Definitions matter, in terms of how we describe ourselves to others, but also to ourselves. Are you a freelancer, an entrepreneur, a startup… or are you a solopreneur?
The good news is, you get to decide, and also to evolve and change. Your work, your rules! At Xolo, we help many people transition to a highly successful and enjoyable ‘Xolopreneur’ lifestyle of their choosing every day — and each one of them is unique.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a solopreneur is “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise without the help of a partner: a solo entrepreneur”
While it’s difficult to dispute the facts of this definition as the contraction of those two words, I find it very narrow, in that it concentrates on risk and work with no acknowledgement of the intense satisfaction and reward that comes from operating with complete independence.
Legally, technically, both of these terms embrace independent operation, and in both cases can mean you operate either as a sole trader or limited company — within the Estonian e-Residency population almost everyone trades as a private limited company, even if they typically describe themselves as a ‘freelance whatever-they-do.’
The difference is fundamentally one of mindset. So it’s important to choose carefully how you THINK about your work — which may be different from how you describe it to others.
Freelancing conveys the ultimate in flexibility, lifestyle design, and choice, working on projects/gigs which interest them for varying lengths of time, whereas solopreneurship is about business and creating a true company-of-one.
So, the two concepts differ in some important ways, including that:
Solopreneurs are more likely to describe themselves as ‘what-they-do’ rather than ‘a freelance what-they-do.’ A subtle, but important difference! Try it out (even in your own head. It’s all about that distinction between self and professional activity, which helps you define yourself as a company-of-one, the expert in the unique niche you identify and own.
Can you do any of the above and call yourself a freelancer? Sure you can. But if you are doing all of these things, your mindset is probably closer to that of a solopreneur business operator.
One way to describe a solopreneur could be ‘a freelancer with an entrepreneurial spirit’, and there’s definitely a sense that it represents a sweet spot between the two, or in some circumstances a transitional state.
Operating as a business of one has a lot in common with the earliest stages of any business, but a solopreneur is definitely distinct from a typical entrepreneur, in that:
(Because many solopreneurs are what defines their business, they could never sell it anyway. Can I interest anyone in purchasing ‘Maya Middlemiss, Writer and Journalist’? Just as well then, that I am in this for the long haul!)
Can a solopreneur transition into entrepreneurship? Of course. Many successful global businesses started at the kitchen table of the lone genius, before going on to world domination. And without a load of other people’s money to burn through, many initially bootstrap, and need to get to cashflow fast, even if they intend to fundraise later on. The important distinction is that the solopreneur does not seek this path, focusing instead on getting better rather than bigger.
Xolopreneur Mark Travers has provided excellent insight into the mindset attributes of successful solopreneurs, and the way that personality traits can be cultivated to align with the entrepreneurial spirit, to identify those who might be best suited to this way of working.
From the happy and successful solopreneurs I have met, a range of character traits seem prominent, including:
Resilience: Solopreneurs are flexible and responsive, so not only do they opt for a business model which can pivot instantly in a change of circumstances, they tend to have the foresight and confidence to carry through and do this. During the pandemic, Xolopreneurs achieved MORE success in their businesses, even as the world economy spun into crisis.
Collaborativeness: perhaps it’s counterintuitive for those who work independently, but solopreneurs do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, they build networks, they outsource, they extend their social resources, and they support and recommend each other — secure in their own niche, they get things done together, whether in formal gig teams or as part of broader communities and networks, and with great consciousness of the ecosystem in which they operate.
Self-reliance: Working without a manager or a boss, without KPIs or performance reviews, and building your business reputation entirely on your own reputation… This means being consistent, self-aware, and professional. Being able to manage your time, your workflow, your well-being, and the needs of others, without missing a beat.
Sounds like a lot to ask? That depends!
We can’t change the character and personality we are born with, nor our native abilities — some of us are better at writing, or public speaking, or mastering new technology, than others will ever be. As such, it makes sense to cultivate and play to our strengths… and you will never see me attempting to make a living using my second language, for example.
However I do also strongly believe that an abundance mindset correlates significantly with independent success in any sphere, an inherent belief that anything can be learned or adapted to, and also that personal fulfillment and even joy can be found in doing unlikely things well.
After looking at some quantitative data next, we will explore some different occupational categories which have proven themselves as good possibilities for solopreneur success, and when you read them, some will obviously resonate more than others.
But will you instantly dismiss most of them on the basis that “I could never do that/ that’s not for me/ I am not a xxx…”?
Or will you let each of them incubate, spark new connections, suggest new possibilities…?
That’s up to you.
Many of the most interesting, happy, successful, and long-term solopreneurs I have met, are those who have created something wholly unique and new, by combining tried and tested things in new ways — such as blending a knack they were born to, with a skill honed over years, in a market which is just emerging and has great potential.
So, an open mind to all the possibilities out there might be your greatest solopreneur asset.
According to Forbes, more than 41 million American adults currently work as solopreneurs, and Xolo knows that this is reflected across Europe too. They are consultants, contractors, freelancers, and other enterprising experts, some of whom are part of the ‘great reshuffle’, while others have been working independently long term.
Are these people committed to long-term solopreneurship, while the world arguably remains in flux? Again this data is mostly US-based, but a 2021 MBO Partners report identified 51 million people as independent workers, while Census Bureau data indicates that less than three percent of them filed as businesses intending to hire employees.
The report also suggested 82% of independent small business owners were happy to keep their company small, with 56% actively declaring a preference for remaining a sole operator.
Of course, due to the individual nature of each solopreneur operation, it’s difficult to get an accurate feel for the statistics involved. Dare we say it, perhaps not every bit of freelance or solopreneur income makes it into an official account anywhere…
However, trends we can definitely draw out: for example, data from 99firms indicates the global freelancing platforms (Upwork, Fiverr, Toptal, Freelancer.com, Guru.com, TaskRabbit, Catalant, etc.) constitute a market projected to reach $9.19 billion by 2027, up from $3.4 billion in 2020 - which does not by any means reflect the entire solopreneur market, but as many start out this way it is a useful indicator of direction of travel.
An interesting study was conducted in the spring of 2022 by the German platform, Freelancermap, which sheds further light on the present solopreneur statistical scene in Europe:
The Freelancermap survey reinforces the experiences of Xolo platform users through the Covid crisis as well - growing and strengthening their professional offers, developing their skills, and actually invoicing more than beforehand.
The future is freelance! And solopreneurs are taking things to the next level.
While some freelancers operate in the local gig economy, a further distinction with solopreneurs is that they tend to operate entirely digitally, in a location-independent way.
Anything which can be done by one person, that another person wants to pay for, has the potential to be offered on a solopreneur basis. It’s about finding that value gap, where you can offer something that is needed by someone else, that they’re prepared to pay for. A lean business model, freelancing through Xolo Go, can give you space to experiment and iterate as you figure out that unique spot you can best operate in, even without having a ton of VC investment to burn through as you try to figure out product-market fit.
Xolo’s own data suggests a range of services have seen significant growth in recent years, as a result of devolving from typical employee roles to niches where specialist contractors are actively sought by larger enterprises:
The digital transformation on which all our work now depends, is driven by apps and tools… which may well have been created by solopreneurs in the first place!
While there are many employed roles in this space, the highest hourly rates are frequently commanded by those who master the niche programming languages in the greatest demand, because there are never enough of them to go around when needed.
As such, anticipating those needs is part of the success strategy here, and upskilling to meet gaps in the market is crucial. So is being reliable and consistent in your work, as well as collaborating well in teams, often over brief, intense sprints.
In addition to those tools functioning well, they have to look good and be easy to use, too.
So freelancers with skills in front-end development and usability will always be in demand, and this is another area where a great solopreneur practice can be developed and maintained — often combining a series of one-off gigs with regular clients who require updating as they continue to develop their products.
Localization is important too, in a global marketplace, and freelancers with experience of different languages and cultures can add value to software tools which need to serve a range of audiences. This includes accessibility — ensuring that software is usable by people with different needs and modified devices and tools, is another great UX niche to focus on.
Business expertise too can be expensive to retain on a full-time basis, when what a business really needs is tactical input during a time of change, or to achieve a specific goal. Usually working (virtually) alongside permanent staff, consultants add the additional capacity to get things done, or accomplish a transition.
Offering services as a consultant lets solopreneurs leverage a range of different experiences and lessons from corporate careers, to offer real value to organizations in a range of industries. That experience many be gained in a range of settings, and can then be offered on a short-term interim contract in various types of business.
You can also put these talents to work on a retained basis, through non-executive directorships or similar fractional board-level roles.
What have you learned, over the course of your career and/or life experience, which could be the missing link for a business? Find a way to highlight the value of that unique attribute.
Online marketing is one area where many solopreneurs are entirely self-taught, so if you are seeking a way to launch your location-independent business-of-one, then this is a great option to examine.
Everything you need is out there, to learn from, and there are no official career paths or routes to qualification. There are a great many training resources to choose between, when it comes to extending and developing skills in this area.
Online marketers can find entry-level work on the various platforms like Upwork and Fiverr as they build skills and reputation and develop a track record of success in a given niche or industry vertical, and those platforms are also a good place to get an overview of what is in demand and commanding the highest rates.
And remember: any skills you learn in order to help clients in online marketing, will be very useful at the same time in marketing YOURSELF!
Whatever your industry and offering, mastering the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) for example, will help you get discovered, not just on your website but on social media, and gig platforms — being found by the right people for the right things at the right time will make a huge difference to your solopreneur success, and to establishing a sustainable business model.
Can you sentence a string together? That’s a good start!
There are many of us out here who have created a great solopreneur lifestyle businesses by developing marketable skills in this sphere — copywriters, bloggers, ghostwriters, content marketers, journalists, and more.
Combining these communication skills with subject matter expertise in high-demand niches is key, but building a portfolio of work has never been easier — just write, and show the world what you can do. Build relationships, develop your skills, and you will find your audience — and take any opportunity you can to work with an experienced editor, which will teach you more about the craft than any other source.
Adjacent work in proofreading and transcription is also available, but these roles are increasingly under threat from automated solutions which simply get better all the time. Extending your expertise into copy editing and developmental editing is one way to future-proof these skills.
Because we all live and work and shop online, it is here we turn when we need help, with anything. So if you have time and expertise to offer, you can make a good living helping people out — people who may be on the other side of the world — whether by phone, email, or live-chat.
As such, there are diverse location-independent opportunities available in roles such as:
If you’re good at helping people, the application suites and necessary hardware (a laptop and headset, basically) means you can do this work from anywhere, in a wide range of settings.
If you are reading this article, you already have an in-demand skill you can use as a solopreneur — command of the English language, the language of the internet and global business whether we like it or not.
When you combine this gift with teaching experience and a TEFL certification, you can work for academies online, and also locally if you’re travelling to different areas. Some language schools will even hire ‘native’ speakers without certification, while people with skills and experience can achieve higher rates, as can those combining language teaching with niche professional skills (like our podcast guest who teaches aviation English.)
It’s not just English which is in demand, nor just teaching — there are many other opportunities out there, for anyone who is bilingual, or multilingual. Translating, interpreting, localizing, customer support, and much more — whenever anyone needs to get something done in a location/language not their own, these skills can be monetized by somebody who can bridge that gap for them at the right moment.
While many of us solopreneurs make a living creating content for clients, others focus on building their own brand and assets.
Creating e-books, training courses, communities, videos, podcasts… All of these can provide different streams of income, which offer non-linear returns. Once you create them, you can sell them over and over again, as digital content, or for variable marginal costs in the case of physical books or print-on-demand artwork or clothing for example. Many people aspire to ‘passive income’, which is a lovely fantasy — there’s always some work to be done. But it is great to get paid again for something you already created.
Other content creators make a living collaborating with brands, making content as influencers and bloggers. Naturally you hear about the massive YouTube and TikTok stars making deals worth millions with huge audiences for their 15 minutes of fame, but there are far more making sustainable solopreneur incomes in micro-niches, doing deals with very aligned products and services.
For example, a travel blogger might review luggage brands, with affiliate links to recommended products — being careful to indicate that they earn a commission if you purchase via their link, and being transparent about the deal if they were provided with free products to test. If they have built trust with a dedicated audience they won’t want to dilute that by promoting unrelated or inferior products, and it’s the quality of the content which will keep people reading (and hopefully, clicking), while funding a great location-independent lifestyle business doing what they love.
If any of the ideas above has piqued your curiosity, remember this list is far from exhaustive, and identifying your individual brand positioning may involve combining a range of experience, skills, interests, and identified market gaps.
Here is a broad roadmap to reflect on, if you feel like you have the personal qualities and motivation to try the solopreneur lifestyle. You can do it, if you want to, and by now you surely realise that nobody else is going to do it for you (although you can work with me or others as a coach if you need help with getting started.)
First, you need to figure the space where you can meet identified demand. Being open to new opportunities is crucial.
For me, I started freelancing with a background in journalism, writing, research, and remote team leadership, along with an interest in geeky technology.
This segued into content creation in virtual teams and future of work, as well as working with cryptocurrency and blockchain startups — which are fascinatingly starting to converge into one fast-moving niche around digital identity and the future of business and how we live and work. Combining this with Estonian e-Residency was an obvious next step, but ending up writing and podcasting about it came about through a combination of contacts, opportunism, and serendipity.
A certain amount of intuition is important too — listening to that inner sense that ‘this is going to be important’, or even ‘this really interests me,’ really matters.
As a solopreneur, you don’t need anyone’s permission to try something new, to put your hand up, to take a risk. You also don’t have anyone who can tell you, for better or for worse, ‘that sounds like a really dumb idea!’
That total freedom has led me, over the past 5 years, to activities ranging from work on 3 different podcasts, writing a feminist novel about bitcoin, speaking at conferences, releasing a training course, and coaching remote jobseekers… as well as writing millions of words, about all the things which fascinate me most in life. Not all of those ‘interesting’ things have directly made money, but they’ve all earned me something, from authority to life lessons!
Read more about how to productize your freelance services.
However, it’s important to keep some kind of thread running through it all in a way that makes sense, at least retrospectively. Remember, as a business of one, you ARE your brand.
So, communicating that, clearly and consistently, really matters. When people search for you online, what do they see? Not only do you need to avoid being unprofessional, look for alignment and expertise. I run with the strap line ‘the storyteller from the future’, as a way of encapsulating what I do. What’s your one-liner?
No one will know what it is you offer unless they discover you though, so your plan also needs to include marketing of some kind — word of mouth, personal networking, thought leadership expression, paid ads, social media, the means are as diverse as the business you can create. But ‘build it and they will come’ is not a strategy, because if they don’t know you’re there, then they won’t.
It doesn’t matter so much whether you have a separate ‘business’ name, as whether you can be found for the right things. Is your LinkedIn profile optimized? Do you update it regularly, to reflect the keywords that matter today? (I was not writing about NFTs and metaverses 5 years ago, but now I need those words in my profile.)
Whether you’re transitioning from employment to making your side hustle your main activity, or looking to take your freelancing to the next level, figure out your goals. At the very least, this will provide direction when you’re uncertain, or facing unexpected choices.
Look at your cashflow. When will you get your first income from your business? How will you fund necessary equipment purchases? Do you have some savings as a buffer, until your business-of-one is cash-positive.
How will you measure success? This all related back to your goals, and your personal yardstick for achievement may relate to turnover, to profit, to hours worked, or to deliverables created. But if you don’t know what your targets are, you won’t know whether you’re achieving them or not.
And it goes without saying, a vital part of sustainable successful brand reputation is being fantastic to work with as well.
You could have all the expertise in the world, but as a solopreneur — who may be contracting with people you never meet in person — you have to have a bulletproof reputation for reliability, consistency, and being impeccable with your word, when it comes to deadlines and deliverables. You have to go the extra mile for clients, if you want them to put their trust in you, to recommend you to others, and to pay you what you’re worth.
Then you get to work with people who really appreciate not just your professional talents, but your service, and all the ways you add value.
On the hardware front you are likely to need a laptop, and ideally also a mobile device as well, as a minimum. What about software, to help you get your solopreneur business started successfully? At a minimum, you’ll want:
Tools to deliver your product/service — which may well be available at low cost or even free. I use free Google Docs to create and deliver most of my written work to clients, but I pay for video and audio tools. Do your homework, and don’t undermine your professionalism with the wrong app!
Somewhere to host your online presence — probably your own website — but this may be something else, like a social or platform profile.
And of course, you also need…
Xolo Go will enable you to raise an invoice in minutes, containing all the information needed for a professional and recognizable business presence, and most importantly…payment info!
Using Xolo Go gives you access to a slice of Xolo’s corporate entity and business banking, to make things contractually straightforward for your clients, wherever they are based (and using 7 different currency choices.) They can even pay you by credit card, which makes it super easy for business clients to settle up with you fast, no excuses.
All the complicated VAT business is automated for you too, and you can offset/reimburse your business expenses. You can then draw that payment down to your personal account anywhere you need it, and get a clear overview of your cash situation from a bespoke secure dashboard.
Essentially, what Xolo Go offers, is a way to professionalize your freelance presence, without creating your own business — which, even in Estonia, does attract slightly more expense and delay. Elsewhere in the world there can be far more friction, making Xolo Go the perfect solution wherever you are, if you want to shift towards a solopreneur presence and practice.
Once you’ve proven your minimum viable freelancing offer, and you’re ready to take your next step towards sustainable solopreneur success?
Xolo Leap is there for you, to create an EU-based private limited company, to operate from anywhere — giving you business presence, limited liability, and location-independence.
You can even contract and collaborate easily with freelancers in the Xolo Go marketplace.
Xolo is there for every stage of your solopreneur success story, and you’ll be joining a growing global community of entrepreneurs making the same professional lifestyle choices as you, living life on their own terms the way they love best.
What a time to be alive! You even get Xolo Leap Pro free for your first three months. Sustainable solopreneur success is within your reach, more easily than ever before.
Maya Middlemiss is a freelance journalist and author, excited about the future of work, business, money, and technology. She operates her e-resident business through Xolo Leap, so that she can work frictionlessly with brands and publications all over the world, and she is the host of the Future is Freelance podcast. Exploring the social impact of technology on our changing world, and bringing those stories to life in an accessible and inclusive way, is her passion — because all of this is far too exciting to leave it to the geeks. Maya is a 'digital slowmad', originally from London, presently living with her family in Eastern Spain.
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