Does your business own you?

My confession: Whenever I read one of those headlines that scream, “Imagine the freedom you’ll have being your own boss,” I laugh.

Why? Because I know how easy it is to go from, “Hey, I can work from anywhere,” to “Hey, I have to bring my laptop wherever I go.”

In other words, how quickly it can go from “owning a business” to “the business owning you.”

Owning a business means that you’ve agreed to a certain lifestyle. Yes, if you’re a freelance SEO copywriter, you have the freedom to take a day off. At the same time, you may be working weekends and holidays just to meet deadlines. It’s OK for awhile, and then – with some people –  it becomes the norm. And then you feel nervous when you’re not working.

After a few years of living the self-employed life, you may slowly start making lifestyle changes. You don’t get a dog because you “travel too much.” You don’t see friends because things are “too busy.” You’re only half-listening to your partner as they try to connect with you. At the same time, you find it extremely important to update your Facebook status, tweet something brilliant and connect on LinkedIn for “personal branding.”

You find out that your work life and your personal life are so intertwined that they seem interchangeable…and it’s always about work. If you think about it, you may find that you’re more intimate with your online friends than your friends in real life. And you have no idea how that happened. (For a fascinating take on this, this TED talk by @ambercase discusses the concept of always-on, ambient intimacy.)

This may not happen to you during year one. Or even year two. But after owning a business for many years, you may find that you’re not “doing what you love” anymore. It’s lost its joy. You’re doing what you know how to do. And you don’t have an “exit strategy” other than dropping everything and moving to a desert island.

(For a funny perspective on this very thing, check out “4 exit strategies for marketing agency owners” by the wonderfully-witty Ian Lurie.)

Instead of feeling excited about new possibilities, you become tunnel-visioned. Your day becomes routine…and let’s face it, you didn’t become self-employed for a “routine” life. It’s way, way too boring.

Have I faced this myself?  You bet. I’ll go through a type of “business midlife crisis” every couple years or so. In a way, it’s exciting – I’ll typically throw everything up in the air and think. “OK, what if I left SEO?” “OK, what if I sold my company and worked in-house instead?” “What else could I do?” I look at new opportunities and gauge my excitement. It’s a very whirlwind process.

But man, it’s exhausting too. Very, very exhausting.

If you’re feeling this way, you’re probably feeling all sorts of messed up. Because the thing that you loved to do so much (write/develop strategy/work with clients) is now the thing that limits you. If this feels like you, here are some ways to deal:

  • Be compassionate with yourself. You aren’t the first person who let your freelance work life overwhelm your personal one –  and you won’t be the last. Give yourself permission to feel frustrated. Let yourself indulge in the fantasy of closing shop (my fantasy is becoming a Starbucks barista.) A little mental escape (and some humor) can make things easier.
  • Ask yourself “What would be fun?” Then listen to the answer. You may be surprised.
  • Focus on the excitement rather than the stress. Know that you won’t be in this spot forever. When you focus on the fun excitement of, “I wonder what’s next,” you’ll stop focusing on the negative.
  • Think about what you can let go. This is a hard one for me – I’m used to doing everything. At the same time, I know that admin tasks are a fast way for me to get bogged down in “busywork” and hate my day. Find someone who can help, even for just a little bit.
  • Talk to someone. This could be tricky if you’re feeling ashamed/overwhelmed/like you should be able to figure this out yourself (my personal favorite!). At the same time, sharing your challenges can be a great way to realize that you’re not alone and get an outside perspective. A business coach or even a trusted colleague will help you feel much more “normal.”
  • Think out of the box. That solo entrepreneur “tunnel vision” thing is real. Think of other “related-but-different” ways you can make money. Maybe that means partnering with someone else and expanding your offerings. Or creating a product to sell. Or doing what you love for an entirely new market. The possibilities really are endless.
  • Give yourself time to contemplate the possibilities. It’s really hard to figure out “what to do when you grow up” when all you do is work. Just saying. :)
  • Carve out some “you” time. This may be super-hard if you’re used to working all the time.  Even a baby step like seeing a friend for one hour a week is a great step.

Remember that your career life is long – and you need to enjoy what you do. Once you find your business joy, you’ll rediscover what you loved about self-employment – and you’ll start controlling your business again rather than the other way around.

19 replies
  1. souleye
    souleye says:

    your article presents a very interesting perspective. I have never liked working for other people because I don’t like having an idiot looking over my shoulder. when you work a job, you know the route is pre-planned. when you’re on your own you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. true after a while, routine sets in, but, unless you’re strapped for cash, you have options. I tell friends who want to go into business, that ‘businessman has no social life’. it’s a sacrifice that you have to make. I’m not sure that the constraints of a freelancer are any different from that of an executive in a high position at a company. their job owns them too. I simply believe freedom doesn’t exist, so if I’m gonna be ‘owned’ be it by someone or something that I like.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      I totally agree. If I have to make money (and I do – we all do) then doing “what I love” is really important. The tricky thing is when you forget what you love and you find yourself working on autopilot. :) I really enjoy those folks who have a challenging career life and they are able to brilliantly balance it with a fun social/home life. Watching them work reminds me that it can be done!

      Reply
  2. Derek Cromwell
    Derek Cromwell says:

    Thanks Heather, that certainly hit home. I like to tell people that someone lied along the way and told me owning my own business was fun… and easy.

    There’s a constant stress about trying to get everything done, about where work will come from next and there are plenty of those “routine” days where I walk to my office and stand in the doorway, pause and go “blaaaah…”

    There’s a lot of fun though, too. Somedays I just push away and take my kids to the Jungle Java coffeehouse/kids playplace with free wifi. Sit, have coffee, watch them play and choose to either write or not to write.

    I’m ashamed to say my business owns my right now but I’m trying to fix it. Thanks for the tips and your perspective, gives me something to think about.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hey, Derek!

      Don’t be ashamed. Heck, we all feel this way from time to time. Running a business is challenging stuff – it will bring out any “issue” you have (working too hard, neglecting yourself, feeling stressed all the time) and shove it right in your face. Which is one of the nice parts, actually – we can see what those issues are and learn from them.

      The hard part comes when we bottle it up inside. We don’t want others to know how we’re feeling (for various reasons) and figure we can “fix it on our own.” It’s amazing how freeing it can be to say, “Today, I hate my business” (or even “This month, I would sooner work at MickeyD’s than do what I’m doing.) Once you’ve released that pressure, you can focus on what to fix (assuming there is anything to fix) and move through it. :)

      Reply
  3. Lee Odden
    Lee Odden says:

    So Heather, this leads back to the question: What does your ideal situation look like? :)

    The herding of cats while spinning plates is a challenge. The consulting work is great and scaling by bringing on people to help has meant an entirely different relationship to the biz.

    Thanks for a great reminder of what’s important and fun about doing what you love.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      LOL! It was @leeodden who asked me the question, “What does your ideal situation look like,” inspiring hours of introspective percolation (and this post!). Thanks again, Lee, for asking. Only a good friend could ask such tough questions.

      You’re welcome for the reminder. We all need one from time to time (even me, apparently…Ahem.) :)

      Reply
  4. Tim Biden
    Tim Biden says:

    Working from 5 to 5, + saturdays and anytime that my wife isn’t around was becoming a drain. I originally set up my business hours from 8-5 Mon – Thurs but mon-sat was more realiztic.

    I recently realized that I needed to take some “Me Time”. To make sure that I actually take the time that I need, I set up a Friday morning surf session with a good friend. There is nothing like exercising your butt off in frigid water to improve your outlook on life. =)

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      LOL – that’s perfect! Exercise is a great way to get some well-deserved me time. I have a morning boot camp class that I faithfully attend. It’s not as jarring as frigid water – but after my 20th push up (or a 3 mile jog up and down hills,) I’m no longer thinking about work. :)

      Reply
  5. Matt
    Matt says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I think it points out a major misconception about owning a business. Most people who start a business think it is an opportunity to do what they love and have more freedom because they work for themselves. In reality if your business succeeds, you will quicly be faced with a difficult choice, stop working in your business and start running it or quickly become overwhelmed and over worked. I think the best approach is to decide if you are passionate about business or passionate about your profession. If your answer is business, being self employed is a great way to go. If it is your profession then you may be happier as an employee. Be careful not to trade 1 boss for 100 bosses (customers) if you really just love to write (or whatever your profession is).

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      “Be careful not to trade 1 boss for 100 bosses (customers) if you really just love to write (or whatever your profession is).”

      Brilliantly said. Thank you!

      Reply
  6. Amy C. Teeple
    Amy C. Teeple says:

    Wow. Today has been a very hectic day – it started with a frustrating email and phone call from a client. Now, 12 hours later I am in another city (having spent part of my day on a plane) and I am still working. I took a moment to check in and this post just slapped me in the face.

    I am definitely in a state of flux. This is the year I am making some moves (I hope) in my business and the question “what is fun?” has stopped me in my tracks a few times in the last couple of weeks. Trying to rediscover the answer to that one.

    In the meantime, I am enjoying the perks of owning my own business. Yes, I take my laptop everywhere, but I am enjoying traveling more often. I also enjoy midday naps (usually after a very late night) and lunchtime exercise breaks.

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to find the answer to what is fun.

    Reply
  7. Sarah Clachar
    Sarah Clachar says:

    Heather,

    Wow! What a timely post. Ditto to so much of what was said here.

    However, I’m also taking another perspective. Some of the problem is when we make work too much of how good we feel – that idea that we’ll be happy if we’re passionate about our work.

    Not that loving or even liking your work isn’t good . . . but as a mom, wife, mountain biker, jiu jitsui student, farmer, Japanese language student, old Western junkie, etc., etc. . . . I’m finding some of the best cure for this feeling that I’ve been struggling with is putting work in its place.

    Work can and (IMHO) should only fill a part of who you are and what’s important to you. I’m working on putting more boundaries between the rest of my life and work. And trying harder to be there fully in the rest of my life when I’m not doing business.

    It’s making it easier for me to be there when I’m doing my work as well.

    Don’t let what you do for a living define what your life is. Just make sure it does a nice job of complementing it!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      I totally, totally concur. What makes it tricky is being online is actually addictive – some folks get a little hit of dopamine every time they check email. Once things are to that point, it’s hard to put work in its place without someone kicking you in the butt. Checking email (or texting, or playing Farmville) gives us too much joy juice.

      Wow. Interesting times, eh? And boundaries are so, so, so important – good for you for setting them!

      Love your perspective. Thanks! :)

      Reply
  8. Marnie Hughes
    Marnie Hughes says:

    Great post to ‘re-center’ our priorities. I walk into my office every day and ask myself: what paid work am I doing today? what will I do for my family? what volunteer or pro-bono will I do? what will I do for myself?

    If there isn’t at least one thing in each category I rejig my list to make sure there is. That’s not to say there can’t be several items in the ‘work’ column and only one in the ‘me’ column, but it’s a system that keeps me balanced.

    Reply
  9. Jacs
    Jacs says:

    What a great post and replies too. I have to admit to having been owned by a previous business venture. It’s interesting that most of us take the route of self employment for the freedom that it supposedly brings and in the hope that we can achieve a work/life balance that we are happy with, yet we often end up working longer and harder than our ‘employed’ colleagues. Do I regret taking the self employed route? No. Over the past five years I have given up a great deal but I have learned so much that I don’t think I could ever go back. I haven’t achieved the work/life balance that I was trying for but I am working on it :-)

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      I hear you, Jacs. I’ve been self-employed almost all my adult life and love it. Sure, it has its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And like you…I’m working hard on that work/life balance. It’s my goal for 2011. :) Thanks!

      Reply

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