When Good On Paper Isn’t Good at All

Post by Dani Nelson for the Kindness in Business series.

When Good On Paper Isn’t Good at All

This is the story of the little company that could – until it couldn’t any more. It’s a story of “good on paper” meaning absolutely nothing at all. It’s a story of a simple conversation that changed everything.

For five years, I ran a web design & development company that I co-founded. It started off small, as these things are wont to do, and over time grew from a part-time gig for one to a full-time gig for two to something that employed other people across a couple of states. We had lots of lovely clients and a reputation for doing good work. Things were swinging along, like you want them to be swinging along at that point in a business’s lifespan. Good stuff, right?

So why, I found myself asking one morning (and many mornings after), was I so miserable? Why did everything feel like a struggle? I was getting paid to do work I enjoyed for clients I liked, and doing all of it in my pajamas – living the dream, right? So why did it feel like I wanted to throw things? Why didn’t I ever feel…right? Why was it a fight to get every little thing done, from signing a contract to launching a new site to returning an email? (And yeah, on that note, why did my inbox fill me with dread?) And good gravy, could all of this business dissatisfaction please stop bleeding into my personal life? I’m tired of being a miserable bitch.

I was fortunate to have my wonderful “not-wife” as not only my life partner but my business partner as well, so one random day we sat down for a chat. As it turned out, we were both miserable. I mean really, really miserable. Clearly, something needed to give.

If it were up to her, she said, she’d take on different types of projects – more troubleshooting, more complex development, more techy geeky stuff. To which I said “ew”…because that’s definitely her bailiwick, not mine. If I, on the other hand, were to shift the direction of the business, I’d focus on strategy. On the reasons why someone wanted to change up their web presence, and how it would impact their business as a whole. (One of my biggest frustrations was people and businesses who thought a new website was the magical answer to their marketing and business woes. It rarely is, and I wanted to help!)

One of us, I don’t remember who, said “wait – what if we do that? What if we both step back and do the work we want to do, with the clients we want to do it with?”

And, well, that’s exactly what we did. For a few months, at least, we agreed to pursue our own projects, outside of the banner of the company we built together. (A company which, of course, we kept running throughout this little trial run – it was a but like having a day job, with a side gig, all over again, except I was my own boss in both cases.) And as soon as we started, the strangest thing happened. We were both immediately successful – and immediately happy.

I’m not saying there weren’t lots of bumps – because there were (and continue to be). We didn’t magically, suddenly, overnight make All The Money and have All The Clients and start sleeping on piles of hundred-dollar bills. Far from it. But we were both doing the work we loved, and felt incredibly fulfilled by – and that work was out there for us both, once we were ready and willing to look for it.

But that success, of course, came with a price – and that price was our old company. As willing as we both were to move on, I got really hung up over what we were about to do. Because, really: who takes a profitable, successful, established company, and makes the decision to dissolve it into thin air? There were so many voices inside me screaming “no!” and “this is a terrible idea!” and “how are you going to pay the bills now?!” and “this is like quitting a stable job, except worse!”

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with those voices in my head. Part of it was listening to the fears (yes, I’m worried about money, I was worried about money even before this all came up, too!); most of it was releasing the things I thought I “should” be doing (why on earth would I stay in a job that made me miserable, even if I *do* own the company? Whose dream is that? ‘Cause it sure isn’t mine!) In the end, after about six months of working on our solo projects, I sold my half of the company to my partner; she in turn absorbed it into her new company, and that original business no longer exists.

It’s been a little over a year now since I officially, on paper, walked away from the company that, on paper, was successful. The most important lesson I’ve learned? Fuck. Paper. We don’t live in a paper age anymore. We live in a digital age where everything is in flux, everything is transient, and change for the better is waiting if you’re willing to look for it.

In the 20 months now since that conversation happened, everything has changed. What I do, the way I help people, has changed (and boy howdy is it 9,000% more fulfilling than web design ever was for me). My priorities, in business and in life, have changed. My world has changed. Most of it’s been spectacular, though there have been some really awful, terrible, no-good moments in there as well. And everything keeps changing. But if it’s chaos, it’s self-inflicted chaos – because I’m listening to myself, more than ever. Following the directions my gut wants to take me in, even when they seem more than a bit strange. Because I’m unwilling to stay still. I’m unwilling to wallow in unhappiness.

And all because of a single conversation. All because we asked “why not?”

Dani Nelson is a geek, a hippie, and a business strategist who helps smart, creative entrepreneurs make their businesses more awesome. With tea. (Tea makes everything better.)

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