The Highs Lows of Self-Employment

When I land a consulting project, or a happy customer lets me know how well I did, it is the greatest feeling in the world. But then t here are days when I doubt every idea that comes into my head.

Masha PetrovaI am watching the snow fall on the outstretched cornfields of the American Midwest. It is 3°F outside, and after seven years in Southern California, living here seems inhumane.

I open the door to the laundry room and a huge pile of dirty clothing collapses on top of me. I crawl over the pile of laundry and try to turn on the washing machine. It makes a humming sound, and then gives up.

The water pipes leading to the washing machine are frozen for the third day in a row. 

After working for a software start-up in San Diego, I decided to move to a place where housing was five times cheaper and parking spaces five times larger.

My husband and I traded in palm trees for cornfields and settled in Springfield, Illinois. It was time to look for a job.

I always wanted a job that was location-independent in case I wanted to move or travel. I wanted employment that would not dictate whether I worked in the afternoon or middle of the night, or whether I worked one hour or forty hours a week. After our move, various opportunities came up, but it seemed that I wanted a lot more flexibility and freedom than any of the job openings had to offer.

“I know!” I thought. “I will start my own company!” It’s just a bit of marketing, a bit of sales and a bit of engineering. I have done all three successfully before, so how hard would it be to do it all again?

Except this time, it would be on my own terms. The idea seemed brilliant. MVP Modeling Solutions, LLC was born, followed closely by the Successful Unemployment Toolkit.

There has been a substantial increase in consultants in technical fields over the past year.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to the VP of the CECON group (www.cecon.com) a company that matches science and engineering consultants with consulting projects.

He mentioned that the company has seen a significant increase in consultant applicants over the past year, as compared to previous years. As layoffs became more frequent and search for jobs more difficult, many technical professionals decided to become consultants or start their own companies. If you might be thinking of becoming self-employed, due to lack of employment or your drive to find something more fulfilling, read on.

Like most of these budding entrepreneurs, I was not prepared for what was to come. Sure, there were marketing, sales and engineering activities, but there were also extreme emotional swings that I did not consider before going into business for myself.

You have probably heard that you need to be a “self-starter” and a “motivated individual” to succeed in working for yourself. Those words do not begin to describe the motivational drive and self-confidence that you have to have in order to survive on your own.

There are times while running my business when I feel on top of the world.

When I land a consulting project, or run a successful marketing campaign, or a happy customer lets me know how much he appreciated my help, it is the greatest feeling in the world — because the success is purely mine. There was no boss to guide me in planning, no co-workers to make corrections in the plan execution. It is a very different kind of high that you would never feel when working for someone else.

However, with the very high highs come rather low lows. There are days, like today, when I am watching the falling snow thinking about business plans for 2010 and doubting every idea that comes into my head.

I must be crazy to try and run a whole company … I am not creative enough to figure out how to tie it all together … I don’t have enough sales/marketing/engineering experience and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter … Whoever decided that it was legal to make people live in 3°F weather?

My non-existent boss will not help me define the business goals, because I am the boss. I can’t meet a co-worker at a water cooler and moan about how the cold weather sucks and should be illegal. I am my co-workers. This makes it much harder to pull myself out of the self-employment lows.

When you are working for yourself and you don’t feel like getting up in the morning, no one will drag you out of bed. Sleep all you want. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone. That can be exhilarating and excruciatingly difficult at the same time. If you are thinking of becoming a consultant, or starting your own company, be prepared for this emotional rollercoaster.

How do you know if you have the personality to deal with these swings of ups and downs? You do not really know, until you try it. If you strike out on your own and after a year decide that it is much more enjoyable to work for someone else, then you learned something about yourself and gained a year’s worth of valuable experience.

There are days when I can barely drag myself out of bed in the morning because the idea of how much there is do to and how difficult it will be to do it, is daunting.  

During those days, there is one thought that keeps me going — tomorrow will be a better day. Maybe even one of those exhilarating days — all I have to do is get up, open up my calendar, and start checking things off my to-do list, one step at a time.

If you have recently become self-employed and are experiencing similar doubts, I recommend you do the same. Before you know it, your business coach calls with some great ideas, happy customers let you know that you are making a difference, a consulting contract gets accepted, and you are back on a high again.

During those times, it seems that even freezing in 3°F is well worth it to see the beautiful snow cover the cornfields.

Masha V. Petrova holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering is a founder and CEO of MVP Modeling Solutions. Her weekly blog on a variety of engineering topics, can be found on http://mvpmodelingsolutions.com/mvpblog/. Her blog on Increasing Your Professional Value can be found on http://successfulunemploymenttoolkit.com/blog/.

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