How I manage a small business while living with chronic illness

By Jamie Smith, owner of Jamie’s Notebook

As small business owners, we overcome challenges to make our businesses successful. When you also live the life of a “spoonie” (someone with a chronic illness), the number of challenges often seem insurmountable.

Today I’m sharing a few tips I’ve learned the hard way about running a small business when you live with chronic illness. For those who are unaware, in addition to being born with Spina Bifida, which is why I am a full-time wheelchair user, I was also diagnosed with a form of autoimmune arthritis three years ago.

So here are a few things I’ve learned. Each of our situations are different, but most of these can be adapted to fit your needs. I would go as far to say that these are important even if you don’t have a chronic illness.

Listen to your body

If your body is telling you that you’re wearing it out, then you need to stop what you’re doing before you develop serious problems.

Taking a break to manage a flare for an afternoon or even a day will potentially save you many days of being out of commission if you ignore what your body needs. Your clients and customers will be better served if you take a little time away rather than if you push yourself out of commission for a few days or even a week.

One thing I had to learn is that my body’s needs change. When I was on a specific treatment, I learned not to schedule anything on the day of the treatment and to keep the day after light. Two days after, however, I usually felt great so I that was the day I really pushed to finish up client work and get things done around the house.

I’m on a new treatment so this plan is no longer necessary, but now I seem to be more easily affected by weather patterns, so I have adjusted to take those changes into account.

Reduce stress

We all know that stress hurts our body, mind and spirit. When our bodies are already stressed by a chronic illness, what used to just be intense can now be debilitating to our health. Really pay attention to what causes you stress and find ways to get those kinds of situations out of your daily life and routine.

For me, I realized that I was exhausted and almost sick after working on a magazine or freelance news article; mostly because of the intense nature of the deadlines and rapid nature of the work. This was hard for me to admit, considering I had wanted to be a journalist since second grade and worked in that capacity either full or part-time for more than 15 years. What I once found exhilarating quickly because debilitating so I gave up that part of my work.

Managing different client personalities is another major source of stress for small business owners. I realize that in retail, you may not have as much say over who your customer is, but you can certainly market more to the types of customers you want and create memorable experiences for those customers, so they will remain loyal.

For those of us who work with clients on a project basis, learning to establish (and keep!) boundaries for what you will and won’t do, project scope, and workflow are essential not only for your health and sanity but also for your clients. I’ve developed a list of people I can refer people to who do types of work that I won’t do.

Get help

I used to think I couldn’t afford to hire help. It turns out, I can’t afford not to. When I first hired interns, it was so they could help with a major, long-term client project. I started adding other client work to their load and I realized it could help me a great deal.

To be honest, when I was dealing with some particularly rough aspects of the treatment I was on at the time, I relied on my interns to get most of my work done. I still have three interns who help me with some blogs and social media for several long-term clients even though I’m now doing most the client work myself.

Hire people who can help you with tasks, especially items like bookkeeping, social media and other business operations that you can outsource. The time and energy you save will allow you to preserve your health and possibly even spend more time on generating revenue.

Lose the FOMO

Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) has been hard for me to adjust to. I hate the idea of missing a beneficial event, I hate the idea of missing out on opportunities that might lead to new business, I hate not feeling included.

What started happening, however, was when I would push to do all the things and was wearing myself out so much that I wasn’t feeling up to doing client work. That means I lost money. I also found that it cost a lot of money over time to attend conferences and events and to drive all over Northwest Arkansas (where I live). Less income and more expenses, along with the effects to my health, were simply not a good mix.

I heard something incredibly valuable years ago that I now use relentlessly. When you say “yes” to something, you are in fact saying “no” to something else. The reverse is true. When we say no to something, we are opening up opportunities to say yes to what we really want.

I learned to evaluate my schedule, priorities and energy levels when choosing commitments. I can only think of maybe a handful of things that I later thought, “oh, I should have done that.” This method has also given me more time and energy to do other things.

For example, I rarely attend networking meetings or conferences anymore, but I now spend more time with the WordCamp Fayetteville community and a new organization being organized for freelance workers in my area called The Gig Community. I also spend time with two local but private groups of contract creative workers.

Residual income

I’ll admit, this is something I’ve struggled to do but it’s something I’m working on with my new online school on Teachable. Residual income is revenue you can make in a passive way rather than by the project or by the hour. For example, creating online classes, selling e-books, or even teaching in-person classes where you can earn class fees from a room full of participants in a single class rather than consulting fees for one-on-one training.

Do you do custom work for each client? Consider making a product that can be sold online or in a store. For example, I’ve seen friends do things like make glass ornaments and trinkets to sell in their shop while they worked on larger, custom stained-glass projects. Another idea I’ve seen is from a designer friend who created cards and party decorations that could be purchased on Etsy.

Change your procedures

You should perform regular operational audits on your business whether you have a chronic illness or not, but when you do live the spoonie life, your operational audits should not just be about economic efficiency. Look at where you are expending your energy and find ways that you can improve.

One example is that I changed my invoicing procedures. For many years, I created manual invoices in two formats. This process didn’t cost money out of my pocket, but it was stressful and took at least three hours every month. My new invoicing system is through Square, and while I do incur transaction fees, the process is seamless and only takes about 20 to 30 minutes each month.

While it’s not necessarily a procedure, you should also consider learning a new skill or using your existing skills to do new services. For example, instead of focusing on trying to serve a large number of small businesses with blogging services, I realized I could protect my health, share my knowledge, and empower small businesses with no marketing budget by teaching them how to do what I do.

Realize not all advice is for you

This last tip may seem strange considering I’ve been giving you advice. But the truth is, not all advice is for you. For example, I’ve had a lot of people tell me I should get up early to get things done before I get too tired. That doesn’t work with my family’s schedule and I work best (and feel best) in the evenings.

You need to figure out what works best for you, your business, your family, and your health. Try people’s ideas but don’t feel bad or apologize if it doesn’t work.

Whew! You made it to the end. I’d love it if other small business owners/spoonies shared their tips in the comments below.



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