Cancer and the Solopreneur

Last year I set out to blog regularly in order to lend insight into topics of interest to companies that are trying to figure the best way to build a website or market their business. I set myself a long list of topics and set about writing daily, and posting whenever I’d finished a brief essay on my self-assigned topic. I have never intended this to be a personal blog, other than to share personal experiences that pertain to the topic at hand. I debated just picking up where I left off, but decided that my personal perspective on this topic may be of value to other solopreneurs, and worth sharing.

This is my first blog post as a cancer survivor.

A little over a year ago, I was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive breast cancer. I won’t bore you with the details, other than to say that what followed that diagnosis was two surgeries, six weeks of radiation, three months of chemotherapy, and a bout of pneumonia. Then the recovery began.

Being a solopreneur made the entire ordeal much less stressful than it might have been. I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to attend the many, many medical appointments that dominated the past year (radiation treatments alone are five days per week).  When the worst of the fatigue from chemotherapy hit, I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to take the time I needed for my body to heal. When I felt a little better, I’d work on the sofa with my laptop; a little better yet and I would work a few hours at my desk.

I made the decision early on to stop taking on new clients for the duration. It was fortunate that my illness coincided with a deep recession, so there wasn’t a huge amount of work to turn away. I continued to work with current clients, but made sure they were informed of what was going on. I had one stipulation for any projects I’d take on: no tight deadlines. All business development projects—including this blog—fell by the wayside. After decades of putting my work first, my health became my #1 priority.

I am fortunate that the drop in income was a struggle, but not a disaster. I have good health insurance, and cannot stress enough how important that is for anyone of any age, no matter how healthy you think you are. I am also fortunate to have a husband who was able to help support me not only financially and emotionally but logistically: driving me to appointments, cooking meals, and picking up the slack as efforts towards household chores fell by the wayside, too.

Years before, I had purchased long-term disability insurance, yet I ended up never filing a claim. It was difficult to gauge how much I “should” have been able to work; there are many who continue to work full-time straight through chemotherapy. I didn’t want to stop working 100%, nor did I want to continue working 100%. My medical schedule and energy level varied from week to week and day to day, so it was difficult to say how much I was working or intending to work. My situation didn’t conform to what was expected on the insurance company’s claim forms, and needless to say, they were of no assistance in figuring it out. When it was all over, I ended up canceling the insurance and wishing I’d saved my money all these years.

I had my first meeting with a potential new client during my last week of chemotherapy. My biggest anxiety about the meeting was what to wear on my bald head. Since I work at home, I had not bothered to fill my prescription for a wig. Although I have a fine collection of scarves, I didn’t want to show up to a business meeting looking like a gypsy. And nothing says “cancer patient” like a turban. My husband suggested the obvious: Why don’t you wear your red beret? Which is what I did, although I had to tug it down over my ears to disguise the lack of hair.

As my energy level has increased post-chemo, so have the hours I spend on my business. I’m working on several client projects and have a few more in the queue. I’m studying Google Analytics with the intention of obtaining my certification, and also taking a 26-week course to become a Certified Marketing Advisor. I’ve started some non-work-related creative projects that may or may not converge with my design work at some point down the road. I’ve updated my business plan with tasks that take me all the way through to the end of this year.

Having meetings and milestones on my calendar again is a great tonic.  For several months I was focused only on getting through the day, or even the hour. To be able to focus on goals that are months or years down the road, and being healthy enough to do the work to meet them, is something I don’t take for granted.

One of my milestones has been to resume blogging. Check!

I’ll be resuming my editorial calendar from last year, picking up with my discussions of web development options, especially my personal favorite, WordPress. Following that I’ll be talking about branding and logos, print design and marketing collateral. In addition I’m developing a library of quick tips that I hope to pepper throughout the blog. As I go through my studies on marketing for entrepreneurs and Google Analytics, I hope to share some of what I learn here as well. If you are interested in these topics, come on back, or better yet, subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

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The problem with RFPs

There is an excellent discussion about RFPs going on over on A List Apart, a website “for people who make websites”. The author, Greg Hoy, outlines why he finds RFPs (Requests for Proposals) a poor way to choose a creative firm.

In theory, I think RFPs are not a bad idea. By setting a baseline of comparative points, a company is able to look at several vendors and compare apples to apples, rather than having a bunch of us creative types show up and do portfolio dog and pony shows.

In reality, though, RFPs require firms to jump through a variety of pointless hoops to provide information that is already available on the web. My company background, personal bio, and portfolio are all right here on this website. As a sole proprietor, it is not the best use of my time to package publicly available information into a document printed on paper that is a minimum of 30% post-consumer waste*, is not stapled*, is not folded*, and is delivered to a physical location by 5pm on such-and-such a date.

Beyond the basic information that most design firms provide on their websites, RFPs often request methodology, timeline and price for completing a project…without providing sufficient information about the project, or allowing for the opportunity to ask questions. That is easy enough information to provide for uncreative, boilerplate, production-run type of projects. For instance, it is much easier for a printer to respond with a set price for a run of 2,000 20-page 8-1/2″ x 11″ page size CMYK offset booklets on 100# matte text stock than it is for me to set a price for designing that booklet, which may or may not involve providing multiple creative concepts, custom illustration, photo retouching, designing charts and graphs, and dealing with multiple levels of decision makers.

Without having the opportunity to discuss the project in detail with the decision makers, it is almost impossible to respond with any accuracy. Often the one point of contact for an RFP is an administrator, not someone who will be involved in the development and approval of the content.

Some RFPs do provide a specific budget amount, which makes it much easier to provide an accurate proposal. But if you are preparing an RFP, be realistic. Don’t submit an RFP requesting pages and pages of detailed company background, references and project plans that will require the better part of a day to prepare, when your project budget is $2,000*.

I am happy to respond to RFPs that are worth the time it takes to prepare. I don’t know of any designer who would turn down an opportunity just because it came in the form of an RFP. I would define a good RFP as one that (a) respects the time and professionalism of the designer, (b) provides at least as much information as it requests, and (c) provides opportunity for discussing the project in more detail. Otherwise, the proposals you receive may provide less useful information than you could gather by picking up the phone and talking to a few designers directly. And some of your best prospects may decline to respond at all.

*All examples from RFPs I have received.

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The new wave of start-up companies

There’s an excellent article in the New York Times about young college graduates punting on the job market and choosing to become entrepreneurs instead. The anecdotes range from wildly successful to unabashed failures. Starting a business in your 20’s used to be an option only for the wealthy, well-connected or bold individualists willing to risk failure. Now it’s an attractive alternative to dead-end “entry level” jobs, serial “internships”, or living with your parents while avoiding the realization that your degree may have prepared you for nothing better than a career in retail sales.

Following several paragraphs of inspiring examples, the article cautions “Even if these 20-somethings pulled it off, the reality is a vast majority of entrepreneurs, of any age, don’t succeed.” Does having a job—any job—qualify as success? Which is preferable, a low-paying, insecure job not in your field of choice, or a start-up that limps along for a year or so, providing a meager income, but provides you with an understanding of business and markets that you would never have gotten sitting in a cubicle? That develops your self-discipline and expands your capabilities? That thrusts you into a management role a decade before you would experience it working your way up some mythical corporate ladder?

For young entrepreneurs who want to learn more about starting a business, finding funding and other resources, and ditching the job search routine, check out Never Get a Real Job, and it’s companion, the Death to the Resume Movement. In fact, if you’re not young and not an entrepreneur, check it out anyway. It might come in handy next time you’re laid off.

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Vacation day? What’s that?

Interesting article by Dan Pink about the Netflix policy of not having a set number of vacation days for employees. They instituted the policy for a couple of reasons: one is to treat grown-ups like grown-ups; another is a nod to the reality that many employees were putting in extra time responding to emails, texts and phone calls at all hours, or working from home on the weekends. The catch is that the employee needs to be sure their work is “covered” during their vacation time. My recollection of corporate life is that I would work extra hours in the weeks before and after a vacation to make sure that everything was covered while I was gone…really not much different then it is now, when I have no “paid” vacation time. It also sounds to me like it puts pressure on the employee to make sure their work is done in their absence…and what if they can’t guarantee that? “Sorry I had to miss your wedding, but my coworkers refused to do my job in my absence”.

One of the benefits of being a solopreneur is not having to ask permission to take time off. I make sure my clients know ahead of time if I’m leaving town; on most vacations, I check email and bring my computer with me just in case there’s a client emergency. To people for whom vacation time is sacrosanct, that probably sounds like an unreasonable breach of the work/life border. I view it as part of the package: I can take off hiking in the middle of the week if I want, but I also take my computer on vacations.

And one of these years I’m going to take off and go hiking in the middle of the week.

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