When I lost my job (as the marketing director of a technology start up) in June of 2010, the outlook for job replacement was grim. I knew that finding a fulfilling opportunity with my existing skill set was going to be something of an uphill battle, to say the least. As it turned out, a few months into my job search during the worst job market in the history of mankind, it was more like crawling up an endless sand dune. During the spring of my layoff (without a paycheck, I’d like to add) the opportunities for a senior-level communications executive were essentially non-existent. I was going to have to get creative.
I was going to have to start over.
When a friend of mine approached me about joining him in his new venture in the solar energy space as his equal partner, I didn’t take long to weigh my options. It was the only viable, solid choice that someone had approached me with in 6 months. As a mutual friend put it so succinctly not long afterwards: “Well, hell, it was an OFFER, wasn’t it?” So, at the beginning of 2011, I officially became an entrepreneur.
If you count yourself amongst the 12.8 million unemployed American workers (this according to the US Department of Labor as of March, 2012), you may be thinking about hanging a shingle and stepping out on your own. I’d suggest that a time when no one can find work easily is the ideal time to start a business. (If nothing else, it’s great resume filler while you continue to look for other work.) When I first got into the business, I figured I had nothing to lose, but it’s evolved into a commitment, something that I won’t abandon. It’s also an industry that I believe in (what kind of black-hearted cynic couldn’t get behind renewable energy?) and something that I know can garner my partner and I a great income source in the future. As such, I’ve got some wisdom to share after surviving my first 13 or 14 months of being a small business owner. I call it “dispatches from year one.”
If I could summarize year one of a new business, I’d say that it’s tantamount to walking on a glacier wearing a pair of flip-flops: treacherous, slow going, humbling and even (often) painful. A week or so ago, I had lunch with a dear friend who is a business banker, and as she was patiently comforting me after I’d shared some of my recent year one war stories, she said, “Rachel, you do realize that your first two years are going to be pure hell, right?”
So why are the first two years so hellish? There’s the obvious financial risk/reward scenario: tons of risk, little to no financial reward. For me, honestly, that is the easiest aspect to balance and manage. It’s no picnic, but it was well within my expectations that I’d have to find ways to support myself until my business took off (which will most certainly be the subject of another post). It’s the “I don’t know what I don’t know” issue that causes me the most stress. Every week, often every day, there is some humbling, ego-bruising, “why didn’t I see that coming” lesson that turns my priority list into a wish list, a thing I wish I had time to complete were I not managing an unforeseeable mini-crisis of some kind. These are the moments that can serve as blockades to profitability. Anyone in business for herself will tell you that all of your priorities should be focused on new business origination. Those same people will nod in commiseration when you explain that when there are two people running a new business, that precious time that should be devoted to marketing, sales and business development gets sucked up by angry clients, negligent subcontractors, lazy suppliers, mundane tasks like bookkeeping, and the laundry list of compliance issues that every business owner has to fulfill in year one.
Imagine making an omelet with one hand and holding a tiger by a leash with the other. Now imagine that you’ve done this for 6 hours and you’ve got a networking event to go to, crucial for generating new business. Now imagine that you just got home, it’s 11:00 p.m. and you’ve got a meeting at 7 a.m. 25 miles from your house the next morning. You’ve reviewed your schedule for the next week and you realize, with a shudder, that you haven’t yet budgeted time to do your year-end with your accountant.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to year one.
About a month ago, I hit a wall. Or it hit me. Either way, I found myself curled up on the couch, watching a reality TV marathon about a group of America’s favorite housewives from New Jersey, stuck in a sort of paralysis. I was emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausted. A single question floated through my mind: “How am I going to handle this?” I felt like a failure.
And then I called Gail.
Gail is one of my oldest friends in the world. We met in high school, and she’s been inspiring me ever since. She’s also been a realtor all her adult life. If anyone could talk me off the ceiling—if ANYONE could help assuage my acute anxiety—it would be her. She did everything I could have asked her to do during that phone call. She was supportive, encouraging, and educational. She recommended books (which I’m reading), and she reminded me that I was a baby at all this—babies always crawl before they walk and it takes them at least two years before they can properly use a fork. I wrote down a lot of things during that call, but there are two notes that I refer to all the time: one, be more patient; two, call Gail more.
Mind you, she’s the one that insisted that I reach out to her more often. It’s not selfish to ask for help when you’re doing something that’s new and unfamiliar: it’s necessary for your survival. Gail has had two decades to adjust to the ups and downs of self-employment. She knows and understands my personality well. She is the ideal person to talk to about the various dilemmas that I’ve been confronting. Most importantly, I know that she can listen without judging me and that she will tell me the truth in a loving and compassionate way.
I wasn’t aware of this until writing this post, but the word “mentor” originates from a Greek myth. Mentor was an advisor and friend to Odysseus. Later, Athena disguises herself as Mentor to advise the son of Odysseus, Telemachus, to search for his father. The word itself didn’t appear in use widely until the 18th century after Mentor was named the hero of a popular French novel, which dramatized the myth of Telemachus and Mentor. (This also, by the way, is where the term “protégé” comes from.)
If you remember anything about The Odyssey, Odysseus is absent from his son’s life from his infancy on. It’s Mentor that keeps an eye on him and prepares him to search for his father in Troy. I like to think that if you’re brave enough to start your own business, it is a bit like your own odyssey. It’s a long journey; full of hard lessons that may take years to process (hopefully your shipmates won’t be turned into swine by an evil but also sort of benevolent sorceress) and you’ll be away from home a lot. And you will, without fail, need mentors to help you along the way.
After speaking with Gail (and downloading the books she suggested onto my Kindle), I made a list of “go to” people and set up meetings or phone calls with them immediately. One of them was my father. On the phone he said, “Once you learn how to handle the fear of failure, you can start and run any kind of business you want.” (My dad owned and operated a marketing and advertising consultancy for the last 10 yeas of his career.) I spoke to my friend Michael, a small business owner who is having his own pains now, but who reminded me that it’s never easy to build a foundation; but that once it’s built, I’ll reap the rewards of that foundation for years to come.
I carefully selected people who wouldn’t necessarily tell me what I wanted to hear, but people who would tell me what I needed to know. For all of these conversations, I am stunned and grateful. One of these conversations led me to start attending women’s groups, where I’m there not so much to network, but to find support and inspiration. Another conversation led me to the decision that I’m going to dig into my savings and splurge on a hiring a business coach, someone who is dedicated professionally to helping me suffer the slings and arrows of this new phase of my career.
Who are the mentors in your life? If you don’t have any, where can you find them? Networking groups are a great place to start. Attend industry conferences on a regular basis to make new contacts and find people in the same business you’re in who’ve been at it for a while. Find people who are successfully self-employed and sit down with them once a month; when you do, bring a list of specific questions or issues that you need to discuss. If you can’t afford a business coach, find someone who is starting out and barter for their time—they will need the experience and the referral. Make finding mentors as much a priority as finding new business. Schedule follow-up calls with your mentors regularly, just as you would with a potential client. No one will tell you to do this in business school, but securing this kind of support it is as important as your business plan.
A master yoga teacher I know once said people who stop looking for teachers do so because they believe they don’t have anything else to learn. Granted, my teacher was talking about hubristic tendencies, but the same logic applies for career development. There is no shame in finding people who know more than you do and asking for their help. Your reward will be feeling less isolated and prepared for your odyssey. Their reward—if they are a true mentor and friend—will be witnessing your success and helping you to maintain it.
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