It’s 15 years ago this month that I incorporated my business. And it’s been quite a ride!
Here’s a brutally honest review of the past 1.5 decades, with tips for other business owners.
I measure my success by my clients’ successes.
So my major career highlights definitely include the awards won by my clients, including Best Small Business of the Year, and Excellence in Retail Award – to name but a few.
To the best of my knowledge, every award entry I’ve written for a client has made it at least to Finalist stage – and I’ve written many entries over the years, for all kinds of awards.
You also know you’re doing something right when you work with a client continuously for 15 years. Which is the case with Rubywaxx, winner of the aforementioned Excellence in Retail Award. Rubywaxx was my first ever customer, and I’m still working with them now – even though the business has changed ownership.
It’s also been an honour to write website copy for LC Designer Homes not once, but twice, when they rebranded and changed their target market. Here’s what my client, Michelle, says:
Awesome client results
The video testimonial above from Michelle is just one of the many great testimonials I’ve gathered over the years. I appreciate each and every testimonial, as these are a vital tool in converting prospects. (Hint: be sure to include testimonial gathering in your own sales process!)
We went from zero to hero within a week of going live with the new website that Cornelia wrote the content for! We’re now getting more enquiries than we have time to deal with.
Not only has she done a great job at communicating what DUSTEX is about, but she’s also done an amazing job on the SEO and keywords to get the traffic to our website.
– Perry Mundell, Director and Senior Design Engineer, DUSTEX
Another highlight is the magazine work I’ve added to my portfolio in recent years. I’ve written and photographed a number of features for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine.
And last year, the editor of The Lady magazine in the UK contacted me to commission an article. Woot!
High profile photography
My photographs have been used by many high profile brands, including Air New Zealand, BBC, NZ Herald, AA Traveller, Asda, Daily Mail UK, Which magazine, and many many more.
These organisations purchased my images from stock photo libraries. It’s fun seeing my photos ‘out in the wild’. 🙂
The not-so-good bits…
I don’t normally write about negative things, as it’s not good communications practice. I also don’t like posting personal things in public, as I’m a private person. But I’m hoping this will help other business owners, as it’s something that isn’t talked about enough: burnout.
Thankfully burnout had some publicity recently on TV, when Theresa Gattung, a well-known NZ business leader, spoke out her own experience of burnout.
Here’s my experience of burnout: how it affected me, how I recovered from it, and the tips I’d like to pass on to other business owners.
Burnout absolutely sucks
I hit burnout (a.k.a. adrenal fatigue) 2 years ago, and it hit me hard. I slept almost non-stop for 3 months: I slept on the couch all day, and then I went to bed and slept all night, albeit with insomnia at 3am till daylight. (And then I’d feel tired again.)
Mornings were the worst, and the fatigue was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. My limbs felt like they were made out of lead. I could barely walk. Driving any distance was out of the question. I couldn’t do anything. Just the simple act of having a shower was absolutely exhausting, and I’d need a nap afterwards. Hair washing and drying was something I really dreaded as it drained me so much. (Only recently did I stop needing a lie down afterwards.) I didn’t have the energy for hobbies or fun stuff. I couldn’t even do my photography! As someone who likes to be busy and active, this was a really difficult reality to face.
I also felt like I lost my personality: it wasn’t just a case of, ‘the lights are on and there’s no one home’. It was more like, ‘the lights AREN’T on and no one’s home’! I couldn’t socialise, let alone hold a conversation, so I lost friendships.
The fatigue almost felt like having constantly low blood sugar. It wasn’t; I had it checked. But that’s how it felt. I found I was constantly eating (healthy things – fruit, veggies, nuts) to try and get that energy boost from food, but it never happened. I felt constantly low and lethargic. The only thing that gave me a boost was Larabars, containing only dates, coconut, walnuts, cacao powder, walnuts, and a tiny bit of salt.
Luckily, my lovely partner looked after me. He cooked for me. He did all the chores. All the shopping. All the cleaning. Everything. On top of running his own business. And helping me keep my horticulture business going. The whole situation was as shocking to him as it was for me. And I am so very grateful for his help.
I managed to do work for one copywriting client over that time (barely). The brain fog was horrendous. I couldn’t keep a thought in my head. A writing job that would normally take me 30 minutes would take 2 to 3 hours and leave me utterly exhausted. (Don’t worry, I only charged the client for the 30 minutes!)
I had to turn work away. My business was basically non-existent. All those years of slogging away at building up my biz, and it vanished… and then the COVID-19 lockdown hit a year ago (halfway through my burnout), which hammered my business even harder.
Yes, there are worse things than burnout
I realise that there are far, far worse health issues than burnout. I lost my mum to cancer, and my dad has Motor Neurone Disease, so believe me, I understand horrific illnesses.
However, burnout is probably preventable to a very large degree. But there isn’t much education around it (and I’m hoping to do a small part in changing that with this article), and it doesn’t help that New Zealand has amongst the highest working hours in the OECD.
What’s more, pharmaceutical medicine doesn’t offer any solutions, and there’s no government assistance or benefits or any other safety nets. And, of course, when you’re self-employed, there’s no such thing as paid sick leave. You’re very much on your own.
The long and winding path to recovery
My journey back to good health has been slow. Frustratingly so. And it’s been a complicated mix of treatments and stress prevention methods. This is what’s worked for me:
Diet: I can no longer tolerate alcohol, refined sugar, processed food, or caffeine. (Sob!) Gluten and carbs are not my friends, and I’m already lactose intolerant. The dietary changes were vital, but yeah, they suck. What I did (and still do) eat a lot of is fruit, as well as veggies. And no, the fruit didn’t make me fat. If you think that fruit is unhealthy because of its sugar content, please read this article.
Anthony Williams says: “fruit contains water, minerals, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants along with its critical glucose. This is not even remotely the same as the processed and damaging sugar found in a piece of candy, chocolate cake, or ice cream cone that has no nutrient value.”
And: “no matter how many supplements you eat or how organic or pure your food is, unless you have enough glucose to deliver the nutrients into your cells, they won’t be helping you.”
In my view, fruit is essential for my health and I eat as much of it as I like! Luckily, I have a lot of it growing in my garden all year round: oranges, mandarins, feijoas, persimmons, cherimoyas, blackberries, raspberries, bananas, lemons, limes… yum!
- Supplements: so so many supplements. The best advice I got was from a coaching call with the people who run Adrenal Fatigue and Thyroid Care.
- Medicinal mushrooms: not magic mushrooms, but there’s definitely something magical about them! They help with mood management.
- Naps: if I’m tired, I sleep. Being able to do this whenever I need is definitely a big perk of being self-employed!
- Traditional Chinese acupuncture: this has made a huge difference to my fatigue, and I still have it when I feel I need it. It also fixed my 3am insomnia in just a couple of sessions.
- Restorative yoga and yoga nidra: I can’t physically do the vinyasa yoga I used to love. But these are soothing alternatives. I love the Down Dog app on my phone, as you can choose everything from the session length, to the instructor’s voice.
- Guided meditation: admittedly, this is one thing I should do more of but struggle to fit into my day.
- Qi gong: amazingly helpful, if only it wasn’t so boring!
- Earthing: walking barefoot outside really works. I have tested this for myself with a volt meter: wearing shoes indoors, I have an electric charge. When I’m barefoot on the grass, the electric charge drops right down. Who would have thought?! Definitely something to do regularly.
- Gratitude journal: focusing on the positive definitely helps with mental fortitude. I jot down a few bullet points every evening, and keep the journal by my pillow to help me remember to write in it.
- Music: binaural beats and 432 Hz music is naturally soothing, and I listen to this a lot, especially when working. I find it helps with focus and concentration. There’s plenty to listen to for free on Youtube, here’s an example. (Tip: you need headphones to get the most out of binaural beats.)
- The beach: this is currently making the biggest difference to me. Apparently it’s all the negative ions that are at the beach. Apparently, a beach can have as many as 2,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter, whereas a crowded city may have less than 100.”Researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow discovered that negative ions are able to help protect the body from induced physical stress.” (Source.)There are also claims that the negative ions boost serotonin levels. Well, I definitely feel energised after a trip to the beach, and my dog loves coming with me too! Even if I don’t go for a walk, and just sit and breathe in that gorgeous briny sea air, it helps me so much.
Spending money on supplements, medical practitioners, acupuncture, and medicinal mushrooms each month has been incredibly expensive – and at a time when I had bugger all income. But I had to focus on getting better, because without your health you have absolutely nothing, right?
Looking for a job to improve my finances wasn’t an option either. Who on earth would hire someone who sleeps nearly all day and can’t remember the simplest of things?!
I’ve only just come right. It’s taken 2 years, and I still have to be super careful. My work/life balance still isn’t where I’d like it to be. But it’s heading in the right direction. And you have no idea how good it is to finally have my brain back and functioning! Though I do have to be really careful about how much client work I take on so I don’t over commit. Yep, I’m super exclusive these days. 😉 I’ve realised that I can’t afford to be cheap, but I can afford to be excellent at what I do. Quality over quantity.
Being protective of my time also means I work the hours that suit my own biorhythm. Mornings are still hard for me – and I’ve always had night owl tendencies – so my working hours start later and finish later.
How did I get burnt out?
Basically, I burnt out because I was working too hard and didn’t take enough time out for myself.
It’s easy to do: work is fun and exciting and you don’t know when to stop.
Or you’re at the ‘feast’ part of the infamous ‘feast or famine’ cycle you go through as a one-person business, and you’re doing all you can to make the proverbial hay while the sun shines.
In my case, I was following the Dave Ramsey baby steps, in his book The Total Money Makeover. It’s a practical financial roadmap, which I’d recommend, but I took the advice on having side hussles a step too far. As well as working in my copywriting biz, I have a part-time horticulture business. And on top of that, I took on a part-time job. I was working 6 to 7 days a week, with long hours each day. I eventually had a short break to the Coromandel with my partner, and when we came back, we both came down with the flu. After 2 weeks, my man was getting better – but I was getting worse and worse.
In hindsight, I think that my dyspraxia put me at increased risk of burnout. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder. It’s a lifelong condition that affects gross and fine motor skills, and sometimes cognitive function. The net effect of it is that it takes me more effort to do everyday things than the normal person – e.g. driving is extremely tiring; I struggle to judge distances; I have to be careful not to walk into things; and so on. It’s normal for me to be absolutely exhausted at the end of each day, even without burnout. Refusing to accept such limitations is easy in a world where we’re expected to be superwoman (or superman). Yet the reality is that any kind of underlying health condition is compromising your body’s ability to battle stress.
A blood test confirmed that my cortisol level was off-the-charts: cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and it’s made by the adrenal glands. The ideal morning peak level of cortisol is meant to be 170 to 500 nmol/L; mine was a whopping 1,028 nmol/L! (Sidenote: don’t rely on blood tests for indicators of adrenal fatigue; 4-point saliva tests are the way to go, but they’re spendy, and it was out of my budget.)
The frightening part about burnout is that there were no warning signs. It came out of nowhere. No little tell-tales to say I needed to slow down. I was functioning normally – till I wasn’t.
Then came the various attempts to get better, which was an expensive business.
The irony of it was, that by trying to improve my finances, I was in a worse position than I was then I started! *facepalm*
A big lesson: business is a marathon, not a sprint!
You absolutely need to work at a pace that’s sustainable for the long haul. Please. I wouldn’t wish burnout on anyone.
If you only ever take advice from one meme, let this be it:
(I think I actually cried when I saw this meme for the first time, after burnout. It was too close to home.)
Please, look after yourself. I can’t stress this enough! And share this message far and wide.
Burnout isn’t talked about anywhere near enough, but it should be.
Tips for business owners
- Pace yourself: remember that business is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Be sure to take at least one day off every week. Yes, every week!
- Prioritise breaks and vacation time. And do not check your work emails or answer work calls while you’re on vacation.
- Also don’t answer work emails or phone calls after hours. I think it’s important to have clear boundaries between work time and private time, or you end up overloading yourself with stress.
- Spend your time off doing things you love, with the people you love. And get some me-time.
- Work the hours that suit your biorhythm.
- Only work as many hours and days as you are able. Just because everyone else works Monday till Friday, 9 to 5, doesn’t mean you have to. The biggest perk of being in business for yourself is that you can make your own rules!
- Learn to say “no”. At home and at work. And when you do take something on, do it on your own terms.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Just because someone else can work 60 hour weeks, doesn’t mean you should. Work out how many productive hours you have in your day, and don’t cram in any more than that. If you can’t get through everything, focus on the profitable tasks and outsource what you can.
- I hate to say it, but you probably need to slow down a bit when you hit your forties. You can get away with over-working when you’re younger, but the body is less forgiving when you get older. I thought that ‘mind over matter’ would do the trick. I was wrong. (In case you are wondering, I am age 46 at the time of writing this article, and am not showing any signs of menopause.)
- Outsource and delegate as much as you are able to. Personally, I hire a bookkeeper and also a garden assistant, as I don’t have the physical capacity or brain bandwidth to do everything myself. The best jobs to outsource are the ones that are (a) low value, (b) low enjoyment, or (c) where you take much longer doing the job than a paid professional.
(Hint: if content writing ticks any of those boxes, I can help you!)
- Be fiercely protective of your time, both at work and of your leisure time.
- Being excellent in your work and in your business is more sustainable than being cheap.
- Find ways to increase your prices (e.g. by charging for a package, rather than an hourly rate), and look for ways you can increase the average dollar sale per customer (e.g. do you have any add-on services to offer?). The more moolah you can make per client means less time is needed for prospecting, writing proposals, on-boarding and other time consuming tasks that you can’t charge for.
- Get to grips with your finances: business and personal. That includes setting a budget and keeping money aside for rainy days and emergencies. The more you can avoid financial stress, so much the better. I totally recommend this book (just remember to approach it at a sustainable pace, unlike me!)
- Work is not the only stressor. Most of us are dealing with other challenges, constantly. Whether it’s raising children, difficult relationships, or helping a sick family member, this also creates constant, on-going stress. (In my case, I have a terminally ill dad, who’s on the other side of the world, and I’m his only family. I organise all his medical appointments and care, as he is mute, due to his illness, and now also struggles to read and write.)That’s why it’s so important to have boundaries in place around work, and incorporate stress management techniques and me-time into your life. You can’t look after others if you don’t look after yourself.
- Eat healthily, but remember that the best nutrition in the world can’t undo the impact of stress on your body. And an estimated 95% of diseases are caused by stress – and that includes cancer and other nasties. (The other 5% is down to genetics, if you’re wondering.) Please do not underestimate the impact of on-going, sustained stress.
- We live in an era where busyness is glorified. This is not a good thing, and definitely a trend we need to learn to buck. It seems that these days, being able to sit quietly and unwind is a rare skill, but one that should absolutely be pursued. Busyness creates stress, which causes disease! Break that cycle.
- Be extra gently with yourself if you have an underlying health condition of any kind. Your body is working extra hard already.
- Practice gratitude. It’s so much better to focus on what you have got, than on what you haven’t got.
- Cherish and hold close the people who truly care for you, and be a good friend to them in return. Don’t worry about letting go of people who don’t bother supporting you. They are not your people.
What’s next for me?
I’m feeling so much better, I’m back in business, and I’m excited about it!
The free booklet at Year Compass has been a fantastic resource for helping to clarify what’s important to me. I totally recommend it – and doing it over the New Year period is ideal. It’s sooo much better than making resolutions.
I’ve also clarified the services I want to provide; who my target market is; and how I can help my customers:
I create content that allows service businesses to build trust more quickly with their prospects, so they can increase sales.
As part of that process, this website has had a complete makeover, with an emphasis on case study writing, article writing, and SEO website content. Those are the things I’m really strong at, and are my happy place.
I’m also fiercely protective of getting some me-time every week.
Right now, that involves taking my dog, Mac, to the beach every week. As well as getting back into photography. (Though I’m still not up to going kayaking. One day!)
You have no idea how wonderful it is to have the energy to do these simple things. I’m so very grateful for the good things in life.
Onwards, upwards – and remember to look for the silver lining in life’s lessons.
I’m incredibly grateful to the clients who’ve come back to me after my hiatus. You totally rock, and here’s to the next 15 years – may they include plenty more awards! 🙂