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10 lessons from a solo flight

10 lessons from a solo flight
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First Published: Sun, May 29 2011. 08 14 PM IST
Updated: Sun, May 29 2011. 08 14 PM IST
It began as series of 10 tweets. Then, I said, hang on, I need to explain this to those who are wondering about life outside corporate boundaries. Those who wonder about “freedom” from routine. About “independence”. And about “self-reliance”. But let me rewind a bit.
This month, I completed four years of working solo, as an independent consultant, after a fairly eventful life with large organizations and companies, with pioneering businesses and start-ups. Between 1997 and 2007, I must have lost close to Rs 30 crore for the various businesses I led. Of course, many of them have gone on to make several-fold that. Some were gambles in the technology space, some were reasonable ideas in the media business. In that decade, I saw such intense failure—repeatedly—that it was difficult to imagine a day without rivers of red in accounting ledgers.
Then in 2007, I set myself up independently. No backing of a large organization, no visiting cards with a corporate logo (in fact, not even a company name—not even my own company), no website. I even deleted my blog and wiped out all there was to know about me. Can a man in his late 40s build a reputation with people he doesn’t know, from scratch, in an area of business he has no standing in? Apparently yes. Can it pay the bills? Can it be satisfying? And what about traditional wisdom that says you are scratched off people’s professional Rolodexes once you cross 40?
So, this is for everyone who thinks that the only ladder worth climbing is a corporate one. It is for all those who believe they have no hope after 40. It is for those who are convinced that professional satisfaction is a mirage sold to the gullible.
Without further ado, here I am, marking Four Years of Working Solo with the Top 10 Lessons I Learnt.
1. Be the change
You work out of home. You are free to change the flavour of the coffee any time. No pleading with housekeeping.
It’s true. Working for a company, everything must be standardized. Even the most trivial of changes is difficult to achieve. There are institutional and process barriers. Home gives you the freedom to be yourself. Why not take it?
2. Be disciplined
It takes more discipline to be your own boss than to be the boss of others. Or, God forbid, work under a boss.
Having set out on my own, I discovered how difficult it actually was to stick to a schedule or to create a plan and then follow it. But, slowly, I trained myself to follow what I believed was best. Turns out, there was no one to question that decision—and hallelujah!—I was free to follow myself. Sounds complicated but, in fact, it’s simple.
3. Customer first
Ego takes a back seat. What a relief. Everyone is a customer and making your customers win becomes the mission.
I don’t have a single day where I wonder what my colleagues will want, say or do that is dictated by their insecurity or inability or their plain ignorance and inadvertent stupidity. I wake up and begin to work, in the belief that if I deliver what my customer wants, he or she will win. When they win, I win.
4. Be a Sherpa
As a consultant you become the Sherpa in the life of the ambitious Edmund Hillary in your customer.
I know Hillary was a leader. But he too needed a Sherpa to reach the top. Every leader needs a Sherpa. Can you become that Sherpa? Think about it.
5. Start climbing
What joy, you get to climb Mt Everest repeatedly.
Yup, every day I climb Mt Everest with the different customers I have. They all choose their own routes to get there; they all have their reasons to get there; and they all see a different view from the top. I get to share all of it.
6. Change the menu
You can work out of a café. And you are often tempted to become a café owner. But then it’s tough to change the coffee.
No kidding. I spend seven-eight days a month hanging around in cafés, meeting friends, new people, clients, reading, just watching the world go by. And sometimes, even working a bit. Like you, I dream: “How nice if I can have a café of my own some day!” But then, I won’t be able to change the coffee on the menu, will I? Businesses tend to get rigid as they discover the formula for their success. The doer in us loves it because it validates the hard work. But the seeker in us gets impatient. What’s next?—or the equivalent of ants in the pants—happens.
7. Stay solo
Everyone thinks you are the coolest dude in the neighbourhood. Especially when you are at a café on a Monday morning.
Being independent causes much disbelief and, unfortunately, envy. It comes with its own baggage and problems. Everyone wants to be your “partner” so that they too can get away from their corporate life. In reality, you don’t want a “business partner”. Simply because you don’t want to—to use corporatespeak— scale! You want to be you. But you begin to appear antisocial. They want to know why you won’t share all that goodness with them. Never mind!
8. Do your best
Good work gets you more customers. Don’t increase your fee. Improve your customer type. Harvest satisfaction.
People ask, “Were you not insecure when you started on your own, alone? How did you go about building your customers?” I began by telling everyone that I was jobless. By choice. “So what do you plan to do?” they would ask. Can you imagine a better question? So I’d tell them. In the first three months, I got two people interested in “what I wanted to do”. I took small bites. Delivered the very best of what I could. Soon they left to join other firms.?And guess what? They asked if I would deliver for them at their new firm. While the old firm continued to use me. Over time, the quality of my customers improved. Now, I’m engaged by two global technology businesses and a small one in Pune; I deliver for a UK-based organization that caters to CEOs and I do pro bono work for a neighbourhood performance theatre. When I worked for companies, 99% of the time I was confused about what I was delivering to whom—and why!
9. Just love
No one hates an independent consultant. It’s quite a dramatic shift from Rat Trap Games.
Everyone is so busy hating folks in their professional ecosystem, who has the time for you? But more seriously, no one has reason to hate a Sherpa.
10. The math
You may not make too much money. But you can 10x your life. The math is inexplicable.
I lied. You will make a lot of money if you become a responsible boss to yourself. I have a confession: Last quarter, I made more than I have ever done in any other quarter of my life. Spoken like a true corporate rat quoting from an Excel sheet, isn’t it? And it does sound a bit odd to me as well. Because this quarter I am about to make less than I ever did in any quarter. But now I have the time to attend to my life (I plan to visit friends in Pune and Dubai, bum around on a bicycle through the tea estates in Wayanad, and hang around some more in coffee shops). I told you, the math is inexplicable. But it all works.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins and has extensive media experience spanning music, print, radio, the Internet and mobile phones. The 10 Lessons began as tweets.
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First Published: Sun, May 29 2011. 08 14 PM IST