Many of my clients fantasize about striking out on their own—saying toodles to the boss, the office politics, and the confines of company life. Of course, along with that comes kissing their coveted paychecks good-bye. For introverts, who are more detail oriented, think before taking action, and would rather spend more time listening than talking up their strengths, setting up shop for themselves can be daunting in its own ways. Yet it also comes with some advantages. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with Beth Buelow, the coach, author, and popular blogger who runs The Introvert Entrepreneur. Buelow joins us today to share insights for introverts thinking of starting a business as well as those who have already gone down that path.
NA: As an entrepreneur, you constantly have to put yourself out there. How do you succeed at that as an introvert?
BB: The first thing that’s important to acknowledge is that being an entrepreneur means being in relationship. It doesn’t matter if your business is purely online, always face-to-face, or somewhere in between; you will only succeed by making connections with other people. You can’t just put up a website and set up a Facebook page and think people will find you. As introverts, we often wish that were true!
The good news is that there are creative ways to be present that still respect our introverted nature. I’ve found three approaches that have been effective. First, I put myself out there through blogging and podcasting. Both have proven to be incredibly efficient tools to reach large numbers of people from the privacy of my own office. Second, I’ve become comfortable with public speaking. Being an introvert on the stage is not as counterintuitive as some might think; we can shine when given the opportunity to share our message without distractions or interruptions. Like blogging or podcasting, I’ve found it’s an efficient way to reach many people at once, which saves my energy. And third, I’ve cultivated a small yet strong circle of colleagues to whom I can tell anything, including, “I’m tired… do I really have to go?” We encourage and remind one another of the bigger picture.
NA:What are the key strengths and challenges of being an entrepreneur as an introvert?
BB: Introverts shine in two particular entrepreneurial activities: working independently and relationship building. The preference to work in solitude is one of the hallmarks of introversion. The expression, “it’s lonely at the top,” applies to entrepreneurs as well as leaders; you are potentially at the top, the bottom, and every place in between. There’s strength in our ability to be productive and creative in solitude without being lonely. Some can carry this a bit too far and isolate themselves, neglecting to consistently network or strategically socialize. However, even introverts need people! We can avoid crossing from happy solitude over into loneliness by making a commitment to regularly connect with people who energize us.
Few introverts became entrepreneurs because they were itching to become salespeople. But entrepreneurship and sales go hand-in-hand. The most effective salespeople see the process as relationship building. This is where an introvert’s strengths kick in. A study published in the June 2012 Journal of Research in Personality found that people who demonstrated strong listening skills had more influence than those who were more verbal. The listeners built trust and gathered information. When we sell, we are attempting to influence someone’s behavior. Ideally, we’re building a relationship. By leaning into our natural listening skills, introverts are increasing their influence with a potential buyer.
NA: How do you handle managing a staff, or even freelancers, and delegating tasks as an introvert entrepreneur?
BB:I have a theory that whoever said, “If you want it done right, do it yourself,” was an introvert. Anything that involves other people can sap our energy. Therefore, many introverts try to do everything themselves, with minimal outside involvement. But there comes a point in every business when you can’t manage all of the moving parts yourself. If you’re going to build a sustainable enterprise, you have to become willing to bring other people onboard. Having a positive experience depends on several factors. Most important: acknowledge that the process will require energy, patience, and vulnerability. You might have to be extra diligent about establishing boundaries. Set clear expectations from the beginning. Communicate transparently; remember that your colleagues can’t read your mind. And trust the person you hire to do the work. Micromanaging will only suck the life right out of you and your colleague, and it isn’t necessary if your expectations and communications are clear.
NA:You have been successful at building an online community. In what ways is that exhilarating versus exhausting, particularly for you as an introvert?
BB: The web has been the greatest gift to introverts since Jung identified the temperament in the first place. It’s leveled the playing field and allowed us to connect with others on more or less our own terms. I love that I can put something out there – an idea, an image, a project – and get almost immediate feedback. It’s been satisfying to see conversations unfold across continents, ages, and professions, often in beautiful and surprisingly intimate ways. As the online community has grown, I’ve noticed that for something that is technically silent, it can get rather noisy. Visiting Facebook can start to feel like walking into a noisy bar, rock band and all. Everyone’s status updates, questions, and postings bounce around in my head and drown out my own thoughts. I have to remember to step away from the computer on a regular basis and clear my head. Shutting down the computer has the same effect as hitting mute on the television.
NA: How do you deal with your own negative self-talk when you're your own boss? What advice do you give others about that?
BB: In Wayne Dyer’s book, Excuses, Be Gone!, he shares a powerful English proverb: “Fear knocked on the door. Love answered, and no one was there.” It reminds me that fear, along with the negative self-talk born from it, will wither when faced with love. Our love for our work has to be stronger than our fear of what may or may not happen. I also work with my clients to notice assumptions that pop up into their thinking. We question those assumptions –"I’m not ready"; "I’m not outgoing enough"; "It’s going to be too exhausting" – and find out what’s true. And often, those assumptions are based on other people’s fears and stories, not our own. We just absorb them and think they must be true for us, too. And because introverts can internalize almost indefinitely, an external reality check with a trusted friend, colleague, or coach can help put the fears in perspective. The monsters are much scarier when we let them fester in the dark.
NA: How has studying improv helped you as an introvert business owner?
BB: One of the biggest challenges I see introvert entrepreneurs face – and I include myself in this – is trusting ourselves to think on our feet. We like to be prepared, to have studied a matter, and do our thinking in advance. Thinking out loud is not our natural preference. Yet improv is largely based on being in the moment, getting comfortable with discomfort, and trusting yourself and your partners. The improv principle “be average” has had a profound influence on my attitude. When we try too hard – to be funny, clever, smart – we stop the flow of energy. But when we relax, stay fully present, and trust ourselves, we are naturally funny, clever, and smart. We’re not forcing it. And chances are, we’ll say just the right thing.
NA: Is there anything else you'd like to add to help new or established introvert entrepreneurs?
BB:The only sustainable business model is one that you create based on your natural strengths and your personal definition of success. Introverts can be extraordinarily successful if they respect their energetic needs. We won’t be happy if we’re pushing ourselves to see 10 clients a day or go to three networking events every week. As is true about so many things, our choices should be based on quality over quantity. As an introvert, focus on finding the biggest bang for your energetic buck. Expand your reach by using social media, writing, public speaking, and making it easy for your advocates to spread your message. Your energy is one of your most precious assets, so be intentional with how you spend it.
Copyright © 2013 Nancy Ancowitz