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Nurturing Creative Practice - Blog

I’ve been writing a novel for almost six years.

(What a cliche, right?)

It’s meant to be the first in a series of seven, so at this rate, I expect I’ll be dictating book seven from my death bed, while being interviewed by a local news crew for the secrets to my longevity.

So what can I possibly have to teach about maintaining a creative practice?

Well. In the past six years, in addition to writing (and editing…and editing…and editing…) just north of 50,000 words of that neverending novel, I’ve also:

  • Had two kids
  • Launched a business
  • Worked full-time for nine months while also running my business full-time while also pregnant
  • Taken over as Creative Director and owner of The Voice Bureau
  • Served more clients than I’d care to count, on more projects than I think I can remember
  • Been a full-time at-home mom while running my business (think 19-hour days, seven days a week, for nearly four years now)
  • Maintained some level of sanity and a baseline non-hoarder level of home cleanliness
  • Been a wife/daughter/mother/sister/friend, with varying levels of success

I mean, if I’m being gentle with myself, I have to admit that it’s been a busy six years. I might be able to fit a novel into there, but it’s kind of understandable that I haven’t finished it yet…right?

Whether you’re working on a novel of your own, journaling, writing poetry, painting, or doing some other form of creative self-expression, making time to regularly sit down and do it can be really hard. Even just writing blog posts for your business can be tough when you can’t get the head-space to be creative! But self-care (and yes, a creative practice is self-care, even if it’s also deeply personal work or even a career to which you aspire) is critical, especially to those of us who are self-employed. Self-employment is hard, yo. It’s lonely and all-consuming and exhausting, and if you let it, it will take over your life and leave you a shell of your former self, blearily pecking out emails on your phone as you lie in bed, watching the sun rise yet again.

But a creative practice? Oh, to regularly set aside a space in your life just to make something that brings you joy! To create something in this world that is for you, just because you want it to exist! It’s important. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s “good” (whatever that means) or if anyone else ever even sees it — a creative practice is saying to yourself, over and over, that your expression matters. That you matter, beyond what others need or ask or demand from you.

So what happens when life gets in the way and your creative practice becomes “that hour I get to sleep” or “my show on Netflix, because I don’t have the energy to think right now”?

Well, the usual advice applies.

Try spending 15-20 minutes creating at the beginning of your work time, because our work does tend to expand to fit the time we give it, and there’s a good chance you won’t even notice a few lost minutes. Or maybe you can get someone to take things off your plate — a VA to handle the admin work that sucks up way too much time, or a housekeeper to mop your floors, or a caregiver to watch your kids for an hour or two, or a delivery service to handle your grocery shopping. Ask for help. Let yourself be selfish. If you force yourself to schedule some time every single day that is just for you, and you prioritize it above everything else, you can make it fit. Maybe skip the occasional shower. Bail on a couple social gatherings.

But it’s not always that easy, is it? I often sit down to work at 5 or 6am after being up most of the night with my girls, and every minute I spend working after I put them to bed is a minute that I’m not sleeping — and for someone who averages 2-3 hours a night, telling me to schedule an hour to be creative is a cruel joke. I mean, I’m sure those sleep-deprivation-induced hallucinations would make for some excellent novel fuel, but I’m not writing the sequel to Naked Lunch.

I don’t think we can talk about making time for a creative practice — or, truly, any kind of self-care — without talking a bit about gendered expectations. Because they’re real, and they’re hard to overcome, though a bit less so when you acknowledge them.

(Down with the patriarchy! Smash the hegemonic systems of oppression! Other catchphrases from my Feminist Political Theory class!)

Many — though not all — of our clients are women, and I don’t think any of us would dispute that showing up as a woman in this world is different than showing up as a man. The expectations are different. In some cases, this means working even harder for the same level of recognition. In others, it means carrying the emotional work that’s so often discounted but is not only time-consuming but costly to your own health and sanity. In others, it might mean that expectations are lowered, but then so are the rewards. We’re passed over for promotions. Talked over in meetings. And, of course, there are the implications of having a family…

Whether or not you have children, there’s a good chance that somewhere out there, someone is wondering if they’re on your agenda. And once you’ve had one, it’s, “Well, you have to try for a boy/girl now, so you have one of each!” or, “When’s number three coming?” But here’s the thing: kids take it all out of you. Including (especially?) the time and energy you might have had for a fulfilling creative practice.

So. Not to go off on a huge tangent, but you know how famous male authors have these wild life stories of alcoholism and failed marriage after failed marriage and kids born when they’re in their 70s, while female authors have life stories of spinsterism and seclusion? Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

I know that, with what I have on my plate, I can’t commit to writing my novel every day, or even every week. I have kids and clients, and I really do need to sleep at least a couple hours a day. But that doesn’t mean my novel isn’t progressing, even as my Scrivener file gathers dust.

So here’s my creative practice, right now:

I’m a sponge.

I read those clickbait-y lifestyle articles on Facebook — you know, the ones with the headlines like: “She opens the fridge. But what happens next will amaze you.” I watch TV — good and bad. I read books while I’m up in the night with the kids (thank god for that backlit screen on the Kindle, amirite?). I learn about strange things out there in the world. I take notes.

And, in every spare quiet moment — few and far between though they may be — I’m spinning the stories that will eventually be tapped out on my keyboard and become the novel series I can’t wait to write. I extrapolate possibilities, spin off variations on characters and plot twists. I sketch out the ending of book seven in my head, knowing it’ll probably change 50 more times before I get there. Eventually, the ideas tend to boil over, and when I sit down to write, thousands of words just fall out of my head without me even stopping to take a breath. Because they’re already written — in the shower, in bed at night, spacing out in the car on the way home from Target. They just needed to finally have the space to be born into the world. And I do eventually find that space — late at night, early in the morning, when the kids at the store with my husband, or when client work slows down just a bit (which it does, in the same sort of cycles every year).

So what can you learn from my overbooked schedule?

Sometimes, we need to accept that our lives look a little different than we might like. You may have an idealized picture of how you’ll light some candles, pour a glass of wine, put on some ambient music, and sit down at your vintage keyboard to tap out the next best-seller. You’re probably wearing a cozy sweater and poring over a hand-written storyboard detailing all the key plot points. But it may be that your writing happens in the car as you’re waiting to pick the kids up from practice, or on your phone when you sneak off to use the bathroom for 15 minutes, or for a couple minutes every morning until you can’t put off those client emails any longer. It doesn’t make you less of a writer. It doesn’t make your work any less valid than those professional types who crank out a new novel every year or two. They aren’t better or more deserving just because their lives are more conducive to long stretches of creation.

Physically creating isn’t the only way to create. We can learn and grow and plan, even in our busiest times. There’s a lot of background and organizing and research that goes into writing a great novel — or, even, a great poem, or painting a great painting — and taking the time to really do that work is a completely valid form of creative practice, even if it doesn’t feel quite so intentional as sitting down with that typewriter and your scented candles. You aren’t behind schedule just because you’re working on the foundation.

There is no schedule. It’s hard to feel like you’re making progress when it takes you six years (er, or more) to write a novel. Believe me, I know. But I also know that the experiences I’m having are making my stories richer — even as they, ironically, keep me away from actually writing them down. But if we take the time to absorb and process and think through our creations, in those little moments we can sneak in, they’ll pour out of us. When they’re ready.

What if you’re not really interested in developing a creative practice? Well, kudos for getting this far, anyway. This general philosophy is something I apply to my work, too. I know I can’t write copy or blog posts or even social media all the time. It’s not just a matter of finding the time; if I tried to create on that scale, I’d burn out almost immediately. No, I need some time when I can just stare at the TV and handle my admin work. Or listen to some music and review analytics. Or have a snack and reply to emails. I know that my overall workload includes tasks that require all different mindsets from me, and I plan accordingly, knowing that every task has its place. And, even when it doesn’t feel like I’m getting any work done, I know I am.

Anyway, don’t hold your breath for my debut novel — it may be a bit before I finally wrap up those last 30,000 words or so. But do save a spot on your bookshelf, because it is coming. Eventually.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Do you have a regular creative practice? How do you make time in your schedule?

{ 2 comments }

29 Lessons - Blog

Five years ago this week, I incorporated as an LLC.

*cue the confetti*

 

When I first dipped my toes into the world of creative self-employment, I didn’t have any expectations. All I knew at the time was that the traditional job market wasn’t working for me (or, at least, I wasn’t finding work in it). As a classic car magazine editor with literally no interest whatsoever in classic cars, my career path was sort of…niche. I figured, if I couldn’t find the right job, I’d make one until something better came along. I didn’t expect that this necessarily would be the right job, but here we are — I love what I do and have no desire to go back.

Over the past five years, I’ve picked up a few things. I have no illusions about sharing these insights with you — some of these lessons, you’ll have to figure out for yourself if you want them to stick. And I definitely don’t know everything. Far from it. Please don’t think I’m all, “Well, I’ve been in business for five years now, so I’ve basically figured it all out.” But I’ve made some mistakes and gotten some things right, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. So sit back and listen, and maybe I can save you from learning a couple things the hard way.

And so, without further ado: 29 lessons I’ve learned over the past five years.

 

  1. You have to set boundaries. Really. This might mean having an office with a door that stays shut “after hours” or just saying that you don’t reply to emails after 10:00 at night. But when your home is your work (and your phone is the entire Internet), it’s way too easy to let it creep into every waking moment. Don’t.
  2. A day job isn’t a life sentence (or a bad thing). Going back to a day job doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You are not trapped. Sometimes, a steady paycheck (or some employer-subsidized health insurance) is exactly what you need to give you the freedom to take important risks in your business. If you’re scared of getting stuck, consider temp work. My nine months at HSN — starting just a few months after I officially “went solo” and ending, um, when I went into labor with my daughter — were exactly what I needed to build up some savings while I built my client list. I probably wouldn’t still be in business today if I hadn’t taken that time.
  3. SEO is BS. Okay, before you totally write me off as a copywriter — obviously, it’s important for search engines to find you. But trying to fit in a million keywords is stupid. Once your Right Person finds your site, they’re going to turn around and leave because you sound desperate and confusing and generally awful. Be genuine, informative, and straightforward, and the keywords will naturally work themselves into the page. (This is why you’re not a “happiness sparklepreneur” or a “rogue copy-hawk.” Literally no one is looking for that. Or knows what it is.)
  4. You have to spend money to make money — but maybe not as much as you think. You’ve gotta have a website. You’ll need an email client. Sooner or later, you’ll probably need to hire some support. You may benefit from courses and training and consulting work. But you don’t need very much on your first day. It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking every course and doing everything you can to prep for your business before you even have your first client, but you run a definite risk of being an eternal student and never actually launching. Try putting some work in. It’ll become very clear very quickly what you actually need.
  5. Sometimes, the greatest benefit of a group course is in the connections you make, not the material you learn. (And, in this respect, bigger isn’t always better.) Being one of five people in a tight-knit Facebook group could have a lot more impact on your business than being one of 200 in the latest round of a big-name course, all shouting over each other to promote their business. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming the biggest name is going to give you the best connections.
  6. You will eventually need help. Sure, you can do your own taxes and customer support and web design and copywriting and client work and accounting and strategy and projections and marketing and coding and tech support and social media and graphics and networking and blogging. But if you want to grow your business, even a little bit (and sleep, even a little bit), you’re eventually going to have to hand a few things over to someone else. Figure out what needs to be done by you, and start divesting the things that are keeping you from getting that stuff done. And do it before you’re desperate.
  7. Trust the process. You’ll figure out a working style that suits you. I have two small kids home with me all day, so I tend to work via email rather than phone or Skype so I don’t end up the next “BBC Dad” [er, Mom]. When we do things at The Voice Bureau using the particular process we’ve developed, the projects go so smoothly. When we fight the process, they don’t. Trust what feels right, make adjustments as you go, and you’ll end up finding the best way for you. Then, stick with it. If you find a project management client you love, don’t let your client talk you into using something else. If you need two weeks to design a logo, don’t offer to do it in two days, even if you really really want to make that sale. Do what you need to do to deliver your best work, every time.
  8. Don’t fight for what isn’t working. If you do best replying to emails on the fly throughout the day, don’t force yourself to do all your daily email in one batch at 9:00 just because some productivity expert says that’s what you should do. If you hit a wall at 3:00 every afternoon, don’t schedule client sessions then — schedule nap time or a walk around the block. You get to write the rules of your own business, and that means saying no to things that don’t work for you.
  9. Not all clients are right for you. My very first client was a terrible fit. She wanted me to do work that was so far outside the scope of our project, it was like walking into a dry cleaner’s and trying to order a pizza. When you find someone who trusts your experience and is excited to work with you, it’s magic. Chase that, every day. Write your copy like you are speaking directly to that one Right Person. Pass on the projects that are covered in red flags. They’ll fill up your entire schedule and keep you from the ones you really should be serving.
  10. Be who you are. Do what you do. If you’re an introvert business coach, don’t try to be an extrovert lifestyle brand just because you think that’s what people want — or vice versa. There are people who want what you have to offer. Trust that they’re out there. Because pretending to be someone you’re not sucks.
  11. Don’t forget about taxes. Seriously, set something aside from every sale. Self-employment taxes can be super high. You do not want to have that dropped on you April 14th.
  12. Treat yo’ self. It’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves when we’re wrapped up in running a business. Just because you can wear the same clothes every day doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to look nice if you want to. If you have the spare cash, shell out for something that makes you happy from time to time. If you don’t have extra money, set aside time to take a bath or watch a movie that makes you laugh (without your laptop open in front of you). Have a glass of wine on a Tuesday. Recharge your batteries, replenish your well, sharpen your saw — whatever metaphor you like. But don’t forget yourself, or your business will suffer.
  13. You’ll never have it all figured out. That’s okay. None of us do. You learn more every day, every project, every launch. But not even the “experts” have all the answers.
  14. A good website is your best and most important investment. Your site is like the world’s best wing(wo)man. It should set the stage for working with you — give all the important details, let people get a feel for who you are and what you do and what it would be like to work with you/buy products from you/have coffee with you. It should do it at 4am Thailand-time, or in the middle of a snowstorm, or when you’re in bed with the flu, or when you’re out celebrating your birthday. This is how people will find you, how they’ll evaluate you. It’s worth the time and resources to do it right.
  15. Everyone deals with imposter syndrome. We all have moments when we feel like we’re total frauds and are going to be found out, no matter how much experience we have or how good we are at our jobs. I think it’s good not to get too confident, but don’t let yourself get in your own head. Just because you don’t have every single answer doesn’t mean you aren’t good at what you do.
  16. This is a real job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This is a hard one, especially early on when the money may not be flowing freely. What’s worse is that it’s often a lesson we have to teach ourselves before we can convince other people. And I think women, especially, have a hard time with this. I’ve heard men who don’t even have the inklings of a business call themselves “consultants,” and women with a dozen published pieces and a novel in the works struggle to give up the “I mean, I’m working towards, maybe, I’d like to be” that comes before “a writer.” So how do you get past this? Give yourself a title that doesn’t sound ridiculous. (Seriously.) Practice your elevator pitch — the one-minute summary of what you do. Say it in the mirror. Say it to strangers. Say it until you believe it. And then don’t let anyone downplay your career.
  17. You need to know your own value. Believe it. Then add 15%. Yes, it’s hard to put a price tag on your time and expertise, but don’t shortchange yourself. And don’t forget about business expenses. You’re providing a valuable service to your clients. If you’re not paying yourself enough to be sustainable, you won’t be doing this for long.
  18. You are not an expert on day one. I know I’ve just gotten over telling you to value your time, but that doesn’t mean treating yourself as if you’re the foremost expert in your field your first day on the job. Be humble. Learn things. Don’t charge $200 an hour for consulting work when you’ve never helped a client. Learn constantly.
  19. Hustling isn’t for everyone. There are other ways to make sales. If the thought of cold-calling gives you hives, don’t do it. Find ways to connect that work for you. That doesn’t mean slacking off — no one is going to be lining up at your door without you putting in some serious legwork — but this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. And if you’re not a hustler, figure out what you are and do that, instead.
  20. Find your zone of genius. Live in it. It can be hard to see our own strengths, but figure out what you have to offer and make that the core of your business. You never know how many people are looking for your particular blend of skills until you put it out there. If you’re a master wordsmith but hate podcasts, don’t do podcasts. Write. You’re in charge of your own job description.
  21. Find your weak spots. Learn enough to get help. Let’s say you wake up tomorrow morning to find a giant puddle in front of your refrigerator. You don’t need to know refrigerator repair to know something is wrong. Your business is the same way — you need to know enough to know when you need help, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in everything. Focus on being the absolute best at the work you do, handle the things you understand (and have time for), and learn just enough about the things that don’t make sense to you to knowledgeably hire someone to take care of them.
  22. You’ll want to quit. You’re going to spend hours on a proposal that isn’t accepted. You’re going to have 50-hour work weeks without a single sale. You’re going to miss getting paid to check Facebook, or having coworkers to chat with, or a steady paycheck, or company lunches, or a job that you can turn off when you walk out the door at night. You’re going to feel overwhelmed by the idea of keeping up with the newest ideas and best practices and training. If you feel this way a lot, it may be time to sit down and decide if this is right for you in the long term. But don’t assume you’re destined to give it up the first time you feel a twinge of regret. We all do, sometimes.
  23. Connections are everything. Your best clients are going to be your biggest cheerleaders — and referrals are the absolute best endorsement. You may even be lucky enough to connect with other entrepreneurs who become your closest friends and strongest allies. (Of course, luck has nothing to do with it — you have to seek those connections out.) Don’t assume that just because you’re working by yourself in your own home, you’re alone in this.
  24. You are going to meet some amazing people. Some, you may even meet in person. I’ve made some fantastic friends over the past five years through my work, but I live in Florida, and most of them do not. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet up with a handful of them in person, and it’s been amazing. But the ones who I’ve never actually seen face-to-face are no less important to me. The internet is so cool, isn’t it? I have so much more in common with my chosen tribe online than I do with many people who just happen to be located in the same city as me. I’m thankful every day that this job allows me to spend time with them, even if we’re never in the same room.
  25. Change out of your pajamas. Every. Day. Seriously, even if you’re just putting on your “day pajamas.” Get dressed. You have a business, not the flu. (Unless you also have the flu, in which case, keep those pajamas on and get back to bed.)
  26. Not every idea will work. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. When I started out, I was running a monthly burlesque/life drawing event on the side. It was so much fun, but when I figured out my “hourly rate” for the work I was doing…it was about $1 an hour. Literally. Not exactly a raging financial success. You’re going to do things — come up with consulting packages, write courses, create products — that just don’t sell. Figure out what you can learn from the process and salvage that, and scrap what didn’t work. For me, I got a lot better at graphic design from making fliers, I got out of my introvert box networking with local performers, and I honed my event planning skills, which have helped me with managing projects. I also had a lot of fun and made some great friends, and I can’t regret a single, unprofitable second because of that.
  27. Inspiration is often inconvenient. Never ignore it. You’re going to get ideas for your business in the shower, out running errands, at 5am, and when you’re elbows-deep in a kid’s science project. Make sure you can take notes so you don’t forget about it (Did you know they make waterproof notepads for the shower?), because there’s a very good chance you’re going to go totally blank the second you sit down in front of your computer to work. You’re much better off spending a super-inconvenient hour at 5am being really productive than spending four hours staring at a blank screen at noon.
  28. Everything comes in cycles. Those first few months in business, I was slowly picking up clients, building my presence…and then crickets. All of a sudden, no new inquiries, no connections, nothing. The more I’ve grown my business, the less that summer slump hits me, but that first year, it was like everything came crashing down just as it was getting off the ground. But then the fall came, and all of a sudden, it picked up again. If you’re just getting started, don’t freak out. It can be scary when you’re used to a steady day job (and its steady paycheck), but over time, you start to even appreciate the ups and downs. Use the quiet time to learn something new, or create a product, or take a vacation. It’ll pick up before you know it.
  29. Tools and systems aren’t sexy, but they are everything. I know, as a left-brain creative, I’m sort of a rare bird. But show me an amazing spreadsheet or an intuitive, flexible process, and I will go weak in the knees. Because I know that these are the things that make business so much easier, even if they sound boring on paper. (Or in a blog. I know.)

So that’s it — a few of the things I’ve learned over the past five years working for myself. I’m sure I’ll come up with half a dozen more over the next week that I’ll kick myself for leaving out, but let’s go with it. Gotta leave something for the next five.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

What’s been your biggest business lesson so far? Do any of my lessons hit home for you — or totally contradict your own experience?

{ 8 comments }

Changing the Face - Blog

There’s been a lot of change around here lately.

From the outside, it might even look dramatic. The thing is, when I took over as owner of The Voice Bureau a few months ago, it wasn’t a sudden shift. In fact, it’s something that’s been in process for quite a while.

I’m beyond thrilled to be stepping into this role. It feels like a natural progression of the business and of my career, the next step in my self-employment (five years at the beginning of next month!). And The Voice Bureau is such a natural fit for everything I love to do.

Of course, there have definitely been some adjustments.

Abby and I worked well together for the past several years because we have such complementary styles. The jobs she dreaded, I relished. The natural tendencies I lacked, she had. We made a great team.

Now that I’m at the helm, those differences feel more apparent. It’s a bit like wearing someone else’s sweater — there’s a hint of unfamiliar laundry detergent and a tightness around the neck from long days draped across someone else’s shoulders. Even if it’s a style you’d wear, maybe the color isn’t your usual look, or it’s a little heavier material than you like. I’ve stepped into a business that isn’t my own design, and, while I’m excited to be here, it still feels just a bit…strange.

Let me be clear, I love The Voice Bureau and everything it stands for. I love our clients. I love the work we do. I have absolutely no desire to change anything fundamental, especially because I was a part of getting us where we are today. The sweater is my style, but, if you want to get literal about it, it’s a bit more mauve than I usually go for. The INFJ Business course of a few years ago that was such a hit with our community wouldn’t work for me, because, as an INTJ, I get  you, but I am not you. My voice is a bit different, both in our courses and in our blog posts and other communications.

Basically, I’m not Abby. And that’s okay.

Who I am is someone who’s been with The Voice Bureau as it’s grown over the years. I’ve collaborated with Abby on countless projects and ideas — some of which you’ve seen and some of which might get pulled from that back shelf and dusted off in the future. I’m all in.

So where am I going with this?

There’s a good chance you’re never going to have to worry about literally changing the face of your business.

Even if you do decide at some point down the road to hand over the reins to a new owner, the transition process really falls on them, as far as determining the direction and the feel for what’s next. It’s part of, you know, transitioning.

But we do a lot of work with clients in the process of rebranding their businesses. Whether because they didn’t quite get it spot-on the first time or because they’re shifting their goals or their services, a rebrand is a big change. It’s the opportunity for a new start, a chance to realign with your Right Person. It’s also a leap of faith.

How do you make a major change in your business without losing what it is at its core? How do you maintain the momentum you’ve built and the connections you’ve made when your business is — literally or metaphorically — changing faces?

For me, as I find my way in this new role at The Voice Bureau, I’ve focused on what we have in common. Both Abby and I come from a copywriting background, so copywriting, brand voice, and content strategy are all a natural fit — basically, all the work we do. My approach may be a little bit different, but I love the Voice Values, and I know our end result is the same because Abby and I have collaborated on every single piece of copy that’s gone out our virtual door for the past four years.

Our temperaments are similar, as well. While I may be a little more in my head than in my heart, neither of us fit the larger-than-life “copy rockstar goddess” mold. We’ve always taken a more measured approach, and one that eschews some of the more aggressive sales tactics and supersized personalities. It’s a choice that feels more authentic to who we both are, and it’s a better environment for our Right Person, who really is what this is all about.

And that, at its core, is the important factor that drives The Voice Bureau (and, hopefully, any business): our Right Person.

While you may have a different appreciation for my approach than you did for Abby’s, the fact of the matter is that our Right Person hasn’t changed. The way we serve you hasn’t changed. It may look a tiny bit different, and I may sound a tiny bit different, but our mission is the same: to provide personalized brand voice and copywriting support for values-based businesses operating online. To take a quieter, more nuanced approach to effective sales copy. To help you speak your own truth, in your own voice, to your own Right Person — no imitation, no pretending. Just you.

And just me. Because, truly, if we’re telling our clients that the most important thing is to be honestly, unapologetically who they are, how could I run this business without doing the same, myself?

It’s an exercise you might complete as you work through your own rebranding.

What’s working for you? What isn’t working for you? What do you do that brings you joy? What is the core of your business that you want to carry over into this new iteration?

(And don’t be afraid to say that your Right Person is not that core — you may well be rebranding because your existing site speaks to the wrong person.)

Once you’ve discovered the threads that you want to carry over into the new version of your business, it will become so much more obvious which pieces just don’t fit. Once you’ve found the heart of your brand, you’ll see that everything else is just window dressing. And window dressing is easy to change.

So, sure, you may notice some changes around here in the coming months. Don’t be surprised if some of the mauve shifts to indigo. Understand that I blog — and e-letter and write courses — in my own voice. We’re using a new font in our emails. (I know, try not to freak out.) But, at our heart, The Voice Bureau is what it always has been. That’s not going to change, no matter what face — or sweater — we’re wearing.

 

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Have you gone through a rebrand in your business? How did you decide what to change and what to carry over?

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A photo of a forest

Hey, there. Katie here.

Almost exactly four years ago, I got a life-changing email from a friend and fellow copywriter.

Abby was about to launch The Voice Bureau and wanted to know if I was interested in doing some project management for her. I was fairly new to the freelance game at the time, but I could see that she was doing something really special, and I was thrilled to be a part of it — any part of it. But, to be honest, I had a hard time seeing how I could be much help.

I knew she needed someone on her side. We’d talked before, when she was running her business as a solopreneur, about the insane hours she was putting in, and even with just a few months under my belt (and pre-kids!), I’d already seen how quickly the work day could turn into the work night…and following morning…and weekend…

But, even knowing what challenges Abby had ahead of her, it was hard for me to see exactly where I fit in. It’s not as if I was entirely green — I’d launched my own business earlier in the year, and I was coming from years of writing for a living in some form, from penning radio commercials to editing magazines. But what she was asking for — project schedules, tracking deliverables, email support — all seemed so straightforward.

I was excited to be part of The Voice Bureau, but did I really have anything particularly useful to offer that Abby couldn’t just do herself, given enough time?

I quickly learned that what seemed like a simple, straightforward list of to-dos for me was anything but, for Abby. Spreadsheets gave her hives. Schedules were stressful. All the things I took for granted, she dreaded. With a bit more self-awareness, I probably would have seen this sooner, but analytics and logistics? They are my jam. Apparently, not everyone feels that way. Who knew?

The opposite was true, too. As our partnership grew over the years, Abby and I discovered more and more areas in which our strengths were complementary. She possesses a warmth in her interactions with clients that is natural and unforced, while I stare at my computer screen for ten minutes every time I open a new email. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy connecting with our clients — in fact, I love it! — but what comes naturally to Abby decidedly does not for me.

They say you can’t see the forest for the trees, but in business, that blindness can keep us from connecting with our Right Person.

When you don’t know what you have to offer that makes you different from your competitors, it’s impossible to connect with the person who needs just that. Your special skills might be squarely in your blind spot, but they are exactly what someone out there is looking for.

Take me, for instance. If I had to choose between being an accountant and working in outside sales, I’d be digging out my calculator before you could say, “capitalized expense.” But there are people out there who feel exactly the opposite, and may not even realize that what comes naturally to them is something I would hire out in a second.

So how do you figure out what you have to offer when you’re so close to it that it feels invisible to you? Well, that closeness is the key — what’s invisible to you probably couldn’t be more obvious to the people around you.

It’s not hard to see when you’re consistently praised for your work in one area. If you’re a great writer and people are always telling you that, you probably know that writing is your strength. If you’re a charismatic speaker who lives for the limelight, there’s a good chance someone else has noticed. Think about times you’ve gotten compliments. Do you notice any patterns?

Of course, compliments don’t always reveal your hidden (to you) talents. Maybe you’re a serial overachiever and can’t dig out a pattern among all the accolades. (Way to go!) Or maybe your particular shade of awesome isn’t the sort of thing you’ve been able to fit into a neat deliverable.

Sometimes, the special thing you have to offer can make you stand out in a different way.

Do you ever feel, well, weird?

Different? Do your friends tease you because your closet is color-coded? Are you the free-spirit who never fit in at that corporate job? Do you feign the flu to curl up with a good book rather than check out a hot new club with your friends?

What makes you different makes you exactly what someone is looking for. Not everyone is red-sweaters-on-the-left organized. Not everyone has those outside-the-box thoughts in the boardroom. Not everyone has a measured, quiet approach.

I’m a little bit neurotic. I can’t throw a party without everything being just right, from the flow of the playlist to the color scheme of the menu. Pre-kids (that is, when I had more than 30 seconds to put away a load of laundry), my closet wasn’t just color-coded, it was sorted by style, color, and sleeve length. I never met a spreadsheet I didn’t love. But those things I’ve been teased about are also things that have gotten me praise in my work. And there are plenty of people out there who need exactly what I have to offer, now that I’ve realized just what that special something is.

When you finally figure out what makes you weird, you’re thisclose to connecting with the people who need just that sort of weird on their side — and building ease into your business around the things that comes so naturally to you, you might never have noticed how special they are.

And how special you are.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Do you have any idiosyncrasies that come out in your business? Are there any quirks that make you different from your friends — or your competitors? Are you taking advantage of them, or fighting against them?

 

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scaling my business for small

“My mother loves small things,” the customer said to me.

She was describing what she saw as a particular quirk of her mother’s, but the truth was that many people love small things — for very particular reasons. When I owned my retail shop, this seemingly idiosyncratic detail was one my shopgirls and I heard often.

On this day, I’d been working the sales floor, chatting with regulars, greeting first-time customers, and giving some of them a quick tour of new finds we’d just unpacked and displayed. This particular customer (we’ll call her Marta — she was a regular) was shopping for a Mother’s Day gift. She picked up a set of tiny, glazed ceramic salt and pepper shakers in the shape of bluebirds, painted in a soft wash of robin’s egg blue (natch).

“She’ll love these,” she said, walking them up to the counter where I ran her credit card, wrapped the bluebird shakers in our signature kraft-and-chocolate polka dotted tissue paper, and tucked them into a logo gift bag. Then she was on her way, to return again another day seeking a new find, hoping for an experience that felt very much like the one she’d had on this particular day. Particular. Personal. Curated.

People love small things — for very particular reasons.  

Most of the business owners we’re lucky to work with at The Voice Bureau have very small businesses. While their revenues might range anywhere from $20,000/year (in ‘just launched’ mode) to multiple six figures, they insist on designing and running a business that feels small. Particular. Personal. Curated.

Usually, their “team” is just them, or them and a VA. Or them, a VA, and a few other collaborators or team members.

It’s fun for my team and me to work with these types of values-based microbusinesses because that’s the type of business The Voice Bureau is. We get why small and particular appeals to you.

In these online entrepreneurial realms, we hear so much about the importance of scaling a business so that more parts of it can be ‘hands-off,’ leaving the business owner with more time and energy for a life outside her business. While I totally agree with the second half of that equation, I don’t think that scaling for volume is the only way to go about having a business that feels good and is profitable. I think it’s time we talked about scaling for a tiny little jewel box of a brand.

Scaling for small

In my own business, I am scaling to be a tiny little jewel box of a brand. That’s how I think of The Voice Bureau.

Right now, and for the past couple years, I’ve been working at scaling my business for four things:

  • IMPACT — which, to me, means seeing my message and my work reach as many Right People as far as it can go
  • GROWTH IN REVENUES — which, to me, means having operating leverage, being able to bring in as much income as possible while being as modest and sustainable as possible in growth efforts
  • PLEASURE — which, to me, means getting to do mostly the stuff I truly love doing that’s within my zone of genius, and building the business in a way that’s beautiful, and not doing the things that don’t actually bring me pleasure or an internalized sense of adding value (like hustling for speaking gifts, going after PR opportunities, etc.)
  • PARTICULARITY — which, to me, means serving the exact Right People in the exact right ways in the exact particular tone and style that works for them and for me

I want to be known for really specific ideas, concepts, and approaches. I want to feel particular, selective, curated, and well-appointed.

I want my business to be well-honed, lithe, and supple where it counts (which is always around the needs of The Voice Bureau‘s Right People). I want flexible architecture. And I want to give my clients an experience that feels small, regardless of the revenues I’m bringing in. Because ‘scaling for small’ does NOT have to equate small profits.

Think about it.

Maybe in your business, the dream is to work with three carefully vetted clients each quarter, and that’s it. You’ll make fully a quarter of your yearly income each quarter from your engagements with these clients. You’ll maintain the emotional and psychological bandwidth to deliver a truly great experience for them. And you’ll have a tiny, quiet team behind the scenes engaged in building the infrastructure to support the clients’ experience and your experience. To keep focused, you’ll lean on your high Love, Security, and Excellence Voice Values.

Maybe in your business, you plan on building a suite of courses around the topics you teach and model. Your goal is to eventually license your own material so that other practitioners can teach using your work as a guide. Someday you’ll create a high level private mentorship for people who really want to go deep. You’ll lean on your high Community, Depth, and Helpfulness Voice Values to get this done.

Or maybe you’re a visual artist who works on commission, always in a very particular style and medium. You have no desire to ‘scale’ in terms of client volume, but you are interested in opening an online boutique where people can peruse and purchase non-commission works. You plan to hire a terrific Virtual Assistant (VA) to help you carry this out. You’ll lean on your high Intimacy, Accuracy, and Enthusiasm Voice Values to make this work for you.

There are many different ways to scale for small, and not all of them require you to be “hands off,” to enroll huge numbers of buyers or clients, or to hike your prices sky high so that only the heavily invested can work with you.

Toward a tiny little jewel box brand

I’m kind of in love with this ‘tiny little jewel box’ of a brand idea. It’s what I’m going for these days, and it’s what we help our clients move toward and into in their own work.

WHAT’S INSIDE A JEWEL BOX?

Only what fits.

Only what’s precious.

A few heritage pieces.

A few current favorites.

Lots of eminently wearable standbys.

And lots and LOTS of value.

If you’re intent on building your own business brand as a tiny little jewel box, I invite you to join me.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

What does ‘scaling for small’ look like in your business? What would you LIKE it to look like?

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