It took losing every single one of my clients within less than a week for me to finally get healthy and build a business that I love.
Let me explain…
Back in 1998, the SEO world was hopping. Big clients needed SEO help, and they had equally big budgets to spend.
There was a lot of work to go around. It was fun, fast-moving, and highly profitable.
And then, the recession kicked in.
At first, the recession felt more like a rumor. I heard about canceled contracts and shrinking budgets and layoffs, but I thought I was OK.
After all, I specialized in helping big-brand ecommerce companies. I’ve been in SEO since the beginning. I’d be fine, right?
Suddenly, I started losing easy bids.
One well-known catalog company chose to save money by outsourcing their content offshore.
Other proposals went unanswered.
I started to worry.
Like the optimist I am, I continued my crazy conference speaking schedule. After all, I always got writing or training gigs from conference speaking. Sure, it was expensive lead generation – but I was sure I’d land another client.
(It’s a common misconception that conference speakers are paid to speak. Typically, speakers pay most or all their travel expenses, which can cost thousands of dollars per event.)
Did I land some leads during the events?
But the budgets were way smaller.
That meant making some hard choices. Choices I didn’t want to make.
It Wasn’t All About Me
I had loyal vendors/friends who worked with me. Folks who helped me build my business and put up with my weirdness.
Suddenly, I had to choose between the ability to pay my operational expenses – and the ability to pay my people. It was a horrible choice.
Short-term, I decided to burn through my savings and go into debt because I didn’t want to hurt the folks who worked with me. Sure, the credit card bills were piling up – but, I figured things would turn around any minute and go back to normal.
Little did I know that life had a new normal in store. And that credit card debt kept piling up.
When the workweek from hell happened – the week that every one of my clients had been let go and I had zero business – I had to face facts.
I had to let everyone go.
I don’t remember the conversation – my mind blanked it out. I do remember a lot of crying. And a deep, deep depression and fatigue that I’ve never felt before or since.
I was shattered.
But It Felt Like It Was All About Me
I thought I was the only person I knew going through hard financial times – and my colleagues were all doing great.
I thought I was the biggest asshole in the world for having to lay off a loyal team.
I thought my business acumen – something I had always relied on – was irretrievably broken.
I thought I had miscalculated the last 10 years of my life and made a terrible career mistake.
My bank account was dwindling quickly, and I had no idea what to do.
That’s when I took myself off the conference circuit so I could save money.
It’s also about the time I started thinking I was a total and complete failure.
So, I took my hands off the wheel and gave up.
I’d spend half my day in bed, watching “The People’s Court” reruns.
The other half of the day, I’d aimlessly surf Google and pretend that I was working.
I’d tell anyone within earshot that “I was fine, and business is great” – and then I’d go home and beat myself up for being a fraud.
(As a side note – I got married during this time because life was so shitty, I wanted something happy to happen.)
I did everything I could to bring money in the door. That meant slashing my prices. A lot.
Sometimes, I was getting paid entry-level copywriter amounts. That hurt.
I rationalized that some money was better than none, so I took what I could get.
But I still felt like I was doing everything horribly wrong. Sure, I knew that the recession was happening to everyone. But it still felt like it was all my fault.
It wasn’t until a somewhat…lubricated…discussion with other search friends that I realized I wasn’t the only one going through this. Other people had to get out of the industry, take side jobs, or even move back in with their parents.
Those talks gave me the perspective I sorely needed.
I realized I was one of the lucky ones. I had a good life and a husband who loved me. Whatever happened would be OK.
I Had No Idea How Lucky I Was
Today, 10 years later, I look back at the recession and see it as a gift – not as a punishment.
You see, right before the recession, a doctor had warned me about my always-on lifestyle. She gave me the choice of taking a vacation immediately or checking myself into the hospital.
I took the sleeping pill prescription she gave me, took a (short) vacation, and went back to my normal pace.
Even with sleeping pills, I was only getting four hours a sleep a night – max.
The Starbucks baristas knew me and would have my venti latte ready at 5 a.m. It didn’t help that I had a cupcake place across the street from my condo. Sugar highs are fantastic for keeping a writing focus.
There was even the time I broke out in hives. On stage.
Having time off foisted upon me helped break my “go go go” pattern and focus on doing healthy things for me.
I started exercising regularly, eating green vegetables, and running half marathons. I went from drinking fairly frequently to vary rarely. I became one of those people who extolled the virtues of kale while counting my macros.
I became what I could have called “boring” just a couple of years before. Slowly, I started feeling better than I had in years.
As corny as this sounds, I also took a hard look at the things that brought me joy.
I realized I wanted to train more clients and conduct fewer audits. I wanted to stay home more often and try for that elusive “work-life balance” I’ve heard so much about.
Slowly, things started to turn around. The economy got better. Budgets got bigger. My stubbornness and tenacity paid off – and things felt good again.
But a lot has changed.
Before the recession, I had spent 10 years living my life for my business. Now, my SEO business fits into my life. I have a team I love, clients I adore, and fun opportunities on the horizon.
I feel healthy and happy, and like I’ve finally achieved that “work-life balance” thing. I’m married to a wonderful man who loves me and puts up with my eccentricities.
Heck, I was even able to spend three unplugged weeks rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – three separate times!
Life is good. I’m happy. #grateful
Looking Back, What Would I Do Differently?
I’ve spent years thinking about this.
I would have diversified my income sources.
Today, my clients are from all different walks of life, from small businesses to huge brands. Plus, I now offer online trainings as an additional profit center.
Not needing to rely on one industry or client – plus having passive income – helps my peace-of-mind tremendously.
I would have talked to other colleagues sooner.
This is a hard one for me. I don’t like to admit failure or weakness.
It wasn’t until I shared my pain that it started to shift and go away.
I would have made the hard decision and laid folks off before I went into debt.
Counterintuitive, I know.
My need to take care of other people got in the way of necessary self-preservation.
I didn’t want to make the hard, yucky decision, and it cost me.
I would have had a more substantial “just in case” nest egg.
Today, I put money in savings every chance I get.
Having that additional financial security makes me smile.
I would have hired a business coach who would help me get out of my head and focus on solutions.
Isolating myself was probably the biggest mistake I made.
What If a Recession Hit Tomorrow?
I could lose every client I currently have, but I’d still be OK for some time.
Things would suck, yes. But I have a plan B, a plan C – heck, even a Starbucks manager who would hire me on as a barista if the cash got tight.
I’d be OK if a recession hit. And life would still be happy.
I’m older and wiser now, and I’m ready for anything.
How about you?