Friday, January 29, 2010

Chapter 10 • 2001-2005 • The Bottom Drops Out

What goes up must come down. The high I had been on since the beginning of 1989 proved that Newton’s law of gravity applied to business as well as heavenly bodies in space. In 1998 when my favorite and most dependable client found itself in a corporate merger situation. As my former colleagues were picking up the pieces of their shattered plans, I was very much on the outside looking in. I knew they were grieving for a vision that would never be realized and a president who was about to be replaced. I was also grieving—for the same president, whom I liked and respected, for my best source of income, and for the feeling of being part of something meaningful and important.

The process took six months. When the dust settled, the VP of communications invited me back to work on a project. What I found was a changed organization. If an entire executive management team could be in state of depression, this one was. I would say the entire company, but most people had no idea of what had transpired. Even the next level of management was in the dark. The program we had been about to unveil was never announced. While most people knew the company was joining ranks with another industry giant, that’s all they knew. When two corporations merge, one set of executives has to go. Along with the president, who had spent many years working his way up through the organization, many other veterans of the business became casualties of the closed-door negotiations.

There’s an old saying, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” But when the lives and careers of good people are upended in a business deal, it feels very personal to them. I was devastated, but I was also wiser. I had been living in a kind of la-la land where everybody loved me and appreciated my work. I thought this mutual admiration society would go on forever. This experience taught me that nothing goes on forever.

My status with the company became much less secure. I had worked with three prior presidents who shared many leadership characteristics and with whom I felt a real connection. The new president had a different management style. Suffice to say, we didn’t connect. In such situation, the freelancer is the one who leaves.

The permanent loss of this client would have been bad enough if it had been an isolated event. But at the beginning of 2001, the economy experienced a serious downturn, and the bottom fell out of my little business. It was as if all of my clients assessed the situation, pushed the panic button, and fired all of their consultants (as freelancers had come to be called). There was no warning, at least in my case. One day I was working; the next day I was not. In addition to the client that had morphed into a new company, another one I had been associated with for sixteen years simply stopped calling. No goodbye. No announcement. No explanation.

To say 2001 had begun badly would be an understatement. The year was so bad, I don’t remember most of it … until September 11. If I was in a trance before, the events of September 11 threw me into a tailspin of shock and depression. Everywhere I looked, people were in the same shape. Americans were the walking wounded. In 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was four years old. So, nothing in my memory was as horrifying as the images that assailed me day after day on TV. It seemed a tragedy without end.

The world as we knew it began to change immediately. I cannot think of any area of life or the economy unaffected by the events of that day. Nine years later, we are still feeling the reverberations. For me, everything came to a screeching halt. I had no work, no clients, and no plan. It would be months before I emerged from the haze long enough to realize the seriousness of my situation. I was not alone. I knew others who were in the same boat, but that was hardly comforting.


“As in any new relationship, we begin by learning. We want to know about your business, your people, and, especially, your vision. You want to know how creative, yet pragmatic, and how experienced, yet innovative, we are. We both want to know how well we would work together, how responsive we will be to each other’s ideas, ad how we can be certain that the ultimate product satisfies and delights you. Our job is to identify the problem and work toward a solution. The better we can define the problem, the better our solution will be. But we cannot do that alone. We need you.”

2001 • Corporate Brochure

What does one do when her only source of income ceases to exist? For almost a year, I had seen the demand for my services dry up, and the situation was not likely to change in the present economic climate. I was in trouble. Back in 1989, when I began this little venture, I told myself, if it didn't work out, I could always get a job. Thirteen years had passed. Somehow, I doubted I could simply update my resume and find a position as director of communications somewhere is corporate America. I had only one option: I would have to start over, from scratch.

I don’t want to give the impression that I immediately sat down and mapped out a brilliant plan for my future. I did sit down but mostly stared into space. It is one thing to know I had to start over; it was quite another to do it. To be honest, I don’t remember the process except it took a long time to get from point A to point B. My only nonnegotiable criterion was that whatever I did had to involve writing.

An opportunity presented itself (am I lucky, or what?), though I had no idea how it might fit into my new life. A friend of mine, who had been teaching a noncredit course at the community college for years, decided to retire. He suggested I take over his class on how to write and publish a book. The school was delighted, since it didn’t have a handy replacement; I was delighted since I was immobilized by indecision. My friend sent me all of his teaching materials and handouts, most of which were filled with information I didn’t feel qualified to teach. Since I was already committed, I redesigned the course and with great trepidation taught my first class.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess I was not magnificent. But I was hooked. I loved teaching! I remember two things vividly: I was so nervous, I read most of my lesson plans aloud, instead of just talking to the class; and I had such a terrible cold, I could barely speak above a whisper. Neither seemed to matter. My students were satisfied, and I was euphoric.

The class needed improvement and some serious marketing if I wanted to make any money. The community college paid $20 a teaching hour or $240 for six classes. I had spent so many hours planning and preparing for each class, I ended up losing money. And I still had no other source of income. Essentially, I was living on air (otherwise known as meager savings). I thought I could market the program to professional speakers and offered two of my friends a deal. I would help them write their books if they would help me polish my course. We both learned a lot. I learned that speakers don’t think like writers, so most of the time we were talking in two different languages. They learned that they didn’t want to write the books they thought they wanted to write and changed course in midstream.


“Professional speakers are often asked if they will be selling their books in the back of the room after their presentations. A product — be it a book or CD — enhances their credibility and commands higher speaking fees. Business leaders, subject-matter experts, humorists, psychologists, and diet gurus are all expected to share their knowledge in book form. High-profile CEOs often write books to pass along their business philosophies and practices to the next generation of leaders in their organizations; to articulate to significant stakeholders their personal visions for their companies; or to apply the hard-won lessons of their lives to the broader context of business, society, academia, or government. Whoever you are and whatever your motivation, when you are asked whether you have a book out or in the works, if the answer is “No, not yet,” what’s holding you back?

2004 • How to Write a Nonfiction Book:

From Concept to Completion in 6 Months

Despite the bumpy road, somehow I emerged with a much-improved plan; and they wrote two great books. I would love to take credit for their finished products, but I don’t feel I played that big a role in their achievement. Somewhere along the way, both of my friends went off on their own while I continued to polish my program. I finally decided I needed a workbook to bring it all together. How to Write a Nonfiction Book: From Concept to Completion in 6 Months was published in 2004.

The next phase of my personal reinvention was off to a great start.