The Seven-Year-Itch: Are You Bored With Your Business?

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."

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