5 Traits of a Successful Independent Practitioner

I’m in the third week of my new job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company based in my hometown of Richmond, Va. It’s going about as well as I could hope. I wish the first few awkward weeks were behind me and that I was able to be more useful and productive than I am at this point.

As the length of time between my current situation and my self-employment widens, I gain greater perspective about those 12 years of my life. When I talk with friends, especially those who work in communication, the discussion often comes around to the adjustment I’m making to a new way of life. Yes, I miss the two-minute commute down the hall to my home-based office. Yes, I miss the flexibility with my time — being able to run to the grocery store during lunch, being there when my son gets home from school, the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments almost anytime during the day. But, of course, the benefits — and I mean that in the healthcare sense as well as more generally — help to balance things out.

A few people have asked me if I would recommend self-employment to someone considering it. So, with the benefit of said perspective, I thought I’d write about some of the traits of a successful independent practitioner. My work is PR and communications, so bear that in mind as you read on.

You must be comfortable with uncertainty. This is probably the greatest single trait necessary to succeed in self-employment. I mean uncertainty about everything, beginning with where your next paycheck will come from. Nothing is guaranteed except uncertainty itself. When I started my consulting practice in 2000, I (perhaps naïvely) was completely confident that I could succeed. That blind faith probably helped me more than it hurt because I simply proceeded as if I knew what I was doing and that there was no question I would make it. Even when I had to borrow money from my parents and take withdrawals from my 401k to pay a few bills in the early going. Fortunately, the clients grew and the income became more regular as I landed contract work, but there was always the chance that they would go away as quickly as they came. If you don’t have the stomach for uncertainty, don’t be self-employed.

You must be self-motivated. The first thing I did when I unexpectedly lost my job and, the next day, decided to start my business was to consult with my mentor and friend, Les Potter. He gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. “Get up in the morning, shave, shower, get dressed, go into your office and get to work,” he said. Doing what? “Anything. Make phone calls. Send emails. Read professional journals. Set up lunch meetings. The work will come.” He was right. To be successful as an independent practitioner, you must be able to motivate yourself to do those things and a lot more. It will be tempting to watch the afternoon baseball game on TV or do laundry or be distracted by any number of things. It’s fine to take time off now and then (but remember, you don’t get paid for it), but 95% of the time you must motivate yourself to work. Alone.

You must be able to work alone. I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from being around people. This was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. The majority of my work was performed in my home office by myself. It was a gift that I eventually was part of a team of contractors working for one client because I got to be with them for a few hours a week. When Facebook came along, that became my water cooler. If you need to be around people to be productive, don’t work for yourself.

You must be willing to maintain networks of friends and colleagues. It’s more difficult to do this when you work on your own. I tried to regularly schedule lunch dates and attended PRSA meetings to maintain my professional network. It’s also important to work harder at keeping up your friendships and social life. It’s surprising how much of my social life revolved around work. I’m divorced and have dated quite a bit in the last 10 years. That was important to me, not only personally, but also because it energized me for work. That might seem weird, but it was true for me. My dad recently said that being a full-time employee with a great company that pays well and provides benefits will make me more attractive in the dating arena. I’m not sure how much more attractive I am, but he is right that what we do has a big impact on the people we’re with.

You must assess the real cost of being self-employed. Not only is your income less stable, but you incur much greater costs. You must pay quarterly taxes, buy your own health insurance, provide your own 401k, maintain your own equipment (computers, printers, software, telecommunications, etc.) and buy a lot of little things that might not be apparent. Sit down and formulate a budget — not just for your business but a personal budget as well — and determine the real cost of working for yourself. It might surprise you.

Those are five of the traits you must possess to be a successful independent practitioner. If you’ve been down this road before, please add your own in the comments below. One thing I’ve also learned is that everyone’s experience is unique.


5 Responses

  1. Nice post, Robert. Good perspective. Having done some work on my own, I do appreciate your remarks – especially about being alone so much. People probably don’t think about that. I wondered why you didn’t mention IABC when talking about networking. That’s how we met – at IABC meetings in Richmond. Just curious. I have lost touch with folks but I assume the Richmond chapter is still around. Thanks for your words. You always string them together so well. Take care.

    • Thanks, Jean. I mentioned PRSA because that is my professional network now. I am no longer an IABC member, but for communicators with strong and active chapters in their city, that certainly is an option.

  2. As an independent for 20 years, I can say that your first four points are so true. Being on your own can be a rollercoaster ride, and you have to have faith that all the networking and marketing that you do (and you do have to do it!) will see you through the quiet times. You need to treat your job at home as seriously as a job in another location. And you need to keep in touch with people. As for the last point about costs, it’s not all bad; independents save on gas or other commuting costs, wardrobe, drycleaning, lunches and a lot of other areas. Having said that, cash flow may be an issue, so you are right that a budget is vital.

    Congratulations on your new job, and I am sure you will settle into it very soon!

  3. Robert,

    You are always so generous and kind to me. Thank you, my brother/bff. I admire you above all men.

    All I did was take what I know about you (it’s all good) and help you see your strengths. You successfully applied your knowledge and experience as an indie, and now you bring formidable skills to the corporate environment. Think about it — you have been independent for so long now, running your own show, and you have gained extraordinary experience to bring to the new job. Few of your colleagues have “been there, done that” as you have. You are strong, seasoned, and ready for any challenge.

    You also have been tempered on the anvil of self-reliance. I love reading about our ancestors who loaded wagons with food and a few hand tools, set out for the west, and carved out lives for themselves and others. All they had was their skills and knowledge, plus some simple tools. Indies are much like that.

    Good luck in the new position. I know you will be successful, for you have all you need for success. You are you, and that is sufficient to all challenges.

    • Thank you, my brother Les. As I think back on those first days and weeks of self-employment, I’m amazed that I made it! Your advice and guidance was immensely valuable to me. I will never forget it.

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