The function of branding is to distinguish you from the competition. “If you’re not a brand, you’re a commodity, and you compete on price,” Arruda says. This is something that not only companies and entrepreneurs but even conventional job-seekers increasingly need to worry about. Until recently, most people subsumed their own reputations under their employers’. But nowadays, the first thing many prospective employers check is your online reputation—that is, your brand.
Job seekers need to look after their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter presences, as more than a few have learned the hard way. “We’re moving into a more transparent world,” says Jorgen Sundberg, founder of Link Humans, an online-branding consultancy. “It’s harder to hide in a huge corporation or a huge team.”
COUNTING ON YOURSELF
In any case, fewer people want to. For many younger people, burrowing into corporate life seems to be a myopic and often self-defeating strategy. Dan Schawbel is a 28-year-old marketing researcher and consultant who specializes in targeting his own generation. He makes the point with typical Gen-Y bluntness: “You’re competing against everyone in the world. You can’t count on anything anymore. The only thing you can count on is investing in yourself.”
Where hypercompetition and the recession have created the will to abandon the traditional employment model, the Internet has provided a way. An accountant or designer who establishes a distinctive online brand can sell to clients around the world, and more are doing so as companies downsize and outsource. In 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal, more than a fifth of American workers were operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, contractors, or solo entrepreneurs, and “current projections see the number only rising in coming years.”
Solopreneurs take the freelancing mind-set a stage further. While a freelancer typically practices a single trade, solopreneurs resist pigeonholes. Rather, they view their job as developing multiple lines of business, preferably diverse but all revolving around a central, defining brand. “You never want your income based on one avenue,” said John Michael Morgan, a branding consultant who juggles speaking, writing, consulting, and training. “If something happens and you lose that method of making income, you realize you didn’t have a business, you had a job”—and it’s gone.
“The only thing you can count on is investing in yourself.”
The majority of solopreneurs seem to be female—two-thirds of them, according to unscientific surveys by Larry Keltto, a former journalist who now coaches and consults for go-it-aloners. Just over half, Keltto has found, earn less than $40,000 or lose money; but some of them, once established, earn into the six figures. The vast majority work from home. How many are there? Hard to say. Probably not many—yet.
Judging from anecdotal evidence, two career patterns seem to predominate. One group consists of people in their 30s and 40s who go solo to recover from a layoff or to pursue a passion deferred. The others are twentysomethings who prefer to blaze their own trails, sometimes after sampling and rejecting what they perceive as the straitjacket of traditional employment.
“I felt I had more to give in terms of being innovative,” says Alexis Grant, a journalist and social-media strategist (and self-described “slasher”). The 31-year-old’s business card lists her as “Innovator-in-Chief” of Socialexis, the company she constitutes. Ash Ambirge is a 27-year-old online-marketing consultant who helps people start independent careers. She thrived financially in corporate marketing jobs after college, but “quite frankly,” she recounts, “I ended up hating life. I was miserable.” Today, between her blog, her online courses, her e-books, and her consulting, she reports earning almost $100,000 last year. Better, she has her freedom. “It’s the No. 1 asset that I have,” she says. “I’m confident in my abilities to keep innovating and keep creating and giving people cool things that they want.”
Economically, these micro-conglomerates may never add more than a sliver to the gross domestic product. Culturally, they may turn out to matter more, because they are inverting many of the traditional assumptions about work. Quite consciously, solopreneurship repudiates the “organization man” mentality of yore. Among its tenets:
• Dial your personality up, not down. Don’t blend in, and don’t bend yourself out of shape to be a team player. “The only thing that people can’t really copy is your personality and the way you do things,” says Tea Silvestre, a marketing strategist/copywriter who stirs cooking metaphors into much of her work and brands herself the “Word Chef.”
• Security comes from independence, not from employment. “Job security” has become a contradiction in terms, especially for younger adults. “They don’t have an expectation of a pension or stability,” Keltto says. “They’ve seen their parents and relatives get laid off.”