Ellen Donnelly is the founder of The Ask. Her shift to solopreneurship? Training as a career coach, building her dream role, newsletters, and a north star bracelet guiding every step.
Ellen has built a six-figure coaching & content business, changed career paths (twice), travelled and worked remotely living on four continents, and advises VC-backed startups on talent strategy.
I went to her Talent to Money virtual summit for founders in 2022 – an excellent event.
Great to catch up again last week and chat about newsletters & branding. She likes ‘The Shift’ as a name; I’m happy to hear. I’m sticking with it as it’s about inner transformation and fulfilling our potential. Enough angst!
These are her best tips on building a profitable business around yourself…
Tell us about yourself and why you started The Ask
After supporting entrepreneurial professionals with their startup careers as a headhunter and Head of Talent, I observed a generation of people confused about navigating professional decisions.
We live in a world of infinite options, changes, emerging innovation and starting a business has never been easier. The most ambitious people are keen to succeed, but the confusion often gets in the way of their success.
I saw how coaching and education could guide people to make better career decisions, and myself wanted to find a better path. Three years on, running The Ask has been my most fulfilling career experience yet!
Who are you serving? Target audience and niche?
My niche is now tightly focused on those who want the next chapter of their professional lives to be working for themselves. They are working out how to piece the self-employment puzzle together in a fulfilling way that also brings in a sustainable income.
This is achieved through a coaching approach I’ve designed that helps clients to tap into their existing skills and expertise (I call this their ‘Unique Contribution’) and then take the action that builds a business around doing what they love.
I believe a one-person business model is the answer to finding your own entrepreneurial calling and doing the work you were meant to do. Here’s the process and how it all comes together!
Your newsletter powers your six-figure coaching business – how did you get your first 1K subscribers?
Early on, I recognised the importance of email in online business building (I thank the book Content Inc for that!) and was fortunate enough to discover Substack in March 2020, just as the world shut down and poured my creative energy into my newsletter as a channel.
The more I wrote, the more I loved it. Growing the list became secondary to simply putting ideas out there, but the more coaching clients came in, the more I decided to double down on newsletter growth. This then became about trying lots of things and some shameless self-promotion!
Today there’s 3,700 readers, which mostly organically grows by its own accord. I shared these tactics to reach the first 1K in a year in this post.
Your business has an educational, content-rich angle – you do the creative work and the strategy. How do you manage your time & avoid burnout?
Part of this is mindset, as I never see marketing or content as separate from running the business. It’s also an avenue towards clear thinking, as long-form writing has helped me consolidate my thinking and observations gained through coaching.
Then there are the practical decisions, such as focusing on quality over quantity and keeping two days free of calls weekly. These days, it’s about content creation and admin, and this boundary has been essential for me to maintain balance (no one wants to work with a burned-out and stressed coach!).
Marianne Lehnis said that successful entrepreneurs have an 80/20% focus on sales compared to everything else. Do you agree?
That’s interesting. My perspective is that if the content is doing its job, it’s creating sales, so these are one and the same thing.
The importance of selling can’t be underestimated, as it’s the lifeblood of any business.
In coaching, many new entrepreneurs avoid sales like the plague, afraid of seeming ‘pushy’ or feeling unclear about HOW to sell. I love supporting people’s confidence in selling as it’s a huge self-growth journey, as it’s very often all about having a supportive mindset and self-belief.
I can say this, having sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of work now, but at the start, finding the entire process a minefield and source of angst! We aren’t taught to sell unless we join the sales department when it should be a life skill!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten on creativity and entrepreneurship?
There is a huge overlap between entrepreneurship and art – a lot of ego and vulnerability is tied up in each. This became clear early in my entrepreneurial journey when I read two formative books about creativity: The Artist’s Way and The War of Art.
The advice in both books taught me the importance of putting the PROCESS above the outcome, aka creating without any expectation of what will happen. And removing the fear and resistance we face to control how our work is perceived.
We can’t predict outcomes, virality, or other people’s tastes, but we can control showing up consistently and putting the work in. That’s been my philosophy.
Tools & Resources for one-person businesses…
Not exactly an unknown tool, but I couldn’t live without Notion for powering almost every aspect of my business!
I am also a fan of communities where you can meet like-minded people who share your same goals and frustrations but where you might ALSO meet your clients and supporters. These have always been worth the £10/month or whatever they charge in the business and enjoyment created in return.
The Business of Expertise by David Baker is great for anyone running a client-led, expertise-based business.
What’s your top tip for personal branding on LinkedIn?
Try and enjoy it! I previously got too caught up in having the perfect post format, style, or strategy and then gave up.
Now, I am back on it, and I post what feels true and authentic in that given moment, provided I can relate it back to my services in some way. That’s taken a lot of the heaviness out of it.
Not everyone can create on demand, so I suggest finding 2-3 talking points and content pillars with my clients and experimenting with different ways of writing about them!
Keep adding to your own ideas bank. Then you can compound your ideas and posts and be memorable in the process due to the repetition.
You spoke at YATM Creator Day 23 – any takeaways to share? What are some of the challenges the creator economy is facing?
I talked about doubling down on your uniqueness regarding your one-person business model and doing the work you were meant to do in this world – letting the noise and distractions fade away in the process!
The entire day had a similar theme around authenticity and honing into your core beliefs.
For creators, there is no alternative to knowing yourself and your skills well and focusing on doing exactly that, becoming the go-to person for your thing.
The creator/one-person business model world is crowded and will only become more so, but no one can be more ‘you’ than you can or take this away from you. Own it!
New YouTube channel! ‘To say this has been a steep learning curve is an understatement.’ How’s it going?
YouTube was a learning curve for sure, and whilst I am proud of the quality of videos created, I have decided to pause it for the time being. It’s a LOT of work (10-15 hours per video), and with a full coaching practice, I couldn’t maintain it and justify the time investment.
The lesson has been to be more realistic with my time in the week and consider my target clients’ needs – many aren’t looking to YouTube for the things I support.
What are your plans for The Ask in 23? Where would you like to be this time next year?
In one year, the goal is to have a more widely established authority as a coach for one-person business owners who want to build a profitable business around themselves (without investors, a big team, or overheads).
That will include different services and IP to meet people where they are on that journey: exploring, starting out, or pivoting.
To read Ellen’s writing and learn more about her work, head to The Ask.
Book a coaching consultation and get a bonus ‘Personal Brand Audit’ session if you sign up for a coaching programme (mention The Shift).
Connect with Ellen on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Life’s Work – An Interview With Tina Turner
Tina! Long live the queen of rock & roll. A solo powerhouse, a symbol of courage and resilience, and a strong personal brand.
Her book Happiness Becomes You is about her spiritual journey and ‘like reading sunlight.’
Word of mouth not cutting it, and not sure where to turn? Drum up new clients in one afternoon with this rapid course from Lex Roman. Use code THE SHIFT for 5% off.
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The Artisan’s Way writing course – a five-week journey for writers ready to break free from average. Connect more deeply to yourself and your craft and ship the best writing of your life.
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