You know how they say a startup is about solving a problem before running out of money?
Well, they missed the part about running out of energy. I’ve been a solopreneur for 19 months now and I’ve found the scarcest resource to be my energy.
While you may be able to extend your financial runway, you can’t extend your energy beyond what you have.
So here are seven things I wish I’d known about being a solopreneur that would’ve stopped me from wasting my precious energy in the wrong places.
If you’re a solopreneur or are thinking about becoming one, I genuinely hope these insights will increase your success rate.
Also known as shiny object syndrome, new opportunities have a way of disguising themselves as flawless options with no downside. And they tend to appear precisely when we’ve hit an uninspiring moment in whatever project or venture we’re committed to at the time.
It’s hard to see the downsides of a new opportunity when we’re feeling stuck on what we’re currently working on. Because we’re looking for an escape — an easy way out.
But there’s no easy way out and the devil is always in the details.
In my experience, only 10% of the new opportunities I chased after turned out to be worthwhile. The rest were simply distractions that left me with the same old song all over again: I’d hit a bit of a roadblock, my motivation levels would dip slightly, and before I knew it, a massive shiny object was propelling in my direction and the whole orchestra would start up all over again.
If you want to avoid this soul-sucking cycle, shelve your rose-tinted glasses and pop on your most critical hat instead. Dig into the details and try to play devil’s advocate with yourself:
I used to think of opportunities as rare and valuable. But oftentimes, they're just more of the same.
This is going to rub some corporate folks the wrong way, but two hours of entrepreneurial work can at times equal to four hours of work at a regular job.
Let me explain why.
When you’re in a regular job, you have the whole organization behind you. You have direction, priorities, resources and a shared sense of accountability.
However, you have none of that as a solopreneur. You set your own direction and priorities every single day. You can’t leverage anyone else’s time or skills but your own. And there’s a constant feeling of uncertainty looming over you.
This has a significant effect on your psychology, which then impacts your energy. Working with this burden hanging over you is very tiring, often making a few hours of solopreneur work feel more strenuous than a few hours in a regular job.
Note that when I refer to regular work in a job, I’m comparing it to my experience working as a product manager. I recognize some jobs are probably more stressful than being a solopreneur but I’m not referring to those here.
The other challenge is the lack of resources. Don’t know how to write copy for a landing page? Too bad, because you’re going to have to figure it out yourself. Whether that means Googling how to write a landing page or paying a copywriter to do it for you. Either way, it’s on you to find a way to get that task done.
Over the past 19 months, I’ve worked on projects and ventures in the following niches:
It was because as soon as I invalidated one of my product ideas, I moved on to whatever other niche my next product idea happened to be in. I didn’t focus on one problem space for an extended period of time.
While I love that I got all this exposure, every pivot into a new niche was a debit from The Bank of Lena’s Entrepreneurial Energy. And for every new niche, I had to abandon what I’d learned about the last niche and familiarize myself with the new niche from scratch.
Of course, there was some transferable knowledge in terms of the sales, marketing and product development I had to do for every idea.
Still, if I could do it all over again, I’d commit to one problem space for 6-12 months and relentlessly try to innovate within that problem space. Not only would it have given me a higher success rate, but I also would’ve been able to position myself as an expert in that problem space. That added credibility can make selling products or services as a solopreneur a lot more compelling.
The frustrating part is one of my most trusted mentors advised me against jumping around different niches a mere two months into my journey. He told me to pick a problem space, try one product idea, and if it failed, pivot within that problem space. That way all my learnings would get compounded and I’d likely even be able to serve a similar set of customers who I’d tried to serve with my first product idea.
Oh well, better luck next time.
This is very similar to #3, except it’s specifically about the skills of a solopreneur.
As a solopreneur, you need to be able to do a host of different things like:
...and the list goes on.
I did at least a little bit of all of the above throughout my solopreneur journey and I’d definitely recommend gaining basic knowledge in most of these skills.
But I regret not picking one skill to become an expert in. This made collaborating with others and deciding what to outsource difficult because I couldn’t pinpoint which skills I was really good at — except writing, maybe.
Not to mention, it was extremely frustrating to not be able to do one thing particularly well. I had to do tonnes of research for most tasks and only enough to complete the task at hand. I could’ve really benefitted from compounding my knowledge for one particular skill.
Having a particular skill you’re good at as a solopreneur can be really beneficial. Especially if you need to make some quick cash to extend your runway because you can monetize that skill in the form of services.
Having been a product manager for several years, I’m familiar with the concept of a never-ending list of things to do. Sometimes it was hard to walk away, but I usually managed to walk away and let some fires burn.
When I became a solopreneur, my to-do list became much more personal. It was directly tied to my success and the burden of incomplete tasks weighed on me that much more.
What’s worse, I was all on my own. Nobody to ask for help, nobody to bounce ideas off of (nobody who was truly in the loop of what I was working on, at least) and nobody to tell me when I’d done everything I possibly could in a day.
Over time, my sense of what was a high priority started to waver too. Eventually, everything felt important because whatever I created was a reflection of me and only me. You could say the perfectionist in me got to me at times.
I ended up working myself like a mule, trying desperately to get on top of my to-do list. I burnt out about ten times, if not more, trying to do the impossible. Death by a million papercuts type of thing.
Toward the end of my solopreneur journey, my mentor reminded me: “The work never stops, Lena. Don’t try to get ahead of it.”
But it was too late by then and I’d run out of energy.
I can’t count the number of projects or commitments I’ve “quit” in the past 19 months on my two hands. I don’t like using the word “quit,” though, because it has a negative connotation. I prefer to call it reprioritization.
When you’re a solopreneur, things can change very quickly: The market, the competition, your motivation levels, etc. It’s crucial to have your ear to the ground so you have the right inputs to make decisions on how (and whether) to move forward.
Sticking with something just because you committed to it a while back isn’t going to fly (unless there are legal repercussions of course.) Your entrepreneurial energy is extremely scarce. Every minute you spend working on the wrong thing, you pay dearly for.
That’s why you need to regularly audit all your commitments and cut out the ones that aren’t serving you. I’ll give you an example of one of my most brutal audits.
In April 2021, I formed a partnership with three co-founders who were working on a marketplace for temp workers in the dental industry. I was going to be the Director of Business Development and the very first employee — I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
One month in, it turned out to be a bad partnership. We didn’t agree on the vision for the company, the strategies for growth and I felt I was being micromanaged.
So I “quit.”
Part of me felt like an idiot for leaving something I’d been so excited about a month before. But having been in the 14th month of my entrepreneurial journey, I knew I had to conserve my energy. I was confident in my decision and had an idea of how to move forward — I was going to get into freelance writing.
Don’t fall for the sunk-cost fallacy; just move on boldly and try to make better decisions in the future.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as much advice as I got in the last 19 months. A lot of it was good, but a lot of it was terrible. I ended up acting on some advise I didn’t know was terrible at the time and it really hurt my rate of success as a solopreneur.
You see, when you’re doing something entrepreneurial, it’s interesting to people. And sometimes they can’t help but give their opinion because they truly want to help you. But a lot of the time, their advice is misguided for various reasons.
With so much advice (both welcome and unwelcome), it became really tough for me to distinguish the signal from the noise.
What I learned is that most advice has a hidden agenda, which can be good or bad. The key is to get to the bottom of what the advice-giver’s hidden agenda might be and use that to inform whether and how you should use their advice.
Here are some questions I started to ask myself whenever I got some advice to help me figure out how to interpret it and whether to act on it.
For example, when I tested my first product idea as an early entrepreneur, I got immense pushback on the idea:
“Lena, people don’t need this.”
“Nobody’s going to pay for it.”
“You’ll never get the distribution.”
They were all valid arguments. In fact, I ended up invalidating that idea in the end for precisely those reasons.
But at the time, I didn’t take their advice. And here’s why.
The advice was coming from experienced entrepreneurs who’d already tested their first few ideas a long time ago. And they’d forgotten just how bad those ideas had been. Most entrepreneurs start with some pretty silly ideas.
As a first-time entrepreneur, I was looking to get my feet wet and shake off the terrifying feeling of shipping my own creation for the first time. To be honest, it really didn’t matter what my first idea was because I knew the chances of success on the first try were extremely low.
So I prioritized learning and getting comfortable with shipping my ideas into the world.
Had I listened to their advice, I probably would have spun another three to five ideas in my head for months, refusing to ship anything until I had a killer idea.
In retrospect, I’m glad I shipped Hippokite. Because I got to fail just two months into my entrepreneurial journey. And what I learned through that experience set me up for my next idea.
Advice can make or break you so choose wisely what advice you’ll wholeheartedly follow.
Congratulations on powering through my seven biggest lessons from 19 months of solopreneuring. May the odds be ever in your favour!