Surviving the business dark times

Sometimes, I receive an email that’s so compelling that I need to respond right away. This is one of those times.

The note said:

“I’m a freelance online copywriter. I’m busting my butt to get clients, and doing all the necessary marketing (email, networking, social media, article marketing, etc.). However, I’m still not getting the results I desire, but I see my colleagues who do the same exact thing that I do and they are making a killing.

I don’t want to sound like, ‘Woe is me,’ because that’s not me. I’m dedicated, passionate, and a fast-learner. I guess the question is, have you experienced this kind of ‘stuckness’ when you were just starting out? If so, what did you do to get past this phase? Please note, that I’m managing social media for two clients a month as well.”

Ah, I call this phase “surviving the dark times.” And yeah, it’s tough. I distinctly remember going through this about 14 years ago and feeling so frustrated that I threw a wicker chair against a wall. I knew what I wanted. I could SEE it. I just couldn’t figure out how to make the money flow.

Obviously, I pulled out of it. That doesn’t make me smarter or better. I just had a vision and I stubbornly held on to it – and eventually, everything worked out.

You may have seen this in your own business – whether you’re a freelance writer, a small business owner, or even a partner in a corporation. You’re working mondo hours and not seeing the money you want. You’re waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about money. And there’s a little voice inside of you whispering, “Give it up. You can’t do this. Close down and start over.”

Maybe you subscribe to a few newsletters in the hopes that they get you back “on track.” But the newsletters almost make it worse. Every headline talks about how much money everyone else (except you, of course) is making. You read inspirational stories about people who make it big within six months of opening shop. And that little voice inside of you whispers even louder, “Forget it. You’re wrong. Other people know the secret – and you’ll never succeed.”

Then you try talking to friends – or to your spouse. They try to be supportive. They really do. But when they say, “Maybe this isn’t the right time…maybe you should get a real job,” it tears you up inside. You don’t want to talk to them anymore. So you close down and give up.

And that inner voice that used to just be a whisper is now a full-force 3 a.m. taunt. You’re so burned out and demotivated that it’s hard to get up in the morning, much less work.

Here’s your compassionate reality check: This process is normal. It sucks, but it’s normal. And you will go through this many, many times throughout your career.

There are some great books on this topic (The Energy of Money is a great one) but here’s my take:

Running a business – like everything else – is cyclical. Some days (or months) you’re super-creative, motivated and in the flow. Other days, you wonder why the heck you decided to go into business for yourself. Some months (or years) you can’t keep up with requests for business. Sometimes, you happily talk to phone solicitors because – darn it – it was the first call you’ve received in weeks. There is dark and there is light. There is super-busy and there is super-quiet. It’s all part of the process.

Plus – and this is just my opinion – my theory is that most folks quit too early. They hit the dark times and they freak out. The fear is too much. They lose too much sleep. Instead of following their passion, they do what’s “safe.” Granted, there are times you do what you have to do to live – and there is no shame or judgment in doing that. Just know that it’s one thing to let your dream die and give up. It’s completely another to do everything you can (even if that means taking a part-time job) to keep that dream alive.

I strongly believe that we are rewarded for being passionate. When we’ve done the planning and we can see the goal on the “other side” – we will eventually get there. The trick is – and I know that this is easier said than done – is stay calm, manage by facts, and take care of you.

Some positive steps that you can take right now are:

  • Take time away from your business. Seriously! It may feel like the “worst time ever” to do it, but you need the perspective. You need to be able to look at your business with fresh eyes (and a calm brain) if you want to move forward. Otherwise, you’re going to burn yourself out and involve yourself in “busywork” that doesn’t move your business forward.
  • Take a hard, hard look at your business focus. Hindsight is always 20/20 – and for me, I know that a lack of focus can decimate my business opportunities. You may be an “online writer” – but who is your target audience? Can you picture what she/he would look like? What her hopes would be? Her fears? It’s so easy to do “anything” to get money in the door that we stray away from what we really want to do (and who we really want to work with.)
  • Spend time every day with “the end in mind.” Allow yourself to feel what it would be like to work with that company you really want to work with. Or imagining writing the check that pays off that last credit card payment. Or finally having enough money to take a “real” vacation. Keeping that excitement and vision alive is paramount.
  • Celebrate your successes. It’s so easy to say, “Well, yeah, I’m making money – but it’s not the money I want to make.” So what? You’re making money! Congratulate yourself and pat yourself on the back. You’ll never be able to break out of your funk if you never feel “good enough” to celebrate your successes.
  • Don’t believe everything you read and hear. Although your colleagues may say that they’re “raking in the bucks,” know that it may not be completely true. After all, it’s very, very hard for entrepreneurs to admit that they’re losing money (in our minds, we call it “failing” – even if that’s not the case.) It’s a whole lot easier to say that things are “great” rather than admitting “Yeah, I’m feeling pretty scared.”
  • Take care of you. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, you’re all you’ve got. If you get sick from the stress, you’re going to put yourself in a worse situation. If you ignore exercise because you “don’t have time,” you’re going to feel worse and be less productive. I would watch every piece of food you put into your body, and focus on high-quality meals. The better you feel physically, the better you’ll be able to handle any situation. (After typing that, I’m actually feeling a little guilty that I just munched the complimentary chocolate they gave me on the plane!).
  • Recognize the voices in your head. The voices telling you that you’re a failure at 3 a.m. aren’t real. It’s your fear coming back to bite you. Notice them. Laugh at them. Learn from them. But do not let them get to you. They are not real.
  • Know that your hard work is not in vain. At this very moment, someone may be discussing hiring you – you just don’t know it yet. Your life and financial situation can literally change with one phone call.
  • Get support from other entrepreneurs. My support network is comprised of search folks and local Portland business owners. I love them. I can go to them hurting and scared and frustrated and come away feeling fantastic. It really, really helps to know that you’re not alone (and you know that you’re never alone, right?) Other people have gone through this multiple times. They survived. You will too.
  • Ignore the naysayers. They do nothing but sap your energy and make you feel bad about yourself.  If you walk away from a friend feeling drained and tired, you may want to keep that friendship “on hold” until you’re in a better spot.  You don’t have time for folks like that.
  • Finally, recognize that this is, in fact, a phase. It’s the darkness before the dawn. It’s miserable and scary and…a little bit exciting too. Once you’ve gone through this a few more times, the process does get easier. You start to recognize what’s happening and move through it a little bit faster. It doesn’t make it “fun.” Heck, I go through this phase kicking and screaming (sometimes literally!) But at least you may not take it quite so personally next time.

If you’re going through this – hang in there. Know that things will – eventually – be OK. And let me know how it’s going. We’re all in this together.