A start-up’s starting-up

I found myself unemployed in May 2020, along with tens of millions in the United States, due to circumstances largely beyond my control. 

Like any perceived injustice or event that happens “to” us rather than us “making it happen,” it stirred within me a desire to do something about it.  

That something was dive head-first into self-employment. At least I can control my destiny! At least I’m in charge! rang through my head. (Of course, the self-employed consultant is MORE tied to the whims of the fickle market and mercurial client than the full-time employee buffered by a management cadre and cash reserves. But such logic overriding this only child’s lifelong independent streak is not how this story goes …)

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I always knew that my path would lead to entrepreneurship.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I created public diplomacy programs for young Pakistani entrepreneurs while at the U.S. Department of State. I have volunteered my time to causes like financial literacy and job creation. 

And I already had the LLC paperwork filed, waiting idly for the fortuitous day when I’d take the plunge.

Me joining the self-employed world seemed right and pre-determined. 

But how did I go about turning this concept into a reality?

KISS-E: Keep it Simple, Self-Employed.

Normally an over-anxious planner, I just went for it. By instinct, I dove head-first into finding gigs – aka survival mode. I knew myself well enough to know that I’d have to demonstrate proof of concept first: “Kristen, you can be solo and pay your mortgage.”

And because I am a communicator by trade, I instinctively knew that I needed to solidify my brand. After years of being on auto-pilot, taking a step back to review my accomplishments, my strengths and where I wanted to focus my professional energies was a worthwhile exercise that we all should take more time to do in our work and personal lives.

It was tempting at the beginning to want to take on anything and everything that came my way for the sake of finances, but I exercised strategic patience and am glad I did so. Keeping it simple and keeping it on brand paid off in the long run.

It Takes a Village

That was the “easy” part. For what felt like months, I turned over a new stone daily in the “I don’t know what I don’t know” category. Quarterly taxes, tax advisory, business law … it’s common sense enough that these things need to be managed, but actually doing so is whole other story. 

As a small business owner not even a year into her journey, I’m still figuring out what I don’t know and how to find the right people to help me figure it out. This is perhaps the most relevant advice I can give other start-ups starting up: hire partners who you trust, with whom you can have honest conversations, and who will proactively give sound advice because they were once in your shoes. 

While it’s self-employment, it’s not self-empire-building. It takes a village to raise a start-up.

Change Management – Not an Oxy-Moron

The advice that I share with clients as a change manager certainly came in handy as I was embarking on this major professional change of my own. The shift in mentality to being a ‘lone-wolf contractor’ versus an FTE has also given me a new perspective about work—as has, of course, COVID.

I’m currently leading a virtual deployment, which means virtual training and outreach, over Zoom, without ever having met my US-based clients (or of course my overseas ones).  

Talk about change management: a completely new way of project discovery and supporting my client from afar, on top of a completely new way of working solo without the cloud-cover of a boss and team. 

I gotta say: I’m loving it.

I happen to think that virtual conversations allow people to connect meaningfully when the real thing is not an option, and they also force us to be creative in our approach. (Any takers for Zoom Karaoke? I’m debating between Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” and Adele’s “Send My Love To Your New Lover” for my contribution).

I think my willingness to get better at accepting “life as it happens to us” (because, wow, life has happened a LOT of late) makes me a better change manager to my clients.  The layoff and ongoing journey to becoming a sole proprietor means that I know firsthand the anxiety, confusion and hope that my change clients are experiencing. Even once I’m seasoned (God willing), I’ll still be able to look back at this stage and empathize with the emotions that uncertainty and change dredge up in us.

What’s next in this start-up’s starting-up? Not sure. Am I quietly confident that I’ll figure it out? Absolutely.

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