By Daniel Lindley
The promise of freedom may have inspired legions of IPs to leave their old corporate jobs, but -- in spite of the promise -- many are feeling as overworked as the sorriest wage slaves.
What's the problem? Well, some can't say no. Others face too many distractions in their home offices. And some simply have too much work. It all adds up to a lot of IPs who are wondering what separates earning a living from having a life.
Susan Abbott, a graphic arts designer in St. Paul, Minn., started working at home seven years ago in order to spend more time with her newborn daughter. Since then, however, Abbott has become so busy that she sees her family less now than when she was an employee. She puts in 60 to 80 hours a week, including nights and weekends, which is "when the phone stops ringing and I can get some work done," she says.
Abbott is overworked because she takes every assignment that comes to her. Lacking the security of a steady paycheck, Abbott just can't say no. "I really feel that I can never turn [clients] down if they give me something," she says, "and that [if I do turn them down] they'll go somewhere else where they can get more reliable service."
Could Abbott ease her situation by contracting another IP to do some of her work? Perhaps; but that would mean giving up some control, and in Abbott's case, "IP" might stand for independent perfectionist. "The thing is I'm not very good at delegating things, and I really feel I need to do it," Abbott says. She doesn't want to commit to the paperwork, expense, and logistical hassles of a permanent employee. (As it is, she's got enough personnel issues to deal with: Abbott's mother, who lives with her, regularly stops into the home office for neighborly chats, and it's tough to eighty-six mom.)
For Abbot, managing her home office technology also eats up a lot of time. Just as computers never brought about the much-heralded paperless office, but actually littered desks with even more paper than before, so the brave new world of telecommunications, which promised to transmit information in less time, has increased the distractions Abbott faces in her office. Faxes, phone calls, emails, and couriers at the door constantly demand her immediate attention.
Home is Where You Work... All the Time
Rochelle Grayson, of San Francisco, Calif., devotes 80 to 90 hours a week to FlashCommerce.com, a Web site for small businesses interested in the e-commerce bonanza. She also works as a consultant to businesses that want to set up their own Web sites. In April, she quit her job at a semiconductor firm where she had toiled a comparatively leisurely 60 hours a week -- although the commute in the Bay Area's clogged arteries added 10 hours to that.
Although she doesn't miss the commute, working at home has created new problems. It's too easy to work all the time, even though she'd like to work less. While she's learned to ignore the business phone when clients on the East Coast call at five a.m. Pacific time, she's less successful at keeping her hands off her keyboard.
"Working at home is one of the reasons I'm overworked," Grayson says. However, she doesn't think that getting distracted is the cause. "I haven't found that working at home has nearly as many distractions as I've read about. In fact I've found it very easy to just do that one more [work] thing, whatever that one thing is. When you are at home, you might break to make dinner or whatever, then you are on the computer till midnight. I find myself spending a lot more time working than I would if I had an office where I might look and see it's nine o'clock and say, 'This is ridiculous. It's time for me to go home.'
"Because my business is on a 24-hour cycle, there really isn't any downtime per se. At six or seven o'clock here I'll start getting emails from Asia, Australia, the UK, or wherever. I'll think, 'I want to address my customers' needs, I want to answer them,' and before you know it I'm busy answering emails 'till the wee hours of the morning. It makes the nights kind of short sometimes."
Many Roles to Play
Grayson is de facto publisher and chief financial officer as well as editor, and devotes long hours to the tactical minutiae of the business: billing, depositing and mailing checks, and doing taxes. Beyond that, she spends long hours at meetings with prospective partners and allies in the Bay Area.
"Switching back and forth between all these duties, the administrative, the pure sales, the pure financial," she says, "is what, over time, really wears and tears on you. You're not really able to focus and see one thing come to fruition. You're doing a lot of things in parallel. The sense of overwork comes in because you're trying to do all these things at once. Most IPs are very critical and have high standards for themselves. So you want to do everything really well and with the same intensity, and it just becomes a real juggling act."
No One to Blame
For many overworked IPs, their sense of frustration is perhaps heightened by the dismal fact that ultimately, they have no one to blame but themselves. Of course, some have figured out how to balance their business and personal personae. Take Alyson Abramowitz, for example, a management consultant in Cupertino, Calif.
After she survived "the contract from hell" -- six months of 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week, tethered to a software firm -- Abramowitz decided she wouldn't be fooled twice. "It was really frustrating and when I got done with it, I swore I would never, ever do that to myself again," she says, her telephone conversation punctured by the staccato clicks of call waiting.
Today she asks prospective clients point-blank how many hours a week they expect from her. None have lied, and she has lost "very few" by letting them know she won't work ridiculous hours on a regular basis, including weekends and nights. She queries agencies and fellow contractors in Silicon Valley about prospective clients, and talks not only with her potential boss but also with the boss's boss, who typically controls the project's purse strings.
Abramowitz also makes a point of chatting with the people she'll manage, and looks as well as listens for warning signs. An inadvertent grimace may hint that a company's vaunted esprit de corps is more spiteful than sprightful. Why bother?
"A lot of IPs feel so desperate that they have to take the first job that comes along," Abramowitz observes. "But in this valley, there is no desperation. It's your own self-inflicted desperation, unless you are totally incompetent at what you do."
Whittling of the Work Week
Given the current low unemployment rate in America, many overworked IPs can afford to be just as picky as Abramowitz. Dan G. (no relation to Kenny), of New Rochelle, N.Y., was a long-suffering, self-described workaholic when, in 1992, he left the computer company where he'd worked as an executive. His mental addiction to work was making him physically sick, Dan says. To heal himself, he helped found Workaholics Anonymous, which now has more than 100 chapters in the U.S. and a dozen other countries. Half its members are IPs, he says.
It may give hope to some overworked IPs that Dan, beyond 12-stepping it, also whittled his workweek by becoming an IP. Part of the solution lay in finding the right clients. Dan chose advertising sales as his IP career. But he went through three magazine publishers before finding one who treated him right. He recommends that other IPs look around if their client is making unreasonable demands on their time. "I encourage people to have a little confidence in themselves," he says. "There are still some good people out there in the business world. It's not all cutthroat."
Dan also learned to set limits on his working day. Though he devotes much of his time to coaxing customers to buy ads over the telephone, he doesn't usually answer his business phone after 6 p.m. (However, he does monitor it, and will make occasional exceptions for West Coast callers). He has also learned to distinguish good prospects from tire kickers -- a sort of sixth sense he acquired with experience -- and he wastes very little time with the latter.
Despite his precautions, he was still pulling the occasional all-nighter close to the magazine's shipping dates. All his customers tended to deliver their ad copy at the last minute, and Dan would labor through the night making and revising piles of page mock-ups so he could meet the publisher's deadline in the morning.
At first, he blamed those No-Doz nights on the relentless deadlines inherent in the magazine business. Then he figured out how to tame his schedule. It came down to giving himself more time. He moved up advertisers' deadlines by a week but left his own unchanged. He doubled the amount of time he estimated he would need to complete each task. To clear his head, he took daily walks or bike rides. Result: no more sleepless nights.
IPs who still feel overworked may simply be charging too little. If they can't say no personally, they might consider letting impersonal market forces speak for them. This tactic doesn't always work -- when Susan Abbott jacked up her rates by 20 percent, she didn't succeed in chasing off any existing clients -- but it's a start. Abbott did make more money, and building up a war chest eventually gives an IP the advantage of negotiating from a position of strength. Her higher rates also shooed away some potential new customers who would have been beating down her door.
Rochelle Grayson bought herself an extra five to ten hours a week by hiring an agency to handle advertising on her Web site. She had been devoting too much time to the complicated negotiations involved in selling ad space. With an advertising agency helping her, less became more: a little less revenue, much more time and peace of mind. Likewise, too many IPs bury themselves in bookkeeping and tax accounting, which take up a lot of time and energy (and which for many creative and entrepreneurial spirits are about as attractive as a bout of seasickness). Alyson Abramowitz contracted with an accountant to perform those necessary but unsettling chores and hasn't regretted it.
Setting boundaries may sound like psychobabble, but it's worked for Ellen Good, a marketing consultant in Hopkinton, Mass., who also coaches IPs on running their businesses. Just getting IPs to slow down seems to help, Good says. IPs don't necessarily have to keep bankers' hours, but they should limit their workdays. Set hours. Schedule time for family and friends, or for exercise, relaxation, or a special treat -- lunch away from the keyboard, for instance.
Subcontract or team up with other IPs, Good suggests. They tend to be more competent, less costly, and less of a nuisance than employees -- and good sources of industry scuttlebutt. Good herself has taken an even more standoffish approach, contracting with a "virtual assistant" (VA) through assistu.com to help with administrative tasks. From her home in Utah, the VA helps Good keep track of clients via phone, modem, and fax.
What's an overworked IP to do? In short, work smarter, not harder. Know thyself, and thy client. Be brave, be bold. Too much ventured, too little gained. IPs of the world, good night; you have nothing to lose but your brains.
September 18, 2000
Primary Editor: Eric Gershon
Illustrator: Todd Bonita
Production: Fletcher Moore
We'd love to hear your comments about this article!
Daniel Lindley is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, OR. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with him, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.