Relationships for the Self-Employed

Working as a small business owner, consultant or freelancer doesn't mean working alone. Get an expert's tips on how soloists can connect.

If you work alone, you're not alone. One-person businesses are "approximately 78 percent of the nation's 26 million-plus firms," says the Census Bureau.

It can be easy for soloists concentrating on work to forget that building relationships is part of building a successful business. Don't make that mistake. If you work alone, make special efforts to connect with others.

Gather a team

When you work alone, without other people to tell you how you're doing, it can be difficult to see how you can improve. A friend of mine from the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche calls this syndrome "inhaling your own exhaust fumes."

Build a board of advisors who feel free to kick your ass when your solitude weakens your judgment. You'll need five people, with different backgrounds and perspectives. Your dream team might include:

  • a longtime friend
  • a mentor
  • a marketing expert
  • a colleague in your industry
  • a former boss

My board of advisors includes Tad Smith, a one-time business partner of mine. When I was out of work and wanted to become the CEO of a major corporation, Tad told me to forget the big, prestigious Fortune 500 companies that I was targeting. Find a smaller firm that can grow, he said. Tad was right, and I soon became CEO at the game company YaYa.

Report to the board on your successes, failures and goals on a regular basis. Listen to their advice and criticism. If most of them give you the same advice, follow it.

If you used to be a corporate employee, stay close to your old contacts

As chief marketing officer at Starwood Hotels, I built strong ties with my fellow executives. When I founded Ferrazzi Greenlight about five years later, not only did Starwood become a client, but one of my former colleagues there helped me forge a relationship with another hotel company, which also became a client.

Help your old comrades. A self-employed person often has a more flexible schedule. Be generous with this advantage. Visit your old friends and offer yourself as a resource available at any time, day or night. When your former company hits a busy time or a crisis and needs to hire outside help, you'll be the logical candidate.

Get involved with organizations and associations

I belong to the Young Presidents' Organization, a group of corporate heads under age 45. The group has regional chapters on every continent and more than 10,000 members.

Here are a few other good groups:

  • SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which matches well-connected business leaders with small-business managers.
  • The Small Business Development Centers, which provide free advice and valuable connections.
  • IdeaCafe.com, SmallOffice.com and other forums where entrepreneurs gather.
  • Chambers of Commerce and other organizations for businesspeople of all stripes.
  • And of course, your industry's trade organizations.
  • Get to know the competition

    Ideally, you should have such a unique and powerful product or service that you don't really have competition. In any case, you will benefit from knowing others in your field.

    When my team at YaYa pioneered advergaming -- the use of computer games in advertising -- other game companies didn't suffer. They realized that we'd helped them by opening up a new market.

    Treat your competitors as colleagues. Share your joys, gripes and insights with them, and encourage them to do the same. You'll learn about new business conditions and practices and you won't feel all alone.You'll get jobs, too. If a competitor-colleague is offered an assignment but can't take it because it conflicts with another job, he may recommend you. You could do the same for him.

    So even if you’re the CEO, marketing department and janitor of your company, you don’t have to be alone. Smart people are ready to help you be successful. You just have to reach out to them.

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