Desert, Namibia

5 strategies for coping with the summer slump

Or: how I learned to stop worrying a lot, and just worry a little less instead

I have sent out so many estimates in the past couple of months, it would make your head spin. This week alone, I have three open estimates floating about, and another couple of leads to follow up on. I hate writing estimates. It takes a lot longer than invoicing and feels much less rewarding. It’s always a tiny little bit nerve-wracking waiting for the response back: will we be making beautiful things together?

I don’t know if it’s something I’m doing wrong, but I haven’t heard a single yes in all this time. I’ve been doing my regular client work, and I’ve been taking on little maintenance or extension projects for old clients here and there, but I just haven’t picked up an exciting new project for ages. I am going through a brutal business dry spell.

I’d love to say I’m totally cool about it—but that would be a lie. I’m freaking out a little. It doesn’t help, of course, that I recently gave the taxman a metric ton of cash, or that I’m still adjusting to being back in a country where wine costs triple what I think it should, and that I keep doing asinine things like racking up expensive speeding tickets. I’m naturally pretty paranoid about money, which is great in some respects—I have no debt and money stored away that I refuse to touch until I actually am desperate—but lousy in the respect that it means that I feel like I’m “broke”, even though I’m really not.

Desert, Namibia
Is it crazy to worry that your business might be barren? (Probably.)

1. Keep calm and carry on.

When my dry spell started (what feels like a million years ago) I totally freaked out. I was convinced that I’d finally done in my business and was destined to spend the rest of my days living in a cardboard box (full of shoes) under the overpass. I debated moving to Costa Rica and becoming a banana farmer.

Then I took a deep breath and remembered that it’s summer—or, at least, Canada’s variant of the theme—and that business is always slow this time of year. There’s a summer slowdown every year, and every year I’ve had this exact same panic attack. Perhaps there’s a pattern there, given how I’m not presently eating out of dumpsters.

2. It’s not me, it’s you.

Most of the responses to my estimates haven’t been straight-up “no”s. Most have been variants of “we don’t have the budget right now”, or “the client changed their mind”, or “we’ll revisit this later in the year”. There’s a good chance that a lot of these leads will turn into actual projects in the future—I’ve had some leads turn into great work years down the line. It’s not really a comforting thought when I’m looking for work now, but it at least helps my self-esteem to realize it’s not just because I suck that the work isn’t coming in as enthusiastically as I’d like it to be.

It’s easy to let this sort of thing get you down, which is a dangerous place to be. I’m at my happiest when I feel like I’m being productive and I’m producing great work for my clients. This feeling of idleness, coupled with the sting of rejection, can easily derail motivation. I’ll admit I’m in a bit of a slump, and it hasn’t helped that I’m still suffering from the wanderlust and a sort of existentialist what-does-it-all-mean life-evaluation syndrome induced by my return to Canada.

I posted a list of positive reminders on my fridge, where I can look at it every day, and told myself to get it together. You can’t take anything personally when you’re running a business.

3.  Don’t get desperate.

Don’t take on projects you’ll hate (unless they’ll pay a ton). Don’t do stuff for a lot cheaper than you would otherwise. It’s so tempting to take on lousy projects when it feels as though nothing is coming through, but in the long run, doing so is devaluing both to your own business and to the industry as a whole. I’d rather spend my time finally sorting out all my accounting (ugh) than participating in spec work, or entering lame-o design contests where my logo could win $100 if I happen to be the lucky chosen one. (Actually, there’s a whole slew of revolting things I’d rather do than that.) Ultimately, devaluing your work just because things happen to be slow will contribute to the sense of negative self-worth brought about by the slump, and it’s difficult to recover once things start running smoothly again.

4. Focus on other stuff.

I’ve got a list as long as my arm of summer projects—some design related, some not—and I have no time to do any of it. It’s driving me bonkers, actually. I’m in a dry spell! Shouldn’t I have gads of time to fritter away? Apparently, it doesn’t quite work this way, since I’m spending a lot of time sending out emails and going to meetings for projects that don’t pan out. It’s frustrating, but a necessary part of the process.

I’ve been doing a little, though. I’m socializing more. I’ve actually read a whole entire book all the way though to the end. I’ve been going on little short-jaunt in-country trips to appease my wanderlust. I keep buying wine bottles with ugly labels, with the intention of doing my own personal-project redesigns. (Admittedly progress on this front tends to be sullied by my drinking the bottle as “research” before getting down to work.) I’m planning for my next series of travels, and learning to ride a motorcycle so I don’t kill myself touring Thailand. I bought vintage roller-skates and am learning how not to fall on my tailbone. I’ve got a whole list of business-y admin type things to do, and another list of personal projects and fun things. I’m certainly not bored.

Rollerskates
I have wanted a pair of rollerskates since I was a little kid, and now I’m a little terrified of them. Apparently breaking both your wrists in one summer makes you paranoid.

Keeping busy distracts from the fact that you aren’t, in fact, busy at all.

5. Think happy thoughts!

Ultimately, in order to get through a slump, I think you need to stay mentally afloat. For me, it’s too easy to get dragged down by a slump, which only magnifies the problem. My business is the only stable, constant thing in my life, really, and I’d be lost if I felt that I’d lost it.

So instead, I’m focusing on all the good things that are going on. For starters, all these people are coming to me asking about work, which is a great sign. I’m still not doing any active marketing, and I’m still getting leads. For every client who drives me up the wall and tempts me to use Let me Google that for you, I have two great clients who I adore and whose emails make me smile. I’m still making enough money to keep me in sandwiches, diet Coke, and shoes for the foreseeable future. My life is never boring and I basically get to make up my own rules for everything. I have wonderful clients, great friends, and I can travel the world while running my business.

And if I can just remember how lucky I am, I’ll stop feeling so defeated when things aren’t perfect.

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