A successful entrepreneur shares her thoughts on business success and failure.

What Just Isn't Working For You?

what is not working for you?
Since I sold my business in September 2007, I have been on a journey to define who I am. A significant portion of this journey has been trying things that work for other people and seeing if those things work for me. Think of it like trying on new outfits. Some are so crazy that you take them off right away and never look at them again (like washing my own car was for me.) Some of them work so well that you can’t imagine how you lived without them (that was setting up my own budget.)

The problem with trying on new attitudes and new ways of doing things is that you invariably run into those you feel should work, but they don’t for you. And, being human, instead of simply saying “This doesn’t work for me” and doing something else, you think “But everyone else is successful with this!” and continue, for months, to beat your head against the wall and try something that clearly doesn’t work.

This, for me, was working at home.

Acknowledging the Problem

For nearly a year I refused to acknowledge what was clearly obvious — that working from home not only wasn’t productive for me, but that it was actually hampering my productivity. I would spend hours upon hours surfing websites, reading books, or watching TV. All good things, but none of them were moving my business forward.

I tried everything I could think of to change this. Richard and I had long conversations with everyone from dooce’s husband Jon to many other successful bloggers and small business owners. Everything centered around “How do you work from home?”

And we got great answers. I implemented several of the solutions. I bought a better desk and hired a personal assistant to do my laundry and organize my clutter. I tried setting hours during which I would only do work. I implemented time management systems. I reduced checking my email to a few times a day.

Some of these things caused a temporary boost in productivity. With a personal assistant, for instance, I was more productive for a few hours a week while she was helping me. But eventually that fell off, too, and I was back to where I was before.

Richard suggested I look for an office. I ignored him until it became unbearable. “I really want to launch my new site,” I finally sobbed at him one night. “What is wrong with me?”

Overcoming Fear

I had a huge fear that, now that I had sold my business, I was in some sort of permanent “I have money now, so why should I work?” state of complacency. I mean, I could laze around and watch TV all day and still have all the money I needed, right? So maybe I was just lazy. That would certainly explain why all those other people could work from home.

Richard reminded me that there was nothing wrong with me. He urged me to go to San Francisco for a day and work out of Citizen Space, a local coworking space. Not knowing what to expect, I hauled my laptop the 60 miles into Citizen Space, checked in, and set up at a table they have for drop-ins.

It was the most productive day I had in months. I got many of the major kinks worked out of the Inspiring Innovators website, so it was finally nearly ready for launch. I drew out a plan (on paper!) for what the site should contain. And then I started making phone calls to lease an office.

decision to work from an office

Making the Change

Last week, I found an amazing coworking space near my house and moved in. If you are not sure what coworking is, it’s where a group of people get together to lease an office. You typically pay a flat rate per month to rent one desk, or you can choose to drop in for free or a low daily rate. Coworking is very community-centered; you need to get along with the other people in the space. This space is in Campbell, CA (an easy 15-minute drive from my house), and the other tenants are all female entrepreneurs. I pay $500/month flat to rent a desk, and I have access to all common areas and a conference room, as well as Internet access, electricity, water, a refrigerator, microwave, and toaster oven.

Better yet, I didn’t have to invest a ton of money in a desk and a bunch of furniture. (If you’ve never furnished an office before, let me just say, for 4-5 people, $10,000 is a small budget.)

I found this office space on craigslist, but there is also a huge online coworking community where you can find spaces near your house or organize one.

Stop Blaming Yourself

The thing is, we’re human. We want certain things to work. In my case, I’ve watched “working from home” being built up as a panacea. “No commute! Cheaper lunches! Work in your PJ’s!” And while all of the benefits are true, for me, the social isolation wasn’t worth it.

That’s why, when my former company cleared a $35,000 SBA loan, the first thing I did was rent an inexpensive office near the datacenter and put my one local employee and I there. Looking back, I thought that was a bad financial decision. (You’re not supposed to put debt financing toward unproductive overhead such as offices.)

Now, I know better. I was far more productive in that office than I was at home or in the datacenter. It helped us attract more clients and, once we grew, it helped us attract another few employees. Finally, we were able to sublet half the office to another tiny startup that ended up becoming our hosting customer.

What’s Not Working In Your Life?

Is there something that’s not working in your life that you’re refusing to acknowledge? It could be a tiny thing, like your old computer or an appliance that doesn’t work properly. Or it could be a huge thing, like a relationship or an office. Whatever it is — look for the three telltale signs that it isn’t working:

  1. You’re beating yourself up for something that isn’t your fault. I was berating myself and calling myself “lazy”, but that wasn’t the case at all. My environment wasn’t working for me. Once I got an office, I became immensely productive again.
  2. You’re hesitating because of money or other external conditions. I’ve taken to the adage, “If money is the only thing holding you back, you should live your dream anyway.” It’s true that $6000/year, plus some startup expenses for new computer equipment, is not cheap. But this office will pay itself off in spades from my higher productivity and increased business. If you find yourself thinking, “I’d definitely change this about my life if only I had an extra $x,” make it your top priority to find or create more money so you can live your dreams. Stop discounting what you want just because it costs money.
  3. You’re using an excuse of “But it works for so-and-so.” Now that I have a clearer head, I can see some huge differences in those who successfully work from home and my situation. For instance, my boyfriend and I live in a duplex that has less than 1000 square feet, yet it has 3 bedrooms. My home office is in the third bedroom, which is hardly big enough to hold my desk, chair, and filing cabinet. It feels cramped and awful when I work from there. Since neither Richard nor I are neat freaks, our house is often somewhere between “disaster” and “cluttered.” The clutter spreads to my office whether I want it to or not. And even though we have made huge efforts (and spent hours! and hired people!) to get rid of stuff we don’t need, the filing cabinets are full, the closets are full, and the house, with its complete lack of built-in storage, doesn’t lend itself to easy organization.

Is something nagging at you, right now, as you read this entry? Something that’s been bothering you for months, that just isn’t working? If so, I encourage you to take the time right now to acknowledge it. Have the courage to look it in the face and say, “Even though I may not have the money to change you, and even though you work for other people, you aren’t working for me.” Then work out a plan to change it.

If you have the courage to acknowledge what isn’t working for you, you may not waste months of your life dragging your feet like I did!

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I'm Erica Douglass.
After selling my online business at age 26 for over $1 million, I created this blog to help you grow your own business quickly.

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