One of the things that I do in my practice as a specialist in therapy for gay men (27 years), as well as career coaching for gay men, that most other therapists don’t do, is that I provide career and business coaching sessions (in my office, over the phone, or over Skype) for guys who are self-employed, building a small business, or are looking for ways to take their business to the next level.
In Los Angeles, I’m often working with actors, writers, musicians, graphic artists, singers, models, designers, or other creative professionals doing freelance work in the entertainment industry. Being a freelance creative professional means that “you” are your own business, and you have to treat yourself as a business, and think that way, strategically, in order to get consistent work, have your work be at its best, and build a series of freelance gigs to make a living over the long term. Sometimes our sessions are about conquering any self-doubt and increasing your self-confidence; other times, it’s about learning how to market yourself; other times it’s about how to tap into your creative best self to create new and interesting work.
For guys who have small businesses outside of these, such as owning a restaurant, being in real estate, or finance, our work could be about achieving a profitable business but still balancing work/life, expanding, or changing directions, but not having to make all these decisions without help. Talking out your challenges and getting support for creative solutions to problems is a large part of these sessions.
I have been self-employed full-time for 11 years, and in that time, I’ve learned a lot about running a business that goes beyond anything I was taught in my undergraduate and graduate training in clinical social work and psychology. I’ve learned about marketing, economics, culture, advertising, customer service, and business finance. And I’ve learned a lot about the phrase made famous in the movie, “Field of Dreams”, a surreal fantasy film about a man who builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield that lures the spirits of great baseball players. For supporting your own business, I find every word of this phrase, “If You Build It, They Will Come”, is a guide, inspiration, and road map for success. Let’s look at each word:
1. If — Having your own business starts with the “if” you will do it in the first place. Part of making your own business successful is the preparation before you start. You have to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to do, and who it will serve. You determine a product, or service, and also think about who will buy it. It’s always a little scary to go out on your own, because it does carry a LOT of responsibility, but it also can be lucrative (beyond working for someone else), and it can give you a lot of autonomy, as long as you’re self-disciplined. Coaching helps you to have confidence, but also to “think it through” so you don’t approach it haphazardly.
2. You — This word is key because it is, indeed, up to YOU to make the vision of your business come true. You have to learn to take a lot of responsibility because the “buck stops” with you for all major decisions. Sure, there is help from other people, who provide all kinds of resources such as supplies, space, expertise, and certain kinds of hired labor. But it starts with the confidence in yourself to determine what needs to be done, when, and how.
3. Build — Building a business is just that; first you determine the sequence of steps involved, and then you work through each step, one at a time, before you move on to the next one (although some steps overlap). You have to accept that not everything happens as quickly or as precisely as you would like, so learning how to be mentally flexible, and responding to things (such as budget over-runs) as they come up, is key. Gradually, you build from what is small in scope, to a larger vision that comes only with time, effort, and a loyal following of customers/clients for your products or services.
4. It — When you run your own business, you have to determine what “it” is that you are building. It’s a balance between a product/service that people already need/want, versus providing something new (or better) that didn’t exist before. If you just copy what is already available, there is no point. Look at how many people tried to compete with “Beanie Babies” when they were popular, and most didn’t get anywhere. Just duplicating or copying a successful product or service isn’t enough; your “it” needs to respond to a community (customer) need. For example, there were other gay therapists when I opened my practice in 1998. But I offered gay specialist services, and only one or two guys did that. I also offered life coaching and business coaching services for gay men, and no one was doing that. It turns out, a lot of local gay men wanted this. When I started providing services by phone or Skype, as a specialist in gay men, no one was doing that. So while the “it” that you conceive and build might solve a familiar problem, something unique about how the product/service is done, where it is, when it’s available, or the style it’s in, are all variables for your unique offering. When you offer something unique that is still needed, sometimes to people who didn’t even realize they needed it until it was available, you stand to succeed by creating a mutual, win-win business relationship with your audience.
5. They — Who is your target customer? You should have a vision/idea of who your ideal customer is, and what they want that you can provide. If you’re an interior designer, for example, your ideal customer is someone who wants to change or build the interior of their home or office. They should probably be well-off, to afford the design, materials, and workmanship fees involved. They should want your particular style of design (modern, avant-garde, retro, modest, elaborate). Until you understand who your business is marketing to, it’s hard to market to it, and do adverting, promotion, and networking. The more specific you can be about who your customer is, the better. And it’s OK if it’s a narrow niche; my busines coaching clients, in general, are gay men between the ages of 25 and 65 who are either thinking of opening their own business, or already have it but are looking to change it, expand it, or maybe even pull back from it in anticipation of retirement. They are generally affluent, local to Los Angeles, West Hollywood, or Beverly Hills (although some are in Phoenix, New York, Miami, Chicago, etc.). And they are gay men who face extra struggles running a business that straight men or women don’t usually face (these can vary), and they want a gay male therapist/coach who understands gay culture and situations in detail that a straight business coach wouldn’t “get”. Who is your ideal customer? Brainstorm their characteristics until they are clear in your mind, and then market to that one iconic customer.
6. Will Come — It is the everyday, back-and-forth, consistent business relationships that help owning your own business thrive. I love vacations like the next guy, but there always comes a point when I miss my clients, and want to get back to seeing them. I want to hear how a certain deal went while I was away; I want to hear if an actor aced an audition, or got through a tough scene. I want to hear if a writer’s agent liked his new pilot, or how the writer is coming with the “cliffhanger” episode everyone anticipates. I want to hear how a tough negotiation with a customer went, after we rehearsed what to say. In addition to the autonomy and practical aspects of making a living owning your own business, the deep and rewarding relationships you have, over many years, is probably the most fun.
What makes all this special for gay men is that because of often facing a history of bullying/hassle, discrimination, anti-gay rhetoric in the news, etc., gay men can have problems with self-esteem, self-confidence, setting boundaries, following through, and really learning to compete with others (like with the straight men who probably intimidated us when we were younger). But, because most of us have endured some kind of hardship as gay men, we might have extra resilience, determination, motivation, and stamina. Those, along with our natural “flair”, and often strong creative-entrepreneurial instincts, we also can have thriving businesses. It is this balance of what keeps us back, versus our inherent strengths, that we sometimes need to work at by building our businesses and professional identities, in whatever field.
Some of the the benefits that guys in coaching sessions get include learning how to:
1. Manage your time according to your business’s values, priorities, and goals, and balance your professional and personal time.
2. Manage and leverage your money so you’re investing in the right things to grow your business.
3. Develop a personal networking and self-marketing plan.
4. Keep up with your taxes so that you don’t fall behind.
5. Research and understand your competition.
6. Explore what personally motivates you, and what holds you back — on a deeper level, as only a licensed psychotherapist can do.
So if you’re running your own business, if you’re thinking of cultivating that idea for your future, remember the “If You Build It, They Will Come” mantra to structure your thinking, and inspire you to strategic, well-timed, well-thought-out action. And if you’re bothered by things that get in the way, like anxiety, procrastination, fear, self-doubt, rejection, frustration, feeling “stuck”, or other impediments that you can’t make go away easily, consider working with me to overcome these over time in career coaching sessions. Because it’s when you build it, and when they come, that the fun begins. Play ball!
Ken Howard, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and life/career coach who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 22 years. He helps many gay men (and others) resolve the issues that undermine your quality of life, and helps you to thrive.
For help improving your personal or professional life, whatever your current challenges are, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at his office in Los Angeles/West Holllywood (near Beverly Center mall), or via phone, or via Skype, anywhere in the world. Call 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
Ken is also available for expert witness work on legal proceesdings involving gay issues, all LGBT issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as organizational consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and conferences.
To get your copy of his self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here. It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.