Monday, September 7, 2009

Entrepreneurial Toolkit – What would be in yours?

What does it take to venture out on your own in the field of higher education and succeed?

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking to a group of women administrators in higher education who might be interested in starting their own businesses and nonprofits. I’m sharing a panel session with Ginger Fay who started her own college counseling practice and Madeline Yates who has launched her own nonprofit -- Maryland's chapter of Campus Compact. The panel, called Encouraging the Entrepreneur in You, is the brain child of Maggie Margiotta Melson of St. John's College. It is designed to arm participants with useful questions, resources, and tools when considering striking out on one’s own. Ginger, Madeline and I will share our stories – the rewards and dangers of “solopreneurship.” We’re also going to share our own toolkits or secrets to our success thus far. What would be or is in yours? Here’s mine:

Alignment: Being an independent agent, free to work on my own or in collaboration with creative partners and institutions, suits my talents and work style extraordinarily well. I thrive on project-oriented work, I like to be recognized for my individual talents, I like some ownership and control over my work, and I like to connect those talents with the talents of others as a team. (Alignment is about knowing yourself. Fantasize about your perfect professional day. Even if you have no concrete plans or ideas for an entrepreneurial venture your fantasy day can point you in the right direction.)

Relevance: Being able to provide value is the key to success for any business, organization or consultant. You can’t provide value without understanding what your market wants and what you have to offer that meets that desire. In my case, while effective communications have always been valued in higher education, communication used to be the advancement stepchild. Today, being able to articulate an institution’s relevance and value in effective and exciting ways is essential. I have been in the lucky position of being in the right field at the right time.

Expertise: I have thought about developing on my own business since college but it never quite worked out until I had the expertise gained through experience to really have something to offer clients. Once I gained experience as a writer and media relations specialist for national publications and organizations, as well as five years on the senior staff of a college – where I had been part of strategic planning, new identity development and a capital campaign – I had the right portfolio of expertise to venture out.

Distinctiveness: Perhaps your service or product is unique and that is what makes it distinctive, but uniqueness isn’t essential to success. Distinctiveness is really about quality – the effectiveness and enjoyment that comes with buying or using your product or service. When I can delight my clients with quality of insight and finished work – exciting them about their own institutions – that’s where my distinctiveness comes through.

Credibility: The caliber of institutions I have worked with has definitely opened doors for me. But the relevance and range of my experience has kept me in the room. The question I often ask myself is how do I know what I know? What are my proofs of effectiveness? Answering these questions yields the proof points I need to communicate my credibility.

Passion: I really enjoy what I do. Writing and education are two of the most enduring passions in my life. Writing is my calling. Education is a story worth telling – a constant inspiration.

Space: This is about both the physical and psychological elbow room you need to do your work. Comfort zones differ. What works for me is my own office that is somewhat secluded within my house. Having a dedicated space – and professional supplies, equipment and technology – allows me to be purposeful, avoid distractions, and tell distractions (my family) I’m working – this is a place of business.

Support: Being alone in an endeavor can be the greatest thing and the hardest thing about solopreneurship. For me it’s been essential to have professional and emotional support for my work. The professional support comes in the form of a technology whiz for a husband, designers who barter graphic design work in exchange for writing services, and reliable accountants, copyeditors, transcriptionists and delivery services. The emotional support comes from a husband, parents, children and friends who understand what I value about what I do. They show their pride in my successes and they encourage me when I go through challenges.

Network: My entrepreneurial network began in 1997 with former colleagues who had moved on to other institutions and a key college connection – an alumna who went to my college was in a position at CASE to recommend me as a freelance writer not only to CASE CURRENTS Magazine but to other institutions where she had worked. Over the last decade my network has grown to include clients, partner firms, college presidents, those I’ve interviewed for my articles and the advancement and admission practitioners who read my articles. More recently, my network has expanded through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as people connect with me directly and also share my articles, blog posts, and Twitter updates. This network fuels my business through referrals and partnerships. It also gives me a community of colleagues for idea sharing and support.

Continual Growth: Working on your own allows you the nimbleness to incorporate new ideas and push out in new directions far more easily than you can while working within an organization or institution. Building in ways to keep developing your skills is rejuvenating and ensures continued success. Workshops, conferences, taking on projects that scare me, and the research I do for new client projects and CASE CURRENTS articles keep me fresh. (I also love the growth ideas in Seth Godin’s post on effort vs. luck.

Ways to Refuel: When you work on your own the job is never done. Never. Working 24/7 was a constant way of life for me until it began to take a physical toll. Now, I know that I will be of no use to my clients if I am depleted. Yoga is my fuel of choice four to five times a week. I also recharge through family dinners every night, weekend dates with my husband and totally non-working vacations during winter holidays and summer.

Audacity: You have to have a little audacity to create something out of nothing. When everything else in your toolkit works you find the Emperor does indeed have clothes.