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5 ways being a sole trader doesn’t mean you have to go it alone

I have been a sole trader now for six months.

There’s something very descriptive about that term, isn’t there? A sole trader. Yep, it’s just you buddy. You put the “sole” into sole trader.

Coming from an office environment where I worked with a team of other people, this has been quite a change. I have gone from the hustle of an open-plan office, a mountain of meetings, constant calls, and an ever-expanding email inbox, to an environment where it is just me. On my own. Sole trader.

However, the great thing I have learned over these six months is that, actually, being a sole trader does not mean you’re all on your own. So, for anyone starting out on their own, or finding themselves in a bit of a rut, here are five ways you are not in this alone.

1. Enterprise Support

There are teams of people across the country providing enterprise support. They are funded by various means, including government grants, and they plough this money into providing support to small businesses in their local area.

Here in Devon, I fall under the remit of Business Information Point, who provide a wide range of training and business support functions. For example, in my six months as a sole trader, I have:

  • Attended networking sessions where I have swapped experiences with their staff and other local small business owners
  • Had accounting and marketing training sessions
  • Gone through SEO, e-newsletter, and blog writing training from their digital partners at Cosmic

And this was all for free!

In addition, they also offer one-to-one support, business plan reviews, plus a wider range of courses than I have had time to attend.

To find out about your local enterprise support, have a look at the National Enterprise Network and search for your local authority (please note, this is the site for England).

2. Social Media

Just as with the title sole trader, the clue is in the name. It’s social, ain’t it?

Now, it is perfectly possible to use social media as a one-way outlet for your thoughts, promotions, or whatever else you like to put out there into the world. And there are always going to be times where you publish a tweet, a facebook post, or an instagram picture and then leave it at that. But you are missing out if you do not also make use of the interaction that social media provides.

Social media can eat time, and I am not advocating whiling away hours that could be used to further your business, but most of us can find ways to squeeze some considered social media time into our days. When you do, try to have a plan for what you want to get from your time there.

My top tip for guidance and support, particularly when I was just starting out, are twitter “hours”. These are set times each week where a group of like-minded twitterers come together and chat, using a particular hashtag to follow along with the discussions. You can find all sorts of topics, but consider these as a starting point:

  • Geographical “hours” – Join up with other businesses/people in your area – This could be a great time to find local customers or suppliers, or just to find other avenues of support in your local area
  • Industry “hours” – Connect with other people in the same industry as you, wherever they are in the world – Swap tips, ask questions, and learn from other people’s experiences.

For example, I have participated in my local #DevonHour and #DartmoorHour, as well as chatting to other people in the creative industry via #CreativeBizHour.

Keep an eye on twitter for “hours” that might interest you, or pop “twitter hours” into Google to get all sorts of lists of potential hours you can join.

3. Clients

Or customers, or whoever it is you do business for. Every interaction with a client is a way to bring you out of yourself and have a conversation.

I do business in two ways: I sell my artwork online and I do illustration work for clients. Obviously the second of those routes provides some opportunities for discussion and interaction, whether it be face-to-face meetings or email discussions, but so does the first.

Selling online can be an isolating business if you’re not careful. I get an email with an order on it, I prepare the order, I post the order. Other than our friendly post office staff, I’ve not needed to speak to anyone. But I am still in a conversation here. It is with my customer.

Without customers, I cannot do business. So I talk to them. I put a note in with their order, thanking them. When the order is shipped I send them an email, letting them know that their order is on the way. And nearly all of my customers have responded and left reviews for me. It is a protracted conversation, but it is a conversation nonetheless. And it reminds me that my business is not just me: it is me and my customers.

4. Getting out of the house

Perhaps this is easy. Maybe it is part-and-parcel of what you do as a sole trader: you’re a plumber, or an electrician, or a complementary therapist. Some industries require you to leave the house and interact with your customers (see point 3). For some of us, we can sit here in glorious isolation. I needn’t get out of my pyjamas if I chose not to (I do though, I promise).

In the run-up to Christmas I got dressed and got out of the house, taking my artwork and greeting cards to a series of fairs and events around the area. If I am honest, not all of these were a roaring success from a purely financial point-of-view (although I only lost money on one). What they did afford me, however, was a chance to meet other people. This included my customers, and meeting them face-to-face was incredibly helpful when it came to understanding which of my products resonated with them and which fell a bit flat.

I also met other traders and small businesses, meaning that I widened my network of local contacts. At one fair on a Sunday, I was tapped-up for an appearance at a different fair later that week, so it also generated leads and new opportunities for me.

Whatever you do as a business, consider changing things around occasionally. If you are a homeworker, are there opportunities to spend a day or two out on the road? If you work in one particular location, can you switch geographical areas for a day? Heading somewhere new can introduce you to new people and, again, serves as a reminder that you’re not in this alone.

5. Collaborate

The illustrator Sarah McIntyre recently wrote this article about finding a community. In her case, one solution came when she began to work alongside other people in a physical studio space that she rented with a couple of other artists. Remember, you can be a sole trader and still get to share your space with other people.

I don’t share a studio space. At least, not with other people. Mine is a corner of our spare room, so I share it with several large wardrobes and a pull-out sofabed. But Sarah’s article also has a solution for people like me; I would like to collaborate with other artists but I do not have an obvious opportunity, on account of that sofabed being pretty hopeless (I mean, it tries, but it’s output is so passé). The solution: a virtual studio, where challenges are set online and contributors come together to post their responses. The article lists several such inspirations, including the @StudioTeaBreak feed, which posts a daily challenge.

And that is where this list ends, with my first foray into the daily challenges posted by @StudioTeaBreak. Thursday’s is portrait day, where a piece by an old master is presented and people can jump in with their interpretations. This was mine…

studio tea break portrait challenge bhai ram singh

My first #PortraitChallenge entry – Bhai Ram Singh

What have I missed? What top tips get you through the occasional solitude of being a sole trader? Leave a comment below with your suggestions, and thanks for reading.

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