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The Next Economy / THE NEXT ECONOMY: ESSAY

You, Inc.

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

(iStockphoto)

June 7, 2012

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.

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.”

JOB SECURITY—HA-HA

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.”

• Build your own brand, not your company’s. If you take a job, fine, but maintain your own online profile and preferably your own businesses, which are the key to sustaining yourself long term. Innovator-in-chief Grant’s motto: “All hail the side-gig.” Remember that your brand is more valuable to you than your employer’s is.

• Freedom is a business plan. Maintaining control over what you do and how you do it makes the difference between mastering the market and being at its mercy. Following other people’s instructions is not only personally stultifying, it limits your opportunities.

• Forget doing one thing. Put multiple products and services on the market and keep pushing new ones out there. “Hit ‘refresh’ often,” as Schawbel says. Markets change quickly, and your product line needs to keep up. If you grew up texting and playing video games while talking on the phone, multitasking probably comes naturally; even if it doesn’t, it’s a business necessity, so get used to it.

• Face-to-face? Forget that, too. You will never meet most of your clients in person, and your business relationships—everything from Web design and copywriting to legal and bookkeeping—will be online, too. You won’t have employees, and you won’t want any. Instead, you’ll rely on a web of other freelancers and solopreneurs—numbering from several to several dozen—who provide services and backup. Sometimes they will work for you, and sometimes you’ll work for them. Think network, not hierarchy.

• If it feels like work, you’re probably doing it wrong. The distinction between personal projects and professional work is artificial and counterproductive. “I don’t even look at it as work,” Schawbel says. “I’m just doing things.”

OLD JOBS, NEW ATTITUDES

Washington, of course, is still all about the old paradigm and doesn’t make life easy for the new one. Training and stimulus programs focus on traditional jobs; health insurance and fringe benefits remain substantially tied to employment. Health coverage is a problem for solopreneurs. According to Keltto’s surveys, half of them get insurance through their spouses, and a quarter do without; the rest manage to buy it.

These are practical matters, and, to solopreneurs, taking a conventional job isn’t immoral. A 26-year-old writer and social-media marketer who was interviewed for this article had barely finished extolling her independence when she e-mailed to say she was pursuing a job with a company she would “really like to be part of.”

The point isn’t to avoid jobs but to regard them as only one element of your business portfolio. And if you have a job, for heaven’s sake don’t depend on it. Even if you want to keep it, you can’t count on it keeping you.

The writer is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and National Journal. 

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