Overcoming Obstacles

How My Life as a Prisoner's Wife Made Me an Entrepreneur

This founder realized she couldn't keep waiting for "someday" to start her business.
How My Life as a Prisoner's Wife Made Me an Entrepreneur
Image credit: Yulia Kuranova | EyeEm | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder of The Digital Wonder Woman
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It only takes one act to change the course of someone's life. In 2005, I stood behind my husband in a Pennsylvania courtroom and watched as my life changed instantly and forever when he was sentenced to prison for 12.5 to 25 years. For better or worse, I was now a married-single woman legally separated by the Department of Corrections.

Related: How Prison Became My Launching Pad for Success

Receiving the first phone bill (unofficial indoctrination into this dubious club) came with less fanfare, but left me feeling far more shackled. A month's worth of collect calls amounted to $720 -- more than the cost of my housing. A mental rundown of my available cash flow and I thought, phone calls, need; lights, optional.

Bills didn't stop because my husband was locked up. In fact, his absence created more. The desire to keep my family together went farther than any paycheck allowed. If I wanted to maintain some semblance of normalcy and allow my husband to experience a modicum of civility, I had to pay for the privilege.

"You have a collect call from an inmate," became a daily battle cry. This pre-recorded message tugged at my purse strings and spoke the urgency of now. I'd always wanted to have my own business, but I waited until the perfect someday. Each answered call meant someday was no longer a luxury I could afford.

Related: Losing My Life Partner Could Have Sunk My Business -- But Instead It Became My Motivation

Faced with the thought of losing my family, I used the most difficult and inconvenient time in my life to elevate my economic status. If the quips from the self-help books were true, make your mess your message, turn your test into your testimony, pivot from pain to purpose and so on, then I was primed for great success. Here are the top entrepreneurial lessons I learned as Mrs. GE6309.

Run the numbers and create the plan.

Companies servicing the prison industry have a monopoly on costs from the phone bill to the prison commissary. These charges quickly drained the family budget and forced me to decide between connecting with my husband and paying the household bills.

I had to get real with myself about what I was facing. I ran the numbers and they weren't good.

  • 12 years minimum without my husband
  • $500 average monthly phone bill
  • $600 average monthly visitation (He was incarcerated in Pennsylvania. I lived in Virginia.)
  • $120 monthly commissary
  • One slightly higher-than-minimum-wage job

I tallied the prison expenses with current household obligations and projected the numbers over 12 years. I broke the figures down into three levels: how much money it took to stay afloat, how much money it took to have extra and how much money it took to be balling out of control. The numbers told me how much action I needed to take to achieve the end goal. This became my why.

Related: How Embracing My ADHD Makes Me a Better Entrepreneur

I evaluated my income versus expenses and looked for ways to cut back. Since our calls crossed state lines, we were hit with steep long distance charges. To cut this cost, I obtained a number local to him in Pennsylvania which forwarded to me in Virginia. This cut the phone bill by more than half.

I launched side hustle after side hustle with no real system. Money came and went fast. I saw no real gain from the work. I needed to systematize, to set real prices and to outline my profits and losses. Once I mastered the side-hustle-to-real-business mentality, I went from staying afloat to finally having extra.

Today, I use these same principles to determine income projections for managing product launches and creating new streams of revenue. When one of my side hustles became serious, I was able to see the true cost of doing business. Now when I run the numbers, my expenses include insurance, business savings, contractors and more. Setting goals, planning and organizing has also helped me feel less chained to my laptop and my business.

Stay the course and make it work.

If there were one word to describe staying the course as a prisoner's wife, it's tenacity. Though there were times when I questioned my fortitude, I stayed. I soldiered on against unsolicited opinions, calls to stop wasting my time and defiant declarations of my sanity.

Amidst all the personal landmines, I had a bigger issue to contend with -- America's fascination with prison culture and people behind bars. Salacious television shows did me no favors. Reactions to my husband's incarceration were filtered through skewed perceptions. Herein lay the problem for me. I bore the blame and shouldered the shame. The harder it got, the more I dug in.

Related: Faced With Failure, This Founder Could Have Given Up -- But Instead He Started Over

When you're counting down years in daily increments, time becomes nondescript as one day looks like the next. Holidays and birthdays lose relevancy. Yet, to drag on in anguish makes time harder than it has to be. The mind really is a terrible thing to waste ,especially when the mind is the only element for escape. Creativity combats conformity. I changed the course of my time with paper and imagination. My husband and I played games through the mail, acted out our favorite shows and even took a romantic trip to Belize complete with sightseeing and souvenirs. I constantly looked for ways to have a free-world couples' experience as real as ingenuity allowed.

As a business owner, I hold on to what I believe. I keep going when launches don't go as plan, when tech fails, when clients are not ideal and when others say, "Get a real job." I stay grounded in my why, which still includes a desire to prove naysayers wrong. My business is built on the corner of tenacity and creativity.

The cool thing about being in digital marketing -- there are many ways to achieve the same result. I use tools I have on hand to create outcomes derived by fancy programs. I use my website and email service provider to create landing pages rather than use software. My biggest hack: I don't use funnels with Facebook advertising; I use a combination of ad techniques to create a similar effect. Originality gives me permission to think outside the block.

Get to the point and celebrate the wins.

Communication is everything when a loved one is locked up. Prison relationships are not in real time. Phone calls help hasten the pace a bit. Calls were in 15-minute intervals. Great calls were great, but arguments lasted days, weeks even, until we became efficient. We learned to argue and resolve an issue in the 900 seconds allotted.

Related: How My Startup Failed -- But I Was Still Successful

And, as the calendar years rolled on and on, any nicety or break from the norm were reasons to celebrate, from earning more phone time to building a reputation with the guards for extended visits. Every act of humanity or courtesy was something to behold.

Being a prisoner's wife taught me the art of brevity and it goes a long way. Networking events are full of people who dance around the business of doing business. Building relationships is the hallmark of networking. I maintained a relationship for 12 years in 15-minute increments, I aim to land business associates in less time. I get to the point and skip elevator speeches unless I'm actually in an elevator.

In business, I remember to celebrate any victory whether it's one person joining my email list or one person purchasing an upsell offer. Little moments adds up to big returns.

As I settle into life now with a growing business and a homebound husband, I'm on my way to balling out of control. With these lessons, I turned manure into entrepreneurship to truly break free.

Related Video: How to Build a Million-Dollar Brand When You're Broke and Living on Your Sister's Couch

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