Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Time I Almost Quit My Own Company But Quit a Client Instead

Photo from Feb. 2017, finally free from a bad client.

January will mark the six year anniversary of my small company. I’m thrilled to have recovered from a poor 2020 to make 2021 the most successful year of Astralytical yet!

Five years ago, I almost threw in the towel and gave up on running my little business. Almost. But I toughed it out and learned a lot along the way.

The last year of working for my previous employer was rough. The company stopped meeting regular payroll, a decision they made while I was on my honeymoon after spending our savings on a wedding and a trip to St. Croix.

I struggled with irregular paychecks as my husband and I lived in two different states for the first few months of our marriage. We learned I was pregnant. We had expected to live in two residences on two incomes, flying back and forth regularly to see each other. We quickly realized we needed to consolidate and rethink our finances with a baby on the way.

As my income shrunk and became unpredictable, my anxiety climbed. I tutored in my spare time for the little bit of extra income. In December, in my final weeks of pregnancy, the company stopped paying for our health insurance. I’m forever grateful to my direct boss who ensured I had health insurance for that last month so I could give birth to my child with peace of mind. I officially resigned at the end of that year.

I officially started Astralytical in January with no clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. My initial ideas were to publish reports, consult, and work on academic projects. Those first few months, I felt out the market, trying to figure out where I belonged and what others would pay me to do. I struggled. I was a scientist with no background in business, trying to start a small business part-time from scratch.

I was thrilled to sign my first client in April! It was a milestone for my brand new company. Someone was willing to pay me to help them with their space-related project. That’s exactly what I wanted for my young company and for my future as a consultant! I felt like I was proving my business case. I could do this!

The thrill faded quickly. My client, owner of a one-person nonprofit, had even less business sense than I had. Her heart was in the right place but her finances were not.

My client wanted me to make things happen but was hesitant to pay me for my time to do so. She snubbed my fundraising advice. When I learned she was broke and sacrificing basic living needs to fund the nonprofit, I no longer felt I could ethically continue to charge her. After a few weeks of work, very little money, and no real accomplishments, I felt as though my work with my first client was a failure.

I kept going. For months I volunteered my time here and there, trying to find leads that would pay me. I was thrilled to get a call back months later from a small company I had been talking with earlier in the year. They needed my help to expand into the emerging commercial space industry, they said. Well, they were in luck because that’s my expertise!

I started work with my second client in July. Oh how I wish I could go back in time and fix one thing that would have made all the difference. I knew I had been screwed over very shortly after signing the contract, but what could I do? It was my fault for signing it, for not negotiating better.

You see, they misled me. They weren’t willing to pay me what I was worth. They sent me a contract for a flat fee per month worth about half-time pay. When I pushed back, they claimed it was part-time work. But they didn’t specify in writing. Why oh why did I sign a contract with no cap on the number of hours per month or no tiered payment based on hours worked? I will never make that mistake again.

The job was, in fact, not half-time. Most weeks, it was much closer to full-time. Some weeks, it was well over full-time. My personal life and my mental health suffered as my husband and I moved four times in six months with a young baby and I struggled to get the work accomplished under their short timelines.

Since we had little savings due to my minimal pay the previous year, we really needed the money. I was doing good work and I didn’t want to lose this client. That is, until around three months in.

After I completed my first project, they abruptly decided to change direction away from commercial space. They gave me a new project that was completely unrelated to my expertise. I really should have questioned why I was assigned this work given my total lack of experience with the subject matter. But, I needed the money, and I could learn on the job. I had to keep going.

The client’s expectations were unreasonable. They had never trained me on processes and procedures so I had to figure it all out on my own as I went. This led to a lot of tears when the software they wanted me to use didn’t work, but I figured it out. They set unspoken expectations and I had to guess at what they were. When the second project was assigned, I think they assumed that I knew the process already and could complete the work very quickly. Never mind that I had no knowledge of the topic and the deadline was over the end-of-year holiday season!

October was when I began to admit aloud to my husband how miserable I was. Working too many hours, being significantly underpaid, and dealing with poor and discouraging management – it was all too much.

But I had no other clients knocking at my door, nor did I have time to look for any new clients. My husband was switching jobs and we were moving again. We were house shopping. We needed the income. How long could I stay with a bad client? How long would they keep me? With their pivot away from emerging commercial space, I was no longer a good match for the company. Everything felt wrong.

As the holidays approached, work intensified, and management became harder to deal with and even more discouraging. The year had not gone as I expected. My little company had failed. I was no longer even working on my company. The website existed, but I had been neglecting the company for months to work for a client that was demanding full-time work for half-time pay with no benefits or vacation days. My space career was stalling. Something needed to change.

I could quit Astralytical, I considered. With our move into our new home in a new city complete, I could find a full-time job with benefits and make double what my client was paying me. Why was I continuing down a path that was all wrong for me?

But I still had so many great ideas for Astralytical! I had so much left I wanted to try, so many projects I wanted to attempt. I felt that I hadn’t given Astralytical enough time to prove itself as a worthwhile business. I hadn’t given it the time it needed to really grow as I wanted.

It was settled, then. I would drop the bad client so I could refocus on Astralytical’s core. But, how? I had never fired a client before. I postponed the decision until after I completed the second project in early January.

I was almost giddy with relief when, after handing in that project, the client told me they “couldn’t figure out how to monetize my skill set” and decided to stop working with me for now. I was free!

I was so energized by my new free time to focus on my company, I immediately got to work writing and publishing a mini space report. And I laughed and shook my head in disbelief when the ex-client, who was no longer paying me, tried to tell me I wasn’t allowed to publish anything under my company’s name because it was confusing to their clients. Maybe they should have written that into the contract!

Five years later, that client remains the worst I’ve ever had, the one that almost made me quit consulting altogether. And that’s saying something; I had a belligerent client refuse to pay me earlier this year (just for a 1 hour phone call, thankfully) who only ranks second worst. I’m thankful I kept going. As it turned out, Astralytical did need more time to prove itself and to grow.

With my new focus on Astralytical’s purpose and goals that second year, I formed the space career coaching segment and signed my first coaching client in March. I’ve since worked with over 55 coaching clients from all over the world with a wide diversity of backgrounds, all pursuing space careers.

Also in March, I signed my third consulting client. It was a pleasure working with this client to research and write a report for them that they still refer to today. I enjoy keeping up with their progress to this day. It was this third client that finally showed me what consulting could be like: a mutually beneficial relationship that carries on into the future.

From wanting to dissolve the company at the end of 2016 to delivering a satisfying report to a great client in mid 2017, my mindset completely shifted. I felt like my company was really on the right track.

Altogether I’ve worked with 27 consulting clients on a wide variety of projects internationally. It’s been so rewarding to assist in the background with so many aspects of the space sector from science to education to business to public policy. The diversity of topics keeps me always learning something new and piecing together connections at the intersections.

Six years down, Astralytical is the best job I’ve ever had! I’m looking forward to seeing what the seventh year brings.

Sometimes, when you know you’re going in the wrong direction and you just want to throw up your hands and quit, it helps to dive deeper. What don’t you like about your current path? What do you like about your current path? What would you change if you could? Whether a small tweak or a giant turn, you do have the power to move away from what’s making you unhappy and work toward your real motivations and goals.

I hired a general career coach when I was dissatisfied in my first career job. She advised me to drop what drained my energy and pursue what gave me energy. Or, in the words of Marie Kondo, “Does this spark joy?” If not, thank it and let it go.

I needed to drop the client that drained me so I could pursue forming my small business in a way that brings me joy. And it made all the difference. What changes will you make in the new year?