Small business owners and solopreneurs: Embrace opportunities to stretch yourself

When is the last time you took on a job that was a real stretch for you? With the business environment remaining challenging for many small business owners and solopreneurs, I believe one of the keys to long-term success is a willingness to stretch yourself and embrace opportunities to apply your skills and talents in new ways.

This topic came to mind earlier this week when I had a conversation with a client about doing live blogging at their annual member conference. They had e-mailed me a couple weeks ago asking if I’d do this and I said yes immediately. But I had to acknowledge in our follow-up conversation that I had never done live blogging before. The client replied, “Thanks for being willing to stretch yourself and take this on for us. We’re delighted you said yes.”

I hadn’t exactly thought of it in those terms – that I was stretching myself – but that is indeed what I will be doing when I monitor conference sessions and then quickly post brief recaps highlighting key points made by the speaker(s).  It will differ greatly from my usual kind of writing, where I have plenty of time to reflect on the topic and to revise and edit after getting feedback from clients.

In the interest of full disclosure, which I think is very important when you’re accepting an assignment that will be a stretch, I told the client that I haven’t had to do “on the spot” writing like this since I took Journalism 101 at Boston University. Being up front like that with people when you’re in such a position is essential.

Don’t say no automatically

While I’ve always been pretty quick to embrace new opportunities like this, I am very aware that not everyone is. Many people like to stay inside their comfort zone. But with the world of business changing so rapidly and with the economy still being iffy for many small business owners and solopreneurs, playing it safe can actually be the more dangerous path since it may paint you into a very narrow box.

I’m not advising here that you take on work that is beyond your skills or that you try to totally reinvent yourself by pursuing work that you’re not qualified for in any way. No client deserves to be the one you “experiment on” as you hone new skills. But before automatically saying no to new opportunities, take time to carefully consider what is being asked of you. Break down the work and see if you might actually have all the basic skills required, even though you haven’t done used them in the new way that the work will require.

For example, I’ve never live blogged, but I certainly have blogging experience. Also, I’ve been working with this client for seven years and have attended two previous conferences, so I know the subject matter very well. All I’ll need to do is turn around the writing faster than is required in the normal course of business. So just because I have no live blogging experience doesn’t mean I don’t have the skills to help this client.

Would I have been advised to agree to do this if the topic of the conference was going to be something I’m not familiar with? Probably not. It would be much harder to separate the wheat from the chaff in presentations in such a case and to do it in the timely fashion that live blogging requires.

Technology driven opportunities

Not all opportunities for stretching yourself are presented by clients. Some come through new technology. An example is the advent of social media, which has presented people in the marketing and communications field an entire new service to offer. Yet I know people in my field who haven’t even tried social media and are barely conversant with the topic. Failing to keep up with emerging trends like this puts you in a very bad position competitively.

Alas, another other group of people immediately added social media to their list of services without actually using social media themselves, something I consider to be necessary to really understand how social media works. When I check such a person out on Twitter and find they have five followers and haven’t send out a tweet in six months, I wonder how they can offer social media services with a straight face. These people – and are a slew of them – have stretched themselves in all the wrong ways and I can’t imagine why anyone would hire them.

So, I go back to my original question…when was the last time you stretched yourself? Please share your examples of how good things can happened when you were willing to step outside your comfort zone and apply your skills in new ways.

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