When Rashel Hariri left a corporate career to start her own business, her biggest challenge was shaking her 9-to-5 mindset. “After so many years of working in a certain way,” she says, “I was, all of a sudden, free to work however I wanted.”
As a start-up marketing consultant helping small businesses build and scale, she’s a solopreneur without the safety net of the built-in corporate network.
Rashel’s working style has shifted to help her grow and nurture a community around herself — from her home office. What she’s learned since forging out on her own is that solopreneurs need to be intentional about developing and managing business relationships.
For a solo entrepreneur, micro business founder, or someone thinking of taking the leap into the small business world, the isolation can be intimidating. But there are techniques for staying connected and combatting virtual burnout in the process.
Here, we’ll explore 11 ways to build and manage business relationships from afar. With insight from Rashel and other small business owners, learn to meet and relate to suppliers, designers, agencies, partners, customers, and staff — everyone you do business with who you may never meet face to face.
1. Master the digital pitch
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you don’t know,” says Rashel. With more and more people going remote, virtual introductions are becoming more commonplace. “Just dropping someone a friendly message might turn into your next gig,” she says. Check your network for mutuals, though, as a warm introduction can help your pitch land.
When reaching out cold, be sure that you research the recipient to better understand their style of working and preferred contact method. Often you can find this information in social bios or on their website.
Your opening email is your first shot at making an impression. Be brief, friendly, and show how your request or offer brings value to the person’s specific needs or project.
“If you have the most creative ideas but don’t know how to communicate them, you might as well just chuck them,” says designer and founder Aislinn Grant in a recent interview with noissue.
2. Gather your hive (solos assemble!)
You’re not as alone as you think. Everywhere around the world, people like you are taking the plunge and starting new businesses from scratch. There is a deep need for connection, especially when you’re just starting out.
“I think it’s important to create your own community when you’re leaving another behind,” says Rashel. For her, that came in the form of building a network of other women who were also launching solo.
The network you create becomes a group of de facto colleagues — people to vent to, share advice with, and lean on for support. “Having like-minded people around me motivated me to stay focused on my goals and aspirations,” adds Rashel.
Joining or starting a new community can be daunting, but if you’ve spent any effort building personal or career networks, you likely already have pools of folks to draw from. “I tapped into my LinkedIn and Twitter networks and met with some incredibly talented people who became my first clients,” says Rashel.
Building a broad network—remember to connect with a diverse group to get diverse perspectives—can also open you up to new ideas, future business partners, and a wider net for hiring as you scale.
3. Reconcile different remote working styles
First, if you are a new entrepreneur, you’ll have to establish your own preferred working style. Rashel found this to be a fun exercise and experimented with different ways of working. “It was thrilling to question my old ways of working and to form new habits,” she says. “I was learning who I am as an entrepreneur, individual, and human.”
Establishing your working style will help you set expectations for yourself, your contacts, and your staff. Share the tools you prefer and how much or how little you’d like to communicate. When dealing with clients or customers, though, defer to their working styles, if possible.
Customers, for example, have certain expectations for response time, based on format of contact, says Jose Herrera of Horatio. Ensure that your response times fall within these expectations and clearly communicate delays. And, develop meaningful relationships to keep customers coming back. “You have to be as personalized as possible when you're delivering a response to your customer,” he says.
4. Be true to yourself — and your brand voice
“I take a very human approach to my interactions with clients,” says Rashel, who likes to laugh and inject fun into her business relationships. Set the tone for the kind of relationships you prefer to have with your contacts—but also read the room.
When building new relationships with clients or other partners, present yourself as polished, professional, and aligned with your brand. Take time to develop your brand voice—the finished product will help you remain consistent in your communication. And consistency builds trust. For Rashel, her brand voice mixes her upbeat personality with transparency and directness. Your conversations may evolve more casual or formal as you continue to build the relationship and understand the needs of the other person.
5. Mind the time zone gaps
If you’re on your way to building a global empire, you’ll likely run into communications challenges when your contacts work on opposite schedules. How you avoid being disconnected will depend on the type and number of business relationships you’re managing.
If the majority of your relationships are several time zones away, consider shifting your usual working hours to overlap, even if it’s just by an hour or two. That way, most of your communication can happen asynchronously but you’ll still have the opportunity to jump on a call a few times a week.
For one-off relationships with those on an opposite schedule, be proactive by establishing how you will communicate and work together, including asynchronous tools and working hours. If missing the face to face contact is straining the relationship, consider sending videos of yourself chatting through a problem or request.
6. Spark delight
In an office or IRL setting, it’s easy to show your coworkers or clients how much you appreciate your business relationship: say, leaving a thank you latte on a desk, taking a team out for an after work drink to celebrate wrapping a project. When you’re worlds away, gestures of appreciation lose spontaneity and lack the tactile sparkle. Try these tips to spread delight and appreciation:
- If you’re a DTC business, slip little extras like stickers, samples, or a handwritten thank you note into orders from your most loyal customers
- Reward customers with special offers in exchange for feedback, reviews, or completed customer experience surveys
- If you work with clients, send periodic branded gift packages to show thanks and to keep your brand top of mind between projects.
7. Stack your toolbox
Rashel uses multiple tools to stay connected. As much as she finds Slack overwhelming, she’s found that it’s the best way to chat quickly with her contacts. “I think I’m a part of seven different slack channels right now which can be a lot to handle,” she says. Otherwise, she calls Google Hangouts her “lifeline” as she can be as face to face as possible in a digital reality.
Also consider the following tools:
- Calendly or another booking tool to make scheduling meetings with you more seamless
- A chat bot for automating some of your incoming requests and setting expectations for response time
- Project or task management tools (think Figma, Notion, Trello) that allow you to work async with teams across time zones
- Google Docs and Sheets for collaborating on copy, briefs, and reports
- Miro or another whiteboard tool to help organize remote planning and brainstorming sessions that don’t suck
- Feedback or survey tools that let you pulse-check your business relationships.
8. Be proactive
When working with clients, Rashel builds multiple touchpoints into her working relationships.
“I have regular weekly connections with my clients, track our work, ask for feedback, and provide leadership coaching and support when required,” she says.
Schedule regular check-ins with suppliers, retail partners, or any other folks essential to the day-to-day of your business — especially as the relationship is still blooming. Without the casual water cooler interactions of an office setting, even a quick 15-min biweekly chat can provide a chance to get on the same page — and get to know the people in your business circles.
9. Feed your network
“Wherever possible, I try to bring a collective of female freelancers and consultants together to work on a project,” says Rashel. Involving others in her network keeps her community karma high and creates opportunities to connect meaningfully.
When you’re new to entrepreneurship or you’re working solo, you may rely on the network more than those who are already established. As you scale, pay it forward. Become a mentor for young founders and create opportunities within your network. This is a great way to build relationships for potential future clients, partners, or hires.
“Whenever there is a request for work that does not fit under my services, I’m the first to recommend someone in my network who I know will do a good job,” says Rashel.
10. Set boundaries — and communicate them
“A common downside to opting out of an agency or corporate structure is that clients may feel entitled to contact you at all hours of the day,” says brand designer and founder Eva Couto.
This is a common struggle for those doing client work, and Eva sets expectations on each project at the get-go. When you’re managing relationships with customers or clients, you’ll need to find the right balance between delivering what was promised and overextending yourself. “I believe that making sure the client enjoys the experience is absolutely key,” says Aislinn. “That said, we make sure we direct the process.”
When managing other relationships remotely, especially those across time zones, be very clear about your working hours. For example, you only take non-urgent calls and meetings between 8AM and 6PM and outside of those hours, your contacts can reach you by email or chat. “I really recommend setting your boundaries clearly and fast,” says Eva. “Let them know your work hours and when they can expect to hear back from you.”
11. Avoid virtual burnout
“It’s pretty simple for me,” Rashel says of her work-life balance. “I make time to get out of the house, run little errands here and there, and meet up with friends and family.”
As a solopreneur, you alone are often entirely responsible for your business’ success—or failure. It’s easy to bend over backwards to nurture every relationship and forget about one of your most important relationships—the one you have with yourself. Even Rashel can get caught up. “When I’m away from friends and family for too long,” she says, “I get too consumed by my work.”
While it’s important to have consistent communication with the people connected directly to your livelihood, virtual burnout is real. In the same way that you book regular check-ins with others, do the same for yourself by blocking off me-time in your schedule.
However you grow and manage your business relationships, remember that the future of work is looking more virtual by the day. Take solace in the collective isolation. And, embrace the technology that brings us closer, making solo remote work feel, well, less remote.