Small Businesses, Freedom, and the “Independent” Entrepreneur

Have you even felt like sometimes — just sometimes — the freedom of operating your own small business isn’t so free after all?

As I write this post, it’s the Fourth of July here in the United States (though I am offline, see below for more on that). This holiday, to me, has always been more than just an excuse to take a day away from the office, char some meat, and blow things up. Cliché as it sounds, it’s a day of revisiting the topic of freedom. Every year I ponder the places in my life where I’ve managed to create some freedom for myself, remind myself to feel grateful for it, and think about all the implications that word carries with it.

Until 17 years ago I never thought of myself as wildly independent. The safety of a large organization wrapped around me was comforting for most of my working life. But in 1998, a long string of sleepless nights made it clear that it no longer felt right. It was confining, like a too-tight coat that won’t allow you to swing your arms. I started to get visions of what I could do to be a bigger force for good in the world, and it required me to break free and march to the beat of my own didgeridoo. Thus my small business was born. (And I got back to sleep.) (Mostly.)

Fast forward to now, typing with eyes closed, listening to the far-off sound of firecrackers. Independence was frightening and exhilarating back then, like being on the bowsprit of a boat: I’m free! I can now craft my days any way I choose! Yahoo! Wait…what’s that huge wave coming at me?

Freedom from someone else’s dreams, someone else’s vision, was all well and good. But a new kind of diligence was needed: To remain free of things that weren’t good for me. And as a solo businessperson, the responsibility for that rests squarely in my lap.

So this morning’s meditation was on divesting myself of stuff that no longer works for me. And what’s more, I see small business owners all around me doing the same.

Here are some of the things my peer group has said they’re breaking free of this year:

1) Thinking that because our organizations are small, we have to do it all.

I held onto this belief for a long time, and I still see entrepreneurs doing it. Heck, I still do it. But I’m getting better. Nowadays there are a hundred different ways to outsource things, freeing ourselves to do the work we came here to do. This week I sent two small, tedious clerical projects to TimeEtc., a company that’s bent on making it easy and safe to hire a virtual assistant. It cost me almost nothing, and in the pocket of time it created I was able to earn money — more than I spent! — doing what I love.

How much time do you spend doing things that make you crazy, convincing yourself you can’t afford to hire it out? What could you do with the time you might save? Send out a newsletter and make a new client? Join a Facebook or LinkedIn group and start offering your gifts to others? (some of whom may become clients or donors) Research new places to find kindred spirits to work with?

2) The isolation of so-called Independence.

My friend Lise is an introvert, and doing graphic design for long stretches in relative isolation comes naturally to her. But she decided this year to make the effort to push out of that comfort zone and bring some fresh thoughts into her creative process. She started participating in extremely targeted Facebook and LinkedIn groups, as well as face-to-face mastermind groups, in order to be around others running their own small businesses. We have a unique perspective on life that many of our friends and families don’t grok, and Lise is finding it a big relief to be able to hang with her own tribe.

She convinced me to give it a try too, and it has been making a huge difference in my happiness and my energy levels. Working with others on projects, exploring ways to enter in joint ventures, taking workshops to shore up my skills….even booking a desk at the local Coworking space has resulted in some great new interrelationships that are good for me both personally and professionally. It’s a leap of faith; my gut often keeps me tethered to my desk, convincing me I have to keep my head down and nose to the grindstone. My heart says otherwise, and I’m playing hooky more and more often now. And I’m seeing big rewards – not just new clients, but more peace of mind, clarity, and creative juice.

3) Working with people who are the wrong fit for us.

I think we all try to serve people who are a good match for what we’re offering. But many entrepreneurs I know — for reasons of income or ego — tend to try to be all things to all people.  Even when they get a sneaking suspicion that a client or colleague isn’t quite right for them, and it’ll be an uphill battle, they still say yes. There’s a certain leaden feeling in my stomach when my intuition is trying to tell me something and I’m ignoring it.  When I’m not “playing the tape all the way through” and paying attention to my instincts.

Conversely, my energy levels go supernova when I’m interacting with someone whose work I’m really passionate about, and when there is mutual respect between us. The process and the finished product make me downright gleeful – a living, breathing example of Kahlil’s Gibran’s wise assessment that “Work is love made visible.” The right fit keeps the current of joy running through our lives. Do you ever take on clients who don’t quite match your profile of the ideal client? Does it feel different?

4) Procrastinating getting life in balance until it’s too late.

Like many of you, my business takes up an ever-expanding amount of time, as I continue to shape it into what I want it to be. In the process, I blow off exercise because I’m “too busy today.”  I reschedule writing dates because my mind is cluttered with obligations.  I postpone personal interactions because of “just one more thing” syndrome, e.g. “If I just do one more thing here in the office, I’ll be able to (insert fun or enriching activity). For me, a cancer scare last year had a way of putting things back into perspective with a bang, but there’s still a great temptation to fall into old bad habits.

One of the things that’s helping me is reserving the first part of the day for a morning routine that helps me settle my thoughts and focus. There are a lot of these out there; the one I use currently is the Life S.A.V.E.R.S. routine from The Miracle Morning – silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading, scribing (writing). It helps me to keep my small business in the proper perspective, and keep my distributions of life energy healthy and balanced.

Do you have a routine that helps keep you in balance? Care to share it?

5) Being chained to technology 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The problem with Facebook and social media is that, for most of us, it becomes the noise that blocks out the still, small voice (that guides us). We forget how to listen. We become battered, driven by the noise around us, the noise that at first has so much to offer, the noise that speaks to the wounded parts of us. So we join in, we shout a little louder. We lose sight of the fact that suddenly all we’re doing is screaming to the world…about ourselves.”

I know fellow entrepreneurs who are living in a state of tech exhaustion, their electronic devices going around the clock, binging and bonging with Facebook messages, texts, junk email, telemarketer calls on their mobile phones, and a gang of other interruptions. (I was one of them earlier this year.) But I’ve been watching carefully as at least a half-dozen of them have gone through various kinds of “digital detox” to try to find the right place for it in their lives, somewhere on the dial between All In and All Out.

I took several days in June and turned all of my devices off. No cell phone, no laptop, no social media, no Kindle, not even an iPod. I read (are you ready?) real paper books, wrote a gazillion pages in my journal, explored a beautiful landscape… I spent time with my terrific husband and had great conversations with strangers at coffee shops and bakeries. At first it was surreal, like there was something terribly wrong without being pummeled by rapid-fire contacts from online connections. But as I settled down into my days, I found myself connecting to real people and to real life in a way that had gotten lost under the weight of constant digital pressure.

Read the story of my few days:

In this world, most of us can’t completely turn our backs on technology. But it’s something to be monitored and managed in order to be the best we can be. For example, I now enforce a tech sabbath on myself on Saturdays and most Sundays — no social media, no surfing the web, no email — and when I return to work I feel fresh, light-hearted, and not in the least bit interested in spending an hour going down the Facebook rabbit hole for an hour.

What’s your relationship with technology? Do you feel like you drive it, or does it drive you?

– – – – –

These are not things I would’ve guessed would become a problem 17 years ago. But I like to think I’m more self-observant, more self-protective, maybe even wiser now, and much more willing to say “no” to things that just don’t serve me. The journey of a small business owner is one twisty path indeed, right?  But it’s ours to take, rather than follow the wagon train to someone else’s dream. I wouldn’t trade the freedom of it all for anything. But it requires a gentle and loving kind of diligence to stay in a place of contentment and balance.

What’s not working for YOU any more, and needs to be let go? Is there anything you’re trying to declare your independence from this year? How are you doing with that?

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