Solopreneur Life is a series that aims to shed light on living life as a creative solopreneur. In this first episode, Tea Silvestre from The Word Chef tells us the story of her business.
As someone who works with clients on their branding (“Got Secret Sauce?”), I often help small business owners understand the need for aligning their work with their personal values.
The conversation usually starts like this:
Client: Why do I need to have a values statement? I’ve already got a mission statement.
Me: A values statement is an official way to tell the world what you stand for.
Client: What? Do you mean things like customer service?
Me: If that’s what’s truly important to you.
Client: Of course, it is.
Me: Okay. Let’s check. Why did you start this business in the first place?
Client: Um, to make money? And that’s where we usually start to unravel the knot of reasons that led them to down the path to entrepreneurship.
When I launched my consulting practice in 2006, it had a different ‘why’ than it does now.
I was the Director of Marketing for a national nonprofit and had nearly 15 years of corporate and big organization experience under my belt. I was determined to create a business that worked only on projects that made the world a better place.
(My website even said we used our marketing super powers for good, not evil.)
That’s how Social Good Marketing was born.
My ‘why’ was clear: marketing is a powerful tool. It should be used to lift people up, not manipulate them.
My values were: honesty, transparency, sustainability, community, and extreme value. And while I knew that fear-based marketing could be effective (in the short-term), I had a strict policy about using only positive, uplifting messages to market a product or service.
My personal values and my professional values were the same. (I thought.)
I knew that in order for me to be happy as a marketer, I needed to create a business that was a true expression of how I wanted the world to be: Good.
For the first two years, my business thrived as people responded to the concepts I put out there. Social Good Marketing developed quite the reputation (totally positive), and I was seen as a true “leader for good business” in my community.
At about my third year in business, I encountered a challenge I hadn’t anticipated.
A client that I’d been working with on a fairly high-profile project left town without paying the balance of his invoice—a sum of nearly $25,000.
When you’re a very small business, that kind of money can really put a dent in your operations. And yep, it definitely dented mine. I ended up laying off my assistant in order to stay solvent. Not something I relished doing—especially since the economy had just started its now-famous nose dive.
As if this weren’t enough, that same client left a host of other vendors’ bills unpaid and many of them came knocking at my door to see if I knew where he was. To say this was unpleasant is an understatement.
It left me feeling angry, resentful and more than a little sad. (Bitter? Party of one?)
For a while, I struggled against a depression. The joy that I’d initially felt at owning my own company and building the business was gone.
I considered joining the Peace Corps and leaving it all behind for a life of travel and adventure.
(After all, if I was going to give my services away, I’d rather be poor and have some fun, damn it!)
And then, one of my clients made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: full-time employment, a leadership position, and as a bonus they bought out my office lease and paid me handsomely for my furniture and equipment.
This was just the ‘out’ that I needed.
I wanted to accept the offer, but I had mixed feelings.
What about my baby? My business?
“Don’t worry,” they said. “If you want to keep your clients on the side, we understand.”
Sometimes you just have to say yes. It wasn’t long though, before I bumped up against the system—you know, the one that exists in every organization with more a dozen staff members and a decade in existence.
It was difficult being an employee again.
Even at an organization built to nurture other entrepreneurs, there was still little room to innovate and implement quickly.
Communication across departments didn’t function like I felt it should, and I began to miss my identity as a small business owner. I yearned for my previous life—warts and all.
There was just one small hurdle: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be “good” anymore. Not to mention that over the year and a half that I spent in the J.O.B., I had let my consulting practice dwindle to nearly nothing. Sure, I still had a handful of loyal clients, but they weren’t bringing in enough to pay the bills.
What to do? What to do?
I really didn’t have a clue. And until I knew, I couldn’t make a move. Thus began a deep period of self-reflection.
I joked with friends that it was a mid-life crisis. My son was away at college. My parents were away living their lives. And my best girlfriend was moving in with her boyfriend. I reconsidered the Peace Corps.
I looked into teaching English overseas. I just wanted to run away and start over. But the Universe had other plans.
Instead, I was gifted with a new relationship of my own—Ira (one of the most kind and generous men I’ve ever known) came into my life. He also lived over 300 miles away. When it became clear that this relationship was real, we started talking about who would move where.
In the end, I moved to be near him. He was making a lot more money, and his job prospects in my neighborhood were slim to none. It was the practical thing to do.
“Don’t worry about work,” he said. “I’ve got the bills covered,” he said.
And for the first time in a very long time, I got to experience a life where I didn’t need to worry about making the rent.
Once everything was unpacked and we had settled into a rhythm, I found myself looking for a creative outlet.
In the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to restart my consulting practice. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted it to look like this time around.
And while I waited to find out, I did what I’ve always loved to do. I read books (mostly about supernatural romances). I cooked (now I had someone to cook for). And I wrote.
For the first time since college, I started playing with fiction and poetry and essays that had nothing to do with business.
I started a blog (“Whole Hog Marvels”) with the intent to explore what it means to live life full out. To document my process of discovery.
At last, I had a creative outlet that felt (ahem) good. I also wrote this little blurb for the About the Blogger page:
If I had a personal manifesto, it would go something like this: Every day: be present. Savor each moment. Have real and meaningful conversations. Do something unexpected and unplanned. Explore and learn. Share myself. Do something creative. Be affectionate. Touch another human being. Laugh. Sing. Help someone. Remember the sacred.
These were my personal values, stated simply for the world (and myself) to see.
Finally, finally, I felt whole and content. I wasn’t struggling to figure out who I was anymore. I just was.
I took life one full and beautiful day at a time. I bought flowers. I called my mother. I explored my creativity in the kitchen and on the page. And without my even knowing it, I came to a spot where I was completely ready to take on the joyful task of building a business again.
(Notice I didn’t say “rebuild” a business.)
This time, things would be different. I was older and wiser and a great deal more in touch with all my personal values.
Yes, I still believe (wholeheartedly!) that business can and should be used to create positive change in the world. But this time, I didn’t want to hang my hat on the “Social Good” moniker. I didn’t want my “goodness” factor to be my only point of differentiation—and I was definitely craving a little more variety in the types of clients I worked with.
The flip side?
I didn’t want to have to hold myself up to an ideal that left little room for error. I didn’t want to censure myself if I felt I needed to say something a little badass from time to time. And I certainly didn’t want to go back to the dark place I’d landed in the last time.
Was I still a kind and compassionate business person?
I just wanted a little more wiggle room to be human.
The brand I ultimately chose (or to be truthful, that chose me) is the Word Chef. It’s creative, it’s fun and it’s unique. Three values that are also important to me. And that were missing the first time around.
The best part?
It allows me to bring my personal life forward a bit more. (I get to use cooking metaphors to explain marketing methods.)
Once I had this new business identity in place, I took some time to write out my values in more detail.
This later became my manifesto and I used it for two purposes: to stay focused on what matters to me, and to share with potential clients so they could see if we were a good fit to work together. You could say the ideas in this manifesto fall into the “good” bucket. And you’d be right.
But this time around, my “good-ness” empowers me in a way that my original business identity did not. I’m more confident about where I stand and the reputation I’m building. It feels 100% true.
We are the heroes of our own stories. And every good hero is flawed.
It’s when we forget this—and strive too long to be a “good” example: always up, inspirational, joyfully helping —that we get ourselves into trouble.
The first time around, I did a pretty decent job of building a business based on doing good. But I went too far and held myself up to ridiculously high standards. And then I started holding my clients up to those standards as well.
I tried to insulate myself from anything “bad” by only taking on clients with a stated mission that furthered “good.” And when I came face to face with a client who wasn’t able to live up to that, I crumbled.
The funny thing is, he wasn’t the first “good” client to not live up to my expectations. He was just the one who I couldn’t ignore.
Looking back, I see many points when I was dealing with customers who weren’t as “good” as they proclaimed to be.
They were human. With weird tics, foibles and yes—imperfections.
Just like me.
One of the biggest challenges I think any “good” person faces when she wants to build a “good” business is making sure that her brand is completely three-dimensional.
I see this challenge happening all the time: fabulous business leaders (mostly women) who come to a turning point where they’re ready to throw in the towel. Where they’re tired of being the perfect example. Where they just want to run away and leave the leading to someone else.
Here’s the thing we all need to remember: relationships are everything.
We can’t exist in this world without each other. Humans are social animals to be sure. But we also act as mirrors, showing each other what we most need to see. And showing up just when we need to get a little clarity.
The first time I launched the business, I did it backwards.
I created a brand by looking outside myself and asking what sort of clients I wanted to work with. (Still a question that you should answer, but not one I recommend you start with.)
Here’s what I believe you should consider if you want to align your personal and business values:
1. Your vision for your own life. What’s on your bucket list? What would you regret not having done, if you were to exit stage-left tomorrow?
2. Your passions. What are you passionate about outside of work? What do you love to spend your time doing? Where do you really find your “groove?”
3. Your talents and skills. What are you good at that you also enjoy? (Remember, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you also want to do it for 40 hours a week.)
4. Your vision for what could be. What’s missing from the world? What problems really bug you and what do you feel is possible?
5. Find the patterns. Your life path and experiences are unique to you. And they’ve brought you to a place where only you can stand. What themes repeat themselves? What lessons have you learned? And where do all the pieces overlap?
Those are important places you should look at more closely.
Once you’ve done some deep self-reflection, write down your discoveries. Highlight the words and phrases that you value. That make your heart sing. Then go back and elaborate on what they mean to you.
This is the beginning of your own manifesto!
Keep working at it until you feel “a click” of completion. And be open to additions as your life changes and you come to new realizations. The manifesto process takes as long as it takes. But writing down what matters to you is the starting point for aligning your business (or work) with your personal values.
For sussing out the gray areas between you and your brand.
Until those two agree with each other, you’ll always feel a little disconnected with where you are. And the Universe will continue to show you that disconnection in ever more visible ways.
The trick is to listen to those niggling feelings and not wait until you get hit upside the head with something so huge and devastating that you lose track of where you’re going.
P. S. And remember this process is never done. The Universe will continue to show you mirrors for those places in yourself that need some sunshine. While I was preparing for “Prosperity’s Kitchen,” I was again gifted with a minor “crisis” of spirit as I realized that many of the mentors and coaches I’d looked up to for years were more than human. And while it might be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it’s much more helpful to remember that shadows help us find the texture and depth of something…they reveal the true beauty. (To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, “Cracks are how the light gets in.”)TEA SILVESTRE (pronounced Tay’ah) is a foodie, writer and marketing consultant who specializes in helping very small businesses find and share their Secret Sauce with the world. She teaches several online classes, and runs various programs such as Prosperity’s Kitchen, a business class formatted like a reality TV show. Visit Tea at her website theWordChef.com, download a free copy of her manifesto called “Be a Chef” and follow her on Twitter.