If you’ve followed our story so far, you may have realized that previous posts made frequent mention of the business Brian built and has run for the last several years, and the one we’ll spin off from that. So, where am I in all this? I mean, besides being the supportive spouse who has dinner and a martini waiting the moment the hubs arrives after a long day of gunsmithing?*
Except for the no money thing, which is kind of a big deal given what we’re about to do, I’m actually in a really good place. I’m figuring out how to do things besides get in line and do what’s expected. Of course, I do have experience and education I’m not directly using right now. What’s more, depending on what all comes our way, I may not use it much going forward. Or maybe at all.
As you might expect, there’s a bit of a backstory here.
What are you? A loser?
Actually, I’m not now. But I was, I thought. That led me to do a lot of things primarily (it’s so clear in retrospect, eh?) so that I wouldn’t feel like a loser. Education. Home purchase. Civic involvement. Dating (ugh) & relationships. Things that wore me out mentally and rubbed against the introverted, intuitive instincts I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate. Still, a “less than” feeling gnawed at me.
Career and money are two areas that, for me, always turned up with excess emotional baggage. I got off to a rough start here; even before adulthood I tended to view anything less than overachievement as something that might as well be failure. As a young adult, I found it safer to apply for a no-brainer job than to get rejected for a more challenging one. For a long time, crap jobs were part of my M.O.
Once I got my ass in college (I was around 30 when I started), I finally shed the “loser” label I’d given myself. I was OK with whatever job helped me to my end goal, and if people saw me as less than I made sure it was only their fucking problem. Guess who once got in trouble for swearing while working at Chick-fil-A 🙂 ?
So, I worked my ass off until I graduated (magna cum laude, but until reason overtook me I was trying for summa) from college. Then I got a nice low-paying job with a quite-respectable design firm, and it eventually blossomed into a well-paying career.
How the hell’d I get here?
Even though I majored in media and rhetoric communication, and writing has always been a passion, I slid it to the back burner for much of my working life. That’s because I discovered web development while in college. It became an obsession that would define my career. Oops 🙁
Because I can (eventually, through persistence, hard work, and fear of failure) do a thing well, though, does not mean I should do it. When I don’t stop to question whether it’s a me thing or not, passing fancies become permanent fixtures.
When the design firm learned that the potential communications intern they were interviewing could build websites, both interviewers and interviewee were excited. I got the internship, got hired after graduation, and helped the firm build a lucrative side business in website design.
Since the firm was known primarily for corporate communications expertise, though – more specifically, that red-headed step-child known as the annual report to shareholders – we never really got the coolest web design projects. But I was getting paid! And working for Fortune 500 clients!! And earning bonuses!!!
And then the economy hiccuped.
Soon after that, some assholes stole planes and used them as bombs, and the economy got so bad that even what we thought of as our bread-and-butter business started going away. There were layoffs. I survived, but it was depressing to lose friends. There was, however, a silver lining.
Jack of all trades suddenly has none
A few years after the worst of the rough spots (or so I thought), the firm’s majority owner decided she wanted out (can’t blame her…she never intended to head up a design firm) and sold to the second-generation owner of a small ad agency. That was the beginning of the death spiral.
Over the coming year or so, Mr. Ad Agency Jr. struggled to figure out what to do with us, and corp-comm business – which was all about relationships, and our new owner was fresh out (in our niche, anyway) – vanished.
I was laid off, along with my boss. A few of our coworkers came before; eventually all but one lost their jobs. Mr. Ad Agency Jr. later sold the company name to its former minority owner for $1.
Without a job (but with a decent severance package – thanks, Mr. Ad Agency Jr.!), I had time to assess where I was going and what I would do for money. Brian and I had recently married, so I didn’t worry as much as I would have if I’d been solely responsible for the mortgage, etc. But me being me, I replaced fear of financial ruin with guilt that I might not be able to hold up my end of the bargain.
Incidentally, we never had a pre-nup (written, spoken or inferred anywhere but in my head) requiring each partner to contribute a salary.
Now what do I do?
Out of fear and guilt, I grabbed the first option that came to me and added a second that looked a lot like the first.
My former boss and another colleague invited me to collaborate on projects with them, all of which were in the same corp-comm realm as our design-firm gigs.
Around the same time I founded the simpler web. I saw it as a chance to work with who I wanted, how I wanted. Still focusing on website development, though. That was safe. That was where I had cred. It didn’t hurt that a couple of former design firm clients were lined up now that I didn’t have to charge design-firm overhead.
I wanted to work with small businesses and entrepreneurs – people I couldn’t even talk to about projects when I worked at the design firm. I figured working with little guys like this was as close as I’d get to owning my own brick-and-mortar business, something I’d daydreamed about toward the end of my tenure at the firm.
Back then I didn’t have more than a clue about this audience – especially brick-and-mortar small businesses. I learned the hard way that small budgets aren’t the only cause of problems with their websites.
Smaller businesses – bigger problems
Too many of the clients I took on seemed to resent this modern era where businesses must have websites. They couldn’t or wouldn’t devote time to understanding the opportunities a website brought them.
To ensure my projects for wayward clients moved along and looked and functioned well, I often did work I didn’t charge for. I’d tweak a headline. Or, write it in the first place because the client still hadn’t sent copy. Or give up on their promise to log in to some related account or another and copy embed code, and ask for their login so I can fucking get it done myself. And also go to their Facebook page and choose website photos because the entire project had been waiting on them for weeks.
Once I realized I was consistently putting in more hours on projects in the small-business niche, I raised my prices and posted them on my website. I got fewer inquiries and took in less work, but was more fairly compensated for hours I knew I’d have to spend if I wanted to do more than start projects.
Small business clients, though, still usually struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
Look what I found – a clue
With the help of business coach Tracy Hurt (who went nomad last year, BTW), I came to realize that the problems I experienced with small business clients were very common and not something I could control. The limitations, parameters and pricing I put in place helped some, but nothing I could do would move 99% of people in this niche beyond constant frustration for us both.
Websites don’t create problems (done right, anyway) – they solve them. Moreover, they bring opportunity on an unprecedented scale – even for one-person businesses. It’s only been within the last year or so that I’ve realized there’s a distinction between small business and entrepreneurial mindsets. Small businesses tend to be problem-focused, while entrepreneurs are opportunity-focused.
Perhaps if I’d realized that sooner I might have changed focus. Might have been less frustrated, done work that was valued more, and possibly made more money.
But I’m glad I didn’t get a clue until I’d just about had enough. When we humans are comfortable, we don’t want to move. And I am very human.
I’m a writer, not a coder
Although I have been writing for years, some of it paid, I have only danced around the edges of the kind of writing I’m capable of. This blog is the first writing I’ve ever done publicly that wasn’t impersonal how-to or corporate schlock.
I’m glad I have the skills to write ad copy, an SEO guide, a book about yogurt, or that I could write (and re-write, overnight, I shit you not) an annual report for the world’s worst client, a major purveyor of diabetes-inducing fizzy water. All of that writing, though, was avoidance.
Avoiding writing about my past. Avoiding writing things that might offend. Sticking to “safe” topics so as not to risk personal rejection. Not venturing into more challenging territory, where my writing might be mediocre. Steering clear of material that would mortify my family.
I still don’t have a clear path where my writing is concerned. I do know this: Writing is what I’m supposed to be doing. What I will be doing. Even if it doesn’t pay the bills.
Yo’ legs ain’t broke
Brian wishes I would write a novel that sells 20,000 copies a month. Right. I haven’t even written more than a short story, and it’s been forever since I did that. I’m not even sure a novel is where I’m supposed to go.
My intention with this post is to personally and publicly declare that I’m giving writing space in my life. Daily, or damn near. For now that’s one (usually ginormous) post per week to this blog, that I work on a few hours every day. I think that’s enough until we are able to downsize and clear space in our lives for me to do more.
I’ll also do whatever I can do to make money, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize my health or get in the way of writing. This girl ain’t afraid to work.
Will I still do websites and related work? Yes – for people who give a damn about quality and expect to participate in the process. I want to feel like I’m making a difference, even if it’s just a paid gig. Otherwise I’m like the therapist who collects $150/week from a client who won’t participate in their own well-being. Life’s too short.
Depending on where we’re at with OnSite Firearm Appraisal, the business we’ll spin out from Ott Gun Works, Brian may manage my web projects. He’s vowed to create Gantt charts and keep clients (and me) on time and on budget, and has mentioned a time or seventeen that he earned the nickname “The Velvet Hammer” in his past life as a project manager. Always delivered the goods, though, and that’s what it’s all about, right?
Hopefully there won’t be too many tears falling on my keyboard.
Full disclosure: Approximately 18.7% of the time dinner is actually ready when the hubs gets home. He drinks beer in the evenings, not martinis, and usually brings me a cold one. If you’re questioning my Stereotypically Supportive Spouse credibility at this point, know that I do prepare 99.9% of meals served in our house. Unless they’re grilled. (#manterritory) How’s *that* for a stereotype?