My year was a wonderful, awful, horrible, glorious shit show. Was yours?

Yesterday, marked my last (face to face) meeting of the year. There’s more calls, there’s always more calls, but from here on in, I’m doing business cross-legged in bed in my knickers and jumper, cantankerously muttering about how Michael Bublé is a poor mans Nat King Cole. This time of year is always the same, when we put on our Santa hats, pop some corks and crackers and universally agree it’s beginning to look a lot like professional disinterest.

So, as we begin to wind down, I find myself reflecting on the business year, thinking about what I could have done differently, what worked and what didn’t. If my business were my child (and sometimes when I wake up in the night panicking about whether I am doing enough to take care of it and nurture it, the comparison is credible) 2016 & 2017 were it’s cute, exciting, childhood, with sleepless nights and sticky fingers and a sense of wonder, fun and adventure. 2018 was the year it started smoking pot, died it’s hair neon green and began to emotionally resonate with Post-Punk.

In this past year, I have become much more open about how I find running a business and I’ve received dozens of emails and messages from people saying it helps them to read other in a similar s(h)ituation. So here I am, at it again and I think this is most candid one yet. Rest assured, if you are reading this, I am probably hiding in my toilet, refusing to look at social media.

In order for me to give context on what I learnt business wise this year, I’ll need to give some personal context. That comes first, skip it if you’re disinterested or already know, the second part is more practical business learning. I hope you enjoy reading this and, well, Merry Bloody Christmas.

My 2018 personal life

At the beginning of the year, I was in California, waiting for my husbands visa to come through. He was not allowed to enter the UK whilst it was processing, though we were told it would take around 6 weeks, so an extended family trip in California over Christmas and New Year should work out quite nicely. When by the end of January it hadn’t yet appeared, I had to head back to London and Connor had to stay in the US, indefinitely. I remember being despondent in LAX flying back alone, but drank several lychee martinis and reassured myself his visa, our ticket to the beginning of our lives, was just around the corner.

A few visa-less weeks later we became mutually frustrated at our indefinite separation so decided to meet up in Barcelona and wait out getting the Visa there. We both fancy ourselves as romantics, you see, not a practical bone between us. A few weeks in, it’s Spring, we’re drunk on Tempranillo and we’re still waiting, hopping between cheap Air BnBs never sure how long we will be anywhere. We had no idea when our lives would begin, whether Connor should fly back to the US, or continue to wait it out across the Bay of Biscay. So, stranded in eternal tourism and one rainy, busy visit to Sagrada Familia too many, our brains began to build a new life in Barcelona. I found my perfect work spots and Connor began taking Spanish classes. We were listless and miserable, but we made it work, somehow, we kept our shit together. I continued to work, grow the business and get more clients.

Then, my Dad had a severe stroke. It was bad. The Drs all said it was bad. I had to go home, and Connor would be damned if he couldn’t be there to hold my hand. So, we got a letter from the consultant explaining what had happened, nervously boarded a flight, and I pleaded with border control to let my husband in with a wobbling chin. I have never felt more undiluted relief and gratefulness when the man at border control stamped Connor’s passport, welcomed him to the UK and apologised it was all so bloody difficult. We hired a grossly expensive and hilariously flashy SUV in the airport because that’s all they had, and drove to Stoke in inappropriate style. We stayed at my parents for several weeks as my Dad creakily began to recover. We were miserable, but we made it work, somehow, we kept our shit together. Then we went back to our flat in London and, after a few weeks, Connor admitted that, like so many of us, he found London too intense and too difficult. We had spent a lot of time in Birmingham staying with my brother and it felt like a good compromise, so, in late Spring, in the midst of the Beast from the East we found a snow covered house (a house! with extra bedrooms!) in suburban Birmingham and moved. Even that was a battle as Connor technically wasn’t allowed to rent here, or be on any agreement as still no visa. He was a welcome tourist, though had no rights to rent or work or get a bank account or go to the Drs. Still, we made it work, somehow. In the mid summer, Connors time here as a tourist was running out, so we began reluctantly preparing for a trip back to California, once more putting our life, that was yet to start, on hold. We didn’t understand what was happening and what was going wrong and our lawyers just kept telling us to be patient. One hot June day, as I sat in the garden working on my SearchLeeds presentation, I got a call from Connor saying “News on the visa, it’s been denied. It’s a no. I have to leave”.

I crumpled like an old accordion. I had seen it happen on movies, when a body just loses it’s rigidity in sadness and collapses in to a pile of flesh and bones and anguish, and here I was, lying on my lawn, completely exhausted and devastated that the man I love was having to go through so much. I felt it was all my fault. I lay there for about 10 minutes until I had exhausted all my sobs. I stood up, wiped my eyes and got on a train to speak at a conference.

Then, we fought. We fought with every morsel of energy we had left. We saw new lawyers, wrote letters, sent formal complaints, made calls, appealed to the Home Office, wrote to our local MP, who said he would do what he could. A week later, our MP confirmed the home office were standing by their decision to refuse the visa (why exactly remains unclear) and there was nothing we could do, apart from go back to the US and start over. So, that is what we would do. I was travelling to London a few days a week to meet clients and go to pitches so needed a couple of weeks to get shit sorted. Given Connor’s legal inability to work, I was solely responsible for all our finances so I was perhaps working harder than ever before. If we were having to live in this awful limbo, then we could at least do it drinking fucking champagne.

Then, I had some late paying clients and had severe cash flow issues (I wrote about that here) and in a comically cruel turn of events, there was fraud on my bank account. They took everything, I was left with £72.20. I was meant to be buying our fights back to California that day. So, I found myself fighting with faceless customer service machines once more.

A few days later, I was waiting for the money to be returned to my account (it was, thankfully) and was on a train back from London. I got a message from Connor telling me to read my emails urgently. Christ, what’s bloody gone on now, I thought. I read the email, it simply stated:

The decision to refuse your visa application has been overturned and our office is now ready to issue you a UK Visa.

We thought it was a scam. We sent it to our lawyers (of which we now had a goddam army), who all confirmed it’s authenticity. Connor could stay. I travelled home with trembling hands. We didn’t rejoice, we didn’t celebrate, we sat in stunned silence, exhausted, confused and bruised and we remained that way for several weeks.

That happened in July and we have spent the past 5 months trying to get ourselves back together and develop a routine. We’ve stayed in a lot. We have slept a lot. We have tried to restore our energy and our health, but I would be lying if I said it hadn’t taken it’s toll. I especially now feel more financially anxious than I did before and I don’t quite trust the system in the way I once did. Still, we made it work, somehow, we kept our shit together.

My 2018 business life

I experimented a lot this year, I tested things, changed focus more than my knickers, made some mistakes and found some things that worked.

I made the strategic decision to step back from Manyminds and delegate a lot of the work that I was previously managing; looking after clients, defining strategy and running operations, so that I could focus solely on exploring new opportunities and find new revenue streams. I was also, it would be fair to say, a little distracted. This, on reflection, was a mistake. I took too many steps back, wasn’t as close to what we were delivering, relied too heavily on a few key people. In a couple of instances, not all, our output suffered as a result. It’s my business, it’s my neon haired, post punk loving, pot smoking teenager of a business and it needs my direction and my support. My energy is restored, my routine is more established, so I am capable to give it once more my full focus and attention, and I am really excited to do so. I can remember again to listen to my instincts and never say yes to a project I have an inkling of unease about just because of the money. I am falling back in love with my business, remembering why I started it in the first place and have learnt so much about what kinds of work we can service very well, and what we absolutely can not. In January I am talking at Traffic Think Tank Live about absolutely everything I have learnt from scaling remote, freelance SEO teams over the past few years, so I will share that early next year. People always say year 3 is the hardest in business and to that I can attest, but I am feeling genuinely enthused about where I know I can take it next year.

This year, some of you may recall I also tested another business. An agency that would focus purely on creative campaigns. A few months in and it’s fair to say that didn’t work as we had hoped. It is always better to fail fast and move on, and that is exactly what we have done. To my friends, I have basically described it as this.

I was quite sheepish about it all at first, but hey, you have to take a punt. We’re working out all the details now, but my businesses partner and I resolved it all very amicably. No harm, no foul.

This was also the year when I ran several more Give It A Go events, and began Confidence Training. The confidence training came about from two things. Firstly, an event in Sistrix where I was the only women, you may have seen the photo.

(It’s worth pointing out that the team at Sistrix have since been absolutely wonderful in sponsoring and supporting my events). Secondly, the Manyminds Give It A Go events; a regular event I started to create a forum for those who have never spoken, so everyone can be awarded the opportunity to get on stage and well, give it a go. It is totally self submit, all you have to do is fill in a form and there, you’re on the agenda. I found it illuminating and saddening that for every event I have ran (5 in total now) around 75-80% of those who self submit were men. My network includes a lot of women, I am promoting the event to a largely female audience, yet men are the majority who feel most comfortable thrusting themselves in to that situation. This reality was like a switch went in my brain, I thought I have to do something about this. Just showing up isn’t enough. I don’t want to passively say “yay women are important!” anymore, I want to control my environment.

I began to offer free presentation training to women, though soon realised that teaching women how to stand, or giving support on deck structure, whilst important, isn’t going to cut it. It’s about going even further back, teaching as many women as I possibly bloody can that we have valid, legitimate voices too. And you know what, it has worked, and is working. Women are coming away more empowered, more confident and so many have gone on to pitch, and speak at, events. One attendee even wrote about it, I had no idea and had a really lovely morning when I stumbled upon it a few weeks later.

With both this and the Give It A Go events, it is a reality that there are now dozens more people on the speaking circuit as a direct result of my events or my training.

There is now more representational diversity in our industry events as a direct result of some of the work I chose to do, for free, at my own cost, in my own time.

Fuck everything else. That. That is what I did this year.

I feel really delighted about that and so proud of everyone for putting themselves forward and gracious to all the wonderful event organisers who continue to invite and champion more of us.

One of the things I am determined to do more of next year, is be kinder to myself. To focus not only on my failures but also my successes. To use the skills I know I have to keep building people up (myself included) to keep fighting for what I believe in and taking in active role in making that a reality.

This year was a shit show, but I have learnt so much, and I have achieved so much. In 2019, I am going to do three things:

  1. Continue to show up and take an active role in making our industry a better one for all involved.
  2. Be grateful for the stability, focus and direction I can now have
  3. Make a load of cold hard cash.

Merry bloody Christmas x

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