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Online workers need to take breaks too. And it’s not just the coffee that is needed to refresh and refuel you for the tasks ahead. Home office workers especially need to reach out and connect with others to reduce a sense of isolation that can be a drain on productivity. Chatting with co-workers off-topic (not about work) provides a pleasant connection with others and can keep you going. The popularity of social media such as Facebook will attest to this. It’s just fun to check in with your friends and colleagues now and then.

A colleague who works with a virtual team introduced me to the idea of “virtual coffee breaks.” She insists that members of her team check in personally with one another just to make that connection that will build a stronger working relationship. After all, even though we are working virtually we are still real and complex beyond our online presence. A virtual coffee break can also be a convenient alternative to getting together over coffee when schedules collide. Taking breaks from work is so important to maintaining a healthy level of productivity yet so many of us power on through until we run out of steam. Checking in with another on a regular basis can help us integrate regular breaks into our workflow, bringing a better balance into our work and life.

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1. Ask

2. Receive

3. Give

A wise friend gave me the above advice.  I posted it by my computer and still I resisted because it just felt so uncomfortable and unnatural.  Didn’t I have to give first to receive?  And being self-sufficient, I wasn’t sure about asking for help at all.  Of course, I am strong because of being connected to other people: family, neighbors, colleagues, friends.   All of whom can and do help me.  How powerful it could be if I could harness this resource so that it’s available when I need it most.  All I would have to do is ask.

The first person I asked was a friend in business for herself.  How did she do it and why?  Then I asked a mentor, why couldn’t I do it too?  She referred me to an excellent resource located in my neighborhood, the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center.  They offer workshops and classes for small businesses or those who were thinking about starting one.  Under their guidance, I started asking for more help.  I asked friends for their business and referrals.  I asked my family for a loan.  I asked colleagues for advice and feedback as I developed my website.  The help I have received has been incredible!    I am so grateful.  Maybe the third item on the list could be interpreted as give thanks as well as give of yourself.  Thank you everyone.

Getting started seems like the hardest part.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of help to be found on the Internet, in books, by the example of others, and in courses.  For me, the Business Planning Course at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco provided the guidance and support I needed to get my fledging business started and organized on paper.  It took 14 weeks of classes and homework to do the research and gather the resources needed to write a business plan.  Still, there was the blank page to fill.

So I took an empty journal to a cafe for a day and just started freewriting on the first section, introducing the business.  It was a relief not to have to think too much about the form of my sentences or where I would end up when I was done.  But once that pen was in motion, the thinking frozen in my mind loosened up a bit and started to flow onto the paper.  When I came back home to type something into the computer, I found myself starting from the conclusions I had reached while writing longhand.  I was able to leave out the searching sentences and the wondering words and jump right into the heart of the matter.  I wanted to write a business plan that was true to me and captured my motivations so I started the Introduction with the section heading “What’s really important” to convey the philosophy behind my business idea.

Once I had started, I wanted to keep on going but didn’t quite have the stamina to write out a fully-realized, thirty-page plan in one or two sittings.  In fact, just scrolling through the roughly drafted outline for the entire plan was starting to freeze my brain again.  I just kept looking at all the pages I had yet to do as compared to the 2-3 pages I had so proudly completed.   To save myself from feeling too overwhelmed, I simply sliced up the computer file into a series of smaller files.  Each day I sat down to write the next part and thought only about that section.  I wrote, and re-wrote and edited and revised the plan one chunk at a time.

Many days I just groaned as I opened a section that I had already drafted and thought I could just make a few changes to and move on quickly.  I re-wrote every one of those sections.  I had to in order to bring that section up to the level of the rest of the writing I was doing.  I could not have gotten there without that first draft but I persisted in the belief that I ought to be able to salvage more of the first draft as I was writing the second draft.  Didn’t happen.

The good news is that two-thirds of the way through, after painstakingly rewriting the marketing plan and the financial narrative, I got better at writing my business plan.  So I took a couple of days off from writing to catch my breath.  Then I sat down one day and pretty much whipped out the rest of the plan at a rate much faster (2 to 3 times faster) than all the writing I had done up to that point.  An approaching deadline might have had something to do with it.  Still, I needed a little extra breathing room so that I could make my edits and assemble the document in peace.  After all, that’s what most of the plan was advocating, a business model that did not rush work to completion but allowed time to do the best work possible.

I’m glad for that break for I was enjoying the writing of my business plan by the time I was finishing the last few pages.  I would proudly read through the completed sections and marvel that I had managed to write so knowledgably about my business.  That’s the real value of writing the business plan for me.  I wasn’t worried about what a potential investor or what the instructor of my class would think about my plan.  I was the critic who would be the toughest to convince.  Did I really know what I was doing enough to pull off this business?  I had taken the leap of faith already and started the business.  Now the more judgmental and rational side of my brain was looking for more solid proof.  How is this going to work?  What needs to be done next?  Will you have the resources to do that when you need to?  I was really writing the plan for myself so that I could see the goals I was setting and take the next steps to reach those goals.

Of course, finishing the business plan is really just the start of business planning.  The plan is more of a living, breathing, ever-evolving map for my business.  For now I am very happy to have this much in writing and to get the right start in my business.

It’s a fun exercise to look back every now and then and marvel at how far we’ve come.  Why not put together a technology timeline for yourself and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?  What dates you and what have you updated?  Here’s what I remember:

Grade school in the 1970s: Listening to 8-track tapes, of John Denver and Ray Conniff and the singers (hey, my parents were buying the music then).  I learned to type on an electric typewriter, white-out and all.  I had a cassette tape recorder and would tape songs like Hot Child in the City and Carwash from the radio.  I did have a record player but only two rock albums from K-tel to listen to and some 45s including Muskrat Love by the Captain and Tennille.  We could watch movies on Betamax videocasettes.

High school in the early 80s:  My parents bought an Apple IIe with the big floppy disks and a dot matrix printer so I could type and revise papers for school.  I heard about MTV and the walkman but would not personally experience either until college.  My music collection consisted of one cassette tape of Styx’ Paradise Theater, and two LPs of Cheap Trick, At Budokan and Dream Police.  I may have also had something by the Police but that’s all I’m willing to remember.  We switched from beta to VHS videotapes.

College in the mid-80s: I wrote papers on my electric typewriter in my dorm room my freshman year.  By sophomore year, I was using a Macintosh in the computer lab.  We’d store data on a 3.5-inch floppy disk and send our papers to be batch printed in a print queue within 24 hours.  Still no Internet for us.  But at least I could watch MTV in the dorm lobby and had my own walkman.  During a Junior Year Abroad at the University of Essex in England, I took a computer programming class without any actual computers!

Temping in the late 80s: After I graduated I moved to Chicago and worked for New Office Temps while looking for my dream job in publishing.  I would train on WordPerfect at headquarters and fill in for secretaries at Amoco and advertising agencies.  Computers weren’t quite universal in the workplace and sometimes I would have to tangle with a hybrid typewriter/computer on the job.  Eventually I settled at a position for Yearbook Medical Publishers where everyone had a Wang computer.  Just by sheer curiosity, I became the department go-to person and trainer on the system.  Still no Internet or email.  I bought my brother’s old stereo system and could now listen to CDs.  By this time I was listening to what we called alternative rock after happy experiences with REM, U-2, the Talking Heads, Squeeze and the Violent Femmes in college.

More temping and investigating claims in the early 90s: After I moved to San Francisco, I was looking for a job again until I could go back to school to get a teaching credential.  I did it all: transcribing reports from a tape, using a dictaphone to write my own reports all the while protesting that if they’d just give me a PC, I could type the report faster myself at a stint at Norcal Mutual Medical Insurance.  I put myself through school while working for start-ups in digital imaging and consulting doing back-ups and bookkeeping in Managing Your Money among other administrative tasks.

Teaching in the 90s:  I bought my very first personal computer, a primitive Apple laptop with 4K of memory, I think.  Later I bought a 14K modem so I could surf the Internet and use my American Online email account.  As the journalism advisor, I taught students how to use desktop publishing programs, Quark and Desktop Publisher, and even learned html at a workshop so I could put the paper online.  We worked through a succession of Apple computer generations ending with iMacs in the student computer lab.  I still had old Apple Macintoshes in my classroom and just after I left the school in 2000, every classroom was finally wired for Internet access.

Back to school, 2000-2005: I started with a job in the computer lab and improved my Photoshop skills and learned how to make digital videos with Final Cut Pro.  I ended up in an MFA program with a job as the program assistant, working on campus as needed but mostly from my home office thanks to email and the Internet on an Apple G3 and speedy DSL connection.  And I finally got a cell phone and a personal CD player so I could listen to my own music while painting in the studio.

An online office manager is born!  I upgraded to a mac mini with the Intel chip and now run a virtual PC and Mac OSX simultaneously.  I connect to the Internet via our cable connection and have an all-in-one printer with a scanner and fax.  My disc drive burns both CDs and DVDs.  Always curious and a quick-study, I am so pleased to be working with technology again and am just delving into the social networking sites.  Of course, our music is all digital now and we store data on thumb drives.  We watch movies on DVDs and watch videos clips on the computer.  My husband has an iPhone and I’m thinking about it just because it’s so cool.

I wonder what’s next?