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On the Brink with Andi Simon

Nov 27, 2023

Learn how to be your own boss and the power of saying no  

Those of you who are wondering whether it’s time for you to leave that corporate life and start your own business, you’re going to love my guests today, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau. They’re freelance writers and translators and the authors of the new book Going Solo: Everything You Need to Start Your Business and Succeed as Your Own Boss. Many aspiring entrepreneurs have plenty of skill and passion but don’t have a sense of how to run a business, which makes their advice so valuable. Are you an entrepreneur or solopreneur? You really should listen in.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

According to Julie and Jean-Benoit, a good business plan is basically six questions:

1. What do you want to do?
2. Why do you want to do it?
3. What’s the market?
4. What price do you want to offer?
5. What will you bring to people?
6. What’s the purpose, the “what for”?

To connect with them, visit their LinkedIn page or their website.

Want to learn more about what makes successful entrepreneurs successful? Here’s a start:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon, I’m your host and your guide. And remember, my job is to get you off the brink. So I want to bring to you people who are going to help you see, feel and think in new ways. You know, and this is always my starting speech, because what I want my audience, whether you’re watching or you’re listening, is to learn something new. And the best way to do that is to see it and feel it and begin to get the stories from someone else who has done it and say, Oh, I can do that too.

So today I have a wonderful couple here to share with you their story and a new book. Let me tell you about them. Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau are the authors of Going Solo: Everything You Need to Start Your Business and Succeed as Your Own Boss. So those of you who are out there wondering whether or not it’s time for you to leave that corporate life and start your own business, or you’re already starting the business and want to know how to succeed at business, or you’re really thinking about, I don’t know, going back into business, it’s a good time to listen in and think about your own purpose and passion and where you could really have a great trip.

They are prize-winning authors and journalists. The husband and wife pair have been running a freelance writing business for over three decades. Look at the books behind them. I just love books and so many folks have no books. And I’m a book author and I love books. They’ve spoken across Canada, the US, Europe and Japan. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, France’s L’Express, and more.

They’ve published 15 books, written over a thousand articles, won more than 30 journalism and literary awards. They’re avid travelers, they’ve lived in Paris, which I love, where John Boehner was a fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Current World Affairs. They’ve been to Toronto and Phoenix, where Julie was a Fulbright Scholar at Arizona State University. They’re trilingual in English, French and Spanish, and they are based in Montreal, where they live with their twin daughters. I’ve told you enough. It’s enough for you to see that I got somebody really cool here for you today, and they’re going to help you. Just like I want to see things through a fresh lens. Thank you, Jean-Benoit and Julie, thanks for joining me.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: Thank you. Thank you very much for having us.

Andi Simon: Now Jean-Benoit has told me I can call him JB. Tell us about your own journey. It’s one thing to read a bio, it’s another thing to begin to think through, How did they get here? Why this book at this time? You certainly have written lots. Jean-Benoit, would you like to start about your journey?

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: Okay. I began as a writer in 1987. As a journalist. I’d done some theater before that. I’d studied engineering, decided in the end that I wanted to earn a living writing, and began as a writer. And since I was not that employable because I had no experience, I started freelancing, which was my destiny as a creator. Anyway, I realized later that a couple of things went well. I got my degree in political science, and was freelancing, meanwhile, and in 1993 things were going well and a magazine in Montreal offered me a job. I took the job and I was employed 29 days and I quit. That’s when I became self-employed by choice. My father is an engineer. He had his own consultancy, which became quite large eventually, but he was an entrepreneur, and he’s the first person who told me, because I was telling him, I have no job, What am I? Oh, he said, you’re self-employed. Oh really? He said, Yes. I know what it was.

Andi Simon: Bravo to your father.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: And then we discussed frequently until he became sick at the beginning of the middle of the year 2005. He was a good mentor. He mentored us a lot. And we realized quite early that a lot of the problems we were going through were the same that he was going through as an engineer. Aside from writing, you know, how do you negotiate? How do you manage without losing time? How do you finance your business and all these things?

And I gave seminars first for journalists because I had a certain amount of success as a writer. So I was giving seminars to journalists. And then in 1997, I published a book which is the original version of the book in French for the Quebec market. And I started giving speeches in Chambers of Commerce and associate trade associations and realized that I was right on the advice that we had developed, because I was already partnered with Julie. So the advice that we were developing applied to everybody who wants to be creative in their work, really. And then we never had good success. We sold like 30,000 copies of the book in the tiny Quebec market and in French. And Julie said at one point, That book is absolutely translatable. So we got the rights back from my publisher and she translated it, and here we are.

Julie Barlow: So I had been thinking for years and years of translating it, but just got buried under other projects. My writing career began much like jazz. I stumbled into it, began writing music, music reviews when I was in university. And I lost my confidence. I didn’t come from a background with a father who was an entrepreneur. I didn’t come from a business background at all. I didn’t even know you could really make a living as a writer.

Andi Simon: Aha.

Julie Barlow: And that’s not unusual in our field, you know, for people to have a skill and develop it but not have any sense of how to run a business. So I finished my education, finished my master’s degree, and then just started out. And, nevertheless, even with that help that we had, there’s a number of skills you have to really develop in order to make your passion into a business. Basically, I felt very fortunate to have your dad. And of course, we developed our own, our own by trial and error.

And over the decades we developed our skills and our tips, and I was very happy to translate the book. We have two editions of it: one for the United States and one for Canada. And it’s just great to share with others, not just creative people, but people who want to live their passion. They want to do what they want to do. They want to leave a job, start out fresh, out of school or whatever. There’s just some basic things that you need to understand to make it work so that you don’t get drowned in frustrations.

Andi Simon: You know, it’s interesting while I’m listening to you. So I’m in business 22 years now, and I launched my business after being in corporate as an executive in two banks and as an executive in two hospitals. And prior to that, I was an anthropology professor. I got my tenure and I was a visiting professor teaching entrepreneurship. And I was on a journey because I knew I was an anthropologist. I like to apply it among businesses that are going through change because people hate change. And I sort of helped them see, feel and think in new ways.

But when I launched it after 911, my PR firm said to me, Oh, Andi, you’re a corporate anthropologist who helps companies change. And I went, Bingo. And so in a sense, he defined my passion, my purpose, the why. Then the question was, how? And I did what I used to do anyway, which was start to have lunch with people, you know, never eat alone. We started to network and network and network. And next thing you know, I had a half a dozen clients and I went, Oh, this is fun. This is free. And I’m having a great time being me.

And I do think that part of the passion and purpose is knowing who you are, not just what you do, but it’s sort of my story. I want to go back to yours. When you began to help people through the book, let’s talk about a process, a way of thinking. Because remember, we live the story in our mind. And so now the question is, typically the people who are going to read this book, what kind of story, what are they trying to do? Give them the wisdom and the lessons learned that you have. So the book complements it in some fashion. Who would like to start it?

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: I think that a very important moment in the process of thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurial was the realization that it’s so hard to change. And as an anthropologist, you’ll understand. Historically, people used to be all self-employed. And the people who were employed were at the bottom of the scale. They didn’t own their means of production, and they were at the bottom of the scale. And around the 19th century, that scale shifted. The people who were employed moved up socially, and it became a goal of education to have a job.

We all went to study in order to have a job. We don’t say to people, Study well, you’re going to have your own enterprise. We never say that to kids. We tell them to study well, you’ll have a job. So then I realized I will never have a job. What am I going to do? Well, I’m going to have work. Yep. So that’s what self-employed is. You don’t have a job, but you have work and you don’t have a boss. You have a client who is your equal because you are your own boss and you don’t have a salary. You have income which you build.

But you see, it took me about 4 or 5 years even to send a bill to my clients because I thought it was pretentious. I’m sorry, I was an artist. I was a writer. I came from the theater. So at one point they would look at their books and say, Oh, we haven’t paid this guy, so let’s send him a check. That’s how I was paid. So of course, that was the big moment of understanding that that’s too much work. I don’t have a job.

Andi Simon: So, you know, Julie, I’m going to let you pop in, but I want to just set the context because I’ve been coaching some young women in their 20s, some are graduating from college, some have graduated and have had a couple of jobs. But I’m not sure that they know who they are, what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. But I will tell you that the education in college makes them seem as if they’re fully competent at something. They just don’t know what that something is or where to find a company that wants their something. And I’m disturbed at the disconnect between their job, work, passion, purpose. Julie, your turn please. I didn’t want to cut you off, but I wanted to set the stage.

Julie Barlow: One of the big places where you see this problem of flipping from feeling like somebody’s in control of what you produce and what you do, comes in negotiating, which is something we talk a lot about with writers who tend to think there’s a system that they fit into and there’s a certain amount that they will get paid. And they tend not to think that they’re in the driver’s seat. And so they get exploited. And one of the big problems is that people who, and you see this sometimes when people who leave a job to start working freelance, they just think of their clients as their bosses. And they even use that term. They say well, the boss says, the bosses, and they don’t start from a position of power, which is that they can sell or not sell, and sometimes it’s just worth walking away.

I mean, I have this discussion with fellow writers a lot. There are clients who are just not good clients, and they’re hurting you and they’re not paying you fairly and they’re wasting your time. You could be using your means and whatever it is you sell or produce to make money from somebody who appreciates it, you know? So one of the big things is avoiding bad clients and learning to say no. So we have a little section in the book of 16 Ways to Say No. It’s very popular with people. You have to learn when to say no and how to walk away from things. And sometimes saying no is what really radically, suddenly improves your condition. I mean, you need to be able to do that. It’s tough for people.

Andi Simon: Well, it’s interesting because I remember my first client who I said, “I’m really not good for you and you’re not good for me. So I think you should find somebody else for your sake.” And I remember that feeling of freeing myself, but allowing them to be free of me as well, because we were simply not going to make it. And it was for your sake. And I’m sure that because it was a perspective that it wasn’t my problem but for your benefit, it’s time to go. But I’ve learned that no is a good word.

Julie Barlow: Yes, it is a good word. And it can even bring a bigger yes at the end of the day from somebody else. I recently, last year, said no to a really, really what could have been a very lucrative writing contract with somebody that I just knew we were not a good fit. You know, you have to, and we talk about this as well in the book, you have to explore fairly carefully with your client. Make sure they understand what they’re getting, make sure they understand what you’re giving them. Yes, you’re on the same terms.

Things have to be clear from the beginning or you have problems down the line. And I just could not get through to them. We just could not see eye to eye on the thing. But, we left on good terms and I said, I’m sorry, I’m just not going to do this anymore. The word about what I had done with them traveled back to his literary agent which came back to me in the form of another book contract. So I absolutely understood what I did. But, you know, these are the lessons that you learn as a business person, clients’ expectations. And again, it’s the boss-client mentality. You have to take the time to make sure that you understand their expectations and that they understand what they’re getting or you just end up with problems with them.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: People make a lot of fuss about the business plan. We’ve got questions about that. And I say, yeah, I know, but we say, the business plan is basically five questions. What do you want to do? Why do you want to do it? What’s the market? What price do you want to offer? What will you bring to people? That’s just the basics. If you need financing or an associate, you may need to write almost a book business plan, a book-size business plan. But a good business plan can fit on 2 or 3 pages. But there’s a sixth question, which I forgot, that I didn’t mention, which I think is the most important: What for, the purpose?

But your goal, your personal goal, where do you want to go with that? Do you want to teach social dancing? A lot of people want to turn their passion into a business, and that’s good. That’s often why people go with you. Self-Employment. Well, you’re not going to once things start running and that can come pretty quickly. You’ll go somewhere if you know where you want to go, and you will not even decide who your clients are. And if you want to start teaching for the purpose of creating a franchise of social dancing, or create a shoe for social dancing, you are not going to choose your clients in the same way. Your venues, the place where you’re going to showcase them, etcetera. And it’s the same with a writer. You are not going to do all the thousands of choices you have to do in your daily business. If you want to be a publisher or have an agency, or want to be an editor in chief, or move into book writing or film, these are all personal choices. There’s nobody who’s going to tell you which is right, but it’s very important, it orients you.

Andi Simon: But I also think, I can’t tell you how many folks come in by referral. Sometimes they find us on the internet and they are trying to do what they did in the corporate world in an independent freelance business fashion, but they don’t really understand that things are different. You know, they did this there and therefore I’m going to do this now. I said, But there you had the brand of the big company and you had a network and so forth. Why should somebody hire you now? And how are you going to actually build a revenue stream, a client base, have a business with it, as opposed to being an employed person who used to do something.

This means the story changes, but they aren’t thinking about how to do it actually and they have no idea. Very often your book is very valuable about how I think about myself now? Because when I said I’m a corporate anthropologist who helps companies change, to be honest with you, I knew people had to change, they didn’t care how I did it, and I admitted I picked that one up. I knew that the whole sales process was about, you know, where are your gaps? Where’s your pain point? How can I help? How I did it, they didn’t care. But it’s a very important piece. They really didn’t know what an anthropologist would do, but it was interesting to watch the transformation.

But many times they come and don’t know how to turn an idea, an observation, into a business innovation. So your book comes at a very timely moment. When they get going, do you help them create scalability? A word I use often because, you know, there are 13 million women-owned businesses in the US. 10 million of them don’t make solopreneurs. 5 million of those don’t make more than $10,000 a year. And they’re more like side hustles, which is fine.

But there are a whole lot of solopreneurs, and I worry about the lack of scalability. Not being able to underwrite it with the right capital. Don’t know how to use a bank to finance it. Don’t use their credit cards with family and friends. I mean, there’s a whole huge market of folks who need to make an income in a better way, but need to think differently about what they’re doing and not simply celebrate the fact that they’re not inside a company, which is often what they say. “I didn’t like being there, so I’m doing this.” I say, “But you’re not in business. You’re just trying.” So, thoughts?

Julie Barlow: So one of the ideas that we speak of is that between somebody making $25,000 a year as a solopreneur and somebody making $250,000 a year, the thing you have to understand is that you don’t have to work ten times more. You make your choices in the function of things. In our case, writing that feeds other ways of making money. So for instance, we wrote a book about the French language and we turned that into speaking gigs on the French language, articles on the French language, a film script on the French language, a radio show on the French language. I mean, the book just keeps on giving us content that we use for other things. And we’re not being paid to sit and produce new content every day. That’s what we would do if we had a job, perhaps as a script writer at a company.

But we are using our content to make money for us. The best way to be a writer is to sit and wait for the royalty checks to come to the door. You know, of course we have to write, but all of the choices that we make, we make sure that they are not dead end choices because they are choices that are going to feed that or feed other books or enable us to produce books using a gig, doing something that will feed us with content for something else. I mean, that’s how we go from thinking like an employee to thinking like a business person.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: I recently read a biography of Charles Dickens and was fascinated that he was one of the first authors in history to do what he called “work the copyright,” which meant that earning a living was not just about writing, it was to use his intellectual property to work for him, and for a lot less work. And as writers, we have the benefit of having intellectual property created the minute we finish something. The costly part of the intellectual property is developing it into research. But if you choose your ideas very well for the purpose of reusing them, then things become a lot easier. That’s just in the production side of it.

But if you negotiate well, you can actually improve your productivity without raising your rate just because you understand better what the client wants or because you negotiate better the ownership of what you produce for them, because you keep that ownership for yourself or because you get better terms. That’s just at the negotiating level. You can keep collecting. If you bill quickly, you collect quickly, and then you have less money on your credit card. There’s all sorts of things like this at all levels of what it is to run a business that are productive.

Andi Simon: And what you’re saying though, is a mindset. And I do think that mindset isn’t the narrow: I’m a freelance writer. It’s the broad: I’m in business to take ideas and in multiple channels begin to bring them to market because my purpose is to share French and I need to do it on all the different channels. And I need to do that in multiple different ways. And the content keeps repurposing itself.

I mean, people say to me, Did you sell a lot of books? I said, I brought in a lot of clients. I mean, you can bring in good clients. I was in Mexico three times off a book that someone found in a Hudson News in an airport, and got to give programs to CEOs down there three years in a row. Before the pandemic, I just loved the multiplier of the book.

And I just had a podcast earlier today of a guy who I gave the On the Brink book to. He took it on his vacation, came back and was quoting it for me. I mean, you can’t ask for much more than that. I love how what we do is designed not to be an end, but a beginning.  And I do think it opens the door. And the idea is, how many different doors can it open and how do we get to where we’re really taking the message and helping spread it.

Julie Barlow: To do that you kind of have to be agile. I mean, the word is a little overused, but you do. You need to be watching what’s going on. You know, in the book, we encourage people who are starting out to be curious to contact their competitors, to sit down with people in their business and ask questions and figure things out. People can be very shy and a little bit locked into their own little universe. You can stay in front of your screen all the time, but it’s important to get out and understand what’s going on. And people are helpful. And they’re happy to have somebody, I’m happy for young writers to approach me and to ask for me to sit down and explain things to them.

When I don’t have time to do a contract. I’d love to be able to keep my client happy by sending them somebody else who can. And you know, that happens fairly frequently. And it’s sort of a win-win for everybody. But, you know, communication and being open to that and watching the industry change is really important.

One of our early methods was to resell articles because we write in both languages and we would resell them in different markets. And that changed when the internet came. And we started writing before the internet when that all changed. And then it was very hard to keep our copyright over certain things and resell things. But we found new ways to do that.

And one of them is translating and we don’t necessarily get paid for our copyright, but we need to translate it. So we get paid for that. We’re always looking to see where the soft spots are and how things are changing. And you always have to kind of be aware of what’s going on and not get stuck in a way of doing things. And that, again, is something very particular to being sort of an entrepreneur, entrepreneurial state of mind, as opposed to thinking like an employee and doing what you’re asked to do.

Andi Simon: You’re segueing into a topic that I always like to include, though, and you’ve been through many years of watching many different transitions and transformations, and often you pick up. I often talk about the future is here, we just haven’t quite distributed it widely. But you pick up little signs, and the little signs are the tip of the iceberg of where things are going. Are there some signs that you’re already beginning to watch happen and you’re saying, there’s something coming? I’m not quite sure what, but I’m really interested to see where and who, and I’m going to poke further, and anything you can share, because I do think the times are changing.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: Well, in Canada we have this problem right now. The Canadian government wants to control better. Well, wants to ensure that big companies like Facebook and Google share their publicity market with traditional media, and they created a law, a Facebook Australia-style law. And Facebook reacted by blocking all Canadian content on Facebook. And Google is threatening that. So that is raising a lot of questions on the future of writing as a writer in Canada. It’s going to be a rocky year next year, I would say.

Julie Barlow: So artificial intelligence is a big one. Yeah, AI is affecting us. Again, maybe back to what Jean-Benoit said about purpose. We as sort of high-end writers are right now kind of safe from AI. It can’t really do what we’re doing. So we’re enjoying the benefits of it right now, which is transcribing automatic tools for transcribing interviews and translation tools that give us decent first drafts of translations and various different things, but all the writing community is a little on edge about what is going to do, because it’s getting better at generative artificial intelligence. We can’t afford to have our head in the sand.

Andi Simon: I fell in love with AI. I say that gently because I use it in different kinds of ways. It writes great poems for me. And if I want to give a granddaughter a poem about a situation, I give it three facts and outcomes a great poem. And I went, I can’t write that, but boy, that is a great poem, and I don’t even know who I would ask to write it.

But it is interesting to watch what we begin to use it for. I had a great big project and I said, Tell me, what are your thoughts, AI, about this project I’m working on? And it freshened up my thinking, not that I was necessarily going to use it, but as a solopreneur, it’s often difficult to find open colleagues with conversations that can make intelligent insights into things you’re thinking about. And so I’m finding all kinds of ways to make it my friend. And I say that because it’s how you feel about it as opposed to being angry at it.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: You know, we use artificial intelligence a fair amount. We have an excellent character here called Antidote. It’s pure artificial intelligence. And all the intelligence software that is there doesn’t make a very good translation, but makes a good first draft. In fact, in Canada, where we translate a fair amount because we have two official languages, the number of people who are employed as translators has increased by 18% in the last seven years, when the labor force has increased by six. So it reduced the cost of entry to a lot of people who would not translate. And then they give it to a machine. They come out and they say, someone says, that’s not very good, but let’s hire someone who finishes the translation.

Andi Simon: What is Grammarly? I mean, this whole book, I put every one of them through it. We have 102 women and I gave everyone to Grammarly and they made the corrections and I sent it back and they approved it. And man, it was efficient. And there were limits to how much creativity was going to go into it. But it got me comfortable that they would sound professional and it was even far better than the proofreader of the publisher. And so it was fun to test. I just needed a third third party.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: But one of the things about artificial intelligence is that it’s a misnomer. It’s an algorithm that processes a lot of information. And one of the problems for journalists, anyway, one of the issues with our AI is that, for example, ChatGPT is essentially a sociopath. It doesn’t tell you it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. It makes up things and it doesn’t give you the source, which is contrary to any kind of ethics in journalism. And, I don’t think it threatens journalism. It will be a tool like glasses or even the word processor.

Andi Simon: You know, I’m in the schools, my daughter is a teacher. And she said back to me, I had to do a lesson plan for a student in special ed. So I went into ChatGPT and it came back and it was almost as good as I would have done. And in a minute I went, yeah, now use your time to teach the child and not write the lesson plan. You know, it’s a perfectly good way to get going. Nothing is perfect, and even our own lesson plans may not be perfect. We think they’re better than AI.

But I’m enjoying the transition to the next stage of data and insights coming from intelligent stuff in different ways. So it’ll be fun if we stay and make it happy, and then be wise and go back and check and make sure it’s correct. But even this stuff on Google, I’m never quite sure it’s correct either. You have to be knowledgeable enough to know. This has been such fun. I’m so glad that you’re on our podcast today, and if folks would like to buy the book, where could they buy it?

Julie Barlow:, in Canada, Barnes and Noble. It should be available in any bookstore.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau: It’s widely distributed. Just make sure if you ever go, it probably won’t happen, but the Canadian edition has a little maple leaf at the top. If it doesn’t have that little maple leaf, it’s an American edition.

Andi Simon: The things that look great. Thank you so much. So it’s going solo and if you want to go solo, you’ve been with us today listening to Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau. I do, as we are trying to really help you see, feel and think in new ways so that you can decide, how am I going to spend the next stage of my career doing a job, or do I want really interesting work? Am I going to be a creator of a whole new market space, or am I going to copy someone else and be another? And I do think it’s a time for really rethinking who you are and where you’re going and how to do it. So I want to thank you for coming. Thank you for coming today and speaking to our audience.

As you know, our new book, Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success, just came out and it is doing gangbusters. And it too is on all the booksellers, Barnes and Noble and Amazon. It’s the stories of 102 women, and they are really interesting stories because the women have five wisdoms they want to share with you, and each of them has a different background, history, and their own journey. And it’s really quite fascinating.

The reviews are: "I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I went through the whole book and each of the women inspired me. So when you gave the book to me, man, this is a great book!" Who knew? And I said, I know. The whole idea is to share their wisdom with you so you can be inspired, you can aspire to greatness. You can begin to think about how other women have done it. One of my favorite quotes in there is, “Don’t believe everything you’re thinking.” And I said, I like that.

We preach, turn a page and change your life. I really think women in business are here to help you do just that. So on that note, I want to thank everyone for coming. Keep sending me your ideas on who we should have on, share the podcast and I wish you well. Bye bye now.


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