Entrepreneurial Overwhelm: Drowning With No Lifeline In Sight

How To Deal With Entrepreneurial Overwhelm

When I made the decisions to quit my full-time job and venture out on my own to be a freelance graphic designer, I was scared to death. I didn’t know a single other person who had quit their job to freelance, I didn’t know any full-time freelancers, and I had a mortgage and babies to think of.

Thankfully, I was the only in house designer at the public relations firm I had worked at for the past year, so when I left, I was able to retain them as my first client and continue doing the work I was doing, but as a freelancer instead of as an employee.

This made my transition much easier than it could have been.

At first, I just enjoyed freelancing and working at home with my babies. But over time, I got the itch to make some changes. I wasn’t really enjoying the work I was doing, I was expanding my skill set into web design, and I wanted more clients — different clients. So I found some local networking events online, registered, and starting networking locally with other business owners and entrepreneurs.

Networking changed my life. Business networking exposed me to an entirely new world of business that I didn’t even know existed. I met other moms who also owned their own businesses. I met other similar service providers. And I met new clients.

Lots Of New Clients

The economy was booming and in a very short amount of time, I had secured more clients and design work than I knew what to do with. It seemed like everyone wanted to work with me. They were telling their friends about how great I was. And, I was constantly hearing how much everyone loved my work. Many times, when I went to a networking event, a good portion of the attendees in the room were already my clients.

I’m not going to lie. It felt freaking fantastic.

I was on top of the world. I was working for myself, making my own way, and no one else was looking over my shoulder telling me what to do. I was at home with my husband and kids and no longer commuting into downtown, my business was bursting at the seams, and I was just killing it in billing, reaching well over 6 figures in income with very few expenses.

Everything was amazing… well, sort of.

When You’re Too Successful For Your Own Good

From the outside looking in, everything looked amazing.

Ninety-nine percent of the proposals I sent out converted into paying clients. I was cranking out the work for tons of clients, and sending invoices almost daily. Our family took a couple short vacations and we finally pulled the trigger to put in our backyard.

On the inside, however, I was slowly dying.

To say I was overwhelmed would be a gross understatement. I was working with sometimes up to 25 different clients at a time, and working on several hundred projects a year. I was often working from 3:00am to 12:00am, never taking a day off, let alone a whole weekend off. And if I wasn’t working I was overcome with guilt and fear.

You see, I knew how to be a great designer and how to knock it out the park and make a client happy, but I didn’t know how to run a business or how to price my services effectively. I didn’t realize that I should also be accounting for my admin and project management time, meeting time, and profit, in addition to the actual time it took me to do the work.

I didn’t realize that I was landing so many clients not only because of the quality of my work, but because of the low prices I was charging. Of course they said yes and jumped at the chance to work with me! I was providing high quality design work with a fast turn around at ridiculously low rates — and typically those three things don’t go well together.

I also didn’t have business systems and processes in place to help get things done. I didn’t have a system for invoicing and billing in place, so I just did it as I finished each project. I didn’t have a system for client management, so eventually things started to slip through the cracks. I didn’t have a system for follow up, so I missed out on some cool opportunities.

The Reality Of Overwhelm

I was exhausted, overworked, and overwhelmed. I wasn’t sleeping.

I wasn’t enjoying life. I was even starting to not like my business anymore and it was MY business. I went out on my own to have more time to spend with my family, not less, not to ignore them and watch them have fun while I sat at my desk and worked. I wanted to have more time to see my friends, not to lose them because I was working constantly and my business was taking over my entire life.

I wasn’t happy, I didn’t know what to do, and at the time, I didn’t know what the problem was. I can look back now and say that it was pricing or a lack of systems. But then, when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know the exact problem. And, I definitely didn’t know the solution.

I didn’t know how to ask for help or communicate my problem.

I tried talking to my husband about it, but he didn’t get it. I also tried talking to my business friends about it, but they brushed me aside and laughed — and they were mean. I heard things like:

  • “If only I had your problems. I wish I was ‘too successful’ too. Stop complaining.”
  • “Oooh too many clients, poor you. We don’t want to hear about your problems.”
  • “You’re tired because you have too much work? We have real problems.”

Looking back, I know their remarks were just a reflection of their inexperience as well.

They weren’t minimizing my challenges and struggles on purpose, they just couldn’t recognize that I had pricing problems and business systems problems, and they didn’t have enough experience to offer me the advice I needed. But it didn’t make their comments sting any less.

I remember getting into my car after networking events and driving to a different parking lot to park and just cry for a while by myself before I went home.

I felt like I was drowning and there wasn’t a lifeline in sight. I constantly felt like I was sinking in quicksand, clawing desperately for a way out, but no matter how hard I tried, it was just sucking me in deeper and deeper.

And it was my fault. I created this mess.

Admitting You’ve Got A Problem

Eventually my overwhelm started to negatively affect my business.

Phone calls weren’t being returned, emails were missed, mistakes were made, and things were starting to slip through the cracks. I had spent all of my time to build a brand around quality work and quality service, and if I didn’t make some changes, I was going to destroy my brand.

Unfortunately, I kept telling myself that things would get better if:

  • I just worked the entire weekend…
  • I just pulled one more all-nighter…
  • I could just finish this one project…

The problem was, that nothing was getting better. No matter how hard or how long I worked, it was never enough. I was perpetually playing catch up and never quite getting there.

It took me a long time to ask for help because I didn’t want to admit that I needed help.

Admitting that I needed help felt like admitting defeat. It felt like I was admitting failure. Like I was telling the world that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough. In reality, those were just stories I was telling myself. The truth is that no one can do it on their own. Everyone needs help because no one is good at everything.

I just wish someone had told me that a lot sooner.

Making The Hard Decisions To Overcome Overwhelm

Just thinking about my business brought about tears. I was exhausted. I was unhealthy. I was crabby. I felt like life was passing me by and all I did was work. I woke up, went to my office, worked all day, saw my babies a tiny bit, went upstairs to bed, and repeated it over and over, day in and day out.

I was over it. I admitted defeat. I couldn’t do it alone.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

African Proverb

I sat down with my husband — who had been unbelievably supportive throughout all of this — and told him things had to change. I needed to hire an assistant, or outsource work, or close up shop and go back to working a normal job. Luckily, neither of us really wanted that!

After evaluating the situation, I made some major changes:

  • I hired my husband to run my company and be my boss. Gradually he took over all of the day to day business management, the estimating and invoicing, and everything that I didn’t like doing… and slowly I fell back in love with my business.
  • I doubled my rates and started saying no more often, which meant I cut my workload in half, yet made the same amount of money.
  • I invested $10K in a business training and mastermind group so I could learn from and network with successful business owners from around the world.

The changes didn’t happen immediately. They took time to implement and it was a bit of a bumpy road to say the least, getting used to having a boss tell me what to do again. It was hard, especially when that boss was also my husband.

Raising my rates was hard too. I felt guilty about it, I struggled when clients didn’t want to pay the higher fees, and sometimes I chickened out and still sold projects for my old rates. It took a good six months to really commit to working at higher rates and feel comfortable with it.

But now I had a mentor and I was surrounded with smart, experienced, successful business owners and entrepreneurs in a supportive setting that encourages asking for help! Joining a mastermind group is one of the best things I have ever done for myself personally and for my business.

Looking back, I’m proud of my journey, of how far I have come, and how much I have accomplished. I know that without all of those sleepless years of hard work, valuable experiences, tough challenges, and constant learning, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

In 2015, Bourn Creative celebrated our 10 year business anniversary. Yes, it took 10 years to get to where we are today, and yes, where we are today is pretty freaking fantastic. Now I’m looking forward to what the next 10 years will bring, hoping that I navigate the challenges to come with grace, and happy that I’ll have help every step of the way.

What About You?

Have you experienced extreme overwhelm? Did you struggle with starting and growing your business? Was finding work-life balance (whatever that means) tough? How did you handle the challenges that came your way? Or any you in it right now?

I’d love to hear from you!

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