Many years ago I was having an interesting conversation with a very close friend and mentor. He’s one of those hustler, self-made guys who’s been building various businesses for as long as I remember. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember him ever having an official 9-5 job. His entire life is essentially a series of ideas, projects and businesses. And he’s been rewarded well for it: he just bought a condo in Miami and is building a house in Bali.
At that point it’s only been a couple of years since I left my lucrative and high-paying job as a software developer. I had been feverishly trying to build an online business. I was struggling and failing. I did have a feeling that things were gradually coming together; the light at the end of the tunnel was very near.
During our conversation, my friend told me something interesting that still rings true today: going from a specialized position (the typical 9-5, that most of us have) to a generalized mindset (that’s needed to run your very own business) is relatively simple if you take time to learn a set of important skills.
The curse of specialization
The majority of those who work for someone else are doing a very specialized job. For example, if you’re a software engineer—like I had been for many years—then your job is extremely specialized: you sit at a computer and write computer code. Maybe you know several computer languages, but chances are you know one or two really, really well, making you very specialized.
If you’re a real estate broker, then you know one thing really, really well: selling and buying real estate properties. You understand things like how much a certain property would sell for, you know how to sell the right property to the right buyer, etc. The real estate is your baby which is why you’re much more informed than the average person.
The problem with specialization is that it inherently constraints your independence. Specialization is great when it’s part of some complicated machinery, connected to other components which are doing different things. Think of an assembly line in a factory: everyone is doing one thing and one thing only.
But doing one very specialized job is not enough to be independently successful; you need someone else to still do another task in order to make money. If you’re putting tires on cars in a Ford factory, you’re hardly making millions of dollars of profit from auto sales.
If you’re really good at making products, you still need a buyer to sell them to; if you’re really good at selling products, you still need to make or find great products to sell.
Fortunately, the transition from the specialized mindset to a generalized business mindset that leads to autonomy and independence is relatively simple. The approach is twofold: first, keep things very simple, at a micro level, and then develop the skills that help you get there.
Usefulness and value
For anything to mean anything it needs to be useful to someone else, otherwise it has no value. What you represent or do must be somehow connected to something that’s interesting and beneficial to someone else.
The article you’re reading now is useful to you, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it. The people you choose to surround yourself are interesting to you otherwise you wouldn’t be spending time with them. The books you read are interesting and helpful to you otherwise you wouldn’t be reading them. The TV shows and movies you watch are interesting to you otherwise you wouldn’t watch them.
I’ve just described your future product. The actual “product” can be anything and everything. It could be a physical product like mobile cases or something intangible like an entire lifestyle such as traveling or minimalism. Ultimately, it needs to matter to someone else somehow otherwise people wouldn’t care about it.
Figured out what your “product” or “service” is? Congratulations.
The next step is making others aware of its existence. If you’re having dinner with a couple of friends or your parents, then you’d simply tell them about it. That’s it. Now others know about what you’re doing. But when you’re dealing with an audience of thousands, hundreds or even millions of people, you can’t simply “tell” them. First of all, you don’t know them, and second of all, you must find a way to connect to such a disparate group of people, each with varying different interests.
The process of reaching out to a large group of people is called marketing. Marketing is a process where you connect with an audience by first, figure out their needs and wants, and then provide them with a solution that meets those needs and wants.
Great, now a group of people knows you exist. You’ve created demand and enlisted their interest. You’re an awesome marketer.
Now what? You still need to sell them your “product” or “service.”
Selling is different than marketing. Just the fact that you’re reading this certainly means that you know I exist. That’s awesome. I’m really happy that you know I exist. Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re buying what I’m selling. Maybe the product doesn’t solve your needs, or maybe it’s too expensive, or maybe you’re simply undecided whether the product that I’m selling will solve your needs.
Putting marketing and sales messaging into words is called copywriting. This is where you craft the right words that communicate directly with the prospective customer in ways that clearly deliver the message.
Being able to design, build a product, write the marketing and sales messages are the three core skills that you need in order to build something truly of your own. These skills are the pillars of any business.
Stick to basics
Tons of books have been written on these three areas, entire courses have sprang up, but developing these three skill sets are deceptively simple.
What throws many people off is that they believe they need to complete a graduate course or spend thousands and thousands of dollars (how much are elite business schools these days?) before they gain any clue. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Don’t worry about being an expert in each of these areas. What’s important is to know just the basics—chiefly, why certain things work the way they do. Think of it this way: instead of becoming a giant Fortune 500 company with complicated hierarchical structures, large departments that contain hundreds of employees, you think of yourself as a one-man business, a microbusiness.
To think of yourself as a micro business requires a slight mind shift. It’s much easier to specialize in a particular area. Depending how your brain or personality is structured, it can be easier to either talk to computers all day (programming), or talk to people (sales).
Building a great product—whatever you decide it to be—is about introspection and asking yourself what makes you special and, consequently, what you want to share with the world. Marketing is simply finding the audience who’ll benefit from that product and picking the right messages associated with the product that will connect with the audience. Sales is primarily listing the products’ benefits. Finally, all of that will go on something called a sales page whose goal is to convince the end user to purchase the product.
Behaving like a microbusiness is natural. Humans are natural jacks of all trades. We know how to do multiple things decently instead of just one thing really, really well.
Think small. Each one of us has a “product” or “service” that’s hidden inside of us which is just dying to get out. Each one of us has something that we’re passionate about. A microbusiness mindset streamlines all of this.
Perhaps you’re skilled in speed reading. In this case, teaching others how to speed read is your “product.”
Or maybe you’re talented in quickly learning foreign languages. In that case your “product” becomes your unique approach to teaching languages, perhaps a course of some sort.
Or maybe you’re really talented in “hacking” frequent-flier programs in order to travel around the world. Thanks to your skills, you’re able to travel all over the world for free. In that case, sharing your hacking methods with others is your “product.”
There’s nothing complicated about any of these core skills. Discovering your “product” is just a question of asking yourself what you’re good at. Marketing is simply telling others that you (and your product/service) exist. Selling is convincing others that they should buy your product instead of someone else’s by touting its benefits.
Now, of course, there’s a lot of little nuances and details that come into play once you start working. But don’t worry about all of that yet. Cross that bridge when you get there. The objective is to start doing something. Internalizing those three major pillars will keep you on the right track.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.