Thursday, August 01, 2013

Z Word, LLC: Celebrating Year One

by Zinta Aistars

Z Word, LLC: "Not just any word. Z Word."

“There is not a business, an institution, an organization, or an effort connecting one human being to another that does not require communication. To what degree that communication is effective, there is infinite potential. This is where I fit in. I am a writer and a communicator—and I am effective. It is that infinite potential that so fascinates me.”

                                                             ~Zinta Aistars

One year ago today, on August 1, 2012, I made my leap of faith. I started my own business, a writing and editing service called Z Word, LLC. Up until that moment, I had been employed in academia, in health care, in corporate business, in retail, and I had learned much at each stop on my journey. 

I had actually left the ranks of the safely employed by others already in March 2012, but I immediately began a four-month contract job, at which point, yes, I was dreaming ... but still saw no chance of taking the leap of the self-employed. At the conclusion of those four months of working for a strong global company,  I had a chance to step back for a moment and look at where I stood. I could play it safe and move into a permanent position ... or I could strike out on my own. What to do? 

I realized I had checked off all the boxes in my mind that led to opportunity on my own. I had accumulated years of solid experience with a varied background. I had saved a nice buffer zone to carry me through the first months of getting established. I had moved to the place I would call my forever-Home, Z Acres, a 10-acre farm in southwest Michigan. Indeed, it was the perfect location for a freelancing business, at the center of Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Holland, Michigan, three hubs of activity and opportunity. And, over these years, I had built a strong network. I had worked hard to build a reputation as a writer who produces strong, vibrant copy and who meets deadlines. I had a very fat portfolio.


On August 1 last year, I woke in the morning feeling an odd mix of bliss and discomfort. Not fear, not really, as I realized I had nothing to fear. After all, if it didn't work out, I could always go back to being one of the safely-employed-by-others. It was something else, and I tried to identify it a year ago in this blog: 

Excerpt from blog, "Can I do it? I can."
"I think I can ... I think I can ... I think I can ....

The little engine that could, that was the little engine's mantra, and now, mine. This has been the year of leaps for me. Leaps of faith. And so far, every time I have made such a leap, I have been rewarded. Why not this time?

2012 has been my year, and I have one more big dream to realize. It's also been a year of facing down fears, doing battle with a few demons, and, happily, conquering them. What's one more?

If there is one thing I know, and have tested over a lifetime, it is that achieving dreams goes hand in hand with risk. Over a lifetime of observation, I've noticed that we all dream ... yet few are willing to reach for those dreams at the cost of giving up security and routine.

Hey, I get it. Risk is scary. That's why so many dreams stay on the shelf. The very moment I had moved over the halfway line into the area of pursuing this last big dream, I felt the terror. Everything in my life, all the recent ups and downs, all the recent steps taken, all were moving me toward this ..."

Risk was actually minimal, and yet it felt risky. This was the unknown. This: no alarm clock going off at a still-dark hour. No long commute down the interstate from home to office. No predictable schedule. No reliable paycheck, coming in like clockwork. No guarantees. 

Freedom, however, is a heady experience. It brings with it power over our own lives in a way that most of us never know. It means living with the unknown, and therein was the discomfort. 

What if I got sick and couldn't work for a while? Well, that hasn't happened. I am healthy, and I have also seen my health get even more robust living out in the country as I now do, growing my own organic vegetables, avoiding the stress of offices and commutes. Stress, yes, the number one killer and the root of most any disease or illness, and I now had that mean monkey off my back. 

Not that this past year has been without stress. If I haven't gotten ill, family members have, and suddenly I found myself having to take time away from my work to tend to the needs of others. That cost, and it cost heavy. For two months, my finances took a beating, and not for shortage of work, but for shortage of time. I am back on schedule again, but that showed me how important it is for the self-employed to always maintain a financial buffer zone to carry one through those dips in income. 

What other disadvantages have I experienced this past year? Health insurance is up to me. Paying taxes has become a very conscious decision, and not just once a year, but with meetings with my accountant on a quarterly basis. The self-employed pay about 35 percent of their wages into taxes, Social Security, and Medicare, so I have had to learn to deduct from every check I receive. No different, really, from what employers did before, only now it's up to me to keep careful records and turn them in to my accountant on a regular basis. It's a different way to live, one of heightened financial awareness. Not at all a bad thing. 

While most of my clients are timely payers, there are sometimes one or two that are not. Rather than a regular paycheck, I occasionally have to send reminders with my invoices. I really, really appreciate those clients who pay quickly and reliably. Those are the clients I nurture most and give highest priority. 

There can be an occasional problem, too, that people in one's inner circle, or even acquaintances, may expect you to do a quick job for them, you know, as a favor. Ah no, one must gently remind them: this is how I make a living. This is how my mortgage gets paid and food comes to my table and gas into my fuel tank and the juice keeps flowing to my computer and the light over my kitchen table. 

It can be hard for some to understand, too, that I can't just take time away from my work. Time costs, and every time I step away from my desk, a bill could potentially go unpaid (see comment about having a healthy financial buffer zone for emergencies!). I have had to become firm about my boundaries. Being my own boss doesn't mean my boss isn't holding me accountable. 

Yet these are truly minor disadvantages in the larger scheme of things. Mostly, yes, living like this is indeed utter bliss. It is following my bliss. It is a life of doing what I do best, what I love most, and doing it every day. It doesn't get better than that. I don't even think about retirement, because this is a life I enjoy too much to ever give up. What would I retire to? I am a writer and I write. 

If I take a hit at one point, I can recover at the next. Nose to grindstone. And I do work hard. I work most every single day, my Mondays blending into Saturdays, one day the same as another, so that the old cheer of TGIF, thank God it is Friday, no longer resounds with me. Every day is Monday, every day is Friday, and all days are days that I enjoy my work. I am as likely to take a few hours away from my desk on a Wednesday as on a Saturday. I don't feel that deep inner exhaustion inside at the end of the work week, and there lies the biggest difference. My work keeps me rejuvenated, excited, enthused, and I have no need to run away. 

When I say that one day is the same as another, though, I mean that only in terms of calendar days. One of the aspects I love most about my work is that one day does not resemble another, in that one story never resembles another. Each article I write takes me to new places to meet new people. I operate on the belief that everyone has a story to tell, and my job is to find that story and transfer it to the written page, so that many can enjoy reading it and learning from it. Every time I do an interview to research a new story, I feel an adrenalin rush. My intellectual curiosity is constantly stimulated, nourished, then made hungry again. 

My client list has grown ever longer and more varied. I have written about cleaning industrial machinery, and I kid you not, it was fascinating. I had no idea how such things are done, and once again, I learned about a world that otherwise would have remained closed to me. I have written about patients in health care, with all the elements of a great story, from conflict to hero's quest to resolution. I have written about fascinating alumni in academia, and academic programs that span all manner of occupations and achievements. I learn from every one. I have worked on sports stories, and I'm the last person you would call a sports fan. I have written news stories for nearby communities, sat in on government meetings, and learned how a city is run. There can be some pretty entertaining soap operas there ... 

I could add to that list ad infinitum. I love that writing gives me a free pass into places and into the lives of people I might never otherwise know. How could I ever tire of this? It makes every day an adventure. 

If at first I felt an odd sense of guilt, waking up on a Monday morning after a full night's sleep, with no jarring alarm to jerk me out of bed, I soon got over that. I found my own rhythm. I have also found that I put in more hours overall than I ever did for another employer, and that I am the toughest boss I've ever had. I see everything, and I get away with nothing. The buck starts and stops with me. I take full responsibility. 

I have never been more productive. Working in my own business, I quickly realized what an astounding waste of time takes place in the typical office atmosphere. Office politics, endless meetings of rehashing ideas that go nowhere, water cooler talk, red tape and bureaucracies ... in my world, I get paid only for work that gets done. No more, no less. That is terrific incentive! If I get a smart idea, I can act on it right away. 

I enjoy my refreshing breaks that allow me to work such long hours. When I need to air my brain, I simply stroll outside, check on my vegetable garden, pull a few weeds, or sit in the bench by the pond and listen to frogs belch. I go out on the little deck of the Cottage on the Hill, where I often write, a sweet little wooden structure in the middle of the woods on my property. And I breathe. Just breathe. Until I am ready to go again. 

My old chow pup Guinnez leads the way to my writing place: Cottage on the Hill
Mostly, I have learned to trust. To have faith that I will land safely. When I have had to set aside work to help a family member, I have to trust that I will rebound soon enough when I get back to my desk. If I let go of one client, I have soon found an even better new client, and that has happened enough times that I have learned to lean back into faith. If one week comes in with fewer pay checks, the next tends to delight me with bonus pay. 

My lesson one year later, after starting my own business, is this: Following your dream is the richest life one can live. I had to pay my dues first, put in the time to learn my tools of the trade, develop my network, build a reputation, but when the time was right, letting go, taking flight ... has been the sweetest time of my life. 

I can hardly wait to learn about the next story I will write. 

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