Monday, January 25, 2010

Chapter 9 • 1990 • Going Solo

Being fired has a certain air of finality. Friday afternoon was the end of one life; Monday morning was the beginning of another. In between, I had reorganized the little room I used for my home office and prepared to test the job market. Despite my best intentions to think before I took any precipitous actions, old habits die hard. In the past, when I was out of a job, I had to find another one immediately. This time, I could afford to take a break, but I had not yet made the mental adjustment to my new reality.

As I thumbed through my Rolodex, I had doubts. One was that no one would remember me; the other was, to find a job at my level, someone would have to die. No one I knew was going to quit a perfectly good job unless they found an even better one, and I doubted there were many of them out there.

I made three discoveries almost immediately. People did remember me, very well in fact. I had been cloistered for ten years. I was amazed at how my peers out in the communications community had kept up with my career. More than one could recite my resume. The second discovery was that while there was a dearth of jobs, there were plenty of freelance projects just waiting for the right writers. Several people told me they would be thrilled to hire me as a freelancer whenever I was ready to start. I had been buried in the corporate catacombs for a long time, which to my mind was akin to being invisible. Not so, it seemed. An aha moment for me—the first of many.

The biggest realization of all was that there was a thriving freelance network functioning just below the radar, and the writers in that network were earning good money! I had been oblivious, but now a whole new set of possibilities presented themselves. What if I couldn’t find a job or decided not to continue looking for a job? Could I earn a living as a full-time, independently employed writer? I had no idea, but since I wasn’t getting anywhere with the job-hunting, freelancing seemed worth investigating.

I put on my researcher’s hat and changed my approach. I asked corporate communications and public relations executives if they hired freelancers and what kind of projects they were outsourcing. I asked writers if they were finding work, who was hiring them, and what was the going hourly rate. It was an eye-opening exercise.

I have a foolproof process for making decisions. I learned it years ago from a book called Psychocybernetics by Matthew Maltz. The short version is to consciously review every detail of the subject—pro and con—until I am on information overload. Maltz called this “feeding the computer” (the subconscious mind) long before computers became part of our daily lives. The key is not to beat the computer to the answer by thinking myself blue in the face, but rather to just walk away and forget about the problem. In the beginning, that was very hard to do.

Now that we know more about how computers work, the process makes more sense than it did in 1970 when I first read about it. Then, it was more an act of faith. What matters is that it works … every time. In the middle of thinking, or not thinking, about what to do with the rest of my life, I tested the theory by taking a vacation. It was out of character, under the circumstances, but when I got home, my decision had made itself. I was going to start my own freelance business.

I had no idea what it meant to “start a business.” I figured I would need an accountant and was lucky to find a wonderful guy who had only recently hung out his own shingle. He taught me the basics: open a separate checking account, keep track of time, income, and expenses, file all receipts, decide on an hourly rate, send out invoices, get everything in writing, save for taxes. Some I absorbed; some went right over my head. But at the end of every month, I turned in my numbers, and he did whatever accountants do and met with me to be sure I was on track.

The tough part of freelancing is supposed to be finding work. Rule number one is always fill the pipeline, so that when you finish a project, another one is waiting in the wings. For a long time through very little effort on my part, the jobs kept coming. I worked on an assignment, finished it, and received my lofty fee of $60 an hour. Then, another job would fall in my lap. So, I had work; I made money; I did all the things my accountant told me do; and I was happy as a clam, oblivious to what it meant to be “in business.”


“A good manager wears many hats: innovator, leader, planner, organizer, liaison between staff and higher levels of management, steward of resources, productivity booster, and developer of people. The latter two roles are the foundation of proficient management, which is, by definition, the ability to meet organization goals through and in concert with others. Over the years, tens of thousands of words have been written about the best methods and techniques for increasing productivity. Management literature has explored everything from the militaristic model to quality circles and self-managing teams. But recent literature has focused more and more on the importance of helping employees grow and develop on the job.”

1992 • Trainer’s Workshop

Years later that I read another little book called The E-Myth Revisited, I understood my mistake. I had what the author David E. Gerber called an “entrepreneurial seizure.” I assumed if I could write for someone else who would pay me, I could write for myself. That is the E Myth. The most important message in the book was this: Running a successful small business takes three people, or one person who can wear three hats: a technician, who creates something; a manager, who runs the office; and a marketer, who has big ideas and grows the business. I was a writer—a technician. Either I had to become a manager and a marketer or hire them. But I didn’t know that then, and even if I had, I had neither time nor money to fill the other two crucial roles.

If I had it to do again, I would sign up for a business course. Instead, I just kept on being a technician, never suspecting there was a better way. Somehow, I did OK for several years—OK meaning grossing about $50,000 a year in writing fees—sometimes less, sometimes more. Those were the good years; there were some not-very-good years in there.

When I glance across my office at the five shelves of binders filled with writing samples, I am amazed at the variety and volume of work I did during those first few years. Corporations were hiring freelance writers for anything that contained words—newsletters, articles, brochures, annual reports, training manuals, corporate identity, executive speeches, audio-visual training, employee benefits programs, and later Internet and intranet websites—a virtual candy store full of tempting assignments.

I didn’t know this wasn’t the way to run proper business. Whatever I was doing seemed to be working fine. Once again, I was meeting and interviewing executives. I was learning about industries as diverse as oil refining, hospitals, machine manufacturing, paperboard packaging, and industrial real estate. I was hiring photographers and designers and acting as liaison between them and company management.

Sometimes, the jobs dried up and disappeared. Corporations with huge magazine budgets moved to other cities, pulled the work inside, or decided they no longer needed magazines at all. Large training or advertising projects were completed and didn’t lead to follow up work. Managers changed jobs and brought in their own people. With each change, I adjusted and reinvented myself, like an actor who had to keep auditioning for and learning new roles.


“What do the waistline and the bottom line share? You may be surprised to learn that both are affected by what and how much your employees eat. Chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure and loss of muscular flexibility, can drive up lost-time and medical costs not only for older workers but for younger ones, as well. The reason is obesity. A recent study by the Rand Corporation indicates that obesity can significantly raise health care and medication costs for overweight people, as well as costs for other health problems, such as smoking. The study notes that some younger people are showing sings of premature aging because they are carrying excess weight that has the same effect as an additional 20 years on the their lives. In fact, the problems usually associated with aging are caused by the body working harder to perform its usual functions. A wellness program could help your workers achieve and maintain healthy weights and improve their overall lifestyles.”

Winter 2003 • Health & Safety News

Two major corporations remained my best clients for many years. For one, I wrote award brochures, training manuals, and a long-running safety newsletter. For the other, I wrote speeches for three CEOs and various other executives, a mission statement and new strategic direction, annual reports, and marketing materials for various divisions. In this best of all possible worlds, I was an insider, an ex-officio member of the senior management team. I knew what was happening behind closed doors long before most managers and employees did.

My unique position allowed me to witness the end of an era. The executive management team was on the verge of announcing a major change in the company’s operational philosophy. It was big, it was important, and it was gutsy. Our team had been working on the rollout for months. Less than a week before the official event, I was called in to a management meeting in the CEO’s office. Everyone looked as if they were about to attend a funeral. Something had died. That was obvious. In a heartbeat, everything we had been planning was off the table. The company the CEO had hoped to create would never come to be.

Some changes take place gradually; others blow people away with no warning. This was the latter kind. According to that morning’s Wall Street Journal, the company had entered into “merger talks.” Those two words—merger talks—hit the team like a bomb, upending plans, wrecking careers, and sending those of us in the room into a state of shock and grief. I was no longer a member of the inner circle. There was no inner circle, anymore.