Going solo: Wise words kind people gave me

At last month’s ANZEA conference, Julian King and I gave a lunchtime session titled ‘Going solo’, looking at our experiences and learnings of being sole evaluation practitioners.

Julian offered reflections on different models of evaluation practice, and the aspirations and opportunities that accompany them, and shared his thoughts on how sole practice can fit within these approaches.

My side of the presentation was more of a reflection on my first year of going solo, and the advice that many kind souls gave me as I set out on this journey. These are some of the pearls of wisdom I’ve carried with me over the past year (acknowledging that after only a year, I do still carry that kind of ‘born again’ glow of a sole practitioner).

When it’s time to move on, leave constructively… With this advice, my own departure from Synergia was one that was undertaken constructively by everyone, and provided a platform for ongoing collaboration that we all value, and which clients see value in as well. Related to this is to accept that not everything in the process of negotiation will go your way, and some things need to be left behind.

Build a trusted network of collaborators… My network of collaborators provides strength and opportunity in multiple ways, including as partners in project ventures, as sounding boards for ideas, and the odd bit of mutual support. All those networking cups of coffee have been worthwhile because (a) it’s coffee for goodness sake, and (b) the payoff is satisfying work with people I know and trust, with each bringing their own distinct skills to make each project a success.

Know your breakeven, and know what to do if you’re not making it… To some extent it’s a leap into the unknown, but there’s plenty of thinking and planning you can do before you make that leap. Be open to hard questions about your plans, because ultimately those questions will strengthen your business model. Get the basics clear - what’s the budget you need, what do you need to do to meet that budget, and what’s left after all your expenses are covered.

If you’re already established in the evaluation landscape, that will only grow… Plenty of us make the solo leap after we’ve already established a presence in our field. That doesn’t disappear when we go solo. What’s more important is to think about what growth means for ourselves. Is it some form of company growth, or is it about one’s own personal growth and the growth of one’s networks, or some mix of these?

Think about the value of your evaluation offering, not the offering itself… This is a bit of marketing 101, but it takes a lot of thought. Any of us can talk about the evaluation projects we’ve led, what’s trickier is what was the value of that to the client or to the people we were working with. Perhaps ask your clients what they value about you. People talk about the ‘elevator pitch’ – you find yourself in a lift with a client, and you’ve got 30 seconds to leave them with something positive to remember about you. What do you say?

You only need a few jobs to be busy... Or putting it another way, you don’t have to keep feeding the machine. To be honest this is fine in theory, but turning work down has been one of the biggest challenges of going solo. Yes, it’s a nice challenge to have, but burnout is a very real risk.

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Quality matters… and never more so than when you’re on your own. I posed this by saying you’re only as good as your last piece of work, but I was challenged that holding to this will guarantee burnout. That, however, is the tightrope we particularly walk as sole practitioners; balancing time, cost, scope, quality, and personal life.

Some things don’t cost a lot, but need plenty of time and thought… Things like websites, company names, logos, URLs, can all come together for a few hundred dollars. What matters is what lies behind all of these. What do you want your website to say about you? What do you want the company name and logo to convey? And are you genuinely happy with what they look like, and what they say about you and your evaluation offering?

And lastly, for the year before I went solo, there was one piece of wisdom from Lillian Grace I carried to sustain me …

“We will never again have as much of our lives left as we do right now.”