The Solopreneur as a Silicon Valley Startup

The Solopreneur as a Silicon Valley Startup

This is a Guest Post by Colleen McCarty.

Entrepreneurs, business people, and product developers are in a unique position to capitalize on a trend that will to continue to rise: personality based businesses and personal branding. This trend embodies the American dream, taking extreme individualism to the next level – speakers, experts, trainers, bloggers - everyone has a schtick. Blossoming out of a formerly cubicled workforce, the personality-based business is a natural segue in an information-based economy, lending itself to massive product sales and huge numbers for individual ecommerce sites. Drop ship and on-demand companies make it even easier for individuals to sell any information-based products.

However, personality based businesses inherently lend themselves to one fatal flaw. They are built around humans – and humans are imperfect. Building your business around yourself indicatively means that your business will reflect your flaws. There is no way around it… or is there?

Many times the personality-based business finds us. For example, the professional speaker does not come out of the gates as a motivational speaker. Something extraordinary happens to them and gradually people begin to approach them about getting on stage and sharing their story. Before you know it, people are offering to pay for it. There is a business, but no business plan, no structure, no staff. Just the speaker and their talent. The other significant problem, other than being based on a flawed model, is that many times these personalities are just feeling their way through, not realizing fatal flaws they are making or even really seeing themselves as a business. “It’s just something I do well and get paid for. It’s not really a business. Businesses have offices and personal assistants and 1-800 numbers. This is just me.” Everyone from artists to jewelry makers to authors and speakers has been known to think that from time to time. But if we are to be successful businesses and personalities and businesses based on personalities (whew!) then we have to reconcile this chasm.

In order to do that I want to focus on a place in the world that has been conducive to producing thousands of entrepreneurial ventures per year and billions of dollars in revenue – Silicon Valley. The valley lies just south of San Francisco and is a hot bed of entrepreneurial spirit. Twitter, Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard, eBay – these are just a few of the tech-based companies that have sprung up out of the startup culture created in Silicon Valley.

The valley is steeped in entrepreneurialism. It’s a characteristic that is rewarded as early as second grade when the children are asked to be a part of Invention Conventions. Kids are asked to create an invention that they feel would better the world in some way. They write a one-page report on what their product is and who it could help. When these children grow up, sometimes as early as their teen years, they come up with a company idea that revolutionizes an industry or creates a whole new industry. When that company grows to a multi-billion dollar IPO, that then-teen, now young millionaire decides to become an advisor and angel investor to others like him or her. This is called the Cycle of Innovation, and it is completely self-sustaining.

How can ecommerce store owners, authors, speakers and bloggers compete with this kind of entrepreneurial Petri dish? We are out here on our own, often times working from home offices. It is hard to foster a culture of innovation when the only one to bounce ideas off of is your dog. Since it’s doubtful that Fido will be the next Steve Jobs, I’m betting you could benefit from some ways to become more Startup minded. 

There are four ways a solopreneur can become more like a Silicon Valley startup: 

1. Don't Isolate Yourself

Community is extremely important. This makes the personality-based business model tough sometimes, because those that we want to consort with are the competition in many cases. Spending hours writing articles, blogs, and books is not exactly conducive to socializing. But do not let yourself fall into isolation. Connections – whether in person or online – are vital to your business. Not to mention that word of mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing, so you don’t want to become Henry David Thoreau in Walden. Attend conferences. Yes, they can be expensive, but they are one way to begin to build a network of like-minded individuals – people who will keep you on your toes and keep you accountable to yourself. 

If conferences aren’t in the budget, cruise Linkedin. Direct message or @ someone on Twitter. Make a list of people you look up to in your industry and really try to connect with them. When you’ve met three or four people that you feel you can trust and gain inspiration from, and vice versa, hopefully, then you can start a weekly mastermind call or a Facebook group where you can ask questions and see what everyone is up to. Associations are also a great way to connect, so check your local chapters of trade associations or blogger groups.

2. Pay Attention to your Working Environment

Companies in Silicon Valley have access to tons of gurus, research and culture doctors to help them enhance their daily work experience. Cafeterias serve free range and organic chicken at little or no cost, dry cleaning is available onsite, and many companies offer day care. How can solopreneurs compete with that kind of quality of life? Well, we can’t. But there are some things you can do to enhance your effectiveness and ability to be creative on demand.

Many of them have to do with your immediate surroundings. Whether you’re working off the kitchen table, in your home office, or in an office collective there are some things you can do to maximize the utility of your space. Little choices in how you set up your office/work space may seem unimportant, but if you constantly feel drained or stifled, maybe you should rethink some of what’s surrounding you.

Feng Shui can lend us a few tips about how we can surround ourselves with the best energy possible. Yellow is a color that stimulates creativity and discipline, both of which are important when working alone. If you write a lot, blue-green is soothing and also stimulates creativity. Put a healthy plant in a glass bowl in the top left quadrant of your desk or work-table – this will bring wealth and success to your business.

Feng Shui aside, your environment is important. If music helps you work, then get some speakers and blare away, but if music doesn’t help, just keep things silent. The same goes for pets; if your dog constantly wants to play fetch, maybe he or she would be better relegated to another area of the house while you work. Take advantage of some of the research that these companies have done and try to implement some of those “mood-enhancers” in your daily life. If you are bogged down by errands, but need to be working, then have a task or delivery service do your errands for you. Focus on the most important part of your business – discovering new opportunities for revenue.

3. Build a Values System 

Writing out elaborate 5 and 10 year plans, financial projections and big ideas for the future are all important parts of owning a business, but they can easily go off the rails when we don’t have a clear set of values for our organizations. It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook and say “I’ll just go with the flow. It’s just me after all.” Do not fall into this trap. Building a values system for your company is just as important – actually, more important – than if you had several employees. You need to lay the ground work for success now. I know it’s hard and I know you don’t have much support, but it has to be done if you expect to see major growth in your business. Sillicon Valley culture doctor Justin Moore (CEO of Axcient) spends 20% of his time on building and sustaining his company’s culture. He says that CEOs (yes, that’s you, you’re the CEO of the startup that is you!) need to ask themselves these questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What’s important to you?
  3. What behaviors do you want to see in people in your company?
  4. How do you want them to act and make decisions?

You might not have employees yet, but the goal is that someday you will. Writing out the answers to these questions should give you about 15-20 statements about your company. Moore suggests weeding this down to 5 and making these 5 your company’s core values. Type them out and print them if you desire – frame them, place them somewhere that you can see them and be reminded. Being a solopreneur does not mean you have to be ill prepared, poorly organized and not at all ready for the future. 

4. Create and Feed Your Own Cycle

The most important part of the Silicon Valley culture is the theme of giving back to those who are now where you once were. Having your mastermind groups and building your inspirational community is one step towards this, but looking to the younger generation and asking yourself “How can I help?” is also important. I am not suggesting you become an angel investor today, but there are certainly things you can do to create and feed your own cycle of innovation. We’ve all made mistakes and to reach out to another solopreneur and let them know that making mistakes is ok, and helping them avoid others creates a connection and trust that is essential for a community to grow.

It’s hard doing it all yourself, that is why scalable growth is always the goal in any enterprise. No one wants to do it all forever. Planning and changing your mindset are important keys to getting off the kitchen table some day and leaving the word ‘bootstrapping’ behind. You are not just you – you are a startup with infinite potential. 


Colleen McCarty is the co-owner of the Expert Message Group (EMG). EMG works with entrepreneurs, speakers, authors, and thought leaders to enhance their businesses through publishing, speaking, social media and product launch strategies. McCarty coaches her clients to undertake scalable and meaningful growth for their companies while considering their big picture goals. Follow EMG on Twitter.