From the August 2000 issue of Startups

Gil Gordon was in business for four years when his motivation hit a brick wall: No matter how well he did, no matter how pleased his clients were, his business cycles were like a roller coaster.

Billings swung wildly from month to month. Some months were strong, others left him wondering why he had left his day job as a director with Johnson & Johnson. And his emotional swings were carried in tow.

This wasn't good for business or his self-confidence, especially since Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, human resources and telecommuting consulting firm, was working in a then-fledgling field hardly brimming with clients jumping to send employees home to work.

"I was struck by, and probably a bit depressed by, the realization that no matter what I did, I would probably always be living on a business roller-coaster," Gordon recalls now, more than 15 years after encountering that first wall. "The good news was that the numbers at the end of the year always turned out OK, and still do. But if I look at it on a monthly basis, there can be wild swings. I wasn't upset by the fact that there were low points, but by the fact that I seemed destined for that eternal cycle of low points and high points and couldn't do much about it."

Whatever the cause, whatever the outcome, Gordon is not alone in facing business swings and the "seven-year itch" homebased entrepreneurs often face. Fickle clients, cyclical business patterns and motivational mood swings can cause you to question your whole purpose in working as an entrepreneur from home.

These psychological issues aren't uncommon. How they're handled can determine whether a homebased entrepreneur continues to call the business address "home," or heads back to the relative safety and security of the corporate environment. And often, the itch is not a one-time event. While he's never given too much thought to returning to a corporate job, Gordon has felt the itch three times in an 18-year at-home career.

Even if you're more successful that you ever imagined, a lack of motivation--and even boredom--can still strike, says Jim Rohrbach, a motivational and business coach in Chicago. Rohrbach calls it the "boredom of success."

In the early stages of a new company--especially a homebased business where the owner is challenged by working in a new environment as well as by running a business--motivation is drawn from the desire to succeed long-term, Rohrbach says. But once relative success has been achieved, the challenge to succeed often fades and people long for more excitement in their businesses.

The antidote? To create a bigger mission for the business, Rohrbach says. Large goals take many steps to achieve, and each can erase boredom and keep the entrepreneur focused.

Another way to combat motivational brick walls is to get out and about. Schedule networking meetings, sales calls and lunches with peers, clients or allies. Create new business ideas or a Big Target project. (The Big Target is a long-term project designed to excite and invigorate the business owner to complete a worthwhile project.)


Journalist and author Jeff Zbar has worked from home since the 1980s. He writes about home business, teleworking, marketing, communications and other SOHO issues.

Taking A Break For A Fresh Perspective

Paulette Ensign has felt the itch several times since launching her homebased publishing company, Tips Products International, in 1982. Writer's block, stalled motivation, whatever you call it, Ensign has found one common solution: travel. She even relocated from Westchester County, New York, to San Diego to find a warm climate and enlightened community--two factors she believed would help spur her creativity and motivation. They have. Now she'll take quick overnight trips every six to eight weeks to Los Angeles, Phoenix or a nearby resort to help clear her mind. The trips aren't expensive; just relaxing and invigorating, she says.

In fact, Ensign says if she waits too long to take a break, her internal clock will chime in. She'll feel stressed and burned-out and start to feel the need to hit the road. Her telltale signs: to-do and project lists that don't get done, awaking in the morning and not being excited about work, being abrupt with people on the phone, and lacking enthusiasm and motivation for the business. "When going to the post office is the highlight of my day, I know something's wrong," she muses.

While she doesn't take work with her on her weekend jaunts, Ensign does comes back brimming with new ideas, she boasts. Whether it's a new tips booklet, new distribution channels or new marketing messages, she says, "all that energy just comes back."

Battling Business Lulls

James W. Chan, Ph.D., president of Philadelphia-based firm, Asia Marketing and Management, has felt the sting of wicked business cycles and loss of enthusiasm for working from home. Usually for Chan, the two go hand in hand, he says. Six years into his homebased management consulting career, the Chinese crackdown on the protesters in Tiananamen Square scared away clients hoping to work with China--and led to a drop in Chan's business.

A direct mailing to 3,000 potential clients resulted in only one job. The phone didn't ring and boredom grew. Chan found himself watching more television than ever, he says.

"I was walking around my home office like a restless animal in a cage. I began to doubt my abilities. I wondered if I was in the right business. I was looking at want ads," he recalls. "I made so little money that I didn't have to pay taxes. It was the first time I realized how good one could feel to be a taxpayer: Paying taxes means you're making money."

The start-up motivation Chan had felt early on evaporated during this lull. He found a new job only to have his feelings of boredom and burn-out intensify after accepting the post. The pay was good, but he loathed being an employee again.

The yearning to work solo again actually fueled Chan's entrepreneurial fires. He continued consulting freelance with several former clients, which buoyed his spirits.

When he quit the day job and returned to consulting full time in 1991, Chan learned one important lesson: Business failure is not personal failure. He read books about mythology, religion, philosophy and poetry to gain perspective from others who had suffered setbacks, and quickly realized that his failure was no indictment of James Chan.

"To me, my business was my child. When I felt that I couldn't do it full time, I felt like I had failed," says Chan, who wrote Spare Room Tycoon: The 70 Lessons of Sane Self-Employment (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, $22) based on his experiences. "One of the lessons I learned was starting a business is an encounter with forces far more powerful than yourself. I came to realize that success isn't totally in our control no matter how hard we work or how devoted our cause is. Slowly I regained a sense of achievement, excitement and wonder."

Sometimes even strong business isn't enough to stave off the itch, Gordon admits. One time, Gordon "hit the wall" while in the midst of a large client training project. Halfway into the project, he realized how unclear the project definition was "and how I felt I was stuck in a big deep hole."

Interim reviews of the work started to get increasingly frustrating, and it became clear that the product he was planning to deliver--one which he and the client had agreed to--wasn't the product the client wanted. But the client couldn't be any more specific, and was growing frustrated. Eventually, the two parted company with the project not completed. But at least Gordon was free of the quagmire, he admits.

It's not uncommon to become mired in a large project or just not know where to begin on a challenging assignment for an important client. The resulting emotions can leave you grasping for direction. Gordon admits to scanning want ads several times during these emotional lows, although he says he never seriously considered leaving his benefits-rich home office, where he could call his own shots and watch his two children grow up.

"Both of these instances provided good learning opportunities, but they weren't much fun when I was in the middle of them," Gordon admits today. "Both are a kind of 'pick yourself up and move on' experience: frustrating and de-motivating when they happen, but not fatal by any means."

Find Out If You're Suffering From The Seven-Year-Itch

Is your entrepreneurial fire still burning? Still feeling the same spirit as you did when you first launched your business? Many businesses suffer motivational challenges after five to seven years, once the start-up passions have subsided and the business becomes, well, just business.

Answer the following questions to see if you're facing motivational lapses.

  • Are you unhappy with work or do you dislike what you're doing, even when you're busy and making money?
  • Are you unfocused? Do you dread the coming day when you awaken in the morning?
  • Are you abrupt with people--family, peers, clients or vendors? Are you inexplicably on edge with others? Do you have an unexplained feeling of anxiety?
  • Has your productivity taken a nose-dive? Does your to-do list never get any smaller? Are you facing the same unfinished projects today as you were last week?
  • Have you considered the prospect of taking a full-time job where you do nothing more than your core task and you don't have to handle business development or the finances?

Tips To Boost Your Motivation

If you're touched by the seven-year-itch--regardless of how long you've been in business--you may need some diversions to break up your day and add variety to your work and personal life. Here are some possible alternatives to the everyday:

  • Get out. Network with peers, have lunch with clients, volunteer with associations--escape the cocoon that can be the home office and meet with others. Hearing tales of their successes and challenges will remind you that you're not alone.
  • Meet with your confidants. Find those people you trust most and tell them what you're feeling--especially feelings of failure, anxiety or worry. Unloading your concerns and hearing the feedback of others can be therapeutic, professionally and physically.
  • Get away. Take a vacation, even if it's only a weekend away at a local retreat. In fact, the best time to take a break is when business is slow. Leave the work at home. Let your mind rest so it can work again.
  • Create a MasterMind group. First coined by author Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich (Fawcett Books, $6.99), a MasterMind group is a core clutch of allies with whom you can share experiences, fears, challenges and new business ideas. In the best of times, it's a good way to bounce business ideas off trusted peers. In dire times, it's good for the spirit to vent feelings of angst. Just look for positive outcomes, and don't make it a belly-aching session.
  • Be an entrepreneur. Tackle a new project, branch out into new areas, or create a new project that will re-energize your focus and revive your pioneering spirit.
  • Create a Big Target Project. This is a long-term project, something that, once completed, will become a powerful reminder to your clients and peers of the businessperson you are. It can be a book, an audiocassette series, a new promotional package for your business, a new Web site, a proprietary research project about your industry, a new business--anything that can be done in 12 to 24 months. It has to be hands-on--you can't just pass it off to a subcontractor to create. Unlike the rote-ness of daily work, the Big Target focuses your energy on a single project and enlivens your spirit every day to complete it.
  • Keep a diary. Instead of bearing the emotional strain of business cycles or feelings of depression, put your thoughts in writing. Reading and re-reading about your own emotions will reveal how out-of-balance you can be. This exercise will reveal a pattern of emotions and help lend perspective.
  • Reassess your calling and purpose. Is what you're doing--either working from home or your profession itself--what you really want to be doing? Honestly re-examine and list those things that bring you joy, pride, satisfaction, fulfillment and a sense of success. Advises James Chan, "If you really don't want to do what you've been doing, don't be afraid to change your own life script."