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rant: business support isn't built for the self-employed

10 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Despite being in business for 15 years, and loving communities, I’ve never felt like I “belonged” in most business communities.

The Chamber of Commerce isn’t for me. Startup communities aren’t for me.

It’s always been tough to figure out where I fit in between them. And I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who isn’t a white dude.

Besides eschewing business attire and wearing visible tattoos instead, the real reason I’ve never felt like I fit in is because my goals and priorities for running my businesses are just…different?

  • I value my independence and control
  • I embrace collaboration
  • I build with a long view in mind
  • I view hiring as a responsibility, not a goal
  • I want to run my businesses for as long as it makes sense, and possibly beyond my day to day involvement, but my aim is not to sell them

While I know for a fact that I’m not alone in having these goals and priorities, it doesn’t always feel that way.

There are exceptions. I often think fondly about business community events like LessConf, and while I’m not an artist I’ve felt a kinship with everyone I’ve met through Rec Philly over the last couple of years.

And of course, Indy Hall continues to evolve into the latest version of our incredible community clubhouse that transcends any one kind of work (members range from gainfully employed, to self employed, to retired!) or industry (design, tech, nonprofit, publishing, healthcare, arts) and feels more like a sort of professional “town square” where you never know who you’ll bump into but it’ll probably be great.

But I still ask: where are my like-minded solo business folks?

And COVID spotlights that which is already broken

Apart from a sense of belonging, though, it’s pretty common to feel left out in the cold by “business support” services that just don’t really make sense for most solo businesses.

Many of us self-employed folks were reminded of this fact when, throughout the 2020 pandemic, the national and state business relief funds were offered without support for self-employed folks.

And then even when resources technically were available, the forms and application processes clearly weren’t designed for self-employed solo business owners.

Nota bene: I have to recognize that this sort of “exclusion by design” is the sort of thing that women and POC deal with basically every day, and often with far more nefarious intent than carelessly designed government forms. More on that below…

This is also saying nothing of how healthcare is tied to employers, leaving independents in America stuck without bargaining power. And how it’s 1000x harder to talk to a bank about a loan when you file taxes any way other than a W2.

But I digress.

Cuz see, gov’t paperwork isn’t the only thing that isn’t built for self employed workers.

Pull up a seat, I’ve got a story.

I had been coaching a couple of entrepreneurs through an accelerator program. The kind popularized by Y-Combinator and Techstars.

These programs all follow the same basic beats:

  • Only the most “impressive” candidates are accepted
  • A 10+ week program that includes inspirational talks and lectures
  • Some sort of pitch competition at the end, often in front of investors

And as you can imagine, these accelerators aren’t really built for businesses like ours.

Which brings me back to the entrepreneurs I’d been coaching.

Their business was already established. They had clients and a portfolio of work.

They had a bigger mission driving their work, and it’s something that I believe can and will have an impact on their industry.

But their core business was…not the next Facebook or Uber. They’re a new business, but not a “startup” in the sense of the term.

In fact their business was probably a lot more like your business.

They provide creative services, client engagements, work for hire.

Mind you, this does not make their (or your) business less worthy of support and resources to help them grow!

And yet…they found themselves in a startup accelerator.

Once I noticed that the lessons and assignments they were getting from the accelerator didn’t really match their business, I basically ignored the “curriculum” of the accelerator and instead suggested we focus on real business problems they were facing.

One week was about figuring out exactly who their best clients were, and how they could get more of them. Another week it was about the elements of an effective pitch, and how to adapt it for a client vs an investor.

The biggest impact was when they told me a 12 month financial goal, but had never sat down to figure out how many projects (and which kinds) would get them there. So we opened up google sheets and did it together.

We’ve bonded through these experiences too, which is ultimately my favorite part of doing this work!

Near the end of the program, I asked how they felt about the rest of the accelerator experience outside of our time together.

Their answer was mixed. On one hand, yeah, they had enjoyed the program. The inspiring talks were inspiring, sure. They felt like being accepted into an accelerator might give them some credibility for future opportunities.

But the rest of the program wasn’t really meant for a business like theirs, but they didn’t quite have the words for it because businesses like theirs aren’t what everybody in the “business” world talks about. It’s not what the magazines and websites that cover entrepreneurs talk about.

They didn’t know how to say that the program was providing advice for a different business than theirs.

It wasn’t necessarily bad advice, just advice was meant for a different kind of business, with different goals. Even the culmination of the program - pitch investors - didn’t make sense for their business.

The accelerator meant well, I’m sure. Just like the government forms that meant well, but were created for a different kind of business.

But jiminy, it’s frustrating.

Can you imagine how many solo business owners struggle unnecessarily because of these kinds of mismatches? I’ve seen it first hand literally hundreds of times, and I’m just one person!

Us Independents Gotta Stick Together

It shouldn’t matter if your goal is to employ 100 people, 10 people, or just yourself. Every business owner needs support.

And unlike to the typical business accelerator model I described above, “support” doesn’t always mean going faster, or going bigger.

Support for Independents can mean having another business owner look at your plan and say “that sounds good” or “watch out!”

Support for Independents can mean sharing a challenge you’re facing, and having a peer suggest one of the ways they solved a similar challenge.

Support for Independents can mean celebrating a win (or commiserating over a loss) that only a fellow Independent will understand.

Support for Independents can mean getting the push you need to get outside of your comfort zone & finally do the thing you’ve been putting off.

Imagine what an “accelerator” model for Independents might do differently.

  • We could focus on people and potential rather than abstract business ideas like scaling and “lean”.
  • We could focus on fulfillment and human growth rather than abstract ideas of productivity and success.
  • And we could help you make sure that you’re headed in the direction you want to be going, before accelerating anything!

I don’t think this is a pipedream. I think it’s doable.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who wants it!

So we’re doing it. 😅

And the timing is a little poetic! One year ago this week, my friend Catherine Sontag and I sold the first tickets to the first ever Philly Freelance Fest (version 2 is in the works for 2021, so make sure you’re on the list for that).

This Friday, one year later, launching applications for Work In Progress!

This is new project I’ve been working on with longtime friend and fellow freelance community organizer Nicola Black.

Here’s a bit of a sneak preview of the website you’ll get to see on Friday:

Learning from my mistakes

Remember when I mentioned the way “exclusion by design” overwhelmingly impacts people of color basically every day?

When Indy Hall was just beginning, I wasn’t thinking about who we might be unintentionally excluding. That was a mistake, and one I’m still learning and working to correct.

As we kick off the Work in Progress community, we did not want to perpetuate one exclusion while solving for another, so we’ve built partial and full scholarship support right into the model to make sure that this community & support system does a better job of representing my own city than I’ve personally done in the past.

I won’t pretend this solves the problems of structural inequity - not even close. We still need to be proactive in making our facilitation team is diverse and representative too, and I hope we’re able to collaborate with other communities and orgs who already do related work their communities. Even then, the work isn’t done.

So if you’re a BIPOC entrepreneur and interested in a community and support with your business like I’ve described in this email, please fill out our standard application and mark the box on the last page to let us know you’re interested in a scholarship.

And if you’re someone who’s interested in sponsoring a scholarship or two, I wanna hear from you! My email address is at the bottom of this post.

You can skip the line to becoming a founding member

I’ll be sharing the full program details this Friday.

That includes how the community and program will run, what’s included, the price of membership, etc. Founding members will get the best price, of course, and we’ve also pulled together $200+ worth of free bonuses (books, videos, and more), which we’ll share on Friday too 😎

And best of all, this community isn’t limited to Philly! Time zones are still a thing, but we can welcome freelancers and solo entrepreneurs from anywhere who’s comfortable working together during north american business hours (and maybe eventually we’ll go truly global?)

Once open to the public, applications will be processed in the order we receive them, with limited seats available in this first round!

But if you fill out this application before Wednesday November 25th at Midnight, we’ll make sure your submission is reviewed ahead of that public line when we send out invitations to join as a founding member of Work in Progress.

If you have any questions in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you.

You can email me directly: [email protected]

I look forward to reading your submissions :)

Please stay safe this holiday. 🦃

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.