Nikki Butler on What I Learned From My Solopreneur Journey
Nikki Butler is The Founder of The Autistic Joyologist and the Nikki Butler Skin Clinic, and is an inspirational solopreneur. We're grateful to have had the chance to sit down and share insights from their solopreneur journey on The Industry Leaders.Nikki is an ex management team leader in the legal world, turned award winning entrepreneur, on a mission to enable other autistic & ADHD females & entrepreneurs to create a fulfilling & thriving life, and redefine success on their terms. She is setting out to empower neurodivergent women to show up and live boldly, as their true, authentic selves.
Nikki is passionate about playing her part in creating the change she wishes had come earlier, smashing apart outdated legacy stereotypes and ensuring that younger generations don’t grow up with the same experiences and challenge that many women diagnosed as autistic and ADHD in later life have experienced. She is on a mission to shine a spotlight on the incredible skills & talents of autistic & ADHD women, and to empower them to live boldly, authentically and unapologetically, and to become inspiring role models for generations to come.
Could you begin by telling us about your background, what led you to become a solopreneur, and what specific industry or niche you've carved out for yourself?"
Prior to being a solopreneur, I worked in the legal field after graduating with a law degree in 2000. Rather than pursuing the traditional solicitor route, I trained in management and leadership and spent over a decade leading teams in both private practice and corporates. As the years rolled by, the stress piled on and I found myself experiencing chronic insomnia, anxiety and IBS. I lived with a constant fear of failing, of someone discovering I wasn't capable and an even bigger fear that this was what the rest of my life was going to be like, I hated it. I was miserable, unfulfilled and lived in a constant state of worry and dread. At 36, I experienced what I now know to be a significant autistic ADHD burnout. My exit from corporate life came shortly after I drove home one November evening in 2011, and briefly considered driving my car off the road, so I wouldn't have to endure the corporate torture anymore. I knew, in that moment, I had to leave and resigned. After a year long burnout, barely being able to function, and driven by dwindling resources, I made the decision to return to work. I couldn't face going back into corporate life, so I drew on skills I had learnt from the multiple 'just for fun' courses I had taken along the way. My curious brain had led me to study in multiple areas, so I had options. Although I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and I didn't trust myself to do anything well, if I'm honest. I was still processing and recovering from my shame in the belief that I had 'failed' as an adult, unable to cope with corporate life and adult responsibilities. A belief I only truly let go of after my autism and ADHD diagnosis in my mid forties. My foray into solopreneurship started with hobby businesses, including beauty services, a children's pottery painting business and silver keepsake jewellery. Some of these businesses saw me earning less that £3 an hour, I had no sense of self worth, I was punishing myself for my corporate exit, unknowingly. None of these businesses made it past a year, and a valuable lesson I learnt was not to turn my hobbies into a business - it robbed me of the joy! As my confidence picked up, I launched my nutritional therapy business and very quickly after that, I was inspired by a friend to train as a medical tattooist, specialising in post mastectomy tattoos for breast cancer patients. 6 months into my medical tattooing training I discovered scar improvement treatments, and I knew I'd found my 'thing' - or I thought I had! I went on to win multiple awards for my skin, scar and tattooing services, which ultimately culminated in running my award winning skin & scar clinic, specialising in self-injury scar improvement and advanced skin rejuvenation treatments. Being able to help women feel confident and happy in their skin, so they can get on with enjoying their lives, felt so rewarding.
In early 2022, I underwent major spinal surgery which left me with permanent nerve damage, and changed the course of my entrepreneurial path forever. I wasn't able to return to clinical work full time. The time away from the clinic allowed me to focus on making some much needed changes in my life. My autism and ADHD diagnosis in my mid-forties shone a spotlight on how and where I needed to make significant changes. I was overcome with fear and anxiety when I couldn't find the tools or support to be able to make the changes I needed to make - I questioned whether my diagnosis had come to late, maybe I was stuck where I was. I recall one of my business mentors telling me I was 'the author of my own misfortune', having created a successful business that seemed impossible to change, or step back from. Fortunately, I had time on my hands following my surgery, to really focus on getting to know my autistic and ADHD self. I drew on my 20 years + of leadership and coaching, and revisited the self development tools that I used after I left corporate. And through that, I created my own way forward, a way to align my life to my values, my dreams, my passions and my strengths. I was able to carefully and lovingly curate a life that worked for and with me, not against me. I learnt how to create my own version of success, and advocate confidently for myself. I created my RADIATE model, which formed the basis of my transformation, but also helps me remain aligned, and deal with any challenges that come my way. It felt amazing! And I wanted to share this with as many women as possible! And so, The Autistic Joyologist was launched! I am on a mission to help other autistic and ADHD women to lead lives where they are thriving and joyful, where they create their own version of success, and show up authentically and unapologetically, as their true selves. The not so secret wider mission is to smash apart outdated legacy stereotypes, and create a better future for younger generations of autistic and ADHD world. A world where they can thrive and shine as their authentic selves, and for the world to embrace and celebrate them! I've been able to carve a unique niche for myself, in helping other autistic & ADHD female entrepreneurs and leaders to realign their lives too. I have over a decade of experience in both corporate and being a solopreneur and I had created a working model that was effective, adaptable and simple to use. I believe I have been able to carve this niche for myself because firstly, I am helping other women like me, so I truly understand many of their challenges, experiences, fears and hopes. Secondly, I have first hand experience of being a leader and an entrepreneur, and I have successfully transformed my own life. I created something unique that has been self led and intuitive and has resonated with my ideal client. After I couldn't find the solutions, tools or support for myself, I created something that is completely different to what's currently available, and it is very specific, relevant and relatable for my ideal client. As I shared my RADIATE model and plans for The Autistic Joyologist with other neurodivergent women, I realised that there was a need for my services and insights, and that my story and experiences could help not just women today, but could make significant impact on the future experiences of generations to come.
Starting a business is often a leap into the unknown. In your early days as a solopreneur, what were some unexpected challenges you faced, and what strategies did you develop to overcome them?
My first really successful business, my skin and scar clinic, started off as being a medical tattooist for breast cancer patients and a scar specialist. These are the three biggest challenges I faced when I launched: Nobody cared: I followed the business start up plan, I built the website, I put it online and nobody came. Nobody cared. I felt deflated! It's true what they say - launching a business and expecting people to come is a recipe for disaster! I honestly felt like no-one wanted or needed my services and almost gave up. However, I met a business coach who kicked me up the back side and told me to get a grip - something I am forever grateful for. The services I offered were very niche and not well known at the time, so I had to raise awareness of my offerings, and who/how I could help. I started to network and build relationships with surgeons, cancer nurses, cancer support groups and other medical professionals. I gave talks, I went and met with surgeons, nurses and breast cancer survivors, and I started to volunteer for a cancer charity called Look Good Feel Better, where I ran makeup and skin workshops for women who were going through cancer treatments. It was about raising awareness, but it was also about giving back and supporting the clients I wanted to work with. Having a mind set of 'being of service' and being a business for good really changed everything. Copycats: The first time someone ripped off my content, used my before/after pictures as their own and started trying to emulate my business - I was shocked. I was angry, frustrated and worried. They were trying to beat me on pricing and copy what I was doing. I realised that the longer I was in business, the more this was going to happen.
And I let it go. If someone was using my photos, I'd contact them and ask them to take them down, but for the most part, I ignored it. The secret is to keep looking forwards, not backwards. Anyone copying you will always be behind you, and as long as you're showing up in an authentic and unique way, no-one can take that away from you. Your USP is YOU. It's about how you make your clients feel and the experience they have with you. Sometimes you will fail, and that's perfectly normal: I made some *bad* decisions in my business. Usually when I was trying to keep up with the latest trends, or doing what I thought I *should* be doing. And the thing is, not everything you do is going to work out. You will get some things wrong, you'll trip up, you'll stumble and other times you'll fall flat on your face. It's all OK! Use these moments as opportunities to learn and grow, reflect on what went wrong and how you can learn from it. Laugh at yourself, and see it as part of the journey. And remember Thomas Edison's quote (inventor of the lightbulb) "I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that do not work". Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again. I don't believe in failure - I only believe in lessons and learnings, which move us closer towards our dreams and goals.
Can you share a pivotal moment where you realized that your unique approach was actually working? What did you learn from that experience, and how did it shape your journey?
With my skin & scar clinic, it was during the pandemic, a couple of months into Lockdown. I read Ryan Holiday's book The Obstacle Is The Way and it changed my mindset forever! I decided to make the pandemic - my obstacle - the way forward. And so, whilst everyone else around me was sipping G&T's in the garden and lounging in the sun, I committed to work 5 hours a day, 5 days a week , on my business. During that time I completely transformed my business. I niched down to only the core services I wanted to offer. I revamped my website and reached out to industry leaders, suppliers and peers, and built new relationships and new ways of working. Suppliers were open to working with me in ways that they wouldn't have been, pre pandemic. I realised, in the moments of isolation, without access to my business coaches or peers, that I had a unique way of working, and a much bolder vision than I had let myself believe.
I started to lean into my gut instincts and get curious about how I could do things differently, and what I wanted to stand for. I became clear on who I truly wanted to help and why. So, when I relaunched my clinic - having invested in setting up a High Street Clinic in the middle of the pandemic (crazy leap of faith, I know!), I flew. I loved the treatments I was offering, I loved the clients I was working with, and I quickly became booked up months in advanced. I started winning awards for my services and customer experience and my reputation as a scar specialist soared. I also turned over almost three times as much revenue in that year post pandemic. From that moment on, my mindset shifted to also make the obstacle or challenge my way forward - to create a positive opportunity to grow and learn. I also learnt to make decisions based on what I wanted to do, not trying to follow the path of others. I learnt that standing out and not fitting in was the secret to success for me! Both of these learnings were at the forefront of my mind when I was diagnosed autistic and ADHD in my mid forties, shortly followed by major spinal surgery that left me with permanent nerve damage and resulted in me only being able to return to work part time in my clinic,. As I navigated my way through realigning my life to support my autistic and ADHD self, and learning to deal with living in chronic pain, I held onto the beliefs that I could turn anything into a positive step forward, with the right mindset. I launched The Autistic Joyologist after transforming my own life post diagnosis. When I was diagnosed autistic ADHD in my mid 40's I felt like my world suddenly made sense, whilst simultaneously crashing down around me. I feared I had received my diagnosis too late to make the changes I desperately wanted to make. As I processed my autism and ADHD diagnosis, I realised that the resources available to me were predominantly checklists, ineffective tools (for me), and a surplus of relatable anecdotes. None of these materials facilitated a genuine connection with my true self. When I couldn’t find the resources or help I needed, I decided to draw on my 20 years of management, coaching and mentoring experience, and the personal development work I had previously done, and create my own way forward. I created my RADIATE model, which is simple, effective, and repeatable model to help me align and remain aligned to my true self. Essentially, I became my first real time client – and coached myself through my RADIATE programme, a tool I use daily. I realised that I felt the calmest I had ever felt in my entire life, and my life was working for and with me, not against me. I knew I wanted other women like me, to experience the same transformation.
The Autistic Joyologist has a twofold mission of empowering and enabling this generations autistic & ADHD female entrepreneurs & leaders to create thriving and joyful lives, and to redefine success on their terms. To help them align to their values, dreams, passions and goals, and to create the support they need to life an authentic and unapologetic life. The second mission is to smash apart outdated and damaging legacy stereotypes, to ensure our future generations have a more more positive future. I realised that again, leaning into my intuition, trusting my instincts and looking for the opportunities amongst the challenges was the way forward, and it was a catalyst for giving me the inspiration and drive to launch The Autistic Joyologist, as I knew I could help so many other women, whilst driving long term change.
Your success hasn't come overnight. Could you delve into the key principles and practices that you've found most critical in building your business as a solopreneur? What differentiates your method from others?
1. Stand out, don't try and fit in! When you're starting out, it's easy to look around and see what others are doing and think that that is what you need to do. The challenge then is that you blend into a sea of sameness, you don't stand out from the noisy chatter of others. Finding a unique way to solve a problem, or present a solution to a problem, is where you'll find success.
2. Be clear on who you want to help and WHY. You can't be all of the things to all of the people. So many entrepreneurs and small businesses look to what other are doing, to see the path and what they *should* be doing. I believe the secret to success is to find your own path, and find unique ways to stand out, not fit in.
3. It's not about selling, it's about problem solving: I've always been really clear on what problem I am solving for my clients and what the transformation is. Deeply understanding their unique needs, challenges and fears, and crafting a full and complete solution. If you focus on the transformation and solution that you offer - you'll connect much more deeply with your clients, and they will connect with you, knowing you understand them.
4. Get help before you need it: Investing in a VA was golden - it gave me back more time to do the things I'm really good at, and took away the stress of the stuff I was terrible at. I also like to think it's an opportunity to let someone else's skills shine. Doing it all yourself is a false economy - you just waste your valuable time that could be best spent elsewhere in the business. Get some support before you think you can afford it, and watch your business soar - your time and impact is valuable, let someone else help with the tasks that are robbing you of that valuable time.
5. Be true to yourself: Let your personality shine through and don't try and be a version of yourself that isn't the real you. People can tell! Be authentic and show up as you, and you'll attract the right kind of people into your business and have a much deeper connection with them. They will get to know, like and trust you - and that is the key to success! For me, being true to myself also means making sure I am making decisions that are aligned to my values, goals and passions. I trust my gut instinct, and listen to myself, when I'm making decisions. It can be very easy to be swayed by the noise of what you *should* be doing, and staying true to myself helps me block this out. These are key secrets to success and something many solopreneurs forget to do.
Running a business solo requires a blend of skills. How have you balanced the demands of various roles like marketing, product development, and customer service? Can you share any tools or strategies that have been particularly effective?
In the beginning it can feel like stumbling around in the dark! I have taken so many courses on starting a business, and various functions of business management over the years. I've joined Facebook challenges about marketing, social media and also industry support groups. I learnt a lot along that way, and also from the things that went well and the things that didn't. There has been a lot of trial and error. The first strategy/tool is your mindset: Don't be put off if something doesn't go to plan, learn from it and move on. Don't give up, you're better than that! In terms of a strategy, things got a lot easier when I became really clear on who I wanted to help (who my ideal client was). For many small businesses, they feel they need to offer a wide range of services to attract as many people as possible. I have found the opposite to be true, in achieving success. Getting really niche makes all other areas of your business flow much easier. For example: The Autistic Joyoloist is for female entrepreneurs & leaders that are autistic and/or ADHD. I deeply know my ideal client, as I am her. I spent over a decade in corporate leadership and over a decade as an entrepreneur as an undiagnosed autistic ADHD woman. I understand the core challenges, pain points and frustrations, and I also understand the desired outcomes and dreams. So it becomes much easier for me to provide transformative solutions, guidance and helpful tools. Because I am super clear on who I am helping and why, I only create services and products for my ideal client. I only market to them, and I do it in a way that they understand and connect with. I am genuine, authentic and honest with them and listen to their unique challenges and needs. It means that everything I do has a clear purpose, and so I don't waste my time trying to connect with anyone else, or create services that are more generic. Being autistic and ADHD brings with it it's own unique challenges in being a solopreneur. I need to find a balance between structure and creativity. The tools and techniques I have found invaluable have been:
1. Having clear goals. I like to have a three year goal and a one year goal. I work on my yearly goal and work backwards. I look at quarterly goals and then monthly goals. I then work backwards for the week and list the tasks I need to complete to ensure I meet my monthly goal. For each week, I am quite fluid though - as my autism and ADHD can be challenging with energy levels and focus. If my week is planned out and I hit a slump or overload, then I need to have the flexibility to move things around. So at the start of each day, I pick 1-3 things I want to achieve that move me forward (depending on how big they are).
2. There are some great planners around that are essential - although I'll be honest and say that now, my VA and digital team help me with these! Social media planners are great, so you can block create posts and schedule them. Trello is great for project management and organising tasks and priorities. Email marketing is under rated but so essential, I use Campaign Manager and block create emails, I do one a week but write a whole month at once.
3. I keep a vision board which includes all areas of my life. This keeps in my mind how I want my life to look and feel. It can be so powerful when making business decisions - if time with your family is super important to you, then committing to a business opportunity that will take you away for weeks on end, or demand long hours, is going against the vision for your life. It can be a great tool to help keep you on track for why you're doing what you're doing.
4. Taking time out! I learnt the hard way that time out to recharge and rest is essential. I would work very long hours and not take holidays in the first few years. I realised that taking time out was not only essential for my wellbeing, but helped restore my creative energy. When I take time out now, I start to get new ideas and inspiration - which helps me come back with renewed energy for my business.
5. Creating an ecosystem of products and services: After being on Daniel Priestley's KPI Program, I realised how vulnerable I was as I only offered in-person services. Having to stop work completely due to the pandemic, and then again following major spinal surgery, I was acutely aware of how vulnerable this made me financially. So now I have an ecosystem of products and services that include digital downloads and online courses.
Reflecting on your journey, what's one lesson you learned the hard way that you wish you had known when you first started? How would you advise other aspiring solopreneurs?
That not everyone is rooting for you! One of the things that hit me hard was that people I had expected to support me didn't, and plenty of people had their own harsh opinions that they were very happy to share - completely unsolicited! I was faced with a lot of "you should...../shouldn't" opinions and judgements. Plenty of people told me I'd never make it and even more that there was no money it what I was doing. When people around you start to put you down, it can be difficult to shut out the noise. I played it small for very long time, trying to fly under the radar and avoid the opinions and judgements of others. I didn't share what I was doing with people, because I didn't' want to hear the negative comments or opinions. And it was very lonely. What I have learnt along the way is that other people project their limiting beliefs and issues onto you, and that has nothing to do with you. If we let these opinions and experiences in, we will never truly achieve the success we are capable of. One of my favourite quotes is from Deepak Chopra "What other people think of you is not your business. If you start to make it your business, you will be offended for the rest of your life".
My advice to anyone that experiences pain from the opinions of others is to know that it says everything about the other person, and nothing about you. Follow your dreams, dance to your own tune and go out and share your skills and passion with the world. You are limitless, you can achieve anything you want to achieve in your business, I promise you that! If I had listened to all the naysayers I would have done myself and others a huge disservice. And for everyone who said I had a hobby business, I went on to earn 2.5 x my corporate salary, whilst helping improve the quality of life for many others. When we look at our industry leaders, role models and guru's - remember that they are human beings. They aren't special or the chosen ones, they just had a dream and went after it, unapologetically! Sure, they will have made some mistakes along the way - but they will have seen them as opportunities to grow and learn, and come out even stronger on the other side. Launching The Autistic Joyologist has been my biggest challenge to date. I have had to battle the rejection of others around my autism and ADHD diagnosis, because I don't fit into the boxes they have labelled 'autistic' or 'ADHD', I have had so many unsupportive comments from people I thought better of. But, I have drawn on the experiences of over a decade as a solopreneur and unapologetically put myself out there. I 100% believe that my story needs to be shared and that I can be a catalyst for positive change, both now and for future generations. I let that belief drive me forward, and the naysayers can continue their irrelevant chatter in the background. My advice to you is to throw yourself whole heartedly into your business and be whatever you want to me. Don't let the irrelevant opinions of other sway you, just go out there and shine.
Innovation is often key in entrepreneurship. How have you fostered creativity and innovation in your business? What tips can you offer to those seeking to continually innovate in a rapidly changing market?
Some of my past business coaches and mentors will likely cry when they read this - but I don't really take much interest in what my competitors are doing. In truth, I don't look at others in my industry as competition, we all have our own unique offerings and skills, and there's plenty of opportunities and space for everyone. When I think about innovation and creativity I look for where I can add value, or fill an unfulfilled or under serviced need. I always start with my ideal client avatar and I think about how I can solve her problems and give her the transformation she needs/desires, in a better/quicker/more enjoyable way. How can I elevate the experience and do better. This approach stops me looking back at what others are doing and trying to follow their path. It means I can think about my clients and their needs, and I can also think about how I can utilise my skill set in a way that feels good for me.
When I launched The Autistic Joyologist, I went purely off gut instinct and what felt right. This is something I learnt to trust from almost a decade of entrepreneurship, and something I wish I had tapped into much earlier in my journey! When I was diagnosed autistic and ADHD in my mid forties, I looked around for tools and coaches to help me move my life forward, so I could support my neurodivergent needs, whilst still thriving in my business. I just couldn't find anything that connected with me, or helped me make the changes I knew deep down I needed to make. So I stopped looking outward, and starting looking inward. I have over 20 years combined experience of coaching and mentoring from my corporate and solopreneur days, and I'd spent well over a decade on self development. Combining these elements, I coached myself into bringing my life into alignment with my needs, but also my values, dreams, passions and goals. As a result, I created my RADIATE model, which brings all of this together and can be applied to realign your whole life, specific areas, or even specific situations. And, it is adaptable for everyone, so there's no set of rules and tools, but a set of principles and guidance that means everyone that uses it can find their own way of applying it in their lives, and it's something they can revisit time and again, to remain aligned. I have found that creativity and innovation flows when you look within, rather than searching for the answers within the industry. The key to innovation is finding an opportunity to add more value, to enrich the experience and to create a positive impact. Find the sweet spot, and listen to your intuition (and your ideal client!). Explore what's possible, try it out and run with it! And remember, prolific beats perfect! You do not have to have the perfect product or service to get it out there - you can sharpen in the market, when it's out there!
Looking forward, what are your plans for the future of your business, and how do you see the landscape for solopreneurs evolving in the next five years?
With The Autistic Joyologist, I am building an ecosystem of products and services to complement my coaching and speaking services. I am creating The Autistic Joyologist Hub, which is an online platform with courses, resources, digital downloads and interviews/talks with other experts. I am also considering a membership programme within the next 1-2 years. I am writing a book for autistic & ADHD female entrepreneurs and leaders, focusing on my Signature RADIATE method, to enable them to realign their lives to work with and for them, so they can create fulfilling and thriving lives and redefine success on their terms. I am currently creating a unique programme for autistic & ADHD women, who are looking to start up their own businesses. Drawing on my experiences from corporate and over a decade of being an solopreneur, my programme will support women in structuring and creating a business that maximises their strengths, and also enables them to create a supportive environment and advocate for their needs. I hope to write more articles and appear on interviews and podcasts, to help shine a line on the incredible skills and talents of autistic and ADHD entrepreneurs and leaders, and to shift perceptions about what autism and ADHD *looks* like, particularly in females. I am on a mission to smash apart outdated legacy stereotypes, so that our younger generations of autistic and ADHD girls can thrive and live boldly, authentically and unapologetically, free from the challenges that many of us in today's society face.
I would love to be a catalyst for change in the way in which autism and ADHD is diagnosed in the UK, and the support services that are available. I would also like to positively impact the experiences of as many women as possible, and leave the world a better place for our younger girls. I will be as noisy as I need to be to do this! I feel that the landscape for solopreneurs is an open playing field - with more and more opportunities arising. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I feel that the pandemic really honed a feeling of community, and communities like to support local business. So this is something to foster and embrace. The tools and ability to reach millions of people are at our fingertips! Whilst this can be noisy and hard to stand out, if you're clear on your client and message, and you have a unique voice that deeply connect with your ideal client, then the ways to reach them are almost limitless now! Being a solopreneur is exhilarating and fun, if you let it be. The world needs to hear your voice, we all have something valuable and unique to offer. But you really have to want it! You have to find the strength and tenacity to keep going, even when it feels tough. So my advice is to choose something that you're really passionate about, something that is your driving force - because that is what will get you out of bed in the morning, on the days you really don't feel like it!