Starting a business can be overwhelming for those of us who aren’t the most savvy at social etiquette. You have to take a lot of things into account from talking to clients, networking, and pitching price. I hear you! I’m an autistic entrepreneur and while I like to socialize in small doses, I burn out quickly if over exposed. I also suffer from social anxiety which can complicate things even further!
Still, I’ve managed to successfully start a business as a designer and brand developer by playing to my strengths. I’ve developed a niche catering to progressive, spiritual and marginalized creatives and entrepreneurs, including other socially awkward folks like myself. My business model centers around helping people overcome obstacles by standing out, looking good and connecting with folks who get them. It was with the encouragement of others, including Andrew and Pete, that I’ve finally been able to stand out in and connect with my audience.
But enough about me!
If you are anything like me, you are probably thinking “Yeah, you say that but you don’t know how I feel!” You may even feel jaded and cynical, and worry that you have a lot working against you. I’ll admit that there can be extra obstacles in your way. In a perfect world we would all have equal cards, but I’ve learned that we have to do our best with the cards we are dealt, if we are going to be the change we want to see in the world.
What I won’t tell you is that this is impossible. I’ve run into people of all identities who have smashed past their boundaries, and for the longest time I thought that it was just luck… Until it started happening to me. I’m an autistic, disabled, queer, transgender woman with mental illness so I’m no stranger to losing out when the cards are dealt. However, if you take the time to get to know your cards, you can learn how to best maximize your strengths and surround yourself with people who get you so you can make amazing things happen! This isn’t about getting rich quickly, or even about getting rich at all, this is about being empowered to live the life I want to live.
If you got this far and think this all great then I have some awesome advice in store for you. I’ll say this: My social anxiety is still strong. I get burned out by socializing. And I’m still as awkward and weird as ever. But I managed after months of hard work and dedication, to launch a business that gets me appointments, clients and referrals.
You can do this, I believe in you!
I know that sounds shocking as we live in a society that tells us to be ourselves, while simultaneously telling us to conform to a status quo… but, for the love of all that is good, be yourself! Be authentic. That’s rule number one for success. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. Trying to conform at any cost will lead to failure as an entrepreneur. Be your awesome quirky self and go out there and meet people. Leverage your quirks, laugh at yourself, and embrace your awkward. By being authentic you will attract like minded people who will want to get to know you, form a relationship with you, collaborate with you and, yes, even buy from you. You won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you will be someone’s!
Sort out your Passion
What do you want to do? What are your dreams and goals? Sort that out and learn everything you can about it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a piece of paper that says you can do it or if you don’t have years of experience working in a firm. While I did have a formal education in media arts, I left the corporate world after interning at EMI Music to freelance for non profits and small businesses. Many influencial people who you may look up to have similar stories. So let me repeat: Unless you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a surgeon you don’t need to have multiple years of experience or a piece of paper to follow your dreams! You just need to have passion!
If you are focusing your career on something you are passionate about you will find it’s easier to talk about it confidently. You will find that you are helping people out with their problems and adding value to their lives. With time that will lead to clients.
Create an Avatar
This is Luna! She’s my avatar. She’s got a long backstory that would take up a quarter of an article, but she’s the personification of my ideal client. You want to get really in depth when developing your Avatar. What are their hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their problems? Where do they hang out? You can even draw them and name them like I did. You’ll want a clear vision of WHO you want to help, WHAT they need help with and HOW you are going to help them.
Get out of your comfort zone, even if just a little
You don’t need to throw yourself into a crowd of people right away, if even at all. Start by talking to a new person every day and make connections on your own terms. Literally every encounter you have with another person is a networking opportunity so make the most out of them. If you find a chance to break the ice with someone then do it!
Talk About What You Do
When engaging with new people make sure that you eventually talk about your work. The more you talk about your work with people the more opportunities will open up for you. I know in some instances it will be harder to do than others, but over time that information will come out. In some situations it’s almost expected.
Be Honest and Vulnerable
So you get anxious about socializing? Then be honest and upfront about that. It could even be the icebreaker you need to find like minded connections, collaborators and clients. Historically, the belief was that you need to be perfect and polished and represent a certain ideal to be successful. This isn’t true anymore. people like to buy from people like themselves, who they know, like and trust. If you are shy and nervous, chances are there are others who are just as shy and nervous as you are! So be upfront and let people in.
If you aren’t much of a conversationalist, listen and ask questions instead.
People like talking about themselves and the things they are passionate about. If you are anything like me you may do this in excess, info dumping all over your Facebook page with longwinded paragraphs about whatever your current special interests are in that moment.
Funny how I fall apart with that when it comes to a crowded networking event.
Instead of worrying about what you are going to say next to keep the conversation flowing, just ask questions and let the other person answer them. Listen to them and figure out how you can help them with their problems. It’s really that simple.
I do this online too. Every day I ask my Twitter audience a random question. This is also a great way to increase engagement, and find markets for your skills. It has given me an opportunity to get to know my clients on a deeper level than I would have if I was just posting promotional content day in and day out.
Take Time For Self Care
For the first six months of working on my business I was an utter workaholic. If it wasn’t related to work or networking I didn’t do it. As an introvert this can quickly take its toll on you. Not long after Valkyrie Design started to get some attention I started to experience burnout.
It’s important to take time for yourself to recharge your batteries. If you are constantly socializing it will eventually lead to a crash and it will take you long to recover. Give yourself at least an hour a day to disconnect from work and do something introverted. Read a book, take a moment for introspection, take a bath. Just take a nice long break for YOU
Find and Connect With like Minded Entrepreneurs
You are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with so it’s important to surround yourself with driven and determined folks who share similar goals as you. Reach out to other folks in your friend circle who are working toward similar goals.
When I first started out I didn’t have any close friends who were trying to become full time entrepreneurs or freelancers. That was a big reason why I joined ATOMIC in the first place. Having the ability to ask questions and get feedback made a world of difference for me.
I also recommend getting involved in a coworking space. As an introvert my coworking space has been a dream come true. I can work on my stuff and get to know other folks in the space over time, with no pressure to be in social mode all the time. As a result of coworking I’m starting to develop relationships with folks that go beyond just work, I feel like I’m making friends in the space.. On the other end of things some of my friendships are starting to bleed into my professional life, through plans to collaborate and work together,
Make Some Extroverted Friends
If you aren’t good at small talk or breaking the ice then have someone else do it for you. Find a friend who can introduce you to other people. Bring them along with you and have them work the room while introducing you to people who are relevant to you. That way the stress isn’t on you to walk up to people. Just make sure that after your friend introduces that you get to know a bit about that person and make the connection.
Give People a Reason to Come to You
I work with a lot of spiritual folks. and I’ve found a way to reach potential clients while minimizing social anxiety: I plant myself firmly in one spot at with a deck of Tarot and a welcoming smile. If you can find a way to make other people come to you then you don’t have to deal with the anxiety of figuring out who you are going to talk to and how you are going to break the ice.
Forget the Networking Events Altogether!
Networking events are a drag when you are shy and introverted. Instead of going to a noisy event full of people who might not resonate with you, and will probably, ignore you and stab at your confidence, why not go to an event where you know you will have something in common with the others there. I love shared activity events, as they allow you to do something together and don’t put pressure on you to be speaking all the time. For example, I like anime so going to an anime meetup or convention would be an amazing place to meet likeminded folks. Cosplay is a wonderful icebreaker and since my target audience includes creatives it could lead to potential connections with costume designers, craft makers and more! Find what you love, and use it.
Go to Where your Audience is
Figure out where your avatar hangs out and make sure you go there too. If your avatar works in STEM go to tech meetups and conferences. If your avatar is an artist hit up as many art shows as you can. Chat with people, ask questions, talk about what you do and build those relationships!
Volunteering for events gives you an excuse to connect with the organizers and is a great icebreaker. It can also be a good way to get into events that you might otherwise be unable to afford. I’ve gotten into some really cool conferences by volunteering my time, but you can also volunteer for smaller scale events.
Use Social Media
I can’t stress this enough! Get to know new people on social media and network with folks in your communities on your own terms. Lately I’ve been trying to reach out to folks in ATOMIC, outside of ATOMIC, and have been connecting with folks in other groups as well. I even built my own group for folks with autism, feeling that there was a need for a space where we could make our own rules around how we network. You don’t have to talk to a hundred people every day but you should like and comment on other peoples posts when you find them useful and get to know people more.
Focus on Quality of Relationships Over Quantity
This is not a race and you don’t need to talk to a hundred people a day. Do what works for you. Try and find 10 people in your niche who seem interesting and start forming relationships with them. Help them out if they are struggling with anything and provide them with advice that can help them out. It’s better to form 5 high quality relationships than have 500 connections who you don’t have mutual engagement with.
I hope these things helped. I know it can be easier said than done to approach these things, and I’ll admit that I struggled to get in the right mindset for it at first as well, but with enough persistence and plenty of passion it will get easier and easier to do.
So get out there and make some connections and get started in turning your epic ideas into legendary realities!
Rachel “Rae” Bellefountaine, Graphic & Web Designer | www.valkyriedesign.com
Rae is a tutor, human rights activist, graphic designer, and brand developer. She is also the founder of Valkyrie Design, where she provides a variety of creative solutions for spiritual and progressive entrepreneurs and creatives! When she is not designing amazing graphics or developing awesome brands, she is working on creative side projects and volunteering her time to help fight poverty and homelessness.
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