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The Era of the Unintentional Entrepreneur: An Interview with Kevin Reeth of Outright.com (Part 1)

The Era of the Unintentional Entrepreneur: An Interview with Kevin Reeth of Outright.com (Part 1)

The Era of the Unintentional Entrepreneur

    With a background including successful stints with Yahoo, eGroups, and Intuit, Kevin Reeth was well-prepared to strike out on his own as a co-founder and CEO of the web start-up Outright.com, a free online bookkeeping platform for small businesses and self-employed persons. In today’s economic climate, though, more and more people are finding themselves thrown into entrepreneurship without a background like Reeth’s as their companies fold or downsize leaving them to strike out on their own.

    To help these “unintentional entrepreneurs” get their feet under them, Reeth partnered with Network Solutions to form Unintentional Entrepreneur, a website and organization dedicated to helping newly self-employed workers get off on the right foot as freelancers, consultants, and small business owners. So far, Unintentional Entrepreneur has hosted free seminars in a handful of cities, with more on the way, combining formal presentations with social networking in an effort to provide the information and social environment fledgling entrepreneurs need to start building towards success.

    After I wrote about Outright.com at Freelance Switch and on my own site, The Writer’s Technology Companion, several people at Outright.com contacted me and struck up a conversation, culminating in an offer to interview Reeth about Unintentional Entrepreneur and the challenges – and rewards – facing today’s entrepreneurs, unintentional or otherwise.

    This is part 1 of a three-part series. In this section, Reeth and I discuss entrepreneurship in general. In part 2, we’ll discuss the way that technology is changing the entrepreneurial landscape, and in part 3 what Unintentional Entrepreneur is doing to help first-time self-employed workers. The interview was conducted on July 17, just after their first event in Los Angeles.

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      Dustin Wax (DW): Let’s start with a general question: What is an unintentional entrepreneur?

      Kevin Reeth
        Kevin Reeth (KR):

        An awful lot of our customers are folks who were working in corporate America and had had paying jobs for years and had lost their job last fall or early this year, had been looking for a job, and had gotten to the point where they had to figure out something to do. And now they’re starting to hang out their own shingle to see if they can earn a living that way.

        What’s interesting is, compare them to people who’ve been small business owners or self-employed for many years, who had gotten used to it. People leaving the confines of a corporate job quickly get a pretty significant wake-up call in terms of what it means to work for yourself.

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        DW: So you have the wave of people for whom entrepreneurship has become an only option, something that came onto their radar as an option not because of an internal drive to do it but because of the economy.

        KR: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. This may not have been something that they thought about, maybe they never did have that drive, maybe they weren’t maybe wired that way or maybe they’re more risk-averse. But now they have certain practical realities that are forcing them to consider new options, and entrepreneurship is one of the options they’re considering. And so, they may have never done this before and may not understand what it means to operate as a business right now.

        DW: What does it mean?

        KR: The first focus, honestly, needs to be sales. If you don’t have people paying you, nothing else matters. You’re not going to be a very successful business for long.

        Along with that, when you first get started, it’s all about networking. Your initial business is going to come through referrals, friends and family, and coworkers and associates. It’s not going to be through advertising and promotions, and not from fancy marketing stuff. By getting out there and getting connected to people, you will have opportunities present themselves.

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        And then where we tend to focus, where Outright focuses is on helping people understand that they need to prioritize their time, that time is going to be their most precious commodity. There’s a lot of stuff you can do dirt cheap or free, but one of the worst things you can do is get bogged down in the details of stuff that really doesn’t matter. Use technology where it can be most effective. Automate the stuff that doesn’t provide value, and doesn’t grow your business. Honestly, the back office stuff, the bookkeeping – we know it’s not sexy. This is not what you want to be spending your time doing. Use the technology available to automate that, so you can be out there, doing sales, servicing existing customers, getting more repeat business, not worrying about where the money is going, whether something is deductable or not, remembering to pay taxes on time.

        DW: You said that the first focus is sales. There’s a skill set involved in sales, though, that very few people have. If you’re an engineering person or computer scientist or whatever, how can you develop or sharpen those sales skills?

        KR: I think that’s actually more daunting than it has to be. People tend to think about it as, “OK, I have to go do sales, I have to sell myself.” And the secret with networking is that, if you go out there and just meet other people, you understand that all of us are in the same boat at the end of the day, all of us need help. It’s all just building relationships.Even at the big enterprise sales level, so much of sales comes down to whether people like each other, whether they get along, and whether they have a relationship. There is a bias in decision-making around purchases that goes beyond just the rational facts. So you don’t have to be the greatest salesperson in the world, you just need to be able to build relationships with people.

        DW: We’ve talked about the challenges facing new entrepreneurs, but what are some of the benefits of being an entrepreneur, especially in today’s economy?

        KR: One, I think it will become one of the most empowering experiences you can ever have. It’s one of those things where it is a personal journey for anybody who tries it. A lot of things are going to go wrong. You’re going to fail at a lot of things. But you’re going to learn an awful lot about yourself. You’re going to find out what you’re capable of, and that’s invaluable.

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        Another great thing is that you will extend your network dramatically. You are going to get to meet so many new and interesting people that no matter what the future holds, you’re going to build relationships that are going to last.

        And there’s the education component. You’re going to be forced to learn more in the first three months working for yourself than in years working for someone else. And at the end of it, you will have that knowledge, you will have that experience. It’s going to make you better not only working for yourself but if you ever go back and work for someone else, you’re going to be significantly better at it.

        These are not easy things, they’re not free, awesome things that just happen to you, you have to work for them. But the value you get out of that journey is immense.

        In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss some of the ways technology is changing today’s small business and self-employment landscape, and the tools that Reeth recommends for new entrepreneurs. See you then!

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        Last Updated on August 20, 2019

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

        This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

        The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

        Curiosity

        Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

        People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

        Patience

        Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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        When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

        Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

        A Feeling for Connectedness

        This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

        A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

        The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

        With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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        1. Research

        Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

        Learning the Basics

        Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

        Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

        What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

        Hitting the Books

        Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

        Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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        Long-Term Reference

        While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

        My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

        2. Practice

        Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

        A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

        Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

        3. Network

        One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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        These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

        Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

        4. Schedule

        For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

        Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

        Final Thoughts

        In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

        If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

        At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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        Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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