By: Minda Zetlin
Use the skills, industry knowledge, and contacts you have today to set your business up for success.
Sick of working for someone else? Want to go out on your own as a solopreneur or running a small business, but not sure how to get started? Don’t try to make the leap all at once, advises Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice.
“We think of becoming an entrepreneur as a one-way street,” she says. “You ‘take the leap’–that’s how we talk about it. You leave the staff job and you become an entrepreneur and never go back.” She recommends taking a more open-ended approach, and looking at the many ways the staff job you have now can set you up as a successful entrepreneur, as well as the ways having been an entrepreneur can set you up to be successful in case you decide to return to working for someone else.
With that approach in mind, these four steps can bridge the gap between employee and entrepreneur:
1. Decide between using your industry or professional skills.
“Let’s say you’re an accountant in a healthcare company,” Cleaver explains. “Maybe you want to build your business on your accounting skills by opening an accounting firm. Or maybe you want to apply your accounting skills within healthcare because you’re really familiar with that industry.” For instance, you know that electronic billing is creating big challenges in the health care field. So perhaps you want to open a consultancy to help healthcare companies with electronic billing.
2. Find the trends that are driving your industry.
Like electronic billing in healthcare, every industry faces its own set of challenges and changes. Identifying those trends can tell you where you’re likely to find the most success. But what if your job doesn’t give you a good view of overall industry issues or future concerns?
“Look at what associations are talking about at conferences,” Cleaver says. “If you can’t go to conferences, you can still look at the agendas. Read association publications and blogs. Find out who the influencers are in your profession or industry and follow them. Often stock analysts can give you good information about trends if you can see through their temporary hyperventilating about ups and downs.” Once you’ve identified the key issues shaping the future of your industry or profession, set up some news alerts so you start getting a steady stream of information and commentary.
Another way to identify trends is to put your own company under a magnifying glass, she adds. “If you envision yourself having a relationship with your clients similar to what XYZ company has with your employer, dissect that relationship.” Take a close look at the current factors that support your company’s success (or lack thereof) with that customer, and you can begin to understand how your company is filling industry needs.
3. Find your sweet spot.
Once you understand industry trends, you can get a better idea of what potential clients most need from you. “What do they need right now, what will they need in six to 12 months, and what will they need in 12 months and out in the future?” Cleaver asks. Answers to these questions should help you determine what offerings will likely meet with the most eager reception from your potential clients. “If clients need something now, you have a pretty good chance of turning that into a winning sales pitch,” she says.
An equally important question, though is this: What do you want? If the answer is merely that you’re sick of your job and want out, that’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not enough. If you’re running away from something rather than toward something, your process will likely stall at this stage, Cleaver says. “I get it, I’ve been there, but it’s not a long term success factor. You have to figure out what you want to do, translate your ambition into a goal.”
Once you answer this question, start looking for places where what you want to do intersects with what clients need in the near term. Each of those intersections is potentially your sweet spot–the place where client needs dovetail with your skills and desires to create the potential for a successful business.
4. Work your network.
Now that you know what product or service you want to offer, it’s time to use the connections you have for everything they’re worth, both to learn about your industry and potentially sign up new clients. “Go ahead and set up an exploratory conversation with someone in procurement,” Cleaver says. “If you don’t have direct contact with them, you might meet them at a company mixer or connect with them on LinkedIn. Start a conversation and say, ‘I’m trying to understand the industry better–do you have 15 minutes for a cup of coffee?'” When you meet, ask your contact to describe the markers of a strong client relationship, and don’t settle for platitudes such as ‘good service at a good price.’
Keep your eyes open for opportunities that are right in front of you. If you have a good relationship with your company (though not necessarily with your boss) you may be able to use that relationship to land your first client. “Who do you know who can recommend you for things that fall into your sweet spot?” Cleaver asks. “Are they saying that they need extra help now while they bring in a new customer, but won’t in six months?” If so, she says, that’s an opportunity that you can grab. Tell them you’re transitioning from on staff to consultant, so you can take on that extra work during that six-month period. Or, you can double down–stay at your current job, but then work extra hours as a consultant to help with the overflow. “The results will give you your first marketing materials that you can bring to other potential clients,” Cleaver says.