I left a 6-figure job during the pandemic, to start a business in a country not my own. 

Sound crazy? Depends on your appetite for risk.

It’s been exactly two years since I made the leap of faith into solopreneurship. Am I grateful for the choice I made to leave my job and go it alone? Read to the end to find out!

This article will outline the most significant challenges and lessons learned on this journey to date.

1. Good conditions are your starting point.

Let’s face it, if you’re going to start your own company, you will need to have conditions which allow you to focus on starting and running a successful business. In my case, I had the following conditions in place:

  • I own my home, so didn’t have to pay rent
  • I am debt-free 
  • I had some savings in the bank to get me through the first year
  • I had 2 clients already when I quit my job
  • I previously owned a business in Italy, so I had experience
Good conditions are your starting point

These conditions can be different for everyone, but whatever your situation is, you should feel comfortable with making the decision to quit your job and start a business. You need to be sure you can meet your financial obligations and support yourself in case you don’t have any earnings for a long period of time. You need to free yourself up so you can comfortably focus on building your company. 

If you do your calculations and you’re not comfortable with your conditions enough to leave the job cold turkey, then maybe you want to start your business as a side hustle. You can always leave the job eventually when your business is profitable

2. People make it or break it.

I hired and fired three website designers in a row.

One misrepresented herself and couldn’t do what I was asking for. One left the website full of problems, and wasn’t willing to fix them. One took my money and disappeared.

People make it or break it

Then I finally found the ideal person to design, build, and maintain the website, and he has been with me now for the last year and a half. 

Then it took me 6 months of interviews to find a good social media manager.

I also hired a coach at the beginning of my journey who ended up steering me in the wrong direction and wasted my time at the cost of $2,200. Ouch. I realized too late that he didn’t know how to coach and didn’t have any coaching qualifications.

I learned my lesson the hard way: be extremely careful when choosing people to work with. The Great Resignation produced a lot of eager freelancers. People may be very convincing in the initial proposal stage, but learn to read between the lines, examine their qualifications, get samples of their work and ask for testimonials. No nonsense and no shortcuts.

Despite the initial challenges now I have several amazing people working for me, who have been with me for the last year and a half. They are instrumental in my business growth and I couldn’t do what I do without them.

Moral of the story: It is extremely difficult to find good people to work for you and with you, so start early. When you find good people, reward them well and hang on to them so they don’t leave.

3. Social media must become your best friend.

Don’t even try to say you hate social media. You have to learn to love it, and you WILL love it once you realize it’s free advertising.

My tips about utilizing social media for your business:

  • Focus on just 3 platforms, rather than trying to spread yourself thin over 5-6 platforms. Some personal branding experts say to focus on ONE platform. Also, not all platforms work for all types of businesses. In my case, Instagram and Facebook didn’t really produce results. LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter were the way to go, but I only found that out after some months of trial and error. You may have to go through these growing pains too, in order to find out which platforms show real growth and potential for lead generation.
  • Develop a workflow for yourself to transform content ideas into posts. When you get ideas for topics you want to post about, you need to put them somewhere. And from that place, they need to be shaped into posts, with links, hashtags etc. I use Asana, and dump the post content into a task for each day as the ideas come to me. Then, once a week I sit down for 2-3 hours, shape the content, and copy and paste the content into Later, a program to schedule the posts. Then the posts just go out automatically and I don’t have to think about anything except responding to the comments.
  • You may consider having virtual assistants to manage your social media. I have one virtual assistant just to manage my Twitter. He prepares a giant spreadsheet once a week with the Tweets and sends them to me when they are ready. I approve them, and he schedules them. Easy. 

How much growth did I achieve? When I started with LinkedIn in October 2020 I had 1,800 followers. As of today I have 6,200.

Yesterday my YouTube Channel reached 1,000 subscribers, the first criteria for monetizing your channel. It happened after a year and four months of regular uploads once per week.

Social media

4. Routine is essential.

You need to develop a rhythm and a steady way of working, plus healthy habits and a balance. Take baby steps and don’t expect success overnight. Be patient with yourself and keep in mind some important tips to be sure of your optimal performance:

  • Exercise in the morning before starting to work. Exercise produces endorphins in your brain and calms your anxiety so that you can relax and focus on your work for the rest of the day.
  • Eat a high-protein breakfast. By ensuring you are full and satisfied, you won’t be anxious or reach for unhealthy snacks. I am a vegan, so high-protein breakfast means things like tofu scrambles with gluten-free avocado toast, gluten-free protein pancakes with fruit, or soy yogurt with granola and a protein shake.
  • Take regular breaks and get outside.
  • Be sure to set time aside to meet friends and loved ones in person and talk to them on the phone.
Routine is essential

5. Focus is the name of the game.

The struggle is real. With no deadlines or boss breathing down your neck, it can be a challenge to stay on track with your goals and your schedule. And don’t forget that social media apps are designed to distract you and take your attention away.

The solution is simple: turn off all notifications while working.

To further focus my energy and brainspace when working on something, I use the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo.

‘Pomodoro’ means ‘tomato’ in Italian, and you can think of your grandma’s kitchen timer which was shaped like a tomato, round and red. Imagine you have one of those, and you set it for 25 minutes. If you don’t have an actual tomato, don’t worry. I use my phone timer. In those 25 minutes, you focus on one task, and one task only, blocking everything else out. At the end of the 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break. 

Last but not least, remember you are only human. You are subject to the laws of the universe and you have only a limited amount of output potential in one day. 

I have found that I can only do three major things in a day. If I expect more of myself then it can get overwhelming.

Focus

6. Continuous learning keeps you ahead of the curve.

When you have your own company, you have constant learning and upskilling to do. The business world is always evolving and so are the programs, apps, and tools out there. Not to mention your competition.

I make it a point to attend:

  • 2-3 trainings per year
  • 2-3 conferences per year
  • 2-3 webinars per month
  • 1-2 networking events per month

Networking is absolutely essential and deserves its own article, but you can learn more about it from two videos on my YouTube Channel:

  1. Networking skills
  2. Building your Network as an Expat

Beyond attending events where you can learn something and meet new people, it’s important to keep on top of knowledge acquisition every single day. Believe me, it’s not easy to find time for it, so I do this mainly in 2 ways:

  • I use the Blinkist app to “read” books faster. This handy app gives you a 20-minute summary of each book, focusing on the most important takeaways. I mainly listen while I am taking a walk, so that way I save time and do two things at once.
  • My husband and I have the habit of doing Saturday and Sunday morning “coffee talk” in which we drink coffee and read books on intellectual topics like leadership, culture, management, psychology, communication, business and negotiation.

It’s all about finding a way that works for you. Maybe you like to listen to audiobooks while cleaning the house or driving, read articles during your coffee breaks, or listen to podcasts while cycling or running on the treadmill.

Continuous learning

7. Enlist great tools for more efficiency.

Your work can be made much more productive, streamlined and organized by finding the right apps and programs. I have discovered many tools which make my life easier by allowing me to automate certain processes and save time. Here are those essential apps I can’t live without: 

great tools for efficiency

Beyond these seven key points, just be aware of energies around you, whether positive or negative. Some people may be envious of your courage and determination, and may try to put you down in your business goals. 

Others—even well-meaning family and friends—may unintentionally steer you in the wrong direction by saying things like “You are so good at ____, why don’t you start a business doing that!” You have to think: yes, maybe I am good at that, but is it really what I want to do?

If you are still searching for the right thing to do in your business, try using the ikigai model, and do something:

  • The world needs
  • You are good at
  • You like doing
  • You can make money from

Where those four things overlap, is your ikigai, and your purpose in life.

How do I feel about working for myself as opposed to working for someone else?

start your business
  • You still work a lot—in fact, you end up working more in your own business, especially in the initial stages. The difference is you are doing what you love, so you don’t notice you are working more. You do it willingly, and with passion, because you are your own boss and you are running the show. You are not selling your time for money, and someone else’s gain. 

    I worked seven days a week for many months, but thankfully now I have a steady flow of clients and don’t need to hustle so much.  

    • As long as you are employed by someone else, you are still in the ‘rat race.’ You will keep repeating this endless cycle: go to work, get your paycheck, pay your bills, repeat. Furthermore, you will always have a ceiling on your income earning potential. When you run a business, the sky’s the limit!
    • You also have to remember that if the job ends one fine day, you will be suddenly cut off from earnings and livelihood. But with your own business, you are setting up something for the long run, that no one can take away from you.

    Am I thankful about leaving my well-paid job with cushy benefits? Believe me, there are tough days when I feel unproductive, useless and hopeless.

    What do I miss about my job?

    Sometimes I miss those days of having a set schedule and a regular paycheck. I also miss having colleagues and friends at work, celebrating birthdays in the office and having coffee together. Now, my collaborators and I work completely remotely, so my computer is my best friend. 

    Somehow I convince myself to keep going, that my vision is the right direction for me, for now. 

    It depends on your own personal values and what’s most important to you. I had a burning need to work with the subjects I am most passionate about, express myself in the ways that I wanted to, have the freedom to work the hours I wanted to work, and be location-independent—not tied to one single place. My business gives me all of that.

    And there is nothing that can describe the feeling of sweet success that you achieve from your own hard work, vision, and persistence.

    Cheryl Obal

    Cheryl Obal

    Founder of Cheryl Obal & Associates

    Cheryl Obal & Associates is a cross-cultural training and consulting company that helps businesses improve their cross-cultural competence.

    Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to get more information about expat life, intercultural skills, and business abroad.

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