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THE NEXT ECONOMY: ESSAY

You, Inc.

Emerging “solopreneurs” are developing their own personal brands and finding success in a wired economy.

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(iStockphoto)

Say you’re a typical twentysomething in today’s wretched economy. Except you want to write about sex, which maybe isn’t too typical. Or maybe be a career coach, or a ghostwriter. Oh, and you want job security—so, naturally, you would rather not have a job at all.

A decade or more ago, if you fit this description, you were probably insane, or at least your parents thought so. Now you are (alert: vogue words ahead) a “slasher,” someone whose career is built on doing this/that/other things, with the things separated by slashes. More precisely, you’re a “solopreneur,” someone who is self-employed and makes a business out of multitasking. Bringing some unity to your portfolio career requires developing your personal brand. If you succeed, you become, in effect, a micro-conglomerate.

 

If the jargon sounds suspiciously trendy, a genuine trend seems to underlie it. For a small but growing number of people, a new business model is emerging. These one-person start-ups believe that if you succeed in branding yourself and building a portfolio of multiple online businesses, you will enjoy not only more freedom than a traditional job can provide but also more security. Thanks largely to the Internet, you can do for yourself what your parents relied on corporations to do for them.

THE CONGLOMERATE CALLED “ME”

Take, for example, Steph Auteri, the aforementioned sex writer/ghostwriter/career coach. Auteri graduated from Emerson College and planned a traditional career path. She did freelance writing and editing and interned at several publications, but blogging and freelancing opened an opportunity to make ends meet while having more fun on her own.

“If you’re not a brand, you’re a commodity, and you compete on price.”
 

“I’m trying to build a cohesive business around publishing and sex,” says Auteri, who is 31 and lives in Clifton, N.J. Under her own byline, she has written for Playgirl about sex parties and freelanced an advice column called Sex With Steph. Consistent with her stated policy of over-sharing details of her intimate life, she is working on a book about being a sex writer with sexual dysfunction. For a larger share of her income, she ghostwrites and ghostblogs for sex counselors. When the recession hit, Auteri decided to diversify by becoming a consultant for people who want to freelance as writers and editors. She styles herself a “career coach for word nerds”—a rubric that, when you talk to her, suits her half-nerdy, half-naughty demeanor.

Auteri says she makes about $30,000 a year; along with her husband’s income, that pays the bills. She hopes to build the business, of course, as her brand and her customer base strengthen. In any event, “I wouldn’t give up this lifestyle,” she says. “It’s so much fun. I feel like I’m living a constant experiment. I shift gears maybe once a year depending on what’s working and what’s not.” Next likely ventures: creating a social network (the Word Nerd Network) and developing workshops, both physical and virtual, that combine yoga with writing.

“I get bored if I’m only working on one thing,” Auteri says—a sentiment characteristic of the species. “I’ve seen my own father, who’s still miserable and hating his job and never felt he could change course. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be miserable and stressed all the time.”

To an old-media denizen, it all sounds a bit ... peculiar—as in: You call this a career? But, Auteri says, “I know a lot of people with this kind of lifestyle.”

 

HAVE BRAND, WILL TRAVEL

Enabled by the Internet and social networking, and propelled by the slow economy and an increasingly unreliable job market, folks like Auteri are engaging in the most radical kind of corporate downsizing—becoming, in effect, their own conglomerates and brands. “It’s a change in how we see ourselves in the world of work,” says William Arruda, a prominent personal-branding consultant. Most of these new businesses offer personal or professional services—writing, business coaching, social-media promotion, legal and financial guidance, Web and graphic design, to name a few. Some are built around inventions, crafts, or other products. If a business can interact online and if the capital required to enter is modest, it is ripe for solopreneurship.

Arruda and others date the new paradigm to a 1997 article in Fast Company magazine by the business writer Tom Peters. “We are the CEOs of our own companies,” he wrote. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called ‘You.’ ” Arruda, who had made his career in corporate branding, was taken with the concept. He launched a personal-branding business in 2001, when few people were doing it. Now the field is cluttered with personal-brand consultants and coaches.

The underlying idea, that of the brand, is old. “It’s a unique promise of value,” Arruda explains. Your brand isn’t just a label you give yourself—it’s your reputation. “Each of us has a personal brand, whether we’re aware of it or not,” according to Malcolm Levene, who has consulted on branding from London for 20 years.

This article appears in the June 9, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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