What Does It Mean to Live the Solopreneur Life?

What does it mean to “live the solopreneur life.” It means thousands of things to me. Here are 19.

• Learning, all the time
• Getting on my bike and riding, when I need a spark
• Competing
• Placing zero value on face time
• Finding my perfect niche
• Giving permission to my Inner Genius, my Inner Poet, my Inner Programmer
• Being fair to my clients, and myself
• Going on an Elmore Leonard binge, because it’s fun
• Keeping promises
• Telling the truth
• Developing long-term relationships
• Serving
• Doing my best work
• Dynamiting the dam on Creativity River
• Saying I’m sorry
• Making the numbers
• Dropping everything when my daughter has the flu
• Taking risks
• Improving

Random Thoughts After a 10-Day Family Vacation

Late last night my wife, two daughters, and I arrived home in Minnesota after spending 10 days in Estes Park, Colorado. We’ve made the trip every year to EP since 2001, and we drive. Here are random thoughts from the vacation.

My wife (she's in the bottom-right corner) admires the majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park.
My wife (she’s in the bottom-right corner) admires the majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park.

• I didn’t see evidence of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, except for a head shop on Pearl Street in Boulder. But I suspect the shop has been there for decades, and with the new law the owners can stop the charade that they’re selling pipes and rolling papers to connoisseurs of tobacco.

• The driving range at the Estes Park Golf Course has the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen on a range.

• I could live in the Boulder Book Store.

• If you or someone you know needs a dose of humility, spend time in the Rocky Mountains. If you don’t pay proper respect to the Rockies, they will knock you down, break your bones, dehydrate your sorry hide, and leave you begging for oxygen.

• Entrepreneurs can be annoying. One night my family and I were playing miniature golf, and the group in front of us was playing the course as a ten-some. From their t-shirts, hair, and shoes, I said to my wife: “I bet they’re a Christian rock band — and their roadies.” It turned out they were entrepreneurs on a networking retreat in the mountains. Their extremely chipper leader — the guy who wasn’t wearing skinny jeans — told us they were entrepreneurs in the high-tech space, and they intended to “rock the rockies.” My internal reaction was: good Lord, I hope I don’t come off as such a self-absorbed dork.

• The novel “Lonesome Dove” was my “vacation book” this year. It truly is — as the cover says — an epic masterpiece.

• This was the year our teen daughters reached the “we-miss-our-friends we-just-want-to-go-home” stage. And what a pleasure it was! Believe it or not, I was a pain in the rear at that age, too. When I was 16 and my family was on a vacation in South Carolina, I remember mocking the idea of going golfing with my dad and receiving the “your-dad-looks-forward-to-this-all-year-long” lecture.

• At our family’s cabin, which is at 8,247 feet elevation, I’m happy to sit on the porch and watch the weather. In a 30-minute span, we can experience scorching sun followed by high wind, heavy rain, hail, and then crisp air and rainbows.

I took this picture during our daughter's campus visit at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
I took this picture during our daughter’s campus visit at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

• My wife and I joined our oldest daughter on her campus visit at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It’s the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just the mountain background: the architecture (inspired by Tuscany) is consistent from building to building. I’m ready to enroll.

• Interstate 80 is a wasteland of semis. (That’s what we in the Midwest call 18-wheelers.) I-80, especially in Nebraska, is an unbroken line of trucks. When passing a semi, I risk my life. During the pass, truck drivers invariably swerve a wee bit to the left, and I’m forced to stand on the accelerator. And then there are the times when a semi tries to pass another semi. Did you know that the average semi takes 11 minutes to make a pass? The result is a line of cars that stretches beyond the horizon.

I like how the UK deals with semis on highways: the “lorries” have their own lane on the far left and they’re not allowed to pass.

• In our 880-mile drive home yesterday, I did not see a single state trooper. No wonder I was being passed all day while going 75.

• Snacks on the Interstate while on vacation are awesome. I indulge in Cheez-Its, Tootsie Pops, and Diet Coke.

This is our family's trusty minivan, moments before we left for home.
This is our family’s trusty minivan, moments before we left for home.

• Make fun of them all you want, but minivans are the best thing to happen to the sanity of the American family since the invention of the dishwasher.

• Here’s a business opportunity: create a budget hotel where “breakfast” doesn’t consist of a cramped space; CNN on the TV and played at high volume; plastic plates and cutlery; waterlogged scrambled eggs; French toast that’s prepared in a toaster; flavorless fruit; and people who come to breakfast wearing flip-flops and pajamas.

• The “license plate game” endures as the best vacation activity ever invented. This year we got 42 states, which is the most we’ve gotten in the past five years. We did not get Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, Vermont, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Mississippi. We actually did get Hawaii one year. Oddly enough, we didn’t see a Montana plate until we were in Colorado.

• Kum and Go’s currently are nicest convenience stores on Earth. Despite their pornographic name, each Kum and Go is clean, spacious, nicely air-conditioned, and staffed by people who don’t look like meth heads.

• I hear California is in drought. Water levels on the Plains are at an all-time high. Weird. But no, California (and you, too, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona), you can’t have our water. If you want water, don’t live in a desert.

• The mountains are spectacular, but for my money, there’s nothing more beautiful than a sunset on the Plains.

• I have only one word to describe Minnesota: HUMID! When we’re driving home and cross the border into Minnesota, it feels like we’ve stepped into a greenhouse. No wonder farming has been a profitable endeavor here for more than 150 years! You’d have to be incredibly inept to fail to grow anything in an environment where there’s ample water, warmth, and sun.

How Affordable is Housing in America’s Best Small Towns?

How affordable is the housing in America’s best small towns? Three things came together and caused me to ask that question:

• I was on vacation in Phoenix last week — to recover from Minnesota’s bleak winter and to escape its wintry spring. This was the second time I’ve been to Phoenix, and I love it. Sunny, highs in the 80s. I could definitely live there, at least in the winter.

• As I look out the window from my home in Owatonna, Minnesota, it’s snowing.

• Smithsonian magazine last week published its annual list of America’s best small towns. Their criteria: cities with vibrant cultural opportunities and populations of less than 15,000.

So, I consulted Zillow.com to find out how affordable the housing is for the cities on the Smithsonian list.

Below are: 1) the cities’ ranking on the Smithsonian best small-towns list; 2) the cities’ current median housing value; 3) peak value in recent years; 4) bottom value in recent years.

1. Chautauqua, New York
No data at Zillow.com, but here are the numbers for a current listing: $425,000, 4-bedroom, 2 bathrooms, 1,653 square feet
My thoughts: I visited Chautauqua in the late 1970s. It felt like a heaven for lifelong learners.

2. Healdsburg, California
Current median housing value: $570,200
Housing values peaked at $629,000 in 2005
Housing values bottomed out at $442,000 in 2011
My thoughts: I visited Healdsburg in the late 1990s and at the time I said that if I could live anywhere, it would be Healdsburg: world-class food and drink, nice climate. In recent years Fort Collins, Colorado has emerged as my preference: sunshine for more than 300 days a year, not far away from my favorite golf destination on the planet.

3. Williamsburg, Virginia
Current median housing value: $339,000
Housing values peaked at $359,000 in 2008
Housing values bottomed out at $297,000 in February 2013

4. Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Current median housing value: $359,000
Housing values peaked at $604,000 in 2008
Housing values bottomed out at $342,000 in January 2012

5. Woods Hole, Massachusetts (most expensive)
Current median housing value: $727,000
Housing values peaked at $796,000 in 2004
Housing values bottomed out at $656,000 in 2010

6. Marietta, Ohio
Current median housing value: $149,000
Housing values peaked at $167,000 in May 2003
Housing values bottomed out at $117,000 in 2009

7. Beaufort, South Carolina
Current median housing value: $227,000
Housing values peaked at $296,000 in 2006
Housing values bottomed out at $220,000 in 2011

8. Sedona, Arizona
Current median housing value: $381,000
Housing values peaked at $541,000 in 2007
Housing values bottomed out at $337,000 in 2011

9. Nebraska City, Nebraska
Current median housing value: $118,000
Housing values peaked at $139,000 in August 2013
Housing values bottomed out at $96,000 in 2011

10. Lanesboro, Minnesota
Current median housing value: $129,000
Housing values peaked at $174,000 in 2009
Housing values bottomed out at $119,000 in 2010
My thoughts: charming little town, terrific bicycle trails, but Lanesboro is very remote.

11. Spring Green, Wisconsin
Current median housing value: $256,000
Housing values peaked at $262,000 in 2007
Housing values bottomed out at $211,000 in 2009
My thoughts: Frank Lloyd Wright grew up here, countryside is beautiful, Madison is close.

12. Havre de Grace, Maryland
Current median housing value: $239,000
Housing values peaked at $300,000 in 2007
Housing values bottomed out at $228,000 in 2012

13. Columbia, Pennsylvania (least expensive)
Current median housing value: $91,000
Housing values peaked at $107,000 in 2008
Housing values bottomed out at $90,600 in July 2013

14. Mount Dora, Florida
Current median housing value: $156,000
Housing values peaked at $241,000 in 2006
Housing values bottomed out at $133,000 in 2012

15. Ketchum, Idaho
Current median housing value: $650,000
Housing values peaked at $1.1 million in 2008
Housing values bottomed out at $495,000 in 2011
My thoughts: Ernest Hemingway died here!

16. Montpelier, Vermont
Current median housing value: $242,000
Housing values peaked at $285,000 in 2005
Housing values bottomed out at $199,000 in 2008

17. Harrodsburg, Kentucky
Current median housing value: $139,000
Housing values peaked at $189,000 in 2008
Housing values bottomed out at $139,000 in 2014 and in 2011

18. Silver City, New Mexico
Current median housing value: $180,000
Housing values peaked at $192,000 in 2009
Housing values bottomed out at $169,000 in 2012
My thoughts: if I was choosing a place to live from this list, Silver City is the first place I’d visit. New Mexico’s climate is ideal year-around (average high temp in the summer is 89 degrees) and I enjoy studying the state’s colorful history.

19. Decorah, Iowa
Current median housing value for the county in which Decorah is located: $145,000
Housing values peaked at $168,000 in November 2013
Housing values bottomed out at $99,900 in 2011
My thoughts: my wife went to school here, at Luther College; the college makes Decorah special; the town is Mecca for Norwegians.

20. The Dalles, Oregon
Current median housing value: $177,000
Housing values peaked at $225,000 in 2011
Housing values bottomed out at $165,000 in 2009

21 Things We Love and Hate About Being Solopreneurs (in GIFs)

In a typical day, how many times do you swing back and forth between loving the stuff you’re working on and hating it? Two times? Ten times? Fifty times? I’ve never kept track, but I know there can be a lot of love/hate for me, even within an hour.

But that’s the nature of the work. And it’s why we love the solopreneur life — it’s never dull and it’s seldom predictable.

With that, let’s look at 21 things we love and hate about being solopreneurs.

1. You LOVE Not Having This Guy As Your Boss

gervais

2. You HATE Your Inner Taskmaster

work-bitch-britney-spears-gif-mister-scandal

3. You LOVE Coming Up With Brilliant Ideas

genius

4. You HATE When Your Ideas Don’t Work

marketing sucks

5. You LOVE Getting Paid

shutupimrich

6. You HATE When an Account Goes Past 60 Days

soprano nobody talk

7. You LOVE Being Productive

carrey productive

8. You HATE When Your Computer Crashes

don'tdeservethiscomputer

9. You LOVE Whipping the Competition

gundraw

10. You HATE Anxiety Attacks

spongebob scared

11. You LOVE Feeling Appreciated For Who You Are

cookie-monster-cookies-surprise

12. You HATE When Nobody’s RT’ing Your Tweets

wiigkardashian

13. You LOVE Landing a New Client

Dancing_bananalandnewclient

14. You HATE When Your Biggest Client Dumps You

icecream

15. You LOVE Being Your Own Boss

dobby

16. You HATE When Your Website Breaks

computer died

17. You LOVE Your Staff

dog paper

18. You HATE Being Bone Tired and Working Against a Deadline

tired-cat

19. You LOVE When Criticism Rolls Off Your Back

whatever

20. You HATE When Your Kids Have a Day Off From School

bequiet

21. You LOVE It When a Plan Comes Together

elated

The Solopreneur Life Launches Subscription Plans That Include All Content

TheSolopreneurLife.com has been free since its launch in 2010. This week the site enters the vanguard of online publishing — offering all of its content to paid subscribers. (In other words, I’m erecting a dreaded paywall.)

What the Paid Subscriptions Include

You get everything:

Total access to TheSolopreneurLife.com’s current and future catalog of special reports, guides, workbooks, books, and e-books, including:

• The Solopreneur Life’s newest e-book release, “Threadbare to Billionaire: J.K. Rowling’s Solopreneurial Magic and How You Can Use It to Spark Your Business” ($4.99 value)

• “The Solopreneur Life (the book),” ($9.99 value)

• “Relationship Marketing for Solopreneurs” book ($11.99 value)

• “Relationship Marketing for Solopreneurs Workbook,” an exclusive for paid subscribers ($5.99 value)

• “Solopreneur Emergency Turnaround Handbook,” an exclusive for paid subscribers ($19.99 value)

“The Collections Packet,” is contract language and collections letters that I have developed and used in compiling my 99.93 percent collections rate over the past 21 years, an exclusive for paid subscribers ($10 value)

• Total access to all past, present, and future TheSolopreneurLife.com articles

• Total access to “The Best of The Solopreneur Life Radio,” which I have just published

• A unique RSS feed that shows you the content as it is published, without delay

• The ability to link to any article from the site

How It Works

Visitors receive five free pageviews. (February 8 update: I’ve bumped this up to 10 free views.)

Then there are three subscription options: 1 month ($4); 6 months ($14); 1 year ($24). Subscribers also have the option of paying more than the subscription price (making a donation, in other words).

The subscriptions are administered by Tinypass.com, a provider of online subscription management services.

Please consider being a subscriber, and let me know if you have any questions. And tell me what you think of Tinypass’s system (they have competitors).

Why Go Down the Subscription Route?

I placed The Solopreneur Life up for sale in August. But a funny thing happened on the way to the auction block: I learned that I didn’t want to sell it.

I kept The Solopreneur Life and will be giving my full attention to it. But I needed to change some things:

1) I sold my golf website, which was a painful thing to do because I had a total blast producing the content. But it took too much time away from TheSolopreneurLife.com.

2) I invested time and money this fall in a renewed study of several small-business topics. That effort is beginning to bear fruit: a recent series of copywriting articles; an in-depth “how-to” on copywriting that I’m writing; and publication of my new e-book, “Threadbare to Billionaire.”

3) Finally, I calculated that TheSolopreneurLife.com has to be self-sustaining.

My reality lines up with what Jessica E. Lessin, editor of subscription-only website TheInformation.com, says: “The race for pageviews and ad dollars is causing publications to focus on quantity over quality.”

That’s a race I’m not going to run.

Playing to My Strengths

The “sales funnel” is a neat concept, but it’s not me. I’ve made a few runs at producing “programs,” and I don’t think it’s a strength of mine.

My “sweet spot” is things like:

• The new J.K. Rowling e-book — examining how and why she became so successful was great fun because I learned so much about succeeding at the highest level. Similar projects are in the works.

• Producing the Featured Soloists series and turning those articles into a book. I have a project in the same vein that’s ready to go: “How I Made My First $25,000,” an ongoing series of articles with solopreneurs.

• The features and how-to posts I write for the website.

• Solopreneur-related news and trend analysis, which I haven’t done very much of in the past.

Bottom line: I’ll be producing content that I, myself, want to read. It’s an approach that’s worked for me since I was a cub reporter in my first journalism job.

Writing About It

I will be writing periodic posts about the leap into subscription-based online publishing — the things that worked and the things that didn’t.

I hope my experience will inform future decisions you make about paywalls.

Cool Niche Businesses: 5-Hour Energy Went From Zero to $1 Billion in Less Than 10 Years

In my ongoing look at niche businesses and products, I take the measure of a product that launched a new niche market: the “energy shot.” It’s not the first product that’s taken the size tack; another is Tic Tac, the tiny breath-freshener product that was introduced in 1969.

The Need/Want: A small-portion energy drink
The Business: 5-Hour Energy
There are many ways to skin a niche. One is by size. That’s what Manoj Bhargava did when he created his now-ubiquitous, 2-ounce “energy-shot” product, 5-Hour Energy.

The idea for 5-Hour Energy came in 2003 when Bhargava attended a natural-products trade show in Anaheim, Calif. He told Forbes.com:

“At one booth, reps peddled a 16-ounce concoction claiming to boost productivity for hours. Bhargava took a swig. “For the next six or seven hours I was in great shape. I thought, Wow, this is amazing. I can sell this.”
5hourEnergy
Bhargava made three outside-the-box determinations at the start: he didn’t think a 16-ounce size would sell; he didn’t want to compete with Red Bull, leader in the energy-drink category; and he didn’t want to share fridge space with Coke or Pepsi. The answer was an energy drink sold in 2-ounce portions.

Bhargava still owns 5-Hour Energy through his privately held company, Living Essentials of Farmington Hills, Mich.

The company doesn’t report revenue or profits, but reports in the business press have estimated that more than $1 billion worth of 5-Hour Energy is sold annually, and Living Essentials nets roughly $300 million. (How about that? From zero sales to $1 billion in less than 10 years.)

As of 2012, 5-Hour Energy commanded 90 percent of the energy-shot niche market it created.

Bhargava, whose net worth is estimated at more than $1 billion, was born in India and moved to the United States in 1967 with his family when his father pursued a degree at Wharton.

Solopreneur Poll: What Generates the Most Revenue For Your Business?

I’ve had “polls” as an item on my “story ideas” list for more than a year. Today is the day I got ‘er done!

Your voice is needed, so participate in the poll and tell others about it, too. If this goes well, there will be more solopreneur polls in the future.

If you have an idea for a poll question, let me know and I’ll give you credit in the poll for contributing the question.

FYI: I used the free version of Polldaddy.com to create the poll.

[polldaddy poll=7562116]

Improve Cash Flow With This Often-Overlooked Alternative

When you’re facing cash-flow challenges (and you will at some point!), you need more money and fewer expenses, but there’s something you need just as badly: time.

The good news is you can gain time by asking your creditors to give you some space. Here are three options Denise O’Berry suggests in her excellent book Small Business Cash Flow:

1. Stretch out your payment terms. Ask to switch from a 45-day window to 60 days. If you’re at 90 days, then ask for 120-day terms.

2. Set up quarterly payments. Rather than paying your bill monthly, ask creditors if they will accept quarterly payment.

3. Ask for a discount. If you’re able to pay your bill before it’s due, then ask for a discount; start by asking for 10 percent. Nearly every company I’ve ever known (including mine) will be very willing to work with you on payment terms. They want to get paid, and they also want you to stay in business! If they know that the easing of terms will help, they will work with you. And they’ll be impressed that you’re confronting your cash-flow challenges.

The Next Step

Make a list of the creditors you will approach and then do it.

If You Had the Boulder Book Store In Your Town, You’d Never Need Amazon

On Sunday, July 7, while on a family vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, we drove down the mountain (3,000 feet of elevation change in 20 miles) and into Boulder for the day. Our destination was downtown, Pearl Street, and there we found the Boulder Book Store.

Inside the Boulder Book Store

You know how every suburban Barnes & Noble is laid out the same way — as predictable as an Applebee’s?

The Boulder Book Store isn’t like that.

Their three-story building is filled with nooks and crannies, with surprises around every corner. Some spaces were small with low ceilings. One room, with a vaulted ceiling, was big and dramatic. There were at least two staircases, and several half-floors. I succeeding in getting lost — the hallmark of a fine book store.

When I found my wife I said, “If this bookstore was in your town, you’d never need Amazon.”

The BBS book assortment was deep and varied, with a large used-book section. My wife bought one book for herself and two for our 12-year-old daughter.

I didn’t buy a book, but my annual quest for a t-shirt with local flavor was satisfied by the shirt I’m wearing today (below): BBS calls it Tatoo Willie (it’s William Shakespeare with tatoos). I purchased a book at a small book store located one block away, Trident Booksellers and Cafe. (I paid $12 for a used, hardcover copy of Theodore Rex, which is volume two of Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt; I read volume one last winter).

Tattoo Willie from the Boulder Book Store

BBS had dozens of t-shirt designs, many of them “retired” and adorning torso-only mannequins that sat on top of shelves, lined up like trophy bucks at a Cabela’s. The shirts bore the names of authors and books: for example, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. They’re designs that book-lovers and English majors can’t resist purchasing.

The customer checking out in front of me told the clerk she was a “Reader’s Guild” member. I went online to find out what the “Reader’s Guild” is:

Purchase a one-year membership ($12.50), then each time you buy a book, simply give us your phone number, and you’ll automatically receive a 10% discount on everything in the store (periodicals are excepted). The discount is 15% off the already low price of used and sale books. Readers Guild members also receive access to reserved seating at events, exclusive sales, and seasonal gifts!

Beats the heck out of Amazon Prime.

If the Boulder Book Store was in Owatonna, I’d visit several times a week. My father-in-law last week speculated that, with the “big box” book stores disappearing, independent book stores could enjoy a resurgence. I hope so. But if all independent book stores were like the Boulder Book Store, it wouldn’t matter what the big boxes were doing.