I moved to the DC area in August of 2016 from New Bern, North Carolina. Ever heard of it? If you're a Marine Corps brat like me, it's possible. Otherwise, I highly doubt it. DC's atmosphere, the people, the cars, they all exude a level of luxury and professionalism that you would never find in coastal North Carolina.
This was a welcome change. I had been working from home for the past few years and was ready to venture out and take my chunk out of the very obvious wealth being so freely shared in this metro mecca. The first steps were rough. I had moved into a townhouse I knew I couldn't afford, with that bleary-eyed optimism that us younger people tend to have when faced with a new opportunity.
Goal number one? Pay rent every month.
I continued working from home, churning out video after design after ad campaign, but then I realized; all my clients were sourced from a freelancing website that took an ever-growing cut of my earnings and didn't allow me any face time with the people I was helping. But this was what was paying the bills, and I didn't know a soul for 300 miles. So what were the next steps?
Get off your ass.
The biggest misconception of being self-employed is that there's less work involved.
When most people hear someone is "self-employed", a romanticized image appears in their head; "I wake up at 10 am and look out over the balcony at the world I hold in my hands, french pressed coffee and a gourmet breakfast awaiting me at the chic little café down the street. My work day will start when I say it starts."
If your average day is spent reveling in the fact that you don't have to clock in and out every day, you aren't going to be making money as a startup. The truth is, there's a lot of discipline required to generate the money you need, and even more discipline to work in a healthy way. Left to its own devices, my body desperately wants to be nocturnal. I'll stay up until I can't keep my eyes open anymore working on a project or learning about a new skill or just binge watching Billions on HBO, then sleep until 5 or 6 pm that day, wake up, and do the whole thing again.. Did I do this the entire time I lived in North Carolina? You're damn right I did, and I rarely left my house, I didn't make new friends, I didn't even seek out local business. I stuck myself in a complacent rut of consistent online freelance work. Sure, it kept my bills paid, but my business wasn't growing and my quality of life was severely low.
Had I had discipline in my work-life balance, I might have been happier, I probably would have made quite a bit more money, and most importantly, I would have 2 years' worth of business and personal connections in that area.
Now let's fast forward to today. It has taken a lot of shaking hands, doing favors, and nitty-gritty planning to make anything at all out of the visions of grandeur I have for myself. My industry is full of bright-eyed and well-motivated people of all ages who want to escape the 9-5 and live on their own terms, and some are definitely better at it than others. Some have worked 70 hour weeks for several years to get to a point where they don't always have to put in the weekly 40. The issue in clarity is that people only tend to see the ones that have put in that behind-the-scenes work and can afford to live that romanticized "self-employed" life that people picture.
I am by no means "wildly successful". There are peaks, there are valleys, and it takes a lot of determination and discipline to keep pushing forward with what I do.
Motivation to go network: It really does help to know people.
A short while ago, I met a man I've wanted to meet since I edited the Gentleman's Gazette Interview of him. Brian Sacawa is the founder and executive editor of He Spoke Style, an approachable, honest and relatable source for men's style inspiration and advice. He hosted a pop-up shop at a swanky hotel in Downtown DC. Also attending the event was Barnette Holston, founder of the Men's Life DC and DC Fashion Fool blogs. I wanted to get back into the "behind the scenes" of men's style on a more local level, so Barnette invited me to the DC Dapper Dudes Brunch, which brought local men's lifestyle and fashion influencers together for a few hours of photos, great food, and most importantly, deep conversation about the industry of style and influence in DC.
Meeting all these guys opened my eyes to a scene I had no idea even existed (remember the whole "sheltered freelancer" thing?). They're not specifically in my industry, but they're all fantastic examples of people with a creative flair and a goal that they were working tirelessly to achieve. The thing is, they weren't doing it alone.
Building a community to work with is an amazing strategy to motivate yourself and generate ideas a lot faster. Since the brunch, I've worked with Barnette, Hugh and Crye (a fantastic clothing store based in Georgetown), and many more locals I may have never met if not for me just getting out there and finding the opportunity.
You may not need an MBA, but you do need to know what you're doing.
This was perhaps the most difficult wake-up call I've received throughout my journey to this point. I've always been extremely pro-vocational schooling and adamantly against for-profit colleges. I stand firm with the mentality that you shouldn't have to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt just for the possibility to make that money back in the industry you decided you wanted to be in when you were 18 or 19 years old. Vocational education is much more targeted, much more hands-on, and much cheaper.
That being said, I don't think that your education should stop once you get that prized piece of paper signed by the right people. Reading books and watching instructional videos tailored to guiding you toward what you want in this world is a habit that the richest people alive today swear by. These authors have been down the road you're on right now and have a mass of experience to share. You'll learn about their triumphs, their failures, and exactly what got them to where they are. That's pretty valuable information if you ask me. These authors also tell you the things you may not have though of, such as how vital your own personal development is in order to succeed. No matter what your industry is, you won't get far starting a business without learning sales, marketing, public speaking, even personal style.
A favorite book of mine is The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. He shares my cynicism toward business school and took it upon himself to scour through hundreds of books, gather his findings, and package them all together into one immensely valuable source of knowledge. Give it a read and let us both know what you thought!
You need to establish goals for yourself and your business.
Go out to a crowded mall or town center and start asking people "Do you want to be successful?". Chances are most people are going to say "Yes". But if you then ask them "How?", they likely won't have a great answer. Granted, not everyone aspires to start their own business, and that's okay. But in anyone's life, in order to reach that "I made it" point, there needs to be a clearly defined path to follow.
Start by being realistic with yourself about the most general aspect of what you want you or your business to be. Bill Gates didn't start day 1 of his computer programming job in high school by writing a list of steps to make him one of the richest men in the world, he began by setting incremental goals for himself on each step to the top.
What do you enjoy?
What are you good at?
What is profitable?
From there, you can build an idea of your best options for success. After you've determined that, do your research on the industry and figure out how the masters got to where they are. Create a business plan from the start, outlining your 1 month goals, your 3 month goals, your 6 month, 1 year, and so on. This will give you a tangible timeline to really buckle down and continually tick off the boxes on your to-do list.
The more detailed your list, the more mental satisfaction you'll get from completing the tasks, and very likely the more ideas you'll generate based on what you've done.
I keep a daily, weekly, and monthly to-do list on my phone, and every time I finish one of the tasks, I think about the next step in that process. It really helps me to feel that I'm moving forward with my plans and usually keeps me on schedule with the rest of my life. Everyone's mind runs a bit differently, so find what works for you and lock yourself into it. You'll be amazed what can happen.
In a very long-winded way, this has been a peek inside the past 2 years of my brain. My industry will never go away, but the people who don't actively pursue success within it (of which I almost was one), will be forgotten and move on to settle for something less than what they dream for.
Don't settle. Be your best professional self. Find your opportunity.