I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time. I think that this topic is exceptionally constructive and empowering, desperately needed, and exceedingly rare. There’s a plethora of advice in the cyber-sphere about how to start a business, run a business, grow a business, and succeed in business, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that here. This post is simply the advice and experience of one self-employed person on the spectrum, for people on the spectrum.
I could honestly write a book about this, and indeed, someday I probably will. What qualifies me to write this post, much less such a book?
Well, I’m an Aspie. It’s possible that my partner might be, too. And we’re self-employed. I’ve been self-employed for over 12 years, and we’ve been self-employed together for over six years. I also grew up with self-employed parents (who, although both show some Asperger’s traits, neither of them are known or suspected to be on the spectrum at this time). I’ve started two separate businesses, both on a shoestring budget, both during economic downturns, and both profitable after their first year. I’m in the (very gradual) process of starting a third (no hurry on this one). We’re (definitely) not rich (hell, we’re not even technically “comfortable” yet), but we’re solvent. It’s probably important to note that I’m in the Southern US, so of course, this post will be tinged with that flavor; your mileage may vary, depending on the environment in your location.
I think that working for oneself can bring an Ultimate Freedom, of sorts. Just think–you’re working for yourself, doing what you enjoy doing, picking who you want to work with (if anyone), picking where you want to live, writing your own policies and procedures, and then living off the fruits of your labor. You don’t have to arrive at the office on Monday morning, wondering what kind of bureaucratic, ridiculous memo is waiting for you in your inbox this week, and you don’t have to abide by the arbitrarily-set rules of a disengaged and out-of-touch “ivory tower” management.
Aspie/autistic people can make excellent self-employers. Given the right environment and decent health, people on the spectrum generally have some unique and unconventional characteristics that can make us pretty successful and fulfilled.
Some of those characteristics are…
- Ability to focus intensely
- Passion for specific subjects
- Ability to analyze, systemize, and connect dots
- Inventive/creative minds, able to develop something new, or take an existing product/service/system and improve upon it
- A desire to serve humanity or be of help/service/support in some meaningful way
- Unusual way of perceiving the world
- Attention to details
- Straightfoward, straight-shooting honesty
- Often, above-average intelligence
- Often, stamina and motivation when it comes to a particular subject of interest
From here, I’ll discuss various aspects of self-employment, as seen through an Asperger’s lens. I’ll intersperse personal examples, taken from our own situation.
First, let me get out of the way what self-employment is not. It’s not a 9-to-5 job, especially at first. If you’ve been accustomed to punching someone else’s clock, following a preset job description in exchange for a set, stable salary and possibly also a benefits package, this is not that. Self-employment is a completely different animal.
Instead of being the one having to abide by policies, you’re the one deciding upon–and setting–them. Instead of serving customers (or working in a back room, serving them indirectly in some way), you’re the one attracting them, persuading them to choose your product/service/etc, deciding on a fair price for your offerings, and ensuring that they–and you–are satisfied.
It’s All You. The first moment that that realization hits can be a scary one.
Self-employment is anything but stable, especially at first, so it’s important to recognize that your income won’t be predictable or uniform, and to learn to save during the profitable times in order to keep yourself in the black during leaner times. And always remember that it’s not how much money you make; it’s how much you keep (after expenses).
Self-employment is also not a paradise-like scenario, where you’re sipping pineapple margaritas on the beach because “hey–it’s good to be king/queen”. Nope, self-employment consumes and assumes a huge part of your identity. It becomes very personal. It can almost feel like an extension of you.
Self-employment is also not a “Field of Dreams” plot-line, where “if you build it, they will come”. It takes a consistent supply of near-superhuman work ethic.
Working for yourself takes a hell of a lot of focus and self-discipline; there’s no supervisor to answer to, impress, or placate. It takes copious amounts of effort, energy, and stamina; there’s a lot of planning, preparation, setup, construction, organization, and contemplation, especially at first. It will also take enormous amounts of time; you’ll spend hours deliberating over one particular detail, which I recommend doing until it’s resolved, before moving on.
It’s also not like after the first few months or a year, you’ve got it all figured out. Nope, we’re in our seventh year and we’re still learning things. Granted, the learning curve is less vertical now, and we’re gaining some traction, but we still come up against difficult situations or challenging dilemmas.
There can also be massive amounts of stress and the very least, uncertainty. It’s wise to expect the unexpected, whether it’s an expense, a situation, a sudden message, a change in laws/regulations/requirements/standards, a change in economic climate or public/cultural tastes/preferences, the arrival of a new competitor, or general evolution of the world. Sometimes, these changes occur abruptly, without regard for our need for a heads-up. This can be hard for a lot of us (who are used to routines, etc) to accept, but we can adapt and overcome.
My intent isn’t to scare anyone away from working for themselves. In fact, quite the opposite! I’d LOVE for more of us to work for ourselves. We benefit from the sense of victory and empowerment, and in turn, the world benefits from our contributions. Because the failure rate for new businesses is so high, I’m just trying to slay some of the misconceptions that a lot of (very uninformed) people can carry into their business venture, many of which can actually contribute significantly to its demise. Since I don’t want that to happen to anyone, I figured I’d lay the cold, hard truth (as I see it) on the table first, and remove any existing rose-colored glasses. 🙂
So…about that advice…
1 – What type of business should you start? Ideally, it should somehow involve one of your “special interest” (or as I like to say, “primary focus areas” or “primary areas of interest” or something similar). I can’t stress this enough! Given the energy, stamina, ingenuity, passion, focus, time, and probably startup capital, etc, that this endeavor is going to take, it’s crucial that it’s something you’re intensely interested in! Something you don’t mind spending all that time and energy doing.
What is/are your primary interest(s)? How might you turn that into a business? Someone who likes to tinker with machinery might become a mechanic or an inventor. Someone who likes computers might be a freelance computer consultant, or someone who buys old computers, wipes them clean, updates them, and sells them. Someone who paints might solicit commissions from a niche target sector of the population. Someone who likes to investigate herbal remedies might become an alternative healthcare provider. Someone who likes to work out might become a personal trainer.
There are variations on these themes, too. The inventor or machinist might be into electricity, motors, circuitry, food preparation equipment, etc; I have a friend who became certified to repair the huge machines that manufacture pharmaceutical medications. I have another who opened his own mechanic shop. The computer “geek” might write their own GUI (graphical user interface) app/program for UNIX-based systems and sell it. The painter or artist might have a secondary interest in world religions and might perhaps approach churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, etc, and offer to paint custom artwork for their facilities. The herbalist might end up engineering herbal supplement formulas, either as an independent consultant for an existing supplement company, or maybe starting their own, filling an unmet market need (perhaps in standards, purity, Made in USA/Canada/Europe as opposed to heavily-polluted China, etc). Or maybe you start your own evidence-based, open-minded alternative health/lifestyle magazine. The personal trainer might start their own practice, maybe specializing in helping people in complex situations, such as those recovering from eating disorders, or people who have recently undergone surgery, etc. Or maybe your athletic abilities lead you in the direction of opening your own yoga or martial arts studio/dojo.
Above all, I recommend that what you choose to do is something that…
- You like doing
- You don’t tire of easily
- You’ve already liked/been doing for a while (not something you only recently became interested in or started doing)
- Isn’t a hobby, per se; sometimes, when we turn hobbies into our livelihood, we lose the joy in that hobby; therefore, choose carefully
Once you’ve got your primary interest(s) identified, which one(s) might other people be interested in? You don’t necessarily have to appeal to the “lowest common denominator” (i.e., attempt to sell your product/service to everyone); it’s perfectly OK to carve out a specialty niche for yourself and serve a small-but-dedicated subset of the population. (Just keep in mind that the more eclectic your product/service or niche market, the more you’ll have to promote yourself and the greater care you’ll have to take when figuring out how and where to promote yourself.)
2 – What kind of customer/clientele do you want? Think socioeconomic status and demographics here. Is your target market (i.e. desired customer/client base) a particular profession? Gender? Educational level? Income level? A particular disability? Etc.
3 – What skills do you already have to connect your talent/idea with the people you desire to cater to? Think nitty-gritty, everyday skills here. Of course, you excel at your primary interest. What about other skills? Maybe you’re the “glue” that brings certain people together. Maybe you’ve got a photographic memory. Maybe you have an excellent phone voice, or a natural diplomacy. Maybe you’ve got uncompromisable ethical standards. Maybe you can read people and see past surface BS. Maybe you have nimble fingers or good physical coordination, good for working with little machine/electronic parts. Maybe you have a knack for predicting trends or fads. Maybe you have a certain stubbornness or a love for solving puzzles that drives you until a mystery is completely solved. Maybe you’re fearless and dynamic when speaking to a group. Maybe you’ve got great powers of persuasion. You’re also probably a pleasant person. Maybe you know and guy who knows a guy…
4 – What abilities do you lack? Most of us on the spectrum are already painfully aware of our imperfections. For me, I hate the phone. I also hate having to answer questions on short notice, without being able to calmly consider all the details and compose a thoughtful response. I get flustered easily, so I know that urgent, time-sensitive situations are not my forte. For areas in which you come up short (don’t worry; we all have ours), you’ll need to do one of three things: 1) hire someone who possesses that skill; 2) invest in technology to carry out that function for you; or 3) find a way to bypass that issue altogether.
5 – For skills in which you fall short, for which you can hire someone else to carry out, what kind of person would that be? Would those skills require a degree? Is hiring someone with those skills within your budget? And don’t forget the personal aspect; you’re not trying to make friends, but you do need to be able to tolerate them. Are there any personality traits, attributes, habits, or other qualities/characteristics that you simply can’t stand? Do think long-term; (almost) anyone can put up with (most) annoying/unnerving traits for a short time, but enduring them for longer stretches of time is another story. Also, be sure they have some gumption; you want them to promote you. Any assistant you hire should actually attract you more money than they cost you.
“Do”s and “Don’t”s:
- Don’t simply huddle anxiously in your office with a calculator, trying to figure out exactly how many thingamajigs you’d need to sell in a day/week/month to make rent. Direct that energy outward so that it doesn’t eat you from inside.
- Don’t agonize about every setback; I know it’s (very) easy to do, but success is not a linear path, and your first few months/years in practice will be spent finding out (the hard way) 10,000 things not to do.
- Don’t assume you’ll satisfy everyone; some people are impossible. In fact, in general, don’t assume anything.
- DO consider hiring someone else to accomplish those tasks that you find challenging.
- DO consciously manage your stress; have other hobbies or outlets that have nothing to do with your chosen field
- DO consciously take care of You. Make sure you always have the basics covered: Eat well. Get sleep. Get outside in the sun and fresh air and move.
- DO pace yourself and be realistic; you’re only human, after all
- DO be kind to yourself; recognize and respect your limits
- DO make time for other self-care – yoga, bubble baths, massage therapy, CrossFit, time with a friend, quiet time to yourself, etc.
- DO stick with it. Never give up; never give in. You don’t fail when things don’t turn out the way you planned; you only fail when you stop trying.
- DO remember that the rewards don’t come right away, but they’ll come later. And believe me, it’s all worth it!
Go git ’em. 🙂
~~Dear friend in Bristol, this one’s for you <3~~