Self-care for Solopreneurs: An Interview with Lily Chan
Lily Chan has already taught us a thing or two about community building. Among her achievements is founding and becoming CEO of Soulo, an ever-growing network of “solopreneurs” focused on overcoming business challenges. She’s also the co-founder and CBDO at &Makers/Cenports, which helps proactive “makers” manage their business online.
Lily’s story starts in San Francisco, where she fell in love with the concept of community while working at her parents' store. This led to over 15 years of experience, helping to scale suppliers and retailers in a variety of business models. Chan understands the vital role communities play across industries, and sat down with us to discuss her personal and professional journey.
Panion: Hi Lily! Tell us more about why you started Soulo?
Lily Chan: In 2017, I became a solo entrepreneur and noticed how lonely and overwhelming the journey can be. I questioned whether it had to be like this, and recognized a need for solo entrepreneurs to build a community to offer support, insights, and empowerment to each other. In 2019, I started Soulo with the intention of bringing solo entrepreneurs together and building a community that lifted us all.
Panion: What are Solopreneurs and what are their unique needs?
Lily Chan: Solopreneurs are people who work for themselves, usually running a business on their own. They’re also called freelancers, sole proprietors, or solo entrepreneurs.
Because a solopreneur runs their own business, they usually have to run their businesses, provide the service, and also take all the necessary steps to start, grow, and maintain the business. This can take a lot of time and energy and can be overwhelming.
The unique needs that solopreneurs have:
- Sustainability: They need to avoid burning out. By adopting systems, dashboards, and tools, and soliciting help and advice when needed, they can continue to grow their businesses.
- Strategy: Solopreneurs need to build accountability, space, and a short and long-term plan to grow not only for the business, but also the individual within the business.
- Space: Create a dedicated space to work, play, and create. This is key to staying focused.
- Community: Find or build a living “place” to connect, learn, or offer your help to other business owners who need the support. This can be online or live, preferably both!
- Mindset: Understand that running your own business is not easy. Most small businesses fail within the first 5 years. Accept that the road can have many bumps but it doesn’t have to be a solo journey. When you need it, reach out to your community, coaches, mentors, and friends for help.
Panion: When you first started trying to build your community, you began with Facebook. Why did you end up leaving?
Lily Chan: I heard from my community as we started with live events that they wanted to connect, so I learned from day one that I had to create a connecting place for us. I then heard that Facebook wasn’t easy to use, and some of our members didn’t have Facebook accounts. I’m also not an active Facebooker, but I see the benefits of it and have noticed some very creative ways communities are using it. I’m down to try new things to meet the needs of our evolving community.
Panion: Why did you decide to work with small business owners?
Lily Chan: In late 2016, I took a break from the corporate world (having worked since I was 12 years old) and invested in a year of learning. That year, I enrolled in a yoga teacher training at Yoga Tree, a digital marketing class at General Assembly, and workshops at Google, Nasdaq, The Renaissance Entrepreneurial Center, and The Battery. I’m really glad I did this!
Yoga teacher training stood out to me especially, as I noticed that my fellow colleagues in the yoga teaching classroom had a gift to spread the holistic essence of yoga, but often didn’t know much about how to start or grow a business.
I used my background in business development and approached the challenge with the lean startup methodology. I interviewed over 50 solo professionals and immediately learned there was an overarching problem in the small business community.
Panion: How does your parents' story tie into the work that you do?
Lily Chan: As Southeast Asian refugees, my parents owned and ran a small grocery shop in the Tenderloin neighborhood (high population of low-income and immigrant residents) of San Francisco for over 20 years. Working with the government subsidies, their store redeemed WIC (Women Infant Children) vouchers for low-income families to get the necessary staples to start an infant's life, and rebuild strength as a new mom. Their shop was a mechanism to provide help and give back to a community of newcomers and their newborns. My parents saw children grow up from being in the womb until they were grown adults.
Because many of their customers were new to the US, didn’t know English well, and were low income, they treated my parents’ shop as a communal space and a place to lean on each other for support.
Starting at the age of five, I would go to the shop with my parents and observe the impact they had on their community. I recall a couple of times when my dad had purchased food and prepared a Chinese meal for the block. My sister and I helped out by boxing the meals into small Chinese to-go boxes and passed them out with my father. I can still see the faces of the recipients who received their hot home-cooked meals.
My parents had seven mouths to feed, five children. They didn’t have much, but they knew that whenever they could help, they’d help. Life can already be difficult. Why make it harder by doing it alone? Community is meant to help people become stronger together.
Panion: Your tattoo is incredible. Can you tell me the story behind it?
Lily Chan: I asked my mother about her advice to her younger self. She’s 71 now and she wanted to give it to her 40-year-old self. For some context, she had five kids and two jobs at that time. She shared “Be there” because she felt that she was not in the moment with her kids enough. Instead, she was hustling and running around town or on public transportation working, she wanted to be there with us at home or meet us coming back from school. Last year, I decided to get this advice in her handwriting tattooed on my arm. It acts as a kind reminder to always be there, especially when I’m somewhere else in my mind.
Panion: Starting a business alone can be, well, lonely. Can you tell me a little bit about these moments of isolation and how you overcome them?
Lily Chan: It can be very lonely, especially when you are doing it all by yourself and get hit with a heavy dose of self-doubt. All of these questions pop into your head: “Am I doing this right?” “Does this feel authentic?” “What will others think?” You name it. All the self-doubt just starts falling on you, and it's not a pleasant feeling.
I’m still trying to learn ways to cope with this. Every day gives me a new opportunity to try new ways to manage these moments of loneliness. Some things I’m into at the moment:
- Read Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett. Design your work foundation based on how you want to spend your time. I also hear that Designing Your Work is a great follow-up book.
- Unitask to stay focused on one task at a time. For so long, I thought “multi-tasking” was such a good skill to excel in. Yeah, no… sometimes I just need to do one thing at a time.
- Journal when it feels right and appropriate, there is a season for this and if it feels good, do it. I love to bullet journal and really enjoy daily gratitude and intention setting, especially with a nice cup of hot ginger lemon tea.
- Practice wellness activities like meditation, breathwork, jogging, or yoga. Whatever you need to get some energy out and to get a fresh breath of air in.
- Ask for help! You know that song ‘That’s What Friends Are For?’ Yep, lean on your trusted friends and community for smiles, advice, and a positive word.
Panion: You have talked about the intersection of self-care and entrepreneurship, what’s the unique kind of self-care that entrepreneurs need?
Lily Chan: Being present can be the foundation of all. Entrepreneurs tend to live in the past and future, which is understandable, as we are taught to understand what we can do better next time or what we want for the next launch. All of this is very necessary to do, but as an entrepreneur, leading yourself today is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your business.
Panion: You recently did a project about advice for your younger self, can you talk about what inspired that project and what you learned from it?
Lily Chan: Great question. The inspiration for this project came when I was interviewing solopreneurs. Because I adopted the lean startup methodology in interviewing, a lot of the questions are based on what the person did previously. For example, I asked what tools they had used to help them with their business. Because I was a new solopreneur myself, I wanted to learn from them directly. I was curious about the advice they had for themselves, and after a while I realized that I shouldn’t keep this great knowledge to myself. I used the #the100day project platform to help me share insights with my community.
Panion: What are the top benefits of belonging to a community?
Lily Chan: Perspective. You don’t only get yours; you get many! With Soulo, we are a global community, and I love that our members from California can connect with others in Helsinki, Finland, and beyond.
Panion: What are some of the challenges people face when building a community?
Lily Chan: Have patience. I hear many say that the challenge is to grow the count of the membership, and yes, this should be top of mind as far as the strategy goes. However, I would say build trust first with your community. This comes with being honest, authentic, and transparent. From there, you build loyalty and commitment, but this takes time, so have patience!
Panion: What are the biggest mistakes people make when trying to grow a community?
Lily Chan: They don’t find a balance between rushing it and taking their time. There are times where you need to input, learn and absorb all that is around you, and output, build out a program or create. Sometimes, I have days focused on input where I’m fueling myself to build. Then I have days where I'm building a process, creating content, or connecting directly with others.
Panion: What are your 3 top tips for people trying to build a community?
Be yourself. ;)
As a community leader, one has to understand that a member has only so much time in the day to spend in a community, so make it worthwhile. Think about it: one is supposed to get eight hours of sleep, then eight hours to work, then eight hours to do you: eat, brush your teeth, pursue hobbies, etc. So in that eight hours where you are not working or sleeping, minus all the personal stuff you have to do, how much time do you really have to join a community?
Members of your community came because of your vision, and because they are looking to be part of an authentic community where they can feel comfortable to ask for help, get support, and contribute. Make it easy for them to do so.
Panion: Can you describe the connection between community and business success?
Lily Chan: Running a business can be difficult already. Make it easier by connecting with others within a community to learn from and share your ideas too. Find people you can lean on, and make sure you have something to offer in return.
Panion: Many of us have been deeply affected by the pandemic. COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health and given many people feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s unclear how long the effects will last, and how life has changed as a result of quarantine and new health measures. How has and will this change how we build community and create successful businesses?
Lily Chan: We have to listen.
As a society, we are resilient beings, and we don’t just give up. What I’m noticing during the pandemic, especially with small businesses, is the importance of finding areas to pivot slightly, like 2%, to meet your new demographic. For example, if you are a yoga teacher and usually teach in a studio, try taking your class outdoors! Yoga on the Beach is a great organization already doing this, and I’m so happy they have classes on Baker Beach Saturday mornings.
Then we have Fireflies.ai, which is a tool created before C-19 that has really adopted the new way of teleconferencing and sharing your post-Zoom conference notes. It uses AI technology to help one take the necessary next steps.
Building successful businesses requires you to listen to your community to see what they need. Yoga on the Beach and Fireflies had a product and they also saw what our community needed, wellness and a note taker to help organize a glut of Zoom meetings. Listen to your community.
Panion: Are you working on any new projects? Tell me about any hobbies or passions that are important to you.
Lily Chan: Soulo is actively looking for founding members and collaborators to help build our accountability program. We’ve been hosting monthly masterminds, which have been so fun! The next is to help our community connect with other accountability partners.
I’m a co-founder for an organization named AndMakers/Cenports that helps makers of the world enter the major e-retailers in the US. We believe that the traditional way of distribution is ready for disruption. We built a proprietary digital solution to help the Makers of the world manage their business online. Our aim is to create a customer-centric platform that makes supply chain management easier and more direct. I’m glad to make any connections if you have a product and want to learn how to sell on major channels.
Lily Chan is the founder and CEO of Soulo, a network to help solo entrepreneurs connect and thrive globally, and the co-founder and Chief Business Development Officer of &Makers/Cenports, which helps creatives manage their business online. She is also a dedicated yogi.