Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Still nothing...

... from the Edison National Historical Park folks on volunteering.

And nothing yet from the specialist on my breast issue. Called to discover that my primary's office hadn't faxed the report over, so I had to get that corrected. And I picked up my films and the doctor's report yesterday.

While I've been pitifully inert this week (besides a blog entry on another site... and web searches on Fort Hancock... and five loads of laundry after switching my drawers over to fall/winter), I realized that I may be back to normal. That sounds weird. Let me explain:

I don't think I ever felt like my regular self at my last job. Whether the need was real or perceived, I always sensed that I had to be someone other than who I really am. Maybe it was because I worked with people who mostly acted like they were curing cancer (they weren't) and assumed I agreed with them (I didn't; I was just trying to get by.). And a lot of the time, I felt judged, and deemed inadequate. As I got more and more exhausted by the job, I think the weight and impact of the pretense bled into my personal life. I withdrew. I didn't initiate a lot of contact, and I certainly wasn't as friendly as I once had been. I got so out of practice on being the unvarnished me, that I was having a hard time relating to the dwindling number of people I really wanted to get to know. Label it cautiousness, or shyness, or anything else; the result was a very solitary existence.

I was really starting to wonder if I'd have the skill or desire to connect with anyone again.

Not to worry, as it turns out. Free of the spectre of judgment, I think I've probably chatted up more people in the past two months than I took a chance on in the past two years. It hasn't been incredibly conscious, either, just finding some presumed common ground and striking up a conversation. And, in some cases, going on a flyer and asking for a second helping when the chat seemed promising. It's coming a lot easier, maybe even easier than it ever has.

There's still a lot of ground yet to cover (and a lot of pushing on my recent inertia -- better to do than to mull over and write about), but it seems that I'm moving in the right direction on that part of my reboot. When you feel more like yourself, you can claim more of your own power and everything else that makes you wonderful. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I admit I am a bit cheap, but I really didn't want things to turn out this way.

Upon leaving my job, I started getting my health benefits through COBRA. It's notoriously expensive, and while I know that insurance is more a wager with the insurer that you won't get sick, I was still kind of annoyed that chances were very good that I would not get my 'money's worth.'

Well, that may not be the case.

I had my mammogram about two weeks ago and was called back in because the radiologist had seen something on one of the films and wanted to get magnified images of the area in question. I wasn't all that concerned, frankly, because this was my first digital mammo, and I'd read that the increased detail the digitals show was causing more women to get called back for retakes. I went back in on Tuesday. After more shots, and more discomfort, the radiologist came back with a verdict. Magnifying the magnification as she showed me, she explained that she was concerned about a very tiny spot that she'd nearly missed. She wants me to see a specialist, potentially for a biopsy.


Now, I trust the radiologist implicitly -- she's got a fantastic reputation with physicians and patients alike, and she's straightforward without being cold. I'd had an issue a couple of years ago and she sent me for an MRI that showed everything was okay. No doubt this will be something similar. The radiologist said she didn't think it was anything, but I definitely need to get it checked out. Yesterday I set up the appointment with the specialist and arranged to have the radiologist's report sent to that specialist for evaluation. The appointment is in February... unless the report raises concern, in which case the date gets moved up.

Among the many issues this might bring up, it does put a time clock on making career decisions. Even if everything works out okay health-wise, I'm still obliged to go back for a recheck in six months... and probably on six-month intervals for the near future. COBRA coverage maxes out at 18 months, and then I have to make other health insurance arrangements, either through a new employer or buying them myself. Geesh.

Fate does have interesting motivational techniques.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Small Business Development people, neither small nor... well, never mind

Y'ever notice how I tend to wait to write about the hard stuff until I have something more positive to report?

Last Wednesday morning I had my appointment with the folks at the Small Business Development Center. Having not put on business clothes in six weeks, I felt a little weird getting ready. Kind of reminded me of the first crisp day after starting school in September: you get to wear your favorite sweater. When I'm not playing "Business Sue" on a daily basis, it's definitely more fun picking out which professional clothes to wear.

I had two appointments: first one with the startup expert and the second one with the marketing guru. First, I have to say I wasn't extremely impressed with the startup person. We chatted about my business concept for about ten minutes, and he spent the remainder of the hour showing me that I could do all the necessary state registration work online. There might have been a little bit of a generation gap there, as he seemed pretty impressed with the whole process and I just wanted to move onto more interesting things. I got some of my questions answered, but for the most part, I didn't feel that I'd gotten a lot more information than I could have read on a website.

The marketing guru was a real trip. She was really pleased that I'd sketched out a basic marketing plan with target audiences and prospective communications media (web, publications, word of mouth, etc.). I think her exact exclamation was, "Finally! Someone comes in with a plan!" She proceeded to pull it apart, telling me to revamp it into a calendar by month and expenditures, which makes sense. Launching into a 45-minute-long monologue, she drove the networking angle, though she didn't use the word "network" once. She was really pushing for me to join a women business owners' organization she's an officer of, noting the opportunity to cross promote other members' ventures on my tours by, for example, giving out cookies from another woman's business.

Maybe it's just me, but you start mentioning cookies and I start thinking about people who treat business like it's a PTA fundraiser. Now, I know that the treachery and politics in some PTAs would make New Jersey politics look like nursery school, but in general, meh. I don't want to limit myself to the girls' side of the gym. That's not me, and I really don't want to be in an organization where people think small and are each others' main source of income in the hopes of drumming up a little extra business (i.e. "I'll get people for your Mary Kay business if you tell them about my Tupperware."). I've been on first-name basis with Fortune 500 CEOs. I've written shareholders' meeting speeches. I've worked with and for entrepreneurs who've built sizeable businesses. Maybe I'm a snob, but using the cookie example sent me to a bad, bad place in my mind that was a bit of a struggle to leave.

That said, I've resolved to take in all inputs, regardless of where they come from and how much I'd have thrown up on them in the past. Cross promotion makes sense. It's inexpensive and it builds relationships. Maybe I was just annoyed that she had barreled into a monologue on everything I should do without taking two minutes to ask about me and my background. Maybe she's accustomed to dealing with people who've never worked in a corporate environment and doesn't want to waste limited consulting time hearing about their day jobs at the Gap. Regardless, it's kind of ironic that she's supposed to be a marketing whiz and she didn't even bother to assess her audience.

I have to be honest, too: the thought of joining business organizations kind of scares me. Not kind of. Does. I absolutely hate going to meetings where you stand around and try to engage people in conversation when they'd rather catch up with people they already know. It reminds me of sorority rush -- the ones when I was already in the sorority. And I am wondering about my elevator pitch -- the two minute description of my business concept. Based on some of the feedback I've gotten from people I've pitched it to, and how it differs from what's in my mind, I'm wondering whether I need to change the pitch... or change the concept. (The feedback concept is probably more profitable, but it's also more pedestrian than what I want to do.) I'm really not into busing boring and cranky senior citizens to the Ellis Island ferry and telling a story or two on the way, but that sounds like what some folks (including the marketing lady) are hearing or perceiving is my goal. Eh, who knows if they're even really listening to what I'm saying, or whether they hear "tour" and their minds go straight to the seniors tours and don't make a U-turn back to me. They're not even in the demographic I'd like to reach -- they haven't even heard of Weird NJ.

Getting experience

So... I called the volunteer coordinator at the Edison National Historic Park, and after a bit of hunting she found my application. They're definitely in the market for folks to help guide guests, and all looks good; she's passing it on to the head of interpretation, who will then give me a call to talk further. We'll see how long it takes for that to happen.

Weather here has been awful -- rainy, unseasonably cold last Friday and all weekend -- and not conducive for a happy frame of mind. Not exactly being satisfied by the prospect of longer nights and shorter days, I really felt like hibernating last week, especially when I got the long list of to-dos from the small business development people (another thing I need to blog on...). After another kick in the pants, I started planning a dry run tour for this coming weekend -- either a local Revolutionary War jaunt (the last major battle in the northern colonies conveniently happened two towns away, but not many people seem to know that) or a ride out to the site of Edison's iron ore mining facility.

This weekend was also the annual Four Centuries event here in Union County, NJ, which celebrates the rich history of the area. Some sites even date back as far as the mid 1600's. All of the house museums in the county are open for the event, free of charge, along with several other notable sites. I took the opportunity to head back to Liberty Hall, an amazing mansion which was owned by the Keans, a prominent New Jersey family, for over 200 years and has hosted eight US presidents and Alexander Hamilton, among others. There's a great story about Redcoats seeing ghosts there, and I wanted to make sure I had it right.

In addition to learning things and checking out locations, I've been using site visits to pick up the behaviors that make a tour guide exceptional (or not). The volunteers at Liberty Hall have some amazing stories about what's been found in the house (the family saved EVERYTHING, down to heating oil bills from the 1800's) and it's a lot of fun to get them chatting. This time I ran into the one who didn't know when to shut up. On anything. Including things that had nothing to do with the site, history or anything else. Note to self: curb logorrhea and give the guests a chance to talk. Sometimes people have questions, or maybe even stories of their own from things they've heard or witnessed. You never know.

Then, the other day I found something interesting online. There's a walking tour company in Princeton, aptly named Princeton Tour Company. Boss website with real personality and enthusiasm about the town. Extensive selection of themed, Princeton-related tours. And the owner proudly notes that all of her tour facts have been verified by local official sources, and that she maintains strong relationships with local businesses, the university and relevant local government entities. And the company has been featured in major newspapers outside of the immediate New Jersey area. This lady's got her act together -- she's doing everything right. Wow. How could I have not found this before?

Despite the weather, I headed down to Princeton yesterday to check out their Einstein tour. The company owner, Mimi, was our guide, and the only people on the tour besides me were a friend of hers and a nice older couple who are friends of the friend. It was a little weird, because the friend was treating it like a private tour for her friends, and sidetracking the dialogue from time to time with stories about the scientist she works for, but Mimi did do a good job of keeping things rolling. In fact, beyond a couple of Rutgers-related inaccuracies (and the clammy weather), the tour was a great experience. (And yes, despite myself, Ms. Smarty Pants did challenge her on the Rutgers stuff. I couldn't help it. Cut me and I bleed scarlet.) Mimi clearly knows her stuff, from the fun Princeton trivia to some nice little marketing touches like putting her logo and URL on the STOP sign the police department requires her to use when she guides people through intersections.

You can guess where I'm going with this. At the start of the tour, Mimi had asked what brought me out for the tour, and I honestly admitted that I'm researching doing my own tour company in the northern part of the state. When we got to the end of the tour, she very graciously offered to share what she's learned, as long as I agree not to run tours in Princeton. Well, that's easily promised; I don't see how I'd be able to put together a comparable product. She's made a lot of connections around town and built a substantial barrier to competition, and from our brief conversation it was crystal clear that she has done her homework on marketing and promotion. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy enough to cross-promote once I'm up and running.

Without any prompting, she even suggested she could hire me to do some tours, though she couldn't guarantee groups or a guaranteed take (guides get half of the admission fees collected, and tours run even if there's a single customer). Plus I'd have to sign a non-compete, non-disclosure. Telling me she already has the scripts together, and which tours would have the best draw, she was even musing that I might be able to add a Rutgers perspective to her Paul Robeson tour (alumnus, Rutgers class of 1919).

Heck, if it's an opportunity to learn the business, I'll do it and consider it an internship. It'll cost me gas and time, and I don't want to lose money on the venture, but the experience would be fantastic. Who knows when or if the Park Service thing is going to work out?

I told her I'd get her some confirmation on some of the disputed Rutgers-related points, along with some thoughts on target RU markets for the Robeson tour. Earlier today I sent her a note with that data and a follow up on her offer to impart wisdom. And I'll follow up with a call in a day or two.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

And by the way

I haven't heard from the volunteer coordinator at the Edison Historic Site, either. I went to the grand opening of the restored labs on Saturday, and that only fed my desire to be up there showing people around, or something. They had signs and newsletter articles about volunteering, but yeah, I still haven't heard anything. I called the volunteer coordinator today; as expected, I got voicemail instead. I don't want to make a nuisance of myself, but what the flap? Do they want help, or no?

Okay, I'll calm down...

Friday, October 9, 2009

I've been a bad girl...


When I started this blog, it was with the intention of chronicling the story of my reboot. The good and the not so good. The productive days and the, well, not so productive days.

Since my last entry, I've been spinning my wheels again, bollixed up in detail (like the proper spelling of "bollixed")... feeling stalled and unhappy. This wasn't helped much by an acquaintance who has taken it upon herself to prod me and constantly remind me that too much time has already gone by and that I don't want it to be December with no concrete progress (or money) made. In her eyes I've taken too much time making lists and not enough time actually DOING what I want my business to be about. I know she's right, and she's got my best interest at heart, but all that did was make me nervous. The big question: what's the deadline date for assessing my progress and deciding that I need to start looking for a desk job?

The fact that there's no money coming in the door doesn't help my mindset much, either. Don't get me wrong: I have a decent nest egg set aside, so there's no chance I'll be foreclosed on and hitting up the food bank any time soon. But I'm already finding myself tempted to put one less slice of turkey on the sandwich so I can stretch the package a little further. (And how proud am I to have pilfered all of that hotel soap and shampoo when I had the chance?)

And speaking of money, as I've been researching costs for this little tour company venture I'm envisioning, I realized that renting a van to get folks from place to place was likely to eat up quite a bit of my profit, or make the tour too expensive for the value provided.

In the midst of all of this, I went to a seminar at NYU last Friday; it was all about starting a business whilst making the transition from salaried to self-employed. Not surprisingly, the lecturer was a life coach who also used the session to promote her new book and prospect for new clients. That said, she did offer some useful nuggets for staying positive, as well as some resources to check out. She observed that things WILL go wrong, despite one's best intentions, and it's not a reflection of your worth. And for someone like me who tends to question her own rationality, it was really helpful to hear that many other, apparently normal people in the group had concerns about staying motivated, feeling isolated and all of those soul crushing barriers to success and happiness. One less thing to knock myself on.

I wasn't shy during the session -- after all, I wanted to get my money's worth (seminar was free, but I had paid train fare) -- and I also wanted to use it as an opportunity to make connections with people, however brief. At the end of the seminar, a woman sitting nearby asked me about my business concept. Turns out she was a travel agent in a previous life but turned to real estate when the internet pretty much ruined travel agencies. We ended up chatting for about 20 minutes as we walked to Herald Square from 42nd. She really liked my concept, and when I expressed my doubts about pricing, she observed that many small group tours, done well, can price out at $200 a pop. Bespoke tours can go even higher.

Thinking of my Hawaii trips, I know she's right on the money, too. I think the least I've paid for an excursion is $80, and that was a simple hike with a little organic pineapple and bottled water. Throw in a long-eared mule and bag lunch, or dinner and a 4-wheel-drive trek, and you're talking $150 or more. At that rate, touring just one guest covers van rental for the weekend. Granted, there aren't any sea cliffs or erupting volcanoes within driving distance here, but, as one of the other seminar attendees noted, many visitors would be willing to pay someone for a guided hike to an interesting place.

Getting that affirmation was really helpful, as was the chat in and of itself. Honestly, though, it's kind of scary to think that someone would pay me that much to show them around. I can't claim any credentialed expertise. Like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, my PhD in thinkology (or in this case, New Jerseyology) comes from life experience rather than book larnin'. Then again, there are people who've made money on tours of Sopranos shooting locations around North Jersey. With a well-crafted bio, I could market myself as a Jersey maven.

The whole pricing thing kind of reminds me of when I got a shopkeeper in Asbury Park to display some of my photography on consignment. My biggest out-of-pocket cost was the frames; I'd made the prints on my home printer. And being that I'm not a professional photographer, I didn't really even consider the value of my talent. When I quoted a price based on my costs plus 10 percent, the shopkeeper was aghast and suggested a much higher price, then adding 30 percent for her consignment fee. Well, okay, who am I to argue that?