Over the past decade, I’ve (mostly) single-handedly established a creative studio specialising in brand strategy, brand design, and web design/development – building it from the ground up. Much of this journey involved navigating the challenges that come with the solo business owner/operator territory – a journey marked by struggles, long hours, and a deep dive into the often glorified “no-days-off” mindset.
Through this rollercoaster ride, I’ve experienced highs and lows, tasted success, and learned from failures. These experiences have imparted invaluable lessons and insights that I believe are common for solo business owners/operators.
Outlined below are seven strategies, based on the lessons I’ve learned along the way, aimed at offering guidance and support to fellow individuals journeying down the same entrepreneurial path.
1. Don’t do it all alone.
While a significant portion of your work, especially in the initial stages, may be undertaken solo, it’s not a prerequisite for the success or recognition I once thought it was. There’s a tremendous opportunity to build a supportive circle of influence around both you and your projects. Reflecting on my own journey, I realise that, if given the chance to start again, I would have embraced these opportunities much earlier.
The entrepreneurial path can be isolating, and surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, business partners, mentors, networking groups, as well as friends and family can counteract the stress, anxiety, loneliness, burnout and occasional feelings of hopelessness.
2. Find and follow a routine that suits you.
Establishing and adhering to a routine remains a personal challenge for me, particularly as a creative predominantly working from home – a struggle I believe resonates across various industries, especially in the post-Covid era. It’s all too tempting to succumb to the perpetual work cycle, addressing invoices, responding to emails, searching for work, and getting lost in tasks without realising the passing time. Before you know it, it’s 3 pm, and you haven’t even taken a break or left the house yet.
To counter this, set a structured routine – be strict, especially in the beginning. Personally, I rely on Google Calendar and Asana to allocate specific times for work, breaks, walks, and relaxation. While it may seem overly meticulous at first, as it becomes a habit, the calendar fades into the background, and effective time management will take its place.
Your morning and evening routines are paramount. Don’t start your day with work, trust me, I used to dive into emails while still in bed (to be honest I sometimes still do), and it shaped the tone of my entire day, often not in a positive way. Similarly, avoid concluding your day with work – maintaining this balance is key! It will also do wonders for your sleep hygiene.
3. Set and maintain boundaries.
I’m still figuring this out myself, but setting boundaries is a game-changer, especially when you’re at the wheel of your own business.
Though it may be tempting to always say yes, remember you’re allowed to say no. Not everything that comes across your desk will benefit you in the long run, even if it satisfies short-term requirements. Not every relationship will assist you in healthy growth and most importantly, the way you let people treat you will have a significant impact on the way you feel, and perform in your business.
Figure out when your workday starts and ends, what you expect from your business connections, and what they can expect from you. Create a workspace that lets you switch off when the day is done and seriously, know what work/life balance looks like for you. Your boundaries will become the secret sauce you use to dodge burnout and avoid resenting the very business you’re building.
4. Be realistic with your goals.
The disconnect between expectations and reality are a proven trigger for challenges like stress, anxiety and depression. Managing your expectations with realistic goals/plans is a super healthy way to ensure you’re moving forward at an achievable pace. When I started Fuel Media and Kavermann I had grand plans, big ideas, goals of global domination (not really) and along with that, I had the constant stress and disappointment of falling short.
It wasn’t until I sat down and mapped out a three-month plan, a six-month plan, and longer-term, more realistic goals that I started hitting my marks. I was moving forward, ticking the boxes and thriving in the satisfaction of getting things done. The grand plans were still there, but I accepted that while I wasn’t there yet, I would enjoy the journey. This is not to say it was or will be an easy journey, or that you’ll hit every step in your plan, but it gives you a chance to break it all down into bite-sized chunks, relax a little and know that you’re heading in the right direction.
This also comes back to point 1. of not doing it all alone. I found goal setting and planning overwhelming at first so I sought help from a proven and experienced advisor to assist in getting what was in my head, organised and onto paper – then, being accountable to it all!
5. Find passion and meaning outside of work.
Life’s not all about kicking goals at work. Plain and simple. Yes, your endeavor will be a huge part of your life, but you also need to live for the things outside of work that light your soul on fire. Find something that spins your wheels, and immerse yourself in a new pastime that allows for complete disconnect from your work environment (ideally out of the reach of technology). Trust me, as the years pass, this will become more and more important.
In my opinion, the saying “love what you do and you’ll never work another day in your life” can be a trap – you need to find balance and pleasure away from the responsibility of making a living. (I do understand there are exceptions to this depending on your industry and chosen pastime).
6. Recognise the signs of burnout.
Unfortunately, I have a bit of experience with burnout. You can find another article of mine, specifically about this topic here – https://firststeps.nz/burnout-depression-and-recovery/
The instances of burnout are on the rise. It is now spoken about more, treated more and even discussed in the media. I’ve researched ‘burnout’ and its associated symptoms, to a deep and detailed level. I’ve spoken to doctors and psychologists, and others who’ve been through the same thing. While everyone has their triggers, there are very common traits and effects that for me anyway, feel scary and debilitating.
The best description of ‘burnout’ I have found is as follows: Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout is often, but not always related to one’s job and occurs when your level of overwhelm exceeds your capacity for managing it. I would add to this that the stress and triggers may not always be obvious until it’s too late.
Despite following all of my advice above, unfortunately, it happens, and it’s more common now I think in our post-COVID world.
Everyone will have their triggers but through my experiences and research, these are the most common symptoms I can offer:
- Fatigue and constant tiredness/lack of energy
- Sleep problems – sleeping too much or too little
- Negative mindset/loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
- Change in appetite
- Procrastination/inability to focus
- Depression and anxiety and Irritability
If you’re experiencing any or all of these, with no medical reasoning, it’s time to check in with friends and family, let them know how you’re feeling, talk to your GP and if you can, talk to a therapist who is well equipped to assist you.
Here’s a great place to start – https://firststeps.nz/qualified-registered-providers/
Talking about burnout needs to be normalised, it’s part of life, it’s a struggle like any other and the best way to address it is head-on, openly and honestly, as early as possible.
7. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Carrying on from the end of point 6… my final piece of advice is… communicate! Work and life in general will never be smooth sailing. It is completely normal to not feel great, or even good all the time. This point is relevant to everyone, solo business owner or not, but especially those working alone, and I cannot stress it enough – talk more! – to friends, to family, to colleagues and professionals. The more you talk, the less weight you will feel on your shoulders.
Share your wins AND your losses. Discuss the good times and put equal if not more importance on discussing the hard times.
To use me as an example, and I verbalise this to people after an awesome chat with my friend Monica – I feel like a spring a lot of the time. I go through the weeks and months of work slowly coiling up, getting tighter, and feeling more tension. The rate at which the tension grows is directly proportional to what’s going on in my business and life most of the time. When I sit down and discuss it all, which I’m now great at, I can tell if I’ve let the spring tighten for too long. Most conversations will be easy, and enjoyable and I feel myself unwinding and relaxing. If I’ve left it too long, the conversation is hectic, I talk fast and sometimes with a tone of urgency and panic – the result is the same, the conversation eases the tight coils and everything feels more manageable. Even if it’s a small relief it’s a step in the right direction. Keep doing it!
Please, don’t let yourself coil up to breaking point before talking to someone. I can tell you without a doubt that lots of frequent small conversations are the way to go!
Also remember, listen as well as you talk – your friends and family may need an ear as well.
I’m not a trained therapist, this is not medical advice (in fact if you’re feeling off, I would always suggest seeing your doctor first) – I am a solo business owner who’s been through it all. The highest highs and the lowest lows – we’re all out here trying to do our best and the more we can help each other, the better life will be. That is my goal in my writing – to share my own experiences and learnings – no more no less.
This website has some great resources – check them out!
If you feel like you’d like to talk to a professional about anything (I think it’s great just having someone on hand if needed) – take a look at the Registered providers here – https://firststeps.nz/qualified-registered-providers/
If you, or someone you know needs immediate help, dial 111 or click this link below to view local helplines and support services: https://firststeps.nz/get-help-now/