Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getting past conceptual stage... getting fire in the belly

The wheels turn slowly... but they are turning.

This morning I spoke with someone at the NJ Small Business Development Center. You'll recall I reached out to them on Friday to set up an appointment to talk about the tour business. My appointment is October 14.

The coordinator had called me yesterday afternoon as I was driving to Sandy Hook, so I tried (unsuccessfully) to return her call from there. Truth be told, I was kind of relieved she didn't answer the phone; I'd left all of my paperwork at home, with the points I need help with, and I honestly was a little worried about sounding like a scatterbrain who hadn't done her homework. I made a few quick notes (relieved I'd left a pen in the car at some point and hadn't cleaned the paper from the front seat) before I dialed, but as I said, I ended up not needing them, anyway.

Notes in hand, I felt a bit more secure when I called this morning. The coordinator greeted me warmly, pulled up my application and asked me a bit more about the venture, including how far along I am.

"Conceptual stage," I admitted.

"Great! We love working with people from the very start." Phew.

Feeling a little less like the kid who neglected to do her term paper, I told her I'm looking for help in setting up the structure of the business, dealing with the legalities and determining the competitive landscape. They've got start-up specialists who advise on a lot of those issues, with the fiscal structure apparently being a lot more complex than getting the legal entity settled. Cool by me, as long as the liability rests with the business, and not on me personally. They've also got a marketing specialist who can work with me to determine who else is out there doing tours, what they're doing, how they price their services, and so forth.

The best part of the services is that they're all free, courtesy of the Small Business Administration. After paying federal taxes for the past 20-odd years, I better get my money's worth. Between now and October 14, I'll be coming up with a LOT of questions.

Meanwhile, I've been getting some interesting messages from my gut on where I should be headed. On Sunday I checked out the Edison Menlo Park museum at the site of TAE's first R&D lab. It's a tiny, two-room building crammed with all kinds of artifacts, and I got there just in time for a tour led by a volunteer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Edison's life and work. Very, very cool! On one hand, I was really energized that there are people out there that find this stuff interesting. On the other, I started wondering if, uh, oh, maybe there's more competition than I expected... and from a no-cost source. Why would people come to me if they could get this for free, beyond getting a van ride from site to site? That upped the ante a bit. Maybe I just need to be that much more creative. How about that?

On another, less happy note, I was dismayed by what I saw on my trip to Sandy Hook. I hadn't been there all summer, and the decay of the Fort Hancock buildings has accelerated, particularly the houses on Officers' Row. To punctuate the point, there are now "Danger: Falling Material" and "Danger: Hardhat Area" signs posted between the homes. In fact, the yellow brick facings on one side wall of House 16 have come down, from the roof line to the foundation. These are all good, solid structures that were built to last. The really appalling thing is that it's all a result of 35 years of simple neglect. Nobody's vandalizing them. They've just been left to rot in the ocean winds. Allegedly, the Sandy Hook Foundation has a master plan to refurbish them and many of the other buildings at the fort, but there doesn't seem to be a lot going on. Where the flip is Bob Vila or Norm Abrams?

I find myself being really frustrated and upset by that (and ending up in tears watching Ken Burns' National Parks series, but that's another story), but not knowing what to do. The volunteers down there are limited to the nature stuff and giving tours of the gun batteries. Nobody's rehabbing the houses. General Electric put money in the kitty to refurbish the Edison Labs. How about some defense contractor putting out some dough to preserve the history of one of New York Harbor's critical defenders?

Okay, I'll get off my soap box. I have to figure out a new career before I go off to save the world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Motivation all around

Nothing like total strangers to help you feel good about insane major life decisions.

After being somewhat sedentary yesterday, I resolved that today would be a day of action, starting with getting out of the house. Rather than defaulting to the public library, I drove to one of the local Panera restaurants to grab coffee and a muffin, plug in and log on.

The last time I went there I got a subtle confirmation for my decision to reboot: a bunch of pharmaceutical salespeople were there, having a buzzword-laden team meeting and sweating over not making quota for the month. I could only shake my head and smile to myself.

Today, after I settled in with my laptop and paperwork, the very friendly manager came by and asked if I was working hard. I told him that my work was a little out of the ordinary: I am researching a start-up. I explained the concept to him, and he responded with a great deal of enthusiasm. That led to a chat about his career -- he's an actor by training and temperament, which was totally apparent after talking with him for two minutes. A few moments later, one of the other employees came over and joined the conversation. In fact, she returned a few more times to tell me more, and to confide some of the challenges she's been having in getting funding for vocational training she wants to take. She got teary eyed as she told me about someone who was working to help her get a grant, and she reminded me that prayer definitely works.

Later on, the guy who was sitting at the next table started asking me what I was up to and told me about his new career of adjunct teaching at a local college while trying to start a consultancy. Meanwhile, I'm toking up on high-test coffee... so I'm really zooming.

Needless to say, all of this interaction with total strangers was a real boost, which also got me over the hump to sign up online to get some guidance at one of the NJ Small Business Development Centers through Rutgers. I have to write a business plan. And do market research. And figure out how the hell I will make a living wage. Or find a millionaire to marry. Of course, I'm sure I'll have to harass the SBDC people to book an appointment, but I've made the first step.

Monday, September 21, 2009


I'm starting to get nervous, and I'm thinking that's a good thing.

A few things are driving my discomfort. First is the cocooning. I'm a kibbitzer. Anyone who's worked with me knows that I can only go for about an hour without dropping by someone's desk for a chat. The advent of instant messaging made it even easier to start random conversation in the office and with distant coworkers.

Now I'm on my own. Me and the cat. She's lovely company, but beyond some purring and occasional meowing, she's not much of a conversationalist. And I've never been great at striking up friendships with people just by chatting with them on the elevator or in the lobby of my building. It wouldn't be hard to become a hermit.

Fortunately my town library has wireless access, so I've started going there to be among the living (and to get my lap back from the cat, but that's another story). It's also forcing me to do some work instead of philosophizing on what my reinvention should look like.

For instance, I finally got around to resubmitting my volunteer application to the National Park Service. After a visit to Ellis Island, I decided not to try to get a position there, since the tour I would have been volunteering to lead was a lot more basic than I'd anticipated. Yesterday I visited the Edison site in West Orange, and even though I've been there a million times, I got really charged up about the place (yeah, I'm an Edison geek). They're opening up the renovated portion of the park in a few weeks, and I'm dying to check it out. THAT would be really cool. On my way home from the site, my mind was racing with ideas. Eventually, I could run a tour company that would bring people to the various Edison-related sites around the state (and there are several, believe it or not). Hmm ... but I don't know yet if I'd be any good at it. Gotta check it out!

After putting in the form, I took another look at a Time Out New York article about an attorney who'd started her own tour company in Brooklyn. Though the article was brief, it contained enough information to get the queasies going: having to get liability insurance, incorporating, getting appropriate licenses from the Department of Consumer Affairs. I knew it couldn't be much different in New Jersey, which has a notoriously unfriendly environment in which to start a business.

Maybe I don't want to do that, after all.

Wait. This was supposed to be easy? Who am I listening to, anyway: the complacent me who'd rather be bored and dissatisfied than not succeed? Or the braver, more daring Sue who realizes (as the Buddhists say) that it's better to live your own life imperfectly and authentically than to live someone else's perfectly? How would I really know what's involved with getting a business off the ground unless I actually looked into it?

So for the past couple of hours I've been at the library, surfing the web for information on incorporating, registering with the state, and a bunch of other stuff. The main thing I learned is that I should probably not be going about it without input from a lawyer and/or accountant, but it's a start. I've also made some headway on a list of to-dos that make it all a little less scary. Big things, parsed into small bites, are ultimately much easier to digest.

Before I fall in love with this idea to the point of no return, I've got to reach out to a few folks who run tour companies or guide tours of historic sites. And I'll be doing a little market research on my own. Needless to say, if you know anyone I can talk with, let me know. And keep an eye out for an online survey from me!

Write it up...

Moving along at a glacial pace, I signed up for a class at NYU. It starts October 5 and covers freelance writing for the novice. It will cover how to translate your interests into story concepts, finding the right market and pitching to a publication. By the end of the five sessions, students are to have a plan and a polished piece.

While I'm not wedded to the idea of being a writer for the rest of my life, I do know that I'll always be a storyteller. It wouldn't hurt to know how to sell an article or a short story; I've dabbled with sending stuff out from time to time, with no success beyond short writeups in Weird NJ. Having deadlines and critiques from the instructor will be really helpful, and I'll also get some input on whether the topic matter I'm interested in is actually marketable.

Who knows? I might turn out to be pretty good at it!

The night after I signed up for the class, I had a dream I was offered two freelance writing jobs. One sounded marginally better than the other in terms of subject matter, but neither was all that thrilling. After I'd weighed them both quickly in my mind, I heard that the worse one paid $60,000, while the better one paid $14,000. Still trying to figure out the significance there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The brand called Sue

Yesterday I had my first "official" networking get-together, grabbing coffee with a photographer who's shot executive portraits for me several times over the past decade. Among many valuable insights, the contact brought to mind the concept of personal brand.

He made a decision long ago to be the 'expensive' photographer, capitalizing on the fact that people tend to equate price with value in the more artistic fields. That can be an advantage in flush times, but not so great when clients' budgets are slashed and they feel they can settle for an 'okay' photographer. He came to realize that in a lot of cases, what he was selling wasn't necessarily his skill as it was the other intangibles he brings to the table.

From my own experiences, I can see what he means. When I've hired consultants or freelancers, I did so with the assumption that they're good at their craft. The differentiation comes in how they work. For example, when I bring them into a meeting with executives I support, I need the consultant to treat the exec's limited time and attention as a rare and valuable commodity. Usually, it's not easy to get on execs' calendars, so you have to make it worth their time, or you lose credibility. Unfortunately, a lot of consultants see it the other way around -- that somehow, the client is there to serve them. It all boils down to respect. It's simple things like being on time, if not early; making sure you're ready to start as soon as the exec comes into the room; testing any equipment to make sure it's working smoothly; and taking the exec's cues on when to stop the small talk and get down to business. Consultants who have the maturity to take those needs seriously are worth their weight in gold. Paying a few hundred dollars less is no bargain if you have to babysit the consultant and sweat every time they open their mouths.

Other situations will call for other intangibles. A good reporter can quickly establish a strong connection with an interview subject and get them to open up. A savvy travel agent will be able to size up a client to know whether "roughing it" means Outward Bound or is just code for a hotel with generic soaps. And hopefully we've all benefited from teachers who understood our learning styles and worked with us accordingly.

Among the other things I learned from the chat, I realized that regardless of what I end up doing, it's worth spending time now to map out the unique qualities that make me valuable as a professional. When my target market sees my name, what do I want them to think? What do I want them to do? (Hopefully they'll be compelled to buy whatever it is I'm selling, but what else?) And all of that has to feel true to who I am, not just a wishful persona of what I think will sell. Part of the reason I embarked on the reboot was because my job didn't feel like me anymore, and it's too tiring to keep pretending. When I'm doing what feels right and authentic for me, good things can't help but follow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Networking -- a gratifying surprise

I was absolutely floored yesterday by a networking contact.

Slowly, I've been making contact with people I've worked with in the past -- consultants and freelancers, mostly -- to see if they're willing to share some of their experiences with me. Because I'm not entirely sure yet which direction I'll be taking, I'm mostly reforging the bond on a new level and asking their perspectives on what they like and don't like about being sole practitioners or running small businesses. I've been fortunate to work with some very talented and very nice people, and this is also giving me a chance to catch up with them and find out what they've been up to.

It's easier to reach out to some people more than others, given the relationships we've built over time. Some are all business, while others are a bit more conversational and personal. Not surprisingly, it's easier to reach out to the latter ones: it's a pretty natural progression to give them a call or send a note saying I've left my job, and why, and what I'm up to. The more formal, business contacts are a bit tougher, so they haven't come as naturally, maybe because my 'story' still feels a bit unformed.

On Monday, I got a LinkedIn message from one of those more business-y contacts. He'd tried calling me at my old work number and got my outgoing message saying I've left the company. In his note, he offered to be a reference for me and help in any way that he can, and he implored me to drop him a line with my phone number so we could catch up. I did that, and he called me yesterday morning, barely taking a breath between all of the nuggets of information and food for thought he shared with me. I think at one point, he was talking for three minutes straight. A few hours later, he followed up with a couple of e-mails with more information on some of what he'd shared.

For someone who doesn't expect a lot of help from anyone, the e-mails and call were gratifying, and a little overwhelming. The contact has always been a class act to work with, and he clearly values his business relationships, so it's not surprising he would be willing to help. I guess I just wasn't prepared for the volumes he offered up, unsolicited. When I recounted the experience to someone else, that person noted that most people, when given the chance, will step forward to help, and some will even approach you before you reach out to them. I know I've done it for folks in the past, so I shouldn't be as surprised as I was. It did make it a lot easier to send out a note to one of the other 'business-y' contacts yesterday afternoon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Put away the tube socks

Well, campers, it looks like I won't be overseeing any dodgeball games anytime soon.

I sat down with the career counselor at NYU on Wednesday to learn the results of my Strong Interest Inventory. I'm still digesting what it all means, which is why it took me this long to blog on it.

Essentially, the Strong is designed to help you assess your interests, preferences, and personal styles— and then matches them to the responses from people in a variety of professions who are satisfied (maybe even happy) in their jobs. The test also gives you general occupational 'themes' that describe your work personality, as well as personal styles (do you like to work solo or on a team, do you like to take risks, how do you like to learn, etc.) With this information in hand, you're better equipped to choose a career you can be passionate about.

My results jived pretty well with some of the other testing I've done in the past, though neither dictator nor assassin showed up on the preferred occupation list. My highest themes are 'investigative' and 'artistic,' followed by 'realistic.' Not surprisingly, the results also pointed to me being more of an independent spirit than someone who has to work within a team environment.

But here's where the real fun comes in: they provide your scores in over 100 occupations, and while the list certainly isn't exhaustive, it's representative of major work areas. The area where I showed no interest whatsoever, was around sports; I scored zero points for phys ed teacher and athletic trainer. My absolute highest score was for attorney, followed closely by librarian. Small wonder why I get along so well with lawyers. And, of course, I do like to research and share what I learn. Trivial Pursuit, anyone?

Somewhat comforting is that my scores around communications occupations were relatively high, though it's interesting to see that 'reporter' scored higher than 'public relations director.' So I haven't been totally in the wrong ball park in what I've been doing for the past 20 years -- maybe just in the wrong section. And 'English teacher,' which an annoying ex-boyfriend said I should be, scored really low.

Now, none of this means that I have to go to law school. In fact, the interpretive report suggests that the results can also point to things I'd find satisfying in my personal life. (Oddly enough, I do like sparring with lawyers in my free time.) What's most important are the descriptors -- the aspects of the occupations that appeal to me. As I go on job interviews or talk with people in interesting careers, I can ask questions to determine if those things are present in the job, and mine for areas that won't be as appealing or may even contradict my preferences.

And if I do decide to strike out on my own, I can weigh all of this into my thinking, and create the job that makes the most sense for me, and partner with or hire someone who likes to do the stuff I'm not as thrilled with.

But we can be sure I won't be wearing a whistle on a lanyard around my neck.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I'm annoyed.

About a month ago, before I left my job, I put in an online application to volunteer at Ellis Island. I figured it would be a good way to satisfy my Junior Park Ranger jones, and I'd get to learn more about a very interesting historical location. And, of course, it would also assure that I had a reason to be out of the house in the event I hit a rough patch (read 'slough of despond') during my reboot.

When I applied, I got an automated response saying that someone would be in touch with me within ten business days. That was August 6. I still hadn't heard anything last week but figured they were busy, the volunteer coordinator was on vacation, what have you. Nonetheless, I called and left a message on her voice mail. I got no response.

I was about to drop it when I realized that volunteering at Ellis Island is something I want to do, and it's foolish just to assume that it wasn't meant to be. Today I called again and got the coordinator on the phone, and she directed me to apply online. Okay, I already did; maybe my application got lost? She asked which website I used. Uh, the National Park Service site? She told me to go to volunteer.gov and fill out the form there. Okay... whatever. In the time she took to explain the process, she could have interviewed me and made a determination.

It's the government, so naturally the website she sent me to led me to the exact place where I'd posted my application. Rather than debate it, I'll just resubmit. And call again.

Once I was past the initial frustration, I started thinking about the excuses I make for not achieving what I really want in life. It's always been an issue. I was the classic B+ student who could have gotten straight A's if I just put in a little more effort. A lot of times, when I've haven't gotten results after a token stab, I've just let it slide. I've gotten into some pretty good situations without much effort, so maybe I concluded that as far as I'm concerned, results are more about luck than hard work. Other times I could reason that I wasn't any worse off not getting something, because I didn't invest a lot of energy into it. But the old line stands true most of the time: you get out what you put into it.

As the reality of my situation sinks in, the nagging voice of compromise is already suggesting that I just look for the same kind of job I've been doing for the past umpteen years. I'm good at it, I've got a decent resume, maybe I just needed a little time off to clear my head. Jumping back into the same frying pan would be a hell of a lot easier -- and a lot less scary -- than exploring the infinite abyss of possibility. In the long run, it would just leave me even more annoyed and dissatisfied. (Decide in haste, repent at leisure.)

Change is not for wimps. Whether it's self-imposed or thrust upon you, it's your choice how to deal with it. I've made some strong statements about it. Now it's time to follow through.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Exploring the mission

Another thing I've been taking a look at is some of the work I did at a Kripalu workshop eight years ago. Kripalu, if you don't know it, is a great retreat center for spirit, body and mind, located in the Berkshires. Peace and positivity emanate from the place, to the point where wild rabbits know it's safe to come within inches of people sitting out on the front patio.

The first time I went there, I took part in a workshop called, "Exploring your life's mission." I was attracted to it because they didn't promise instant results like some other workshops I'd read about. You know the ones: "After this 48 hour experience of self-discovery, you'll have all the tools you need to change your life instantly!" (There always seem to be a lot of exclamation points involved in their brochures.) All the Kripalu folks would commit to was getting you started on your journey. Maybe you'd come away with some answers, or maybe you'd find out that you had a lot more work to do to help those answers along. That seemed reasonable. If anything, it was a lot less pressure than figuring out the rest of your life in two days.

Led by two life coaches, the process was well thought-out and drew each of us back more to who we are and makes us feel most alive. To answer that question, we went back to very specific examples in our lives where we felt most 'lit up' and most authentic. My answers gravitated around having fun and novel experiences, especially those where I made a connection with people.

While there wasn't much talk about what that equates to from a money-making perspective, the coaches gave great guidance on making one's mission real, including keeping things simple and taking small, achievable steps. Nonetheless, I made little, if any progress on my own mission after that weekend. Between a challenging job and the shock of September 11 later that year, I got waylaid. With so much seemingly out of my control, I think I just needed security and familiarity, however uncomfortable it might have been.

Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me, but that mission has been lurking these many years. It's risen to the surface from time to time, mostly from a sense of dissatisfaction when I've been relegated to making someone else's vision real, and following directions instead of being the one setting the direction. Sometimes knowing what you don't want to do, or where you don't want to be, is as important as knowing what you do want.

The scary part is in actually working at it. I can spend a lot of time mulling it and intellectualizing it and writing about it, but that doesn't push the needle very far. The chat with the career counselor on Wednesday should help, I hope.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That's Austin "Danger" Powers

Following my annual physical today (all's clear, except the lab lost my blood test, claims I was never there), I headed over to Panera for coffee and a muffin and some free web access. In and among some research on entrepreneurship and small business, I took a look at some personality and temperament info. Curious, I checked out my Jung type, which led me to this description:

risk taker, easy going, outgoing, social, open, rule breaker, thrill seeker, life of the party, comfortable in unfamiliar situations, appreciates strangeness, disorganized, adventurous, talented at presentation, aggressive, attention seeking, experience junkie, insensitive, adaptable, not easily offended, messy, carefree, dangerous, fearless, careless, emotionally stable, spontaneous, improviser, always joking, player, wild and crazy, dominant, acts without thinking, not into organized religion.

Okay ... some true, some not so much. What about possible careers? Again, quoting directly from the website:

dictator, computer consultant, international spy, TV producer, philosopher, comedian, music performer, fighter pilot, politician, diplomat, entertainer, game designer, bar owner, freelance writer, creative director, strategist, news anchor, professional skateboarder, airline pilot, comic book artist, college professor, private detective, mechanical engineer, lecturer, ambassador, astronomer, research scientist, judge, web developer, scholar, FBI agent, CIA agent, electrical engineer, assassin

Hmm... dictator AND diplomat? Oddly enough, right after I published this post, the ad that showed up on the confirmation page was for information on bipolar disorder. Coincidence? Google's advertising algorithm has a sense of humor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gaming the system

I have an appointment next Wednesday at NYU's Office of Career Management. On recommendation from several people (thanks Barry, Ann and Maddy), I'll be taking the Strong Interest Inventory and then sitting down with a counselor to discuss what the results mean and where they could lead me.

That said, I'm a little curious about whether I'll game the results. In other words, will I answer the questions honestly, or in the way that I think will lead me to a certain outcome?

I have some history in doing that. Take, for example, my results from the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. I rather liked the results I got the first time I took it, and when I've done that or Myers Briggs again, I've prompted myself to answer the questions to replicate the first result. Silly, I know. It's one of the reasons I'm not taking Myers-Briggs at NYU, too. I don't know if I can trust myself to take it with no preconceptions about the result. Or maybe the real reason is that I'm worried the result won't be that cool assessment that matches only about five percent of the general population. (Yeah, I like being unique. Just like everyone else.)

Come to think of it, gaming the test is pretty consistent with some long-standing behaviors of mine. I've lived a lot of my life and career by doing what I thought was expected, rather than what I really wanted. What good has it done for me? It's part of what got me where I am, and part of what I am trying to break free of.

At least this time the 'gaming' is more about what I want, or think I want. I have a couple of ideas about what I like, and what direction it could take me in, and I do wonder if that will influence my responses on the Strong Interest Inventory. Then again, I don't have a huge amount of time or energy invested in those ideas, so there's no harm done if it turns out that the assessment points in other directions. Chances are good that it might, after all.

Another thought: One might wonder why I'm going to NYU for the assessment and counseling when I could more easily go to Rutgers, or even to the county college that's within walking distance of my home. I gave both some consideration but then realized that I need to make a break with the familiar. The Rutgers Career Center is the place I ignored when I was in school, and somehow going back there would be like returning to my high school guidance counselor (who I mostly ignored, too). The county college, well, enough said. New Jersey is starting to feel like a cocoon to be emerged from, and whether a departure is in the cards or not, looking for guidance in other places just feels like the right thing right now. You know how it goes: when you do things the same way you've always done them, you'll get the result you've always gotten. Sounds a lot like gaming the system.