We live in an incredible time for creative entrepreneurs. There’s so much flexibility, anyone with a dream and a plan can basically make their own career — to the point where websites have even begun to lampoon the more ridiculous-sounding ones. And while this freedom is pretty great for those motivated individuals who are making a go at a life that’s exactly what they want (and why shouldn’t we, if most of us derive a bulk of our personal identity from our work?), it can also lead to some awkward, frustrating, or just unpleasant situations wherein you find yourself struggling to explain what it is that you actually do and, moreover, how it’s a legitimate job that you earn a living doing.
The first thing to do when talking about your non-traditional job is to remember that every chance to talk about your work is a chance to hone your message and get your elevator pitch down. If you have a hard time explaining what you do, it may be a signal to you that your goals or marketing aren’t where they need to be, and you may need to evaluate your own brand story.
“Five key words come to mind : Who, what, where, why, and how,” says Michael Ariel of Storenvy, “To tell your story, answer these questions. Who are you, What are you selling, Where are you based, Why are you selling these products, and How are you sourcing/making/coming up with these products. It’s often that simple.”
Once you’ve got the specifics and the story down, you’re ready to tell people. In telling people, the most important trick — and this goes for literally any time you’re talking about it — is to avoid the temptation to downplay your work. Yes, denigrating it might help move things along in a conversation, but it’s also not great for your self-esteem, and it also doesn’t help further your career. Self-doubt is one of the biggest killers of non-traditional career paths, so it’s crucial that you get behind your own work. Your work is important to you. You are good at it. You enjoy it. And, in all honestly, it’s probably at worst only vaguely interesting to others, and at best, extremely interesting and possibly even inspiring.
Instead of beginning with the negative (“oh, it’s just this little company, it’s hard to explain…”), begin from a point of enthusiasm (“It’s really neat — I get to [fill in what it is you do]”). Whether it’s your grandmother who has never used email, or a high-powered influencer in your community, practice being your own cheerleader. Instead of trying to move things along by undercutting your own accomplishments, be excited about your work. Other people will follow suit.
Another great way to explain something that most people might not quite grok at first is to talk about the needs of your customers and how you meet them, rather than your day-to-day workings.
“I noticed that a lot of people were [whatever gap in the market you noticed] and I thought, ‘I could fill that need,'” is a good way to introduce others to the work you do, because it shows the exact purpose of the work. This is especially helpful if your non-traditional job involves a lot of inside baseball; instead of explaining that you run a small product photography studio that deals entirely with wholesaler, or that you’re a freelance web designer for independent legal firms, describe the need for product photography, or the issues that legal firms often have with their web presence. This trick also works if you didn’t start your own business, or you work on a team.
One other common practice to avoid: Comparing your job to that of a TV personality. It may seem a lot easier to say “I’m kind of like Don Draper/Carrie Bradshaw/Frank Underwood, except on the internet” because it will give you and the person you’re speaking with common ground, but that reads as disingenuous, and may also come with a lot of negative connotations — Don Draper and Frank Underwood aren’t exactly sympathetic characters, and Carrie Bradshaw is famously terrible with her money. You don’t have to be like anyone that your conversation mate has heard of; you’re you, your job is yours, and that’s good enough.
Your non-traditional job may not always be as easily understood as a more “straight” career, but that’s no reason to downplay it or try to make it overly simple. It’s your job, and if it makes you happy, that excitement will be contagious.