So You’re a Solopreneur?
Robyn Bolton, founder of Mile Zero, shares her insights on the world of solopreneurs. She discusses the challenges that come with starting your own business, emphasizes the value of building genuine relationships and networks, and the differing definition of success.
Notes from the Show
Robyn Bolton, Founder and Corporate Innovation Expert of Mile Zero, her solo consulting firm. This is Robyn's second time on the podcast. We talk all about the world of solopreneurs, staying validating with the pressure to grow, and some great tips when it comes to being in business for yourself.
Robyn touches on the pressure to grow and how it can affect solopreneurs. She also shares her experience of appreciating how hard it is to start your own business and the value of hiring a boutique firm.
Robyn drives home the importance of building relationships and networks intentionally and deliberately. She recommends reaching out to people in the “same boat” as you and making mutually beneficial exchanges. You’ll find that without a salesy approach, this contact is often very well received.
When it comes to having a lifestyle business, you don’t want to do what you don't want to do. Robyn shares her tips on bringing in talents and experts when required. For solopreneurs leaving corporate, Robyn suggests reestablishing relationships with former colleagues and focusing on building authentic connections…remember it’s about making contact and catching up, not a sale.
Lastly, we talk about the ebb and flow of financials in consulting and the importance of budgeting, saving for lean years, and maintaining consistency. As Robyn mentions, everyone’s comfortability, situation, and feelings are valid and success can look different for every individual in business.
You can find Robyn via email, LinkedIn, or by visiting the Mile Zero website.
Understanding the world of solopreneurs and the pressure to grow your business.
Tips for building authentic relationships and networks intentionally and deliberately.
Utilizing connections, bringing in talents and experts when required.
The importance of budgeting, maintaining consistency and understanding the ebb and flow of financials in consulting.
What to do when you’re leaving a corporation for your own business.
Mentioned in this Episode:
Transcribed by AI Susan Tatum 0:36
Welcome, everybody, today, I'm talking with Robyn Bolton who's the founder of Miles Zero. She's a corporate innovation expert. And some of you may have seen an episode that we did to Stop the Noise. Was it a year ago? It's been a while.
Robyn M. Bolton 0:54
Yeah, It's I think it's been a year ago.
Susan Tatum 0:56
yeah. But she's back to talk about a different topic, which is the pressure to grow our businesses. So welcome back, Robyn.
Robyn M. Bolton 1:05
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.
Susan Tatum 1:07
It's good to have you here. And you know, this, this particular topic was one that you thought of you suggested it to me and another conversation we were having. And so I'm curious to just to just let you just go for a little while talking about why that's top of mind and what it means to you.
Robyn M. Bolton 1:26
Yeah, so it's, you know, when we were catching up by a couple of weeks ago, I kind of asked you, you know, what you are seeing and what you're thinking about this kind of push to grow, grow a business. And where this came up was I, I've had a couple of experience or a few experiences over say the last six months to a year, where it meets someone to introduce myself introduce my business, and they don't say, either Oh, is it just you and the just is kind of like I was just do, um, which kind of like has this this tone of dismissiveness, or they'd say that, you know, after we talked a bit about my business, they'd say, Oh, you know, so how big do you want to grow it, which left me feeling? Well, I don't know, I'm kind of happy doing my own thing. But feeling like I need to have a plan to grow. In order to be successful, I have to grow it. And so having lots of these conversations, it turned out that way, and then I was out to dinner with friends. And we were catching up where each of us was in our careers. And what you know, as I was talking about, one of my friends said, Oh, so you're retired, I'm having my own consulting firm is about the furthest thing from retirement, I can imagine. And, you know, this is a lovely person. And, you know, I care very deeply about her. But that moment of kind of thinking that because I am a solopreneur, I'm retired, just, you know, kind of it got me really thinking about this perception that is either implicit or explicit out there, that the only type of business that is successful is one that grows, and that become, that starts to employ more and more people add, even in a post pandemic, you know, you have one office than two offices. And so if your ambition, you know, in my role as a consultant isn't to be the next McKinsey, like, What are you've been doing? Yeah, and, you know, kind of coming to terms with the fact that that is absolutely not my ambition. And that's okay.
Susan Tatum 3:19
So, yeah, I mean, there's so it's really two different things, isn't it? It's you, and I'm in the same boat it, we have a business to do what we enjoy doing. And what I enjoy doing is not building business, my own business, and having to manage employees, and all of the headaches that go with that stuff. I just want to serve the people that I want to serve. And I think that that is a completely different path, isn't it than someone who says, I'm going to help? Maybe it's not I'm going to be on McKinsey. But I'm going to build a consulting for a sizable consulting firm where I can create jobs for people. And all of those are good things about building businesses and creating to the economy and contributing to the economy and whatever. So I guess the question becomes, what do we do with the people who think it has to be door number two, in order for it to count?
Robyn M. Bolton 4:13
It's a great question. And I think you actually started to kind of answer that by saying, I'm creating a business focused on helping people with a problem I faced and then I think that I can help others overcome. If somebody argues with that, I will just say they're kind of a jerk, and maybe you want to end the conversation.
Susan Tatum 4:34
And if it's, you're good, and you can tell them they're a jerk, right?
Robyn M. Bolton 4:37
You can be honest with them and be like, that's a really jerky thing to say. And, you know, to be clearly it's not like, you know, creating a business like you and I have done to help people with, you know, specific challenges. And you know, creating a big business not like those two are antithetical you can do both. But it's also okay to have ambition towards one or the other and And helping, at least for me, like getting myself to a place where not better or worse, it's not successful and unsuccessful. It's just different. And so I have a definition of success for myself, that may be different from your definition of success, or what society says success is. But I have to live with myself and my business. So I'm going to create what I see a success.
Susan Tatum 5:23
So this, this question that popped into my head is going to take me off of what I wanted to ask you before, but I'm gonna ask it anyway. And that is do you does that feeling that you have that when you're, you're the people that you respect, or the people that you're meeting? Oh, you're cute little business thing that makes you want to throw a drink in their face, or whatever? Does that contribute to the feeling of impostor syndrome? on any level that some that many consultants, many people struggle with? If you're constantly hearing, you should you know, clues that you should be building something and you're not doing it? Does that make you feel less like an expert?
Robyn M. Bolton 6:08
I don't from my experience, it didn't make me feel like less of an expert. But what it did do is feed into I could call myself an insecure overachiever. And so fed into that insecurity of, oh, I'm not doing what I should be doing. I'm okay, you know, I'm missing something I behind. So it didn't create insecurity, but it's certainly fed into it. And it did feed a little bit into a well amount of real consultant if I'm just a solopreneur, and pretty quickly, because, you know, consulting, even when you're in a big firm, it's often you in front of clients, like, oh, no, no, no, I'm a real consultant. It does create, you know, kind of those moments of insecurity, I would say,
Susan Tatum 6:53
so is your with your innovation stuff that you do. Is it primarily large companies that you're working with
Robyn M. Bolton 6:59
primarily medium and large, I'd say 100 million revenue and above.
Susan Tatum 7:03
So do you think that some of that attitude comes from thats their experience with with work and what what work means?
Robyn M. Bolton 7:13
I think it's where I've seen it come up definitely has something to do with a big company, and kind of in two ways. So one, again, my dear friend, she made the comment, she spent her entire career in corporate America. And so and I spent years in corporate America too, and you don't really understand how hard it is to have your own business, when you're a W2 employee. And I'll be honest, even before I started my own business, honestly, how hard can it be like How many books have been written about it? How many articles? how many tools? how many coaches? like it can't honestly be that hard. And then I did, I was like, Holy crap, it's so much harder than I thought. So I think there's part of that if your whole experience has been as an employee in a big company, you just don't appreciate how hard it is to to be a solopreneur, let alone Grow Your Own Business. I think the other thing is, is that traditionally, big companies have hired big consulting firms, there are safety in that. And there certainly are problems that big companies face that require the army of consultants, but I think more and more now, companies are and people in companies are starting to see the value of hiring an individual consultant, hiring a boutique firm, because you get access to the same expertise of the big firms, because that's what most of us come out of, a fraction of the price. So So I think that's starting to shift that perception of to get good quality consulting services, you have to go with the big firm.
Susan Tatum 8:36
So you know, I think there's there's two mindsets that have to change. They're the one one is the people in the big companies, but it's also consultants themselves, because I mean, I don't remember running across it recently, but it wasn't too long ago, when solo consultants would on their websites go to go to a lot of trouble to make it look like there was a lot of them. Or then it was, you know, like a whole team of people and I'm guilty of that. Sometimes we do this and we do that instead of I I I. So you know, you hit on something this is this is a little bit away from the topic of the pressure to grow. But I think it's an important thing is that because there is a whole slew of new consultants that are coming out of corporate America now, some of them because they were ready. And some of them because they, you know, got got wrapped up in a layoff or something like that. But even the ones that are ready, I find the guy I had a wonderful business partner several years ago, who was just so she knows like the channel the computer channel better than anybody I know. She always worked at Cisco and Amazon and places like that. And the you take advantage I worked at a large company at one time and you, you do you don't realize how much you get in terms of resources in a company like that, that you just don't have access to when you're by yourself. And I found, people may rain all over me about this, but I found that in the corporate environment, there wasn't as much pressure to actually get things done. Because it took so long, and there were so many people involved.
Robyn M. Bolton 10:15
Yeah, I mean, corporations, they just move at a different pace, you know, because there are the layers and all the approvals and, and, you know, all of the processes and all of the hoops to jump through, and you know, whether something takes you a day or a week or a month, you're still getting your paycheck. Whereas when you have your own business, if something takes you a month, you may not be getting the paycheck. You know, if you forget to send the invoice, you're not getting paid. So there's also that, like, it is very, very real. When things start taking a long time.
Susan Tatum 10:49
Yeah. Or yeah, if it yes, if it took you longer than you thought it was going to take care of your profits can, you know, I don't advocate hourly rates. So yeah, So now there's, there's two pieces of advice I want you to give. But one, let's stick on the people who are coming from corporate into consulting for a moment. What do you recommend? What did you do to get used to being on your own? What do you recommend the folks that are experiencing that? What can they do to to get used to it?
Robyn M. Bolton 11:21
It's a great question. I think the biggest thing I found was really, it's about building relationships, building connections, meeting people who are in the same boat as us. So also solo consultant, connecting with your network, staying in touch with people, because when you're solo consultants, or even if you have partners, it's very different than when you go to let's say, going into the office when we all spent like two years in our home offices. But even when you're part of a big company, you kind of have this built in network of people that you can talk to and bounce ideas off of it just socialize with, you have to create that very intentionally and very deliberately when you have your own business. Otherwise, it can get very, very lonely. So before spending any money on branding, or websites or things like that, build your relationship, relationships with collaborators, relationships with people you already know, oh, with potential customers, just get out there, meet people, talk to people and build those connections.
Susan Tatum 12:21
So one of the things that I hear you saying Robyn is, at least I think I hear you saying this is that there will be your existing network is extremely important. And we'll talk about that in a minute. But you also need to surround yourself or build a network among people that are in a similar position to what you're in now. And they're there for experience experiencing things the same way you are, or they already have experienced them and have good answers for you.
Robyn M. Bolton 12:47
Yeah, yeah. And I really have to say, and they're really approaching them with the sense of, you know, feeling like you have something to offer as well. So again, like, you know, hey, looks like you built an amazing business would love to learn tips and tricks from you, I also see that you do a lot, I'm making this up a lot of consulting in foodbev. And I've spent 20 years in foodbev. So, you know, we'd love to just, if it's helpful offer up, you know, some trends that I saw or like being really clear, hey, here's this mutual exchange.
Susan Tatum 13:17
And yeah, so what you just gave us an example of is figuring out what you can provide a value to the other person and in exchange for whatever value that we might be able to provide you. And then that leads to its networking, right. Yeah, just networking. Exactly. And so I don't know what your experience has been with it. You're smiling. So I think it must be pretty good. But I have found people to be genuinely willing to have conversations like that, as long as they don't feel like you're being scammed into a sales call.
Robyn M. Bolton 13:51
Yep. Yes, I You're totally right. If it feels genuine and authentic, people are very happy to share because we've been there. You know, we were at the beginning at one time, June we know how scary and overwhelming and lonely and all those emotions it is. And so yeah, we're happy to help and there's so much especially on LinkedIn, like there's so many also scammers out there like hey you know like I'd love to get advice from you so that I can sell you whatever product I have.
Susan Tatum 14:23
Yeah, So okay, so then back to back to the the folks that are perfectly happy building a lifestyle business.
Robyn M. Bolton 14:30
Susan Tatum 14:31
But we're but you know, when we refer to ourselves as a solo consultants, but we all have help I think we get to the point where we've got some some other kind of help. We're not we didn't get in the business to do things that we don't want to do. And there plenty of people out there that are happy to do those things for us. Where Where does that start? Do you think of when you you reach a point where you you can or should be looking at people that you can be can get help from.
Robyn M. Bolton 15:00
I think you should always be looking for people that you can get help from, like, I literally maintain an Excel spreadsheet of people I beat that I could one day see, you know, as partnering with bringing on as a subcontractor because they have complementary skills that often my clients need. And so just developing that list all the time, right from the first day, because, you know, eventually, you know, projects or RFPs will come in that you'll look at them, you're like, oh, this needs a big team, that I really want to do it. And trying to find, you know, cobbled together, your team in that moment, is really hard. Whereas if you have this network of people, you have this list, like, okay, like your three graphic designers, I can call on yours, you know, to quant research experts, you're giving yourself a little bit of a head start. But you know, it's I always talk about Mile Zero is it's a network firm. Yes, it is me, and I bring in the talent and the experts that's required that are required. Yeah.
Susan Tatum 15:59
And there's, there's a great benefit to that for the client, because you're able to bring in whoever the specialists are in whatever area that you're dealing with. I think, too, that it's important to understand ourselves well enough to know what we're good at and what gives us energy and what doesn't, and as quickly as possible. And for me, it's anything administrative or anything repetitive, get, get somebody that can help you with that as quickly as possible. Yeah. And I think that because we are entrepreneurs, a lot of people suffer with that, because they don't want to give up control that. I'm like, just take it, take it away. Don't make me do it.
Robyn M. Bolton 16:36
Yeah, I mean, we all have stuff we hate to do. And so if you can find someone who will do that, because it means especially administrative stuff, you know, for me a lot of marketing stuff, like, I don't like to do it. And, you know, for me, like marketing stuff, like identifying publications, I could write for, identifying podcasts like yours, to join. I love listening to them, I hate doing the research to find them and reach out. But you know what, that's something that with a process and a structure, I can have my VA do and it's a huge accelerator, because then we she can do that, while I run the business in parallel.
Susan Tatum 17:13
I think you just hit on one of the most critical, important hires, if you will, not as an employee, but but but a VA, finding a good one can be tricky, but they're out there. And it just makes such a huge difference. Let's go back to I guess, really one last thing that I'm thinking about right now about the folks that do find themselves getting this pressure to grow? What What are your thoughts on what what can be done? What do you what do you do to not let them get inside your head, and to kind of respond to them in a way that makes you feel good,
Robyn M. Bolton 17:50
It's, this is gonna sound silly, but have a response be prepared, like almost a script that, you know, a years ago. So just, you know, the dolls with the string in the back that you pull it in, I would say one of 10 phrases make this one of your 10 phrases, so that you have a standard response that you know, works that you know, you believe in. So you don't have to think about it so that you don't kind of open your brain to to all of the fears and the reactions and the emotions you just like, Yeah, I'm building a business where I get to help people with problems that we both care deeply about.
Susan Tatum 18:28
I think that's great advice. So it's don't let yourself get surprised by that question that's coming along, it's just same way that we do in preparation for talking to a client.
Robyn M. Bolton 18:37
Susan Tatum 18:38
Whether it's in a sales call, or or if it's in a strategy call, or whatever, that we've, most of us, even if it's only inside our heads, there is a set of questions that are pushbacks, or whatever that happen. And we collect responses to that. So everybody listening, let's add that to the list of things that you need to have a response for. I want to get to one of your things. This is a question that's been asked of me. And you mentioned it earlier about the corporate network and or the your professional network. And so you've got this network that you've that you've built over time, you've we've put a lot of effort into it. It's a good solid network. How do you I guess the the question that gets asked of me is that a lot of these people were probably your constituent or their they were your co workers, partners, whatever, but you weren't selling anything to them. So now you're you have your consulting firm, and it's not the necessarily that you want to sell something to them, but you may be you may have a different ask for them. Then you would have had when you were working side by side with them, how do you transition your I'm gonna call it your corporate network or your professional network into a network that will help you in your consulting firm.
Robyn M. Bolton 19:55
It's a great question. It's one that I really struggled with because I've worried about like, oh, I don't want to come across so salesy, and be like, Hi, you haven't heard from me in 10 years. But now the consulting firm, Will you hire me? It just I that that just didn't, I was not comfortable with that.
Susan Tatum 20:09
I can't imagine why.
Robyn M. Bolton 20:12
And so honestly, what I found was it because it is about relationships, what you're doing is getting back in touch with people, that's all you're doing, you're just reestablishing contact, you're not asking for anything, you're not selling them anything, you're just reestablishing a relationship. So when I was very first starting, the first thing I did was email, everyone that I had in my address book. And honestly, I realized some of those people, I didn't talk to you in 20 years, but I just reached out with, hey, it's been a long time since we've been in touch. That's my bad. I want to fix that. Are you open to a call? And the first call, literally was just catching up? And so naturally is part of catching up. You know, I have my own consulting business now. That's all. It was literally all it was starting to build the relationships so that when the need, they need help that you can offer they think of you, but it's it wasn't a sales pitch, it wasn't even a lot of people talk about warm letters of like, Hey, let me email someone and tell them what I'm doing. They know, it's about them. It's about the relationship. Focus on that, and the business will come.
Susan Tatum 21:16
So what kind of, and you may not be able to estimate this, but what what kind of response would you say you got to that email in terms of percentage of people that
Robyn M. Bolton 21:25
so I, I had a sequence. And I personally take this, it's not like I had some, you know, on robot anything. I personally typed, and started reach out three times. And then if they didn't respond after the third time, I would leave them be. And overall, I had about a 30% response rate. And again, from some people that I hadn't talked to in decades, yeah, like, hey, it's so great to hear from you. And we will be on a on a call the next week.
Susan Tatum 21:51
Okay, so I guess the thing there is like, don't, don't assume that these people don't want to talk to you.
Robyn M. Bolton 21:57
Susan Tatum 21:58
But be careful about how you reach out to them. Or just like, I mean, I think you just outlined a perfect way to do it. Yeah, I think at some point in there, there are people in your in your existing network, who because of their experience, or where they are still within a corporation can provide really good insights on what's happening now, you know, like, reality checks.
Robyn M. Bolton 22:22
Yep. And what I found is that the first conversation is always just catching up, just reestablishing the relationship. And then if you, you know, if you need something from the like, what comes up for me is, I'll have a client, you know, in a space where the person I'm talking to, is also an expert. And so I want to pick their brain about something else said, I will very specifically set up a different call and say, Hey, this has been so great catching up with you. I actually want to pick your brain on some business stuff. But you know, I didn't want to do this here. Because I was having so much fun catching up with you. Can we schedule another call? So being very clear around what is kind of the personal relationship interaction? And what is the business interaction and always starting relationship?
Susan Tatum 23:05
I think I'll take that same advice. And I do the same thing when I'm having a networking call with someone and they actually get interested in what I do. And, and they want to turn it into a sales call. I'm like, Yep, no, this was this is not why we're talking. We can schedule some other time to do it. I think that just keeps it honest. And so you don't feel slimy about doing it. So we have a little bit more time. Are you okay, on on time? Because I've got,
Robyn M. Bolton 23:35
Susan Tatum 23:36
you know, me and my questions.
Robyn M. Bolton 23:36
I love that.
Susan Tatum 23:37
So I have been asked, How do you deal with the fear around the ebb and flow of income?
Robyn M. Bolton 23:44
Wine and medication? No. No
Susan Tatum 23:48
and the wine gets cheaper, as the income ebbs?
Robyn M. Bolton 23:53
Yeah. So no, it's like it is it is very real, it is very anxiety producing. And you know, we all have different relationships with money. Some people are very comfortable living on the edge. I am, I am not. So it's real. However, you are processing the ebb and flow, it is real, it is valid. And every consulting business I've been in from my own all the way up to one of the big three, it is all ebb and flow in consulting. It's not like the big firms don't experience this either. You're just when you're an employee, you're just much more insulated from it. So the way to deal with it is, you know, I have just a household budget that is constant like, this is what I'm like 90% confident that we can bring in its income. This is that budget. So you know, if things don't come in as much as I don't get as much work as I'd like, I know I can still cover the bills. Also, when you do have when you have good years, stocking that money away, and you know, building that cushion, in case there are lean years or a global pandemic when everything shuts down. So it is big, very conservative and carefull with the money so that in times of feast, you're saving for the times of famine. And you know, I think it's also, you know, just getting really comfortable with the idea that if you're doing everything you need to do to keep your business moving forward, you're out there networking, you are, you know, staying prominent in the minds of your potential clients, you're delivering great work, you're staying in touch with people, all those things that you can control about your business, if you're doing all of that the business will come, it may not come on the timeline you want, but it will come. And so just being able to fight the anxiety with luck, I'm doing the best I can I'm doing everything I need to do, it's fine. And I'd have a glass of wine.
Susan Tatum 25:43
I think I'm right there with you. If we didn't live on opposite coasts, we could meet for lunch.
Robyn M. Bolton 25:52
Susan Tatum 25:53
I think that, you know, to what goes in there as well, Robin is having systems because the the the challenge for consultants who also have to bring in their own business is consistency. And because you get busy, and the marketing, the business development falls by the wayside, and so that you can serve your clients. So if you have systems in place that can continue to to do some of this stuff. Without you, the more your VA can do, the more that's going to happen automatically. And I very careful about the word automation, because I do believe that technology gets used for misuse a number of times, but to have a system that that just works is going to do a whole lot to mentally let you know that I've got this under control. And also it will smooth things out. And you know, we're not saying there will never be ebbs and flows, but there will be far fewer if you're able to maintain consistency in that marketing business development.
Robyn M. Bolton 26:54
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I would say for my business, you know, finding a scheduling tool for social media posts, so that I could just like upload a batch and then it every day, it posts huge. I have with my CRM, you know, I have a list like, every week, I'm reaching out to 10 people. And again, that is a personal email that's not an automated email, because it's all about relationships. And then a couple years ago, I finally it felt like a huge step. And looking back, I'm like, Oh, so silly. But I don't do client meetings on Fridays, unless it's an emergency. But Fridays I carve out and this is when I'm going to work on my business. This is when I'm going to do all the things that is kind of behind the curtain, not glamorous, the invoicing all of that. And because that frees me up Monday through Thursday to be focused on clients and serving them.
Susan Tatum 27:47
Yeah, I do it on Mondays. And I try not to have client meetings on Fridays, but sometimes they yes, they happen. Yeah, yeah, that's okay. Well, I you know, I have a whole page of more, you're just going to have to come back because I've got more questions to ask. We're running out of time here. So, Robyn, I assume that you would be open to people that have heard you here that may have want to talk to you further about what they're hearing and is it okay for them to contact you?
Robyn M. Bolton 28:16
Absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn. Just shoot me a note and, and we'll talk
Susan Tatum 28:21
and for those of you who are listening, it's Robyn.
Robyn M. Bolton 28:26
Yes. Robyn and last name is Bolton B-O-L-T-O-N like Michael Bolton, but no relations.
Susan Tatum 28:34
All right, well, thank you and enjoy the rest of your day.