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21 min read

Secrets of $480K Solo Success: A 1-on-1 Conversation Approach

Secrets of $480K Solo Success

Watch the Episode on YouTube

In this episode, we have an extraordinary guest with us, Tim Noetzel. He started his solo consulting business in 2019 from scratch, and now in 2023, he's pulling in a staggering $480,000 a year.

How did he do it? That's the big question.

What did his journey look like, and how does he maintain this success? In a world filled with paid ads, scammy websites, and cold pitches, he managed to build his business without resorting to traditional marketing techniques. What's their secret sauce? We'll find out. 

Stick around for this intriguing conversation as we dive into Tim's mind and uncover the secrets of his phenomenal journey.

In addition, we discuss:

  1. How to maintain a steady stream of 1-on-1 conversations and referrals to sustain your business growth
  2. How he initially built a client base without resorting to traditional marketing techniques
  3. What challenges he faced while growing his business
  4. Common mistakes he sees solopreneurs make when attempting to replicate his success story
  5. How he maintains a balance between coaching people and managing his consulting business
  6. Specific tools or technology solutions that have been instrumental in his journey from $0 to $480K/year
  7. How he adapts to changing market trends and client needs while maintaining a consistent growth trajectory

Be sure to tune in!

Resources Mentioned In The Episode

Connect with Tim Noetzel


Favorite Quotes:

"Success Is Going from Failure to Failure Without Losing Your Enthusiasm" - Winston Churchill

 

Going solo in business doesn't mean you're alone! Join our thriving Facebook community group exclusively designed for solopreneurs!  Connect with like-minded individuals who understand the unique challenges and triumphs of running a business single-handedly. Gain valuable insights, discover proven strategies, and unlock the power of networking as you engage in lively discussions and receive expert advice. We hope to see you there!

About Tim Noetzel

Tim is a web developer, UX designer, and the founder of FreelanceGPS.com, where he coaches on how to start and grow successful freelance businesses.

Like this show? Click on over and give us a review on Apple Podcasts Thanks!

 

Full Episode Transcript

Tim Noetzel (00:00):

You want to know how you're spending your time. And you want to know at the end of the day, what is your effective hourly rate? And if you don't know where your time is going, it becomes incredibly hard to grow your business.

Intro (00:16):

Welcome to the One-Person Business podcast, the show for solopreneurs, consultants and contractors who are ready to take charge of their business and reclaim their freedom. Join us as we bring you inspiring stories, invaluable insights and practical strategies from successful solopreneurs and industry experts empowering you to create a flagging business that aligns with your unique goals and allows you to live life on your own terms. Here are your hosts, Joe Rando and Carly Ries.

Carly Ries (00:46):

Welcome to the One-Person Business podcast. I'm one of your hosts, Carly Ries.

Joe Rando (00:50):

And I'm Joe Rando,

Carly Ries (00:52):

We are so excited to have Tim Noetzel on the podcast today. He is a web developer, designer and the founder of FreelanceGPS.com, where he coaches how to start and grow successful freelance businesses. He has a very unique story, though. He's not just another freelance one-person business owner. He actually grew his solo consulting business from $0 in 2019, so about four years ago to almost $500,000 a year now in 2023. Usually on the show we're all about LifeStarr business, a business that suits your lifestyle, not necessarily getting rich in an hour, but this is just such an intriguing story and we are so excited to hear about it. So Tim, welcome to the show.

Tim Noetzel (01:36):

Carly. Joe, thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here.

Carly Ries (01:39):

We were telling you offline that this interview couldn't come at a better time because Joe just got back from Inbound, which is HubSpot's big annual marketing conference in Boston. Our takeaways after, we are talking about how we may want to move away from some of our traditional marketing efforts, not all of them, but really focus on those one-on-one relationships, the networking and all of that. It's funny because you grew that $480,000 in four years, primarily from one-on-one conversations and referrals, I believe, which is crazy. How did you do that? What did that look like? Tell us everything.

Tim Noetzel (02:17):

Yeah, so in 2019, actually, I was working at a startup. I was leading product design and the C E O had just decided to pivot the business in a direction I just really didn't agree with. So I found myself kind of back in the job market. I really just wasn't finding anything I was excited about. I was talking to my wife, who was actually my fiance at the time, and she said, you've done some freelancing on the side for a few years, why not turn it into a full-time career? I didn't have a ton of saved at the time, but beyond what we were saving for a wedding and a house so I knew if I was going to make this work, I'd really have to figure out how to find high paying clients quickly. After a lot of trial and error, the approach that I kind of settled on as working best was actually just taking a methodical approach to building relationships through one-on-one conversations.

(03:09):

I really just found that so many of the other channels that folks recommend, whether it's freelancing sites like Upwork or Building a Blog are really just challenging to use to cut through the noise, whereas building one-on-one relationships with folks through conversations just comes naturally to people. Everybody is comfortable talking one-on-one and it's not the kind of thing where you have to really do the sales and marketing sign and dance. So you get the chance to kind of cut through a lot of the noise. When you kind of fast forward to today, I work with eight retainer clients as well as a lot of clients that I work with a little more sporadically. My business has grown every year, I've really been lucky in that way. It's kind of convinced me that this is a fantastic way to grow your business.

Carly Ries (04:03):

So what does that look like? Because also I feel like people have the initial leads or whatever that they'd want to start reaching out to, but then after a while, that stream just kind of starts to get smaller and smaller. How did you keep that momentum going? How did you reach out to people? How did that work?

Tim Noetzel (04:21):

Yeah, That's a great question. A lot of the folks that I coach either say, I only know a couple of people or I don't know anybody. What I found is that typically that's not the case. Maybe you know a couple of people who could actually be clients, but you probably know many more who either know someone who could be a client or know somebody who works in the industry. So really what you're trying to do is figure out where your ideal clients are hanging out, both online and in the real world. Meetups, industry groups, slack groups, LinkedIn groups, that kind of thing, and also who already knows them, who could potentially introduce you. Oftentimes that takes the form of other freelancers, particularly those in complimentary industries. I mainly focus on web development so marketers tend to be some of my best friends, successful freelance marketers or marketing agencies are already working with the types of clients that I want to work with. They're not competitive with me so oftentimes they'll be willing to introduce you. These two kind of tactics, Figuring out who can introduce you, and also just going into the places where your clients are hanging out, meetups, startup accelerators, all those places. Also having conversations, providing value, and asking for advice are great ways to start natural authentic relationships with the types of people that you need to meet.

Carly Ries (05:52):

And let me clarify. You mean you have to get away from your computer screen and actually go see people face to face? Is that what I'm gathering here?

Tim Noetzel (06:01):

It's shocking that you say that. Yes and no, actually. I'd say that definitely works really well, particularly if you are in a larger metro area where there's a lot of folks who might be good clients, but I actually have had a lot of the people that I coach, have success without actually getting out of the building. A lot of times there are online slack groups, digital meetups, those can work well as well. But, if you have the opportunity, I definitely encourage you to get out of the building and away from your computer screen and actually go meet some people too. It's a lot of fun. I say that as an introvert, I'm actually kind of surprised by how much I've enjoyed doing it and it's super effective.

Joe Rando (06:46):

I just want to point out, just to back you up, Yamini Rangan is the CEO of HubSpot, and she said in the keynote that they found that focus on customer connection yielded five times the growth. So five x on growth if you're focus on customer connection, which is kind of astounding. I almost feel like that must've been a typo, but you're kind of a testament to that.

Tim Noetzel (07:11):

Actually, I live in Boston, so I'm a big fan of the team at HubSpot. I know several of them. To me it doesn't come as a surprise at all. We buy from people we like, we buy from people we trust, and we tend to keep buying from those who we have an ongoing relationship with. So the closer you can get to your clients, the closer you can stay to your clients, the better off you're going to be. The more you're going to sell, the easier your work with them is going to be. There are really all kinds of upside benefits.

Carly Ries (07:49):

I have a question. You avoided websites like Upwork, you avoided cold pitching and all that kind of stuff. At some point you have to take the conversation from conversational and a meetup to, by the way, if you want to have my services. How do you do that without coming off salesy? How do you keep the organic part of the conversation going throughout?

Tim Noetzel (08:15):

Absolutely. I think there are two things relevant to that question in terms of my approach. One of them is just having authentic conversations where you talk about yourself and you ask questions of the other person. In terms of talking about yourself, it's all about just kind of saying what you do and what makes you different. The nice thing about that is you don't actually have to pitch folks. If they've got work for you or know somebody who does, they'll volunteer it. They'll raise their hand and say, oh, we actually were looking for somebody who does web development, but with a focus on conversion rate optimization. That is the nice thing about this. You don't have to sell to someone who you're not interested in buying. I really only put my sales hat on once I've found someone who actually has a project they need help with.

(09:15):

In every conversation, either they raise their hand and they say that, or they raise their hand and they say, I know somebody who you should talk to. If neither of those things happens, you simply ask them if there's anybody else that they could introduce you to who might be helpful or might be able to help. If you're just starting out, I recommend having a lot of these conversations from the perspective of asking for advice. "I'm just starting this business." If they are another freelancer, you can ask them how they found their clients, who they know in the space, who would be good to talk to. If they are somebody in industry who could theoretically be a potential client, ask about their experience working with freelancers and consultants, what's gone well? What have they liked, what haven't they liked? What does an ideal partner look like?

(10:09):

In both cases, you're kind of set up in a way where you can ask for some introductions, but they're not introductions to make a pitch. They're introductions to have another conversation. If somebody wants you to pitch to them, they'll bring it up. You'd be surprised how often that happens. It feels like it's really only every couple of conversations. It's not like you have to talk to a hundred folks to get one lead. If you're talking to the right types of people, there is demand out there. People need help to grow their businesses. Everybody is working towards making their business more successful or they wouldn't be doing it, and they're looking for folks like you.

Carly Ries (10:52):

Awesome. So as of now, it seems like it's pretty streamlined, go to an event, reach out online, make your introduction, get to know them, build that relationship, and then make $480,000 in a few years. I'm assuming it wasn't always that easy and it wasn't that smooth the whole time. Maybe it was. But what kind of obstacles and challenges did you face on this road that you created for yourself? I'm curious because right now it just sounds so simple, but has it always been?

Tim Noetzel (11:27):

I think you're exactly right. Every overnight success story turns out that it takes five or 10 years. I definitely have encountered my fair share of obstacles, and then some. I think the three categories that those fall into are figuring out who your ideal clients are, figuring out how you meet them and close the sale, and then figuring out how you work with them on an ongoing basis in a way that sets you up for success, keeps them happy and keeps business coming your way. At the beginning, I think a lot of what I struggled with was who should I work with? Regardless of whether you're in marketing or design or engineering or any other field, you're going to face that question when you're starting out. It turns out all clients are not created equal.

(12:30):

Some clients send lots of business your way. They're easy to work with, they're happy to pay premium rates because they want to pay for quality. They give good feedback, they ask smart questions. Other clients not so much. So if you've got a good relationship with good clients, it means your life is really easy. And if you've got clients who were doing things like constantly changing the scope, it makes things a lot harder and your life really becomes a grind. What I found was focusing in on really who those types of companies are made a huge difference. Some of my early clients were really a challenge. That was partially because I didn't know any better and I wasn't setting myself up for success, but in many ways it was just because they weren't a great fit. If you're working with a mom and pop pizza shop as a web developer, you may find that you have to do tons and tons of handholding.

(13:36):

Same thing with a Fortune 500 company. You might find that a lot of those folks aren't tech first people. They don't really kind speak your language. They don't know what a successful project looks like. So you do have to do lots and lots of work. Whereas if you're working with an e-commerce company or a tech startup, for example, they live and breathe technology. They're technology first companies, so they value what you do. That makes life easier. So finding clients who are the right size, finding clients who really value and prioritize what you do makes a huge difference. Finding clients who are able to ask smart questions and give good feedback makes a huge difference. So that was the first area that I struggled with. Then the question was, once I kind of figured out who those ideal clients were, how do you meet them?

(14:31):

Before I kind of settled on this method of one-on-one conversations, I tried all sorts of things. I tried blogging and social media. I found that, surprise...surprise, those things actually take a lot of work when you're doing them in a business context. I tried some of those freelancing sites and found that everybody is allowed to join them, so that means everybody does. It ends up being kind of a race to the bottom. Then of course, there was a whole host of things around how do you close the sale, how do you set expectations with clients, manage clients, that kind of thing as well.

Joe Rando (15:10):

I'd like to just dig into something that you've applied a little bit, and I think it's important, especially for people starting out. That's this concept of price. You said there are companies that are willing to pay for quality work, and then you said it's a race to the bottom on Fiverr and those kinds of sites in terms of, I'm assuming, race to the bottom on price. So how did you think about pricing? Were you flexible on your pricing at all to get the right deal, or was it this is the price, and if you don't want to pay for quality, then I have to help somebody else?

Tim Noetzel (15:42):

Yeah. I'd say I was flexible to a degree, but only to a degree. What that means is you have to understand what the minimum price is that you're willing to take for a certain amount of work in order for it to be worth it to you. For some people, that price is going to be lower or higher than others, but really there's really only three ways to price things. One is called cost plus where you take your cost, and if you're Starbucks or McDonald's, the cost of a cup of coffee is the labor and the ingredients and all of that kind of stuff. Then you add something on top of it. That methodology works decently well for physical goods, but isn't necessarily great for services because the question is, "how much more are you worth?" You can also do what's called value-based pricing, where you look at the value you're going to deliver and price based on that, or you can do market pricing, which really just looking at the range of prices.

(16:56):

Oftentimes people find with market pricing, it's also pretty arbitrary. You find people willing to work for five bucks an hour on Fiverr. You can find really big agencies charging $5,000 an hour for ostensibly the same type of work. Obviously there's some kind of difference but the question is what's fair? What I really recommend is using those three inputs to triangulate to your pricing. So your costs, the amount of money you absolutely have to earn in order to do things like pay your mortgage and save for retirement and put food on the table. That should be your minimum. But then you could use the other two levers to inform what your prices should be. For me, that number has changed over time as well. The other thing that you can do is trade up clients as your business starts to grow. The numbers that you're willing to accept when you're first starting out might be a lot closer to your costs, plus a little bit. But as your business starts to grow, you can increase those prices and be more choosy with the types of clients you want to work with.

Joe Rando (18:11):

That makes a lot of sense. It's just such a tempting thing for new people to say, well, I'll be cheaper, but when the mortgage isn't paid, it's not such a great strategy.

Tim Noetzel (18:22):

I'm glad you brought that up, Joe, because I think ironically, the cheaper you go, the harder your life is, not the easier. It's funny, but the clients who are focused on pinching pennies tend to be the ones who demand the most. They tend to be the ones who ask for the most changes, who don't respect boundaries, who change the scope last minute, whereas the ones who can afford to pay more and are willing to pay more, tend to be the ones who are more professional, who are more used to the types work that you want to do. I'd really encourage you not to try to take the shortcut of being the cheapest. It really ends up biting you in the end in all sorts of ways.

Carly Ries (19:18):

We're talking about some of the things that you think through in the beginning as you're growing your business, you're setting your price, all of that. And in the beginning, your business can be all about growing your business, but once that's up and running how do you balance running a business and actually doing your consulting for your clients while also making sure you're still growing your business? So, working on and working in your business?

Tim Noetzel (19:42):

There are two major levers that I think about there. One of them is pretty obvious. It's just making time to work on your business, not just in it. And I think in particular, when you're new, I'd say at least 20% of your time needs to be kind of focused on that because it's going to make a huge difference. The other thing that I think is really important there is the selection of what type of marketing you're going to do. One of the reasons I settled on the one-on-one conversation approach is because I find it was so much more cost efficient. You could spend five hours a week and have five to 10 conversations, and you're probably going to get a new client out of that. When you compare it to something like Upwork where the so-called advice if you're actively looking for work is to submit 25 to 50 proposals a week, it's just highly efficient.

(20:51):

I think that's the first point. The second point is setting yourself up for success by making sure that you're going to have ongoing work. Typically when I start with a new client, it's a one-off project. You've got a date before you can get married. During that one-off project, one of the things you want to be doing is gathering as much information as possible about what the business's ongoing challenges are, and finding ways that you could help that business on an ongoing basis so that you can sell them into a retainer project. So if you're working on the internet, oftentimes that's going to be in the form of getting metrics, getting access to their analytics, getting access to information about the major leverage of their business, and also just having conversations with them about what's going well, what's not, and using the project as an opportunity to uncover additional challenges that you could potentially help them with at a future date. The nice thing about that is if you can turn a one-time client to a retainer client, you have a high degree of latitude to not market yourself in the future because you've got work coming in every month.

Joe Rando (22:13):

Recurring revenue. Love it. It's the magic it.

Tim Noetzel (22:17):

Absolutely.

Carly Ries (22:18):

You were talking about not having to market yourself. So earlier we were talking about how you grew your business with one-on-one conversations and referrals. Were those just natural referrals from happy clients, or did you have an official referral marketing program?

Tim Noetzel (22:35):

I'd say honestly, it was somewhere in between the two. It certainly wasn't a referral marketing program in the B two B SaaS sense of the word, where you have a little popup that says, okay, we'll give you 500 bucks in cash or three months of free service for referring somebody. But it wasn't like I just did my best work and hoped for the best. I think there are a couple of components there. One of them is understanding when to ask for referrals, and the other one is understanding how to ask for referrals. In terms of when, typically what I would do is try to identify one of the early points where they would have received quite a bit of value. If the first project was a one month project, it might be at the end of that.

(23:40):

If I was starting with a company with an ongoing project, it might be after the first three weeks or four weeks, but identifying a spot where they will have been like, "wow, Tim really did a good job. We are really starting to see the value from what he's doing." That's when you want to make the ask. The second question is, what should you be asking for? I think there are a couple of different things you can ask for. One of the really low level asks that you can make is "Hey, can you write a recommendation on LinkedIn or would you mind filling out this feedback form? I'd love to hear how you're feeling about everything so far." Then you can ask if they'd be willing to let you use their feedback as a testimonial. Those are two really low level asks. You can also ask directly for referrals. "Hey, do you know somebody who might benefit from this?" You can take a look at your main point of contacts, LinkedIn connections, and ask for introductions to specific people. I've tried all three of those methods and they all work well to varying degrees. That was the approach that I took. Just make sure that I was doing that for every single client. It wasn't the formalized kind of program that you might see for a SaaS company or an e-commerce company either.

Joe Rando (25:18):

Going back in time a little bit, when you first went out on your own, had you built any kind of a network or a place when you launched into this that you had a pretty good network of people built out to launch into? Or was it kind of starting pretty raw?

Tim Noetzel (25:36):

I had a little bit of a network from having worked at various startups in and around Boston, but it wasn't huge by any means. Honestly, I'm kind of a natural introvert, so I was never one to go to networking events, work the room or any of that stuff, but I knew a few people. The thing that I found is even for those who are brand new, you probably know a whole hell of a lot more people than you think, even people who are substantially more relevant than you might think. I always use an example of somebody who's got a cousin who's a plumber, and if you're working in the tech space, you might tend to think that that plumber is not all that relevant to you. They don't do website design or development or anything like that, but most plumbing businesses are small businesses. They typically have a logo. That logo is typically designed by a designer or at least somebody in art school. Those people know people in the design world who are going to know developers and agencies, marketers, and all sorts of people. So oftentimes, even if you don't know anyone who's directly relevant, you're only one or two hops from somebody who is. I've found that it's really just about thinking a little bit creatively about who could introduce you to whom. Doing that will set you up for success.

Carly Ries (27:10):

Yeah, that's really smart. You have obviously scaled your business very well. Did you have any tools along the way that have helped you grow your business, whether it's with marketing or just managing your clients or anything like that?

Tim Noetzel (27:26):

I think there are two tools that I really recommend folks check out. One of them is called Harlow, and another one is called Harvest. Both of them are kind of tools designed for freelancers and agencies that help you do things like track time, build clients, that kind of thing. I think once you're going, the lifeblood of your business is really tracking your time carefully. Less so for billable hours or anything like that. I don't work with clients hourly. I, for the most part, rarely recommend that the folks that I coach work with their clients hourly. I don't think it's a good deal for anyone all around, but you want to know how you're spending your time. You want to know at the end of the day, what is your effective hourly rate? Because a lot of times you'll end up spending tons of time on email or on phone calls or those kinds of things, and if you don't know where your time is going, it becomes incredibly hard to grow your business. So tools like that I found make a huge difference just in terms of your overall awareness of your key metrics. They also make it substantially easier to manage your clients in terms of sending invoices, in terms of getting statements of work signed, those kinds of things, which are also really important.

Carly Ries (29:04):

That's great. I feel like one-on-one conversations and referrals, those are kind of consistent approaches that people can take for decades. It can be a good part of their plan, but trends are always changing, and whether it's with marketing or with AI or whatever, have you had to pivot or adapt since starting in 2019, or do you think you'll have to and change different ways you've done it so far because business trends changed so much?

Tim Noetzel (29:39):

I think for the consulting side of my business, not really. In my mind that's because at the end of the day, people always want to do business with people. Sure, AI is a fantastic invention, and it can speed up dramatically a lot of the things that we have to do. But in many ways, the proliferation of AI has actually made my method more effective, I think because the number of cold emails and cold pitches that companies are getting has gone way, way up. That means that the level of noise is just higher. And Carly and Joe, I'm curious what you guys think about this, but in my experience, the noisier a channel gets the harder it is to use, and the only way to cut through that noise on that channel is with quality. I think nothing is higher quality than one-to-one, and something that's hyper personalized to the individual you're talking to. So in my experience, I haven't had to change things too much. I do think other industries are going to have to change things quite a bit, but oftentimes I think that might go more in the direction of the personal rather than less.

Joe Rando (31:09):

I just got an email today that was clearly AI generated from my LinkedIn profile. Somebody, I dunno whether it was automated or copy and paste, but sucked in my LinkedIn profile and generated this, looked good on paper, but didn't work one bit email. And it's like, here we go.

Carly Ries (31:30):

Were there a lot of emojis?

Joe Rando (31:33):

Not as many as you would've expected, but yeah, just kind of taking the facts, but not putting them in a form that anybody that actually read it as a human would've put it. But yeah, it's absolutely true. We're just going to get noisier and noisier, and the personal approach is what's working the best for sure.

Carly Ries (31:52):

Absolutely. And Tim, I love hearing this success story of yours. I think so many people could aspire to do what you're doing. I think this is going to serve as such motivation for those listeners that are in that boat. So I have a question for you. What is your favorite quote about success?

Tim Noetzel (32:09):

I think my favorite quote comes from Winston Churchill. He said that "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm". For someone who considers themselves an entrepreneur who's worked in and around startups pretty much his whole career, nothing could ring more true for me. I really believe in the lean startup approach of building tests, measuring the results and learning, and then just continuing to do that over and over again. I really think it works. I think embracing failure and realizing that it doesn't have to have the huge negative connotation that it often does is really a mindset that every solopreneur, every entrepreneur can and should take. It just makes a world of difference in your business.

Carly Ries (33:07):

Love it.

Joe Rando (33:10):

You've got to be ready for failure, because if you don't have failure, you're probably not doing anything.

Tim Noetzel (33:15):

I think that's exactly right.

Carly Ries (33:18):

I'm sure there are people that are going to listen to this who want to hear more about you. Where can people find you if they want to connect with you?

Tim Noetzel (33:29):

You can find me at freelancegps.com I've got a free course there on how to start and grow your freelance business. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or on Twitter. I refuse to call it X. I am around and available and excited to help any of your listeners.

Carly Ries (34:01):

Well, Tim, this has been such a wonderful episode, very inspiring. I know that I'm motivated from it, and we just can't thank you enough for coming on the show.

Joe Rando (34:11):

Thank you, Tim.

Tim Noetzel (34:11):

Likewise. Thank you both.

Carly Ries (34:13):

Listeners, we hope you enjoyed this as well. We look forward to seeing you next week for our next episode of the One-Person Business podcast. See you next time.

Closing (34:25):

You may be going solo in business, but that doesn't mean you're alone. In fact, millions of people are in your shoes running a one person business and figuring it out as they go. So why not connect with them and learn from each other's successes and failures? At Lifestarr, we're creating a one-person business community where you can go to meet and get advice from other solopreneurs. Be sure to join in on the conversations at community.lifestarr.com