How to Achieve Uncommon Success as a Solo Professional

Billionaire Warren Buffett was recently asked what his advice would be for young people today. His response:

"... to invest in themselves."

As a solo professional, you are your product. And in order to stay ahead of the game and deliver the best ideas and solutions for your clients, you must continually update your knowledge base and improve your personal effectiveness.

Yet I'm constantly amazed at how many solos ignore this. It's rare to see a freelancer or solopreneur deliberately set aside a percentage of their income every year to learn a new skill, to get an important certification - or to improve their mind, body and soul.

The 2% Solution

And you know what? It doesn't have to be a huge amount. Even 2% of your gross income would give you access to programs, events, books and information that will help you become a sought-after and top-paid professional.

And on a more personal level, this level of commitment could also help you make improvements that extend way beyond your business.

Say your gross annual income averaged $50,000. Two percent of $50,000 would give you $1,000 to work with.

You can do some damage with $1,000!

As your business grows, you should bring this number up to at least 5% of your income. That will enable you to attend high-caliber conferences, work occasionally with a coach or mentor, or even fund a sabbatical.

But if that seems like too big a step right now, start with just 2%.

It's not just about money, however. You must also invest your time and energy to implement the ideas you learn. Yet here again, investing just one hour a day, five days a week, reading quality books and information - and implementing ideas from these materials - will make a HUGE difference in your business over the course of a year.

What Would Google and Edison Do?

Google is a great example of this concept. They know that investing in their employees pays off. That's why the search-engine company has a policy called "Innovation Time Off," where engineers are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their work time on projects that interest them.

Through this program, Google is asking its engineers to invest time creating, inventing, brainstorming and learning. This may sound like a lot of fluff and a waste of valuable resources. But HALF of Google's new product launches have been conceived during employees' "Innovation Time Off." These innovations include Gmail, Google News, AdSense and others.

Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor in American history and arguably one of the most brilliant business minds ever, had an incredible thirst for ideas and information. According to Michael J. Gelb, author of Innovate Like Edison, the inventor believed that reading was critical to self-improvement:

"He used reading as a means to bootstrap his way to new knowledge in the areas that supported his goals .... He never began a round of experiments without first reading everything available on the subjects of his studies."

Gelb also noted that Edison used reading as a way to "cross-train" himself in multiple disciplines, using books as a pathway into new fields of endeavor.

Bottom line: Freelancers who skimp on professional development are only cheating themselves. It shows in their constant battle to land quality clients and top-paying projects. It shows when they struggle to get good referrals from current and past clients. And it shows in their inability to earn the income that will enable them to have the freedom and flexibility they truly want.

What Should You Invest In?

I realize that this lesson may come across as a bit self-serving. After all, International Freelancers Academy publishes a few business-improvement programs throughout the year. So, yes, we do benefit when freelancers invest in our stuff.

But I'm NOT asking you to buy our programs. I'm talking about a gradual, multifaceted commitment to improving yourself and your business - regardless of whether you invest in our programs or someone else's.

Only you can determine what resources are best suited for you. And, in fact, you should take a much broader view when considering which resources to invest in. Specifically, I suggest you consider books, courses and information in these three areas of your life and business:

  • Personal development
  • Business improvement
  • Improving your craft

Personal Development

This area encompasses everything from health and fitness to mindset mastery, creative thinking, personal relationships, parenting, and even personal hobbies and interests.

What does all this have to do with freelancing? Everything! Because in order to perform at peak levels in your business, you must invest in the personal facets of your life:

  • Your body
  • Your mind
  • Your soul

Your Body. I don't have to tell you that keeping yourself in good physical shape is critically important. We all know this, but the pressures of running a solo business often keep us from taking the time to exercise and eat right.

Frustrated by the mountains of conflicting "health and fitness" information out there, I recently started researching a number of health improvement strategies that would work better for me. I bought and read a number of books. I took notes and experimented with a few different strategies. And I settled on a plan that's finally yielding great results.

This area is a challenge for me. I'm a home cook, which means that I love to eat great food. Sometimes too much food! I know that about myself, so I have to be careful and find ways to combat bad habits and misguided attitudes I've developed over the years.

For exercise, I've gone back to a weight-lifting program that worked very well for me a few years ago. I'm doing interval cardio training. And to add variety to the mix, I'm also going on short hikes (one of my favorite pastimes).

Your Mind. It's important to read about things that interest you. But don't just stick to the usual topics. Pick up biographies of interesting people you're not familiar with. Read publications you don't normally flip through. Learn a new language. Pick up a new skill or hobby.

I recently called my grandmother on her 86th birthday. I told her that she may be 86, but I think her mind is as sharp as it was 20 years ago. She laughed, but she knows I'm right.

When I asked her how she keeps her mind in top shape, here's what she said:

"First, I leave the house every single day to do something fun. Second, I spend at least one hour a day working on different types of puzzles."

Hmmm ... having fun and challenging the mind with a few games. I think Grandma is on to something here!

Your Soul. By "soul," I'm referring to a few things. First is mindset mastery. Sure, it's easy to stay confident and upbeat on days when life is filled with roses and sunshine. It's when the storms roll in (and they will roll in) that your mental toughness will be put to the test.

Some freelancing storms you're sure to go through (if you haven't already) might look like this:

  • That long and lucrative streak of work, the one that seemed as though it would just never end ... ends.
  • That favorite client of yours who thinks you're the best thing since TiVo suddenly begins to send less and less work your way.
  • Your bank account takes a nosedive.
  • Your friends or, much worse, your spouse begins looking at you with unmasked nervousness, as if to say, "Hmmm. This freelance thing of yours isn't going as well as planned, is it?"

In the face of all these things, what do you do? You need to be prepared. And you do that by investing your time and resources in learning how to weather these storms safely. And how to use them to grow stronger, both personally and professionally.

Weathering these storms also requires that you work on spiritual development. I'm not talking about religion here, although if you're a person of faith, practicing your religion definitely falls into this category.

But regardless of your religious beliefs, I've found that investing in your spiritual development and adopting a habit of daily prayer, meditation or visualization (whatever's right for you) is absolutely key.

I've learned that this daily habit will help you develop an even greater sense of purpose in your life. It will encourage a more positive view of your future. And it will enable you to face personal and business challenges more effectively.

Another healthy habit I've recently started adopting is that of daily creative nourishment. My amazing business coach, Peleg Top, recently made me realize the importance of daily creative routine. So I picked up a hobby I hadn't practiced since high school - I started drawing again.

Drawing is something I used to love. Yet for some reason I stopped doing it in 10th grade (I became more interested in girls, I guess!). And I hadn't picked it back up until a few weeks ago.

My daily sketches are not going to end up in a museum. But that's not the intention. I'm not even showing them to anyone. I'm drawing for me - to make me happy. To nurture a side of me that I haven't paid much attention to in years. To tap into a creative energy that fires me up and enables me to be more creative in every aspect of my life.

Drawing has now become a daily creative outlet for me, and I'm loving every minute of it!

Business Improvement

You may be a one-person operation, but even a solo business has several key functions that must be continually evaluated and improved. In fact, my business partner and good friend Pete Savage talks about eight different "departments" that you run (whether you are aware of this or not) when you operate a successful freelance business. Here they are:

  1. Sales. This, of course, is what you do to earn money. It involves reaching out to and having conversations with prospects and customers.
  1. Marketing. This is how you make yourself known to potential prospects who may have a need for your services, now or in the future.
  1. Operations. The actions you go through each day to support your craft. This includes the systems you have in place that enable you to perform your craft more easily. Scheduling your time, writing quotes for clients, managing workflow that you do yourself or perhaps outsource to assistants and subcontractors... all are part of the operations department.
  1. Human Resources. This is the department responsible for training and developing employee skills. Besides skills development, other HR issues include the decisions you make in terms of setting office hours, planning vacation time and maintaining work/life balance.
  1. Customer Service. This department is responsible for ensuring that you treat your clients right. How can you "go the extra mile" for customers and reap the rewards? How do you deal with clients who don't like your work? These are all Customer Service policies.
  1. Production. Production is the factory floor. Think of your freelance business as a factory with a "capacity of one." Wait, you might say, isn't this a rather demeaning way to look at things? To take all your creative, inspired freelance work and say that it came out of a factory? Not really. Even the most beautifully crafted and artistic products in the world (think of Rolls-Royce cars, diamond rings and fine wines) leverage production efficiencies.
  1. Finance and Accounting. Understanding how money flows in and out of your business is critical.
  1. Research and Development. This department is all about embracing change in your business and using it to your advantage. Research involves looking for and finding new ways to enhance your business; development is about bringing those enhancements to life so you can profit from them.

Take a hard look at each of these key business areas. What areas do you need to research to learn more about? Where are you getting stuck? Where do you need more help?

When you break your business out into these eight functional areas and look closely at each one, suddenly you can identify those areas in need of attention.

If you notice that a department in your business is underperforming, fix it. Invest in resources that can help you in that department. And commit to spending the time needed to implement the needed changes or modifications.

Start by taking the "director" of that department out for coffee. (He or she should be very easy to reach.) And come up with a plan for how to make departmental improvements that will improve the business as a whole.

Improving Your Craft

Steady marketing efforts can work wonders for your business. But if you're not continually improving your craft, even the best marketing and sales skills won't save you in today's competitive environment.

Oh, and don't think that talent alone will do it. The market is already full of talented freelance professionals struggling to make ends meet. If talent alone were the secret, most would be extremely busy, earning a great living.

Don't get me wrong. Talent is a big plus. But these days you need much more. You need to stay on top of your profession. That means learning new skills. Taking courses. Reading up on important developments, strategies and techniques. Going to select conferences. Exchanging ideas and best practices with trusted colleagues. And getting the right certifications (if applicable in your field).

Also, pay close attention to developing trends. Where is the market heading. Where are client budgets shifting to? What projects are you suddenly being asked about the most? What's getting a lot of buzz? What technologies or services are moving beyond hype and into the mainstream?

Adjust your training and development budget as you see where the market's heading and where the emerging needs are.

Bottom line: Never shortchange yourself. You are your most important asset. You are what clients "buy." So make a commitment to invest a reasonable percentage of your income in your personal and professional development.

What's Worked for You?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you invest in yourself? What programs, courses, books or information have had the biggest impact on your business or personal life?

Don't be shy! Let me know in the comments area below.