From “solopreneur” to small-business owner

In the small-business world, there’s a stage of growth that’s seldom talked about. It’s that somewhat awkward but extremely exciting time when a freelancer or sole proprietor — a “solopreneur” — decides to go for it and expand. We spoke with four local entrepreneurs, asking how they did it and what advice they can offer.

Overcome inner obstacles

The key to growing any small business is making sure you’re building it on a strong foundation. To the surprise of many, this foundation is mainly internal — knowing who you are, doing what you love and overcoming some key internal obstacles that might be holding you back. Sajit Greene, an Asheville-area business and relationship coach, finds that lack of confidence is an obstacle for many solopreneurs, and it often takes the form of a loud and bossy inner critic.

“For instance, someone can learn to use a time-management tool,” explains Greene. “But they might end up not using it because their inner critic is harassing them: ‘Why didn’t you get those things done? Why aren’t you more efficient?’ Then the person feels so badly, it [is] even harder to get their tasks done. They key is to bring your inner critic on board to work with you as part of your inner support team. Instead of letting it beat you down, you can use it as a tool for discernment or constructive feedback.”

Local entrepreneur Celeste Ametrine, a house sitter and dog-walker, agrees, noting that while she finds her current work extremely satisfying, before moving forward she had to let some old ideas crumble first.

“I had all these ideas of what success would look like, and what it meant to everyone else,” says Ametrine. “Previously, I was building on my coaching work and thought I would become a motivational speaker. But I had to let that go because it wasn’t working.  I wasn’t happy. And why do something if it’s not going to make you happy?”

Of course, moving through inner obstacles is an ongoing journey, and as a business owner continues to grow, new obstacles may arise. But the earlier you recognize their existence and learn tools for moving through them, the more successful you’ll be at rooting them out in the future.

Listen to demand

Once you have a well-grounded internal base for growth, it’s time to look outward. If you’re consistently running out of hours in the week to meet demand for your product or service, you may need to grow your business.

Justin Belleme, owner of JB Media Group, went from solo, freelance online-marketing consultant to nine-employee Internet marketing agency. For him, the catalyst for growth was one big client. “The city of Asheville hired me for a project,” says Belleme, “and the exposure of that one account accelerated the interest in people hiring me.”

When client contracts and job offers added up to more than 120 hours of work per week, Belleme knew that he needed help. “I also recognized talent in the job market that was underutilized. My team’s skill sets complement my own.”

Managing staff and subcontractors was a new task for Belleme, full of tough decisions. “It was also hard to continue delivering work while I was finding and training other people,” he says. But over time, he’s learned a lot about hiring. He looks for people who are responsible, timely, self-motivated and strong communicators. He warns others to “avoid the urge to hire someone you know really well,” and instead to find the person that fits the job description.

Let go of some control

The thought of sharing the workload can actually induce panic in some new small business owners. (Remember those internal obstacles?) “It can be very difficult for them to relinquish control,” says Jeff Pennypacker, serial entrepreneur and local business coach. “Every solopreneur struggles with this, because they’re emotionally attached to the business,” he explains. “But without releasing control, there will be no growth. You have to start drawing the line between the emotional connection and the business entity.”

In his client-coaching experience, the first hire is usually the hardest. “Once they see their first hire as an asset, they become addicted and start hiring other people to do everything. The key is to hire the right people, give them the proper training, and to not micromanage them.”

Review and revise

Of course, no business is “set-it-and-forget-it.” Once staff and systems are in place, Pennypacker recommends, do what he did with his previous business, Masterpiece Ice Sculptures. “Every January we would evaluate the past year and see what worked best and what didn’t. And based on that, we would adjust our product line for the coming year.”

Doing an annual review of products, services, marketing strategies and internal systems will ensure that your business remains relevant and keeps moving along that growth continuum.

Sajit Greene, Celeste Ametrine, Justin Belleme and Jeff Pennypacker will lead Mountain BizWorks’ new six-month Business Boot Camp program, helping existing solopreneurs become better small-business owners. Applications are due Thursday, Feb. 28. To apply, visit mountainbizworks.org/bootcamp.

— Mountain BizWorks supports small businesses in Western North Carolina through lending, consulting and training. For more information, visit mountainbizworks.org.

Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.

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