The Value Of A Crap Job

Cubicle farm

When talking to entrepreneurs, it seems like everyone has a ‘crap job’ story: the tale of the a job so bad that it forced the person telling it to decide how to get out of a situation she absolutely hated.

I have held a few crap jobs over the years. They all had their own part in driving me away from situations in which I would have to work to someone else’s expectations. I’m not the only one, either: I’ve talked to plenty of entrepreneurs who reached their breaking point in some awful job before they struck out on their own; for some of us, an awful job is bit like a mother bird pushing us out of the nest. We can see the ground coming and we know we have to figure out how to fly before we crash into the ground.

And we do. When I worked a summer wearing a tomato suit, I figured out pretty quickly that not only was a walking tomato a less-than-perfect marketing tool, but also that I needed to develop some serious skills so that my time was too valuable to force me to dress up and walk around a neighborhood.

A Case in Point: Ramon de la Fuente’s Incredibly Bad Boss

Ramon de la Fuente, of Future500.nl had one of those ‘crap’ jobs that did lead him directly to his own endeavors. He notes, “I started a web development company — and in my old job I was a PHP developer.”

But to get to the point where de la Fuente was ready to launch a new business, he had to go through an incredibly painful process first. “I got asked by a friend, to join him in a new job he landed. He knew the owner from a previous business arrangement and he felt it was a good opportunity. I think we both had no idea what we were getting into.”

The new company processed internet payments, primarily for the adult industry — an incredibly lucrative opportunity if handled correctly. That’s why de la Fuente joined the company, along with another tempting opportunity: “…the owner was planning to retire so we would have the opportunity to take over the company within ‘a few years of hard work.’ I’m not sure if the intention was ever there, but needless to say that didn’t happen.”

The job turned out to be problem after problem:

  • The employer was both paranoid and a workaholic. When de la Fuente and the rest of the team were working twelve hours a day, the employer felt comfortable calling them at midnight because “he felt something was off.”
  • The employees working for the company didn’t consider themselves members of a team, because they were constantly in defense-mode to avoid being blamed for any problem.
  • When the company hired an outside consultant to address the morale issues and set up team-building sessions, one of the employees was secretly ordered to record the sessions for the boss.

Talk about a poisonous culture! Luckily, de la Fuente didn’t take the brunt of the pain, because the company’s developers were somewhat insulated from the rest of the team. But the situation couldn’t last: “In the end, the company went down a dead-end path. They chose immediate cash instead of future stability, against our advice at every turn. The owner’s son was put on a fast track to ownership. My friend and I refused to work with him for various reasons, and that was the end of that. I did get the opportunity to fire the people I had worked with (the company was in financial trouble by then) — also not a very happy moment. Quitting was such a freedom… that last month was the longest one ever.”

But it wasn’t the horrible environment that causes de la Fuente the most regret today. It was one particular result of that ‘pass the blame’ culture: “There was no innovation. Anything new was suspect, and for any change there was the possibility that you’d have to go back to some version 3 weeks ago when ‘the numbers started getting weird.’ The less you changed the better.”

As he explains, “What pains me, more than anything, is that I have nothing to show for three years of super hard work besides a little cash. I literally learned nothing new (technically), I wasn’t stimulated to seek out community or better myself in any way. Just production-production-production.

That was the real cost, I think.”

But de la Fuente did learn something important (beyond how not to manage a team): “If you watch something going wrong for long enough, you inevitably start to think ‘I can do better.'” He’s never going to work for a boss again and that decision is going to benefit him and his career in the long run.

Working In the Moment

When you’re in the middle of a crap job, seeing past the awful environment can seem impossible. But if you can’t rise above the situation, at least a little bit, you can wind up stuck for what will feel like eternity.

Part of the problem is that most of us don’t have the option to just walk away from a pay check. Even if there’s a little suffering attached to the money, we all have bills to pay. If you have the luxury of leaving an awful job without having to worry about money, you should do so. For the rest of the world, it’s more practical to think about the options.

First, you need to understand the value of your current situation. Even if it’s highly stressful, there are benefits to pull out of any situation. Start with the easy stuff — the financials. Keep going deeper after that, though. Sit down and list out everything you’re getting out of the work you’re doing that you may be able to leverage later on.

  • Income and benefits: If you’re sticking with a stressful situation, you better be benefitting financially. If you haven’t already, go through the entire list of benefits you get from your employer and make sure you’re taking full advantage of them — if you’re eligible for tuition reimbursement, for instance, make sure you’re taking those classes.
  • New abilities and responsibilities: Whether you have a newly honed ability to keep calm in a crisis or you’re doing the work of two employees, a crap job can turn into some serious resume candy.
  • Opportunities for autonomy: In my experience, crap jobs tend to involve either obsessively controlling managers or managers who give you absolutely no guidance at all. If you’re in the second situation, grab that autonomy with both hands — you can take advantage of that lack of guidance to experiment with your own work and learn more on your employer’s time. And while I would never recommend you do something unethical, you might also be able to come with some other ideas to fill your unobserved time.
  • A clear picture of where you don’t want to work again: Not only are you gaining experience to help you narrow down the employers or customers you’re willing to work with in the future, you’re getting some clear motivation to improve your overall situation so you won’t find yourself back here again.

Even now, when I’m working with a difficult client, I’m a fan of counting my blessings. Running through that sort of information reminds me of why I need to bother sticking with a tough project — and it helped with the crap jobs I’ve had in the past. If the list is short, that’s motivation in and of itself: a short list is a reminder that you need to be spending all the time you can towards improving your current situation.

Next, you need to consider what resources you have to make those improvements. Going home and doing anything else you can think of besides work may be what’s currently keeping you sane, but it’s probably not moving you towards an exit strategy. You’ve got to decide where you want to head and then take action to get there. You may be considering a path that leads away from ever working for someone else again (including spectacularly bad managers) or you maybe more interested in any other job you can get right way. Either way, set aside time to actually take action.

If your crap job includes the problem of an employer who doesn’t respect your time outside of work, that process is a lot harder. Attempting to set new boundaries with an employer can be a way to find yourself without that crap job faster than you were intending to quit. In most states, you can’t collect unemployment insurance if you’re fired for calling in sick too often or for refusing to work overtime. The best advice I can offer is to take advantage of every minute away from work you can; even if you go a little crazy with both work and the effort you’re putting into reaching a point where you can leave your current job, getting out probably needs to be a priority.

Photo Credit: mikecogh

A Glossary of Titles of People Who Work without a Boss

There are a lot of descriptions of people who work for themselves. If you take on contracts for creative work, you can be a freelancer or an independent contractor. If you’re looking to build something bigger down the road, you might be an entrepreneur — or you might just be a small business owner. Nomenclature can be very important: because most of these titles have fairly common interpretations, people can tell a lot about you depending on which one you choose.

Freelancer: Freelancers are almost always individuals working on their own, usually in a creative field. A freelancer works on projects for clients, either for one client at a time or for multiple clients. In my experience, freelancing is one of the more common ways for people to strike out on their own. That’s at least partially due to the fact that many freelancers started out working on client projects while still also working for an employer.

Permalancer: Permalancers are a relatively new iteration of freelancers. Some companies (usually large — like MTV) rely on creative talent and hire freelancers, who are expected to put in forty hours of work a week indefinitely from the company’s office. On the surface, most of us would consider permalancers to be employees without benefits, but legally a permalancer is usually considered to be self-employed and can do things like write off business expenses as deductions, at least until the IRS decides to reclassify a company’s permalancers and demand payroll taxes.

Independent Contractor: The term ‘independent contractor’ is a broad one and can include freelancers, consultants and more. Usually an IC, as some companies abbreviate the term, is an individual providing a service, although I’ve seen companies refer to small businesses providing services as independent contractors as well. It’s a classification that’s often used to figure out who to send what forms to. If you are asked to submit a W-9 form from a business that has paid you money, you’re probably considered an independent contractor.

Consultant: The plural of ‘consultant’ seems to be ‘consulting firm’ these days. While a consultant may work on her own, she may also be part of a company (or the owner of that company). As far as job descriptions go, a consultant usually goes into someone else’s business and tells the owner how to do a specific thing. It’s less common for the consultant to actually do the work, though not unheard of — a consultant may have a team on tap to implement the course of action she suggests.

Virtual X: In certain fields, virtual workers are fairly common. Virtual assistants are particularly so. A VA may specialize in certain types of work (including creative work that freelancers also do) or handle general administrative tasks. There are also companies that organize groups of employees to act as virtual workers, mostly in countries like India or the Philippines. But there are also plenty of independent VAs. A VA’s client is usually a small business or an independent worker.

Independent Worker: You’ll commonly find ‘independent worker’ used as a catchall for any individual who doesn’t work for an employer and who also doesn’t have any employees of her own. It’s just that plain and simple.

Solopreneur: Just like the name says, a solopreneur works on her own. The big difference between a solopreneur and most of the titles above is that a solopreneur is often offering products rather than services. Because the title has especially caught on in certain online circles, those products are likely to be electronic, such as ebooks. But they can be anything that one person can bring to fruition without hiring employees.

Entrepreneur: Many of the definitions of entrepreneur revolve around a question of risk. An entrepreneur starts a new venture (or more than one), taking on the risk involved, with a goal of building something beyond just herself. She may start as a one-person operation, but most entrepreneurs have visions of bringing in employees and growing a big business.

Small Business Owner: Most small business owners go through a larval stage of entrepreneurship at some point. But this title conjures up an image of something stable. For most of us, it creates the idea of a small office or store with just a few people working. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, though, a small business is anything with less than 500 employees.

Startup Owner: Where a small business owner or an entrepreneur is usually in their business for the long haul, the most successful startups are built with an exit strategy in mind. Whether the startup owner (or owners) want to be bought, bring in a management team and have an IPO or something else entirely, I wouldn’t generally describe them as people who will still be doing the exact same work even five years from now.

The Evolution of Titles

Personally, my choices of how to describe what I do have been shifting. When I first started out on my own, I knew that I was a freelancer down to my bones. But I started freelancing about eight years ago. It’s natural that my own understanding of what I do has evolved. These days, I consider myself an entrepreneur more than anything else — though, within the right context, I will refer to myself as a consultant or a small business owner. That’s a bit of a personal problem: most people aren’t crazy enough to try to run what really amounts to three companies at once.

This sort of evolution is absolutely common. I’ve seen virtual assistants become consultants, freelancers become startup owners and so on. But I also know people who have stuck with one title for twenty years or more. Just like the fact that you have to decide for yourself which of these options works for you, you have to decide if your title is going to change down the road.

Image by Flickr user Vince Welter

Interview: Katy Tafoya

Today, we have an interview with Katy Tafoya, a blogging consultant, and the owner and editor of ConstantChatter.

How did you get into freelance writing? Why did you choose freelancing over a full-time jobs?

I didn’t really choose freelance writing, for the most part, it chose me. I’m more of an accidental entrepreneur. I’ve always been a bit of a writer, but typically, it was always just part of my job. About five years ago, I found online journaling which quite naturally progressed to blogging. I realized at some point that I wanted to try my hand at writing for an audience instead of just writing the day to day details of my life. Two years ago this month, we decided to add a blog to my online women’s community, ConstantChatter. From that point on I started getting more and more comfortable with writing. This year I became involved with the Ladies Who Launch organization and out of passion for wanting everyone to understand Social Media, I started writing articles to get the information out there.

I haven’t held a job with a traditional sort of work schedule since I was teaching ten years ago. For the most part, freelancing has kind of chosen me and works very well with my workaholic husband’s schedule. I’ve gotten very used to working from home and having my own schedule, so much so that I don’t believe I could go back to a traditional sort of job. I love knowing that I control my environment (in particular the noise level and accessibility to others). Better still, I love knowing that I can take my work with me wherever I go. Earlier in the year, my father had a stroke and I flew back east to be with him. It was great knowing that I could spend time with him and help him get settled back at home, yet still get work done. And of course, being able to run errands and go shopping during the middle of the day, without the crowds sure is nice.

Why did you choose blog consulting to add to your writing offerings?

I actually started officially freelancing about the same time I starting doing small business visibility consulting. I was teaching workshops about blogging and social networking to women just getting started in business and realized that there was so much confusion surrounding social media. The Ladies Who Launch group has a weekly ezine and I started writing articles for them. I figured that if I took my teaching skills and combined it with my knowledge and experience in blogging and social media, that I could reach a lot more people by breaking things down into simple, easy to understand bites and getting the message out there through one-on-one tutoring and small group workshops.

How does your consulting work compare to your writing? Any major successes or challenges?

I absolutely love doing the consulting work, especially the workshops. I love helping people in anyway, so when I can sit down with someone and teach them something new that will help them and their business, I consider it a major success. Interestingly, I never really thought of myself as freelancer or even a writer. I’m completely comfortable blogging about whatever is on my mind, but I seem to fight myself a lot more when I need to write something that’s not quite so casual and has a real point to get to. It’s all still a work in progress, but for the most part, it’s all been quite successful. I think my biggest challenge is my own fear and my ability to engage in full on procrastination – if procrastination had a kingdom, they’d probably call me their Queen.

How has Constant Chatter allowed you to build on your freelance experience?

In the early days of blogging on Constant Chatter, I wrote all the content myself. In true Web 2.0 fashion, I eventually went to member-created content. That eventually got to be a lot of editorial and organizational work for me, so I recently changed tactics and started to reach out to “experts” that are comfortable writing about their area of expertise. We may have been blogging on Constant Chatter for 2 years now, but we’re still a work in progress.

Since I’m no longer involved in the day to day tasks around the Constant Chatter community itself, it’s freed up a lot of my time that has allowed me to focus on my consulting business, design more workshops and create some new goals of my own. I still do quite a bit of writing on the site, mostly in my blogs, but I rarely publish under my own name these days. My goal over the next couple of months is bite that bullet and take that step to actually start pitching pieces to magazines (yes, under my own name) and to start putting together a proposal for a book idea I’ve been toying with.

How much of a time commitment is Constant Chatter?

As I mentioned previously, I’m no longer involved with the community-side of Constant Chatter. Taking care of the day to day requests of the site became too much for me and didn’t allow me time to focus on other aspects of my business, so I hired someone to help out. This has been great though, as it has allowed me to focus completely on the blog side of Constant Chatter. As the editor of the blog, I mainly focus on looking for contributors, coming up with topics, promotions and giveaways, conducting the author interviews, handling the advertising, etc. I only post twice a week right now (but I also post daily on my blog and twice a week at my business blog), so for the most part, taking care of the blog-side of Constant Chatter takes only a couple of hours a couple days a week.

Any advice for writers interested in more entrepreneurial projects?

This is a tough one for me to answer. As an accidental entrepreneur, I basically fell into both of my most recent projects. For Constant Chatter, I was basically in the right place at the right time. I never actually set out to create a community or a blog, I just went with the flow. With my business consulting work, I was actually planning to get back into life coaching, but wound up doing a lot of work around basic web stuff including blogging, SEO and social media. Next thing I know, I was teaching workshops. Again, for me, it’s all about going with the flow.

My suggestions:

  • Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes (and there will be many). Just brush yourself off and move on. There’s a lesson in there when you can finally look back.
  • Don’t be afraid to go with the flow, even if you don’t know exactly where it’s taking you. At some point though, stop and allow yourself some time to create some goals and expectations around your new “accidental” project.
  • Take the risk. The worse thing that can happen is that you might fail and learn something. The best thing that could happen…you succeed and learn something.
  • Share what you know. You’d be surprised how much you know about something having experienced it. You’d also be surprised how much more you learn when you share what you know with others.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you’re first starting out or working as a solopreneur, it’s easy to get caught up in the I can do it all attitude. Trust me, you may think you can do it all, but in the end, you just can’t. Ask for help. Know your strengths and your weaknesses.
  • Don’t forget to spend time on yourself and with others. It’s easy to get single-minded and to spend all of your time focused on your project. Thing is, it’s not healthy – for you or your business.
  • Find a group of female entrepreneurs that you can relate to. Plan time together over lunch or coffee and chat about your day, your business, your successes and your failures. Again, you never know what might come your way (as well as their way – it’s all about the give and take) from a casual chat over coffee; new ideas, new information, new employees, new tools, new manufactures, new suppliers, new connections, you never know.