Relaunching My Business, and Myself, in a Pandemic
What a difference a year makes. On Christmas Day 2019, I was in Nigeria with family. I know, you’re thinking: sunlight, fresh air, fresh coconut, and music by the beach, right? Well I did get to the beach twice, but I must confess that I spent way too much time in client meetings on Zoom.
Between delivering client reports, a December newsletter, and content plan for the coming year, I was burned out, resentful, and full of regret come 2020, having neglected spending time with family I hadn’t seen in years.
I returned to NYC, in February 2020, wondering why I’d worried so much about pleasing a client who didn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifice—or the vagaries of my pay-to-play wifi situation abroad. (He complained about not being able to reach me, at times when I literally had no network. In all cases, it was totally beyond my control and there was no help desk to call. Early on, I realized he couldn’t comprehend that and stopped trying to explain.)
It was a dream job, really, working 20 hours per week as an independent content/marketing consultant. For years, I’d wanted to strike out on my own. Having a BS in biology, my MFA in film, and a smattering of contract jobs littering my resume like roadkill, I was perfectly suited to establishing myself as a consultant.
Like most artsy creatives, I’d performed a variety of jobs at a range of nonprofits, startups, and businesses — as a freelancer, part-timer, and salaried employee, sometimes for more than a year at a time. I was fairly business savvy — having run my own personal film company, directed casts and crews, balanced budget sheets — but hadn’t completed a significantly long tenure at any one company due to interruptions for grad school, or predominantly project-based, contract, or temporary work.
So I put out a shingle, and made contract work my business model.
From then on, my survival depended on selling my services to retainer clients at increasingly higher rates, working part time, and spending the rest of my time on creative projects. The current client was no different, plus he had a razor sharp team that was second to none I’d ever been on before. I respected them. I contributed. My voice was heard. I was drinking the Kool Aid.
And since I only went to their Manhattan office once a week, it was the perfect setup to transition to 100% remote work while abroad, in Nigeria—and when COVID-19 hit.
Although data shows the coronavirus was in the U.S. far earlier, in March 2020, the pandemic was just beginning for most Americans.
By then, I was nearly recovered from burnout, having taken two weeks off after my return from Nigeria to attend the reunion concert of my Stanford a cappella group. We were a group of 150 alumni, not yet grounded by the pandemic. The songs, friendships, and memories sustained me later on when everything went on lockdown.
My retainer client transitioned the team to working remotely and I kept right on working through global cataclysm, half hoping someone would shake me out of my tech-enabled stability. Then something started happening. First, one of the client team members put in his 2-week notice, then another reduced her hours to go work at a more mission-driven organization. Though my client’s business seemed steady, it seemed like my teammates were fleeing the ship.
My client became more erratic as the pandemic continued and the team changed. Suddenly, I wanted to abandon ship, too, but didn’t have an exit strategy planned. For the previous 9 months, I’d kept renewing my contract in 1–3 month increments. Though I had some savings, it wasn’t enough to simply exit stage left.
I held a couple of free webinars for friends pivoting to digital businesses, hoping to quell some of the anxiety on my FB timeline. But it wasn’t until the George Floyd protests, in June, that everything changed: my client terminated my contract and I went on unemployment for the first time as a 1099 contractor.
I was shocked. At the time, we were in the middle of an organizational rebranding that I’d shepherded internally. While my contract should have gone on for at least another month, he abruptly pulled me from the team literally the weekend before the launch.
Up until then, I’d had no idea that I wouldn’t be executing the plan I’d spent 1.5 years creating. In the end, he simply handed my strategy over to other folks while leaving me cc’ed on emails with team members who had no idea I’d been let go. When we later spoke about it, he essentially told me he did it because he felt like it. It made me sick.
To add insult to injury, I was disappointed to learn that my client had been privately grappling with making a public statement in support of BLM while declining the help that I, as his content director and only black team member, had proactively offered.
At first, I was angry. So angry that I emailed him a letter explaining how out of line it was:
“While your BLM statement will ostensibly be about centering the voices of people of color, leading with empathy and compassion, and ending systemic racism and violence, it matters that you’re creating that statement while actively terminating our working relationship. Having run your content and marketing for the past year, as the only African-American person on your team, it would have made sense to work together on it.
Though many organizations are writing statements of solidarity with people of color, the work starts from the inside out — building workplace cultures, as you well know, that foster collaboration, compassion, growth and conscious business. These values are even more important in an age of disruption. Although I didn’t feel them exemplified here, I believe this still presents an opportunity for your team’s realignment around those core values — and I will likely spend time reflecting on them as well, in my next role.”
It was empowering to tell him exactly how I felt, with the implicit assumption that he should care. I’d had plenty of problematic clients and actually never done that before. He apologized and sent a greeting card in the mail, though I couldn’t bring myself to respond.
It took awhile to get over the pain of losing of my job and going on unemployment, compounded by the hundreds of thousands of losses of the pandemic, and seemingly insurmountable anti-black violence plaguing the nation.
In some respects, I was grateful to get off the steadily chugging train I’d been on. I needed some down time to decompress and figure out which way I was heading.
As the months progressed, a large number of family members got sick and I was scared as hell. Luckily they all recovered, but I bore virtual witness as a lot of other folks — some friends, others friends of friends — didn’t make it. In general, I’ve emerged eternally grateful for everything I have, starting with my health, family, friends, and loved ones.
And in the down time, I poured into myself by dusting off some old scripts that had languished, resurrecting my yoga practice, and taking daily solitary walks. I also leaned in to my online business.
I know, you’re wondering, what online business?
Two years ago, I created an online course called Crowdfund Your Dream. As a self-producing filmmaker, I’d once raised $15K in 4 weeks for one of my short films. Word had gotten around and, since then, tons of friends would reach out to me for help, though I couldn’t offer much besides advice or running their campaign for them. Most couldn’t afford my fees.
So I’d packaged my 15 years of experience—in communications, marketing, and fundraising—into an 8-week course with a 115-page workbook and bonus materials, like a marketing plan and timeline. I taught it on Zoom, walking my students through the process week to week.
It was gratifying to share my expertise and hear their aha moments. But somewhere along the way, I’d lost steam. Running an online business requires an endless amount of energy. Plus, I’d gotten too complacent with my consulting fee to keep hustling to sell the course, splitting my time between that, my creative work, and retainer client.
But after he let me go, suddenly, the course was all I had. So what did I do? I relaunched my business in the middle of a pandemic.
Truthfully, I hadn’t launched it in the first place, approaching it with the same matter of factness that I did most projects—creating the course, designing the workbook in Canva, building the website in WordPress, creating a downloadable product in Woocommerce, and considering the matter settled. I wasn’t even sure whether my family and friends had known what I was doing, though eventually some started booking discovery calls to hear about my services.
But once I became the only person on my schedule, it was time to go big or go (stay?) home. I hired a visual designer to rebrand my business, redesigning my logo, website, and course workbook. I scheduled a pandemic photo shoot and recorded about 20 on demand course videos. I even created a few more courses — including a mini one, Launch Your Dream, a 5-day guide to launching your dream project or business—to round out my offering. It took three times as long and was ten times harder than I thought it would be.
But finally, last week, I relaunched.
There were a few site glitches, and I give thanks to the wonderful friends who let me know early. I must say that, having been exiled from my client’s launch earlier this year, after planning it for ages, it felt wonderful, almost indulgent, to relaunch myself. To take all the tactics I’d envisioned for someone else’s business and use them to grow mine.
It sure beats wallowing and ending the year with the same regrets I had last Christmas.
I never planned to relaunch my online course business this year. For one thing, it cost money, and it all came out of my savings. My web developer can attest that I went into it kicking and screaming, hoping it wouldn’t take too much energy, telling her I wasn’t going to do a photo shoot and the rest of it. I chuckle when I remember how resistant I was, thinking I could somehow get by with doing it halfway.
But when I finally got into the relaunch, the process took on a life of its own and truly reshaped me. I grew and challenged myself in ways that none of my clients ever did. And I’m already starting to get fresh sales. To be honest, every dollar is a thrill. It feels like taking control of my future and choosing to never let anyone else have the power to give or take it away.
I don’t know what’ll happen in 2021, but I’m ready for anything. My rule of thumb now is: plan for success by investing heavily in yourself. I challenge you to do the same.
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Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant with an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She teaches people how to tell their stories, market themselves, and raise money through her online course, Crowdfund Your Dream. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.