Thursday, December 29, 2011

The self-employment quiz

I am very proud of having been successfully self-employed for nearly 15 years, covering most of my time since the mid-1990s. So as you could imagine, lots of people ask me for advice about starting their own business. I am always happy to oblige.  But people are often surprised that I don't focus on business plans, financing, competition, or anything like that.

To me, the mental game is much more important. Watching lots of other successful and less-than-successful entrepreneurs over time, the differences are crystal clear to me between those who succeed at this and those who don't. In fact, I could boil it down into a simple quiz. Try it yourself, and see how you do.

1. Can you name at least two people – real people you personally know – who make a good, full-time living at what you do?
People often think they have to pick something "unique" that no one else has done before. But the people I know who succeed generally pick things lots of people already pay for, and do it better than anyone else.

2. On a scale of 1-to-10, how good you are at what you plan to do?
If you aren't a nine or ten, please keep thinking. Employees can afford to be "good enough." But the most successful self-employed people I know completely blow their clients away with good service and great work, whether they mow lawns or speak to thousands.

3. What do other people say about working with you? Really?
Comparing two of my own areas of work, I often joke that I am more of a therapist for my writing clients than I am as a (real) therapist. Genuinely liking people, listening to them, and having a real interest in their lives, businesses and success is a common denominator among nearly every successful entrepreneur I know.

4. How do you react when something costs you time or money?
The single most important reason I have remained self-employed is one most people would never think of: I am always polite and professional when things go wrong.

Something amazing happens when you shift gears from a paycheck to a world of cash flow. People slow-roll your invoices. They wake up with "brilliant ideas" that force you to do their projects all over again. They cancel appointments at the last minute. They tell you for months that a contract is a "go," and then no it isn't.

Listen carefully: these things always happen when you are self-employed. If you react with anger, annoyance, or self-interest to them, you are finished. You can't play in our sandbox. You will silently get put on people's pain-in-the-ass list and never get called again, by them and all the people they talk to. And you will probably never even know what hit you.

For me personally? Had I succumbed to human nature when things went wrong, I would have lost the majority of my current clients. Simple as that.

5. Do you get along with your competitors?
Other people in my field are my best buddies. We celebrate each others' successes and learn from each other. And refer thousands of dollars worth of business to each other. Suppose someone wants a speaker on a date I'm not free, or a therapist who uses a different approach than mine? I send them to people I know and like.

Many would-be entrepreneurs view the world through a competitive lens. Ask yourself a simple question: do you want others in your field to tell people how great you are, or why they shouldn't work with you? Mindshare is everything in a small, connected world.

Did you notice something interesting about this quiz? Not a word about what kind of business you should be in. Because it doesn't matter. I see people succeed – and fail – in any kind of business you could imagine (as long as you re-read question number 1 about what people already pay for), and generally for exactly the same reasons.

Does this all sound pretty straightforward? Good. It should. But here is what amazes me: the (many) people who flunk this simple test nearly always fail, and those who pass it generally succeed – even in this economy. How do you score?