It takes a village to raise a one-person business

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Some entrepreneurs have a hard time asking for help, preferring to do everything themselves, from computer software and hardware installation to billing to licking stamps.

I often have the opposite inclination, which is to outsource or shortcut just about anything I can think of.  Is it so bad to consider whether I can hire someone to take the trash out on Wednesdays and fold and put away the laundry on Saturdays?  (I know, I know, that is why we have kids and spouses, but sometimes we all get busy) Don’t get me wrong, I love to work hard and consider no task "beneath" me, but the older, busier and more kids I get, the more I am inclined to use outsourced resources efficiently.

In my business, I also firmly believe in the principle of not re-creating the wheel.  If there is someone who has done (well) what I am attempting to do and can sell their expertise in the form of coaching, education or instruction, I am more than happy to purchase it.  I believe what Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton preach in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths which is we should stop spending lots of time and energy learning skills to prop up our weaknesses and instead should focus on building and leveraging our strengths.

The only problem with using lots of outside resources, of course, is that this can get rather expensive, if you don’t have any criteria for deciding when, who and how to use them.

So here are some thoughts to get you started.  And for the sake of common understanding, I am defining "outsourced resources" as:

"A person, program or information product that either shortcuts or replaces the time you spend completing a task"

When to use an outside resource

The mantra I used to use in my corporate training and development work was "just in time learning."  What this means is that you are much more likely to pay attention to, absorb and integrate skills if you learn them just before or during the time that you will apply them.  So the best time to learn presentation skills is just before you have to deliver a real presentation. The best time to learn how to create an information product is while you are actually creating it.  The best time to learn how to market your services is while you are setting up your website and talking with potential customers on the phone. 

In these circumstances, not only will you be very interested in what you are learning because you know you will need to apply the knowledge immediately, but you will be emotionally invested in mastering it because you will be demonstrating it in a live situation, with real people.

In addition to a just-in-time learning moment, you also want to make sure that you have the time to commit to what it takes to obtain a desired result.  What this means is that:

  • You don’t have lots of outside distractions.  If you are moving, leaving a relationship, working three jobs or having a baby, it may not be the best time to use an expensive coach or participate in a time-intensive workshop.  These kinds of distractions not only take up time on your calendar, but they are emotionally intensive which can drain some of your natural creativity and ability to learn.
  • You make time for and commit to completing your homework.  The most gifted, results-oriented and dynamic coach or consultant will not be able to help you obtain your desired results if you don’t do your part.  Even if you totally outsource a task (like planning and coordinating and event, or creating a product or program), you will still need to be consulted at certain times and make decisions.   As a coach and former consultant, this is a very tricky and frustrating situation, since I know I ethically cannot do my work and the work of my client, even if I am really motivated to see results happen.

Who to use

If you are hiring a coach or an expert, there are some obvious and not-so-obvious criteria to use, including:

  • Expertise.  It goes without saying that you should hire someone who has the knowledge and skills to help you solve your particular problem.  For some people, certifications and credentials are very important (such as an advanced degree from a reputable institution, or training in a particular methodology).   For others, knowledge based on real-world experience is more important.  Know your own preferences and screen for someone that meets your criteria.
  • Experience.  Someone can be very knowledgeable, but not have the experience of applying this knowledge in real-life situations with real clients. So be sure to ask who they have worked with in the past and the different kinds of situations they have faced.
  • Results.  You are actually not buying the time with your expert, you are buying the results of your time together.  So be clear about the results you are looking for, and ask if they have obtained similar results with others in similar situations.
  • Rapport.  This is really, really important.  You must feel trust, ease and comfort with a person that you are working with, particularly if you are dealing with sensitive issues like financial matters or personal fears or blocks. Even though a colleague may rave about a particular program, product or coach, make sure that they are a fit for you.

What to use
Usually, one-on-one consultations are the most expensive way to learn something.  But for some people, that is the only way that they will really get work done or projects completed.  A wide range of shortcutting or outsourcing options for you are:

  • e-books.  These are essentially online instruction manuals which explain a certain topic, or walk you through a set of steps to complete a task. 
  • audio/video programs. These are online, CD or DVD-based programs that are sometimes accompanied by a workbook or supplemental materials.
  • teleclasses.  These can be single or multiple-session conference calls on a particular topic that generally don’t include a lot of "extra" interaction outside of class.
  • group coaching programs.  These combine elements of teleclasses, e-books, one-on-one coaching and moderated online forums, where a group of anywhere from 5 to 100 individuals follow a program together
  • in-person workshops.  From one to five days, these are often intensive learning experiences where you work with instructors and fellow participants in a live environment.
  • one-on-one coaching.  A coach usually helps you define problems, challenge unproductive underlying beliefs in your thinking, understand your roadblocks and strategize ways to overcome them and provide encouragement and support.
  • one-on-one consulting.  A consultant is paid for his or her expertise, and will most often provide detailed, specific recommendations for which strategy you should pursue.  So while a coach may help you identify your weakness in understanding SEO optimization for your website, an SEO consultant would share and possibly implement a particular SEO strategy.
  • task outsourcing.  You may hire a virtual or in-office assistant to take care of certain tasks such as bookkeeping, billing, customer support or information technology.  Depending on the size of your business, these can be part-time independent contractor resources, or full-time employees.

In order to know what is best for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my preferred learning style?  Am I auditory (learn by listening or reading), visual (learn by watching) or kinesthetic (learn by doing)?  Do I learn best one-on-one or in a group?  Am I able to tune into a virtual learning environment (like a teleclass, webinar or group coaching program) or do I need face-to-face interaction?
  • What motivates me to get things done?  Is it clear information, support from a buddy, group interaction and dialogue, peer pressure or threats and intimidation?  (In which case you may want to hire the bully who tormented you in high school to come sit in your office and call you names when you really want to get something done.  Some desperate times require desperate measures.)
  • Is this task one that I want to be doing myself on an ongoing basis in my business? (in which case a learning program may make sense) or is it something I would much rather someone else worry about and complete? (in which case you might outsource it immediately).

How to use

  • Evaluate the value of the service based on your return on investment.  One person or program may charge $5,000 a day and be worth every penny because they will help you make $50,000 in sales due to their guidance and efforts.  Someone or something else may be a waste of your hard-earned $20 because it is inferior in quality, inapplicable to your situation or the wrong solution to your particular problem.  So look at what will happen as the result of what you learn.  If a well-designed e-book on designing and conducting teleclasses for $79 is all you need to get them implemented in your business, don’t waste $1500 on an in-person workshop on the same topic.  But if you know what you need to do and just have trouble doing it, it may be worth $1,000 of a coach’s time to work you through your blocks, if it means you can expect $5,000 in teleclass revenue within the first 4 months of implementing your program.
  • YOU manage your desired outcomes.  If you are not specific about the results you are looking for, you can’t expect your outside resource to guess.  And you know how the saying goes:  "If you don’t know where you are going, you just might end up there."  You should be able to articulate exactly what you want as a result of your time together, such as:
    • I will have the knowledge and skills to successfully record and publish a podcast
    • I will gain clarity about three possible business ideas to pursue
    • I will complete a business plan that is suitable to send to xyz angel investors and venture capitalists
    • I will be able to pick up the phone and conduct an effective sales call without breaking into hives
  • Plan your mix of outsourced activities carefully, and watch your budget.  I said before that I have no problem using outside resources, so if I allowed myself free reign to outsource in my personal and business life, I would not do much else but write, roll around on the floor with my toddler, eat good, healthy food (that someone else prepares), go for long hikes and read People Magazine.  Until that day arrives, I need to balance and prioritize money in my budget for learning and outsourced activities.

I am a bit afraid to tally up the money I have wasted on information products that I downloaded and never read, classes I took whose homework I did not complete and coaching or consulting advice that I fully appreciated but did not heed. Instead of fretting about it, I prefer to learn from my mistakes and share them with you.

I would love additional tips for deciding when, how and what to outsource, particularly as it relates to weighing cost with outcome.  Please share!

Filed Under: Managing your business

15 Responses to “It takes a village to raise a one-person business”

  1. Essa says:

    I was a do-it-myselfer. Now I need a village. Outsourcing is on my mind as I prepare for an intensive week with an iridologist – naturopathic practitioner I am hosting in our area. I prepared thus far by outsourcing house cleaning – which I pumped up the value. While she was working, I spent the same time intensively organizing and tossing whatever I could. Kids to deliver promotions, ads in papers, press releases, dog grooming, lawn service. Has been about personal and business, and yes, it frees my time to focus on clients and promotion.
    Essa Adams

  2. Hi Pam,

    Wanted to wish you well with the new arrival! And, to answer your question, it’s time to outsource when not doing so is costing you more in lost opportunities than you would pay in outsourcing fees. It pays to know the value of your time by the hour; many people don’t ever calculate this and it’s one of the most important things you need to know!

    Linda M. Lopeke

  3. “Just in time learning” is another way of saying the only way to really learn something is to do it.

    If you’re afraid to do something because you don’t know how, guess what? You’ll never know how until you do it. I think fear of failure or embarrassment anxiety is the thing that holds most people back. If I have kids someday I will encourage them to fail fast and often.

  4. Andy Pels says:

    I wish I had something useful to add. This topic is definitely ‘just in time learning’ for me. I am at the point where I have to admit I need help to make more progress. It makes it easier to have such clear advice on avoiding possible pitfalls. Thanks for the main post, and thanks just as much for the great additions in everyone’s comments!

    -another “recovering ‘Lone Ranger'”–Andy Pels

  5. Terrific piece just because it’s so thorough and concise. My husband says I never met a “consultant” I didn’t want to hire, which I think is good for someone who provides this service to others. That’s why I appreciate the reminder about results. It’s something I often forget for myself. I just hired someone to help me with a PR project and forgot to ask her specifically about results in similar projects. You bet I will now.

  6. Vikram Rajan says:

    Awesome details! Last month my father gave me “The 4-Hour Work Week.” I was behind in my reading and it lay there until my vacation. I read it on the plane.

    Its a must read for those stuck in a cubicle or even the corner office. The author speaks from experience as he has lived the crazy juggling day, and now lives the 4 hour work week.

    I recommend it as highly as Cashflow Quadrant.

    ~ Vikram

  7. Tera Leaman says:

    Long time reader – first time poster.
    Oh my gosh you guys I don’t know if you’ve heard of “”conversations with miollionaires”” but I just found out Jason Oman who did that book is going to be doing a new one for female entrepreneurs like us. Here’s the page I came across so you can get updates about it too.
    I can’t wait for it because I loved his first book. I hear he’s gonna have Martha Stewart, Ray Rachel, Kim Kiyosaki the wife of the guy from rich dad poor dad.
    You can obtain more info at

  8. So glad you tackled this today. I sure think that one of the greatest sources of stress for entrepreneurs is thinking that we have to do it alone. Whatever it is.

    I guess somewhere along the entrepreneurial road, asking for help got a bum rap. Somewhere along the way (was it age 2?) we wanted to do things our way and began to think we were the only ones who could and should do it. Somewhere along the way though, doing things without help proves both stressful and, as you said, a poor business decision.

    I think asking for help (the issue that’s really at the heart of outsourcing) takes guts. Asking for help takes the courage to clearly recognize what needs doing and the courage to notice that someone else just could be in a better position to get it done. Whether that it is a computer glitch, a shipment of products that needs to be taken to FedEx, or a stack of email we thought only we could respond to..

    Being a recovering “Lone Ranger” (a favorite term that my colleague and financial mentor Loral Langemeier uses) I sure enjoy exercising my outsourcing muscles. Today’s post was a great reminder to keep up with the program. Thank you.

    BTW: I’ve heard that M. Nora Klaver recently wrote a book called Mayday!: Asking for Help in Times of Need (BK Life – Paperback) It’s on my reading list (the one I don’t outsource) and I thought others might want to know about it too.

    – Erica

  9. Liz says:

    I really like your idea of “just in time” learning. I think sometimes we spend so much time thinking we need to learn one more thing and one more thing until we are “ready” to take the plunge and jump into a new opportunity. Keeping the learning “just in time” helps us to focus on the minimum amount we need to know to take the plunge. Of course our learning will continue after we start. And the impact will be that much more powerful because it will be focused on our passion and our need.

    – Liz

  10. I just wanted to say that I love the idea of “just in time learning.” It is something I’ve used before, but never consciously. Usually it just happens because I find myself in a situation where I don’t have a choice but to learn or else!

    Because I tend to be a worrier, I waste a lot of time thinking I need to learn everything before I can start anything. This idea kind of frees me from that cycle of thinking, because I can trust that I’ll learn something when I need to, and that it’s actually most effective then. How cool!

    Thanks for putting this tactic into words.

  11. I would add another two-part question: What do I really, really like to do and what do I really, really hate to do? I know people who find cleaning their space to be relaxing and centering. I find it irritating and draining. I outsourced cleaning even when I was working as a waitress! Some people should keep it in their life even when their time could be “better spent.”

  12. A related topic is outsourcing household tasks so that you can get work done in your home office. Friends laugh, but I have house cleaners, I pay someone to come clean dog poop off the lawn, the dog in question goes to puppy camp once a week (maybe twice soon), and I am considering hiring a professional organizer to deal with some physical organization issuesi my kitchen and office. That stuff can really suck up a lot of the work day.

  13. Maria says:

    Thank you for distilling this information, Pam! It is overwhelming at times to choose among all the options available. I am slowly dipping my toes into outsourcing and I realize that I have to do a lot of clarifying of my OWN thinking before I can direct OTHERS to do a task.

  14. Rick T says:

    Excellent post per usual! I really enjoy the way you focus on street level decision making when taking on this big topics.

    I just posted a piece about you and this column over on my site and hope that it brings many new entrepreneurs your way.

    Keep up the great work!


  15. Great topic! Just a small example: I tried an experiment after reading “The 4-hour workweek” by Tim Ferriss (yes, the one everyone’s heard of :0) – I outsourced voice notes I took on three books I read. I read a lot, and transcription was a bottleneck. The results were surprising, and I’ll definitely keep doing it – maybe via elance or related next time.

    More at: The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow