are imperfect, you don’t know everything, and you need help. And THAT is beautiful.

And then go find the help. Go find the other makers and small business owners that excel in areas where you’re coming up short. Assemble your own dream team of experts. It doesn’t matter whether they’re freelancers, online services, or even employees, just find the people that will help you thrive.

Here’s a quick story:

5 years ago I founded a nonprofit called Maker’s Nation and set out to singlehandedly offer support and community for makers with business education and networking events. Sure, I had two board members (the legal minimum) to offer a little guidance, but all the work for this passion project was up to me and only me.

And you know what? I failed. I full-on, big fat failed. Doing it all by myself was not only emotionally draining to be the only one responsible for an entire nonprofit organization, but I didn’t have any personal accountability, I postponed or canceled events because I wasn’t marketing them well enough, and I longed to pursue big projects (ahem, a podcast was one of them) that kept getting deferred. It sucked. And I burnt out.

Along came Sharon. She was on the edge of burnout as well, but had the wisdom to ask me for help. And now Maker’s Nation is no more, we’re working together on Academy of Handmade, and we’re actually making it work. We’re putting on really meaningful, beneficial programs, supporting our members, and hey—I actually started that podcast!

I needed someone I could work with—a true partner in my efforts to support the maker community—in order to realize my potential and make progress on my endeavor.

You may not need a business partner, but at some point in your business you’ll need to bring on help. They could be interns, they could be independent contractors, they could be actual, legit employees. But they will help you focus on what you need to focus on and take the weight off of your shoulders.

But let’s not forget the other “help” that you will need as your forge your path in your creative business: community. Success doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every single small business owner I know relies on peers, mentors, and business friends to lean on, ask advice of, and support them in their pursuits.

Your community is where you receive when you ask, give when asked upon, and benefit from the camaraderie and goodwill of your fellow makers. Friends and family make great cheerleaders, but it’s the counsel of the ones who have been down this road before and the feedback from your industry peers that really helps you thrive.

The one thing that hooked me into this community eight years ago, that fueled me through the tough years of trying to push Maker’s Nation, and the one thing that keeps me going right this very moment is this:

The maker community loves makers. Competition is an afterthought, few and far between. We’re here to collaborate, to share our experiences, to pick each other up when we’re feeling defeated, and to help each other thrive as creative small business owners.

Community is everything.

Episode Guest

Brianne Mees and her husband Jared moved to Portland over a decade ago and immediately fell in love with the creative community they found themselves immersed in. Brianne recalls thinking all of the artists and musicians they were getting to know would surely be famous, but started to fear that none of them would find the support they needed to succeed. A short while later, with a hefty dose of naivety and youthful ambition, Tender Loving Empire was born. It started as a record label (partly to help publish Jared’s own music), then quickly turned into a retail shop that carried the work of local artists and makers. 10 years later, Tender Loving Empire is an independent record label that has published more than 65 albums and supports about a dozen active gigging artists at any given time, as well as small boutique chain—two words I’d have never thought could co-exist so awesomely—with three retail locations and a fourth opening in just a few weeks within the Portland International Airport. Fun facts: They’ve paid out more than 2.5 million dollars to 300 makers since they’ve opened their doors, and by the end of May (with the Airport store fully staffed), they’ll employ 39 people.

Upcoming Event

Fail Forward, April 6, 2017: ahas.info/failurewebinar