No boys allowed

A year ago, I found myself in a tiny little café-slash-bookshop in Budapest, drinking Turkish coffee. There was a display of books on the wall opposite me: books that looked interesting, books I thought maybe I’d like to read. But then I noticed something that got under my skin: every single one of them was written by a man.

Women are half of the world’s population. (Actually, we’re a hair more than half.) We’re not a minority in any society, language, or culture. We’re technically the fucking majority.

Why are all our stories told by men?

Don’t get me wrong, I love men. Ask anyone who knew me when I was twenty-one. I love straight white men. I even have some friends who are straight, cis, able-bodied white men (probably).

But I’m tired of that same point of view always being the default.

Books written only by women.

I ransacked my bookshelves and discovered I barely even have enough books written by women to fill a whole shelf. I’m not proud of that fact.

And so I decided to read only books written by women—for the entire year. It wasn’t a particularly revolutionary experiment or a novel (ahem) idea. It’s definitely been done before. But I was curious. Maybe reading more books written by women would help me be less of a female chauvinist pig. Maybe it would reignite the passionate feminism of my youth. Maybe I’d just get to read a bunch of great books.

Here’s what happened

I didn’t expect what actually happened: I rediscovered my love for books.

I’m something of a book snob. I spent part of my high school years in a special audition-only arts school, writing sexually-charged poetry and over-engineered fiction. (Please don’t ask for samples.) As a result, I tend to lean toward classics and literary fiction. But somewhere between being constantly busy and exhausted from work for years on end, I stopped reading very much. I stopped finishing books. According to my Goodreads profile, I read a whole *two* books in 2015 (both non-fiction) and I’ve been reading Sexus since 2010. (Maybe it’s time I switch to a shorter book.)

Somewhere along the line I had lost my passion for literature. Limiting my choices actually made me fall back in love with books again.

What I read

I read thirty-five books in total—not exactly the OED, but a definite improvement over two. (Interestingly, my shortest book and my longest book were both by the same author. Thanks, data nerds at Goodreads!) Ten of those books were by women of colour (28%), seven were by LBGTQ-identified women (20%), and eight were predominantly set in non-“Western” countries (23%). Compared to a quick scan of my bookshelves, this is reasonably more diverse than I’d usually end up with. Without really trying, my choices started being a lot more intersectional* and diverse, just by virtue of limiting gender.

*Footnote: Apparently my browser doesn’t think “intersectional” in a valid word. Clearly The Patriarchy is in charge of dictionaries, too.

What I loved

I used to always read Russian literature during the winter—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov. My theory was that they were always colder, drunker, and more depressed than I was. (Not always true, but often true.) Before this year, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single female Russian author. Turns out they’re amazing: The Dream Life of Sukhanov was a lyrical delight and The Slynx was a viciously inventive distortion on typical dystopian narratives.

Perseopolis (I can’t believe I’d never read this) kick-started a fascination with Iran, leading to The Cypress Tree. I finally read Anaïs Nin. (And, unlike with Henry Miller, I actually managed to get through her totally-a-reasonable-length book. Thanks for your brevity, girlfriend!) I fell in love with the incomparable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun made me cry like a baby and finally call my temporarily-somewhat-estranged little sister while I was in Bali.) I read a lot of good plane books (YA dystopian fiction!) and (mostly) don’t feel guilty about it. I rediscovered my long-lost love for Margaret Atwood, who is always best when she’s dropping the convoluted plots and focussing on world-building instead.

What’s next

Toward the end of the year, I realised it would only be right to make 2017 my year of only reading people-of-colour. That’s a bit harder to define than “women”, depending on how you want to look at it, but I’m going to use my best common sense and follow how people self-identify. Given that I’m a white woman, I expect this to be a lot more eye-opening and perspective-shifting for me. I’m giving myself an opt-out for work-related books, mostly because there’s an SVG book I avoided all last year that I’d like to finally read, but everything else: no white perspectives.

Books by non-white authors.
All my books by people of colour didn’t fit on this shelf, which I think is a better sign. And yes, I have bookends shaped like a hippo and I absolutely love them. I also own a squirrel doorstop and a hat with ears. I swear I’m a grown-up.

So far, it’s been pretty great: the first six books I finished this year were all written by women (so it looks like that may stick) and I’ve found some books I’m really excited about. I’ve been discovering a lot of books by Korean authors and Nigerian authors in anticipation of visiting both those places later in the year. (I ended up having to cancel my Korea trip, but my fondness for strange Korean literature cannot be cancelled.)

Every time I finish a book, I add another three to my wish-list. The Amazon man is usually bringing me books instead of socks. (Remember when Amazon was for books?) And I feel like I’m learning more about the world without even leaving my house.

Maybe next year, I’ll finally read a book by an old white guy again. But I don’t think I’ll ever read as many as I used to, and I’m happy my world has become a little bigger.

Brexit

Sunset over the British Empire

Last week, I discovered a sense of patriotism.

I have never had a strong sense of nationalistic identity. I’m not emotionally invested in the outcomes of sports games, the only flag I own is from the USSR, and I don’t fully understand why people tear up at national anthems. The strongest inkling of national pride I have ever felt was when I watched that episode of Doctor Who with Winston Churchill. (In hindsight, that may have been extremely patriotic of me. It could only really be more quintessentially British if everyone were drinking tea and moaning about the weather.)

I was born in England. My first memories are of the UK. We moved to the Netherlands after my little sister was born; I spoke Dutch at school, and English at home. A few years later, we moved to Canada. In a misguided attempt to fit in, I developed a mental chart of English-to-English “translations” and picked up an accent that more closely resembled that of the American south than Canada. Some years later, I watched my dad’s citizenship ceremony and thought the whole thing was a bit strange.

I remember, at nine years old, being incredibly uncomfortable when teachers forced me to sing the national anthem. There’s a line about “our home and native land” that always bothered me. Canada wasn’t my “native” land, and it frustrated to me to identify with something that negated a part of my identity and experience. I didn’t understand why living within an arbitrarily drawn border meant I was suddenly something different.

I was a pretty weird kid.

This probably contributed more to my feelings of outsiderishness than my mangled accent or my ever-so-slightly different cultural background. I was awkward and read too much and was always being pulled out of class for special enrichment classes—all of which would generally be more than enough to make me an easy target for taunts. I think I would have felt like an outsider regardless.

But I also remember being made fun of for having a funny accent and for being English. Refrains of “tea and crumpets!” or a rendition of “Pinky and the Brain” were the most common selections. It wasn’t terribly insulting, but it was successful in making me feel like I didn’t fit in, which may have been the point. I’ve never really felt Canada was my home in the same way that Britain was—even though I’ve spent more of my life in Canada.

Last week, my country collectively voted to leave the European Union. I was in Vienna for WordCamp Europe and had indulged in one or extra two ciders the evening prior, nervously anticipating the referendum result. I woke up at 7am to a hangover that scored somewhere between “substantial” and “incapacitating”, and immediately Googled “referendum”. My heart sank. My home was ripping apart.

Most of the resulting chaos wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t even 6am in the UK yet, but the pound had already hit a thirty-year low and the prime minister had resigned. In the following days, I checked the news compulsively, as things unravelled. The markets tanked. The Labour party more or less dissolved. Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Scotland started eyeing up prospects for leaving the UK, or at least remaining a part of the EU. Protests were occurring everywhere, from both sides of the argument. Scores of Leave voters immediately regretted their decision, calling it a “protest vote” or maintaining they didn’t know what they were doing. And worst of all, racist and xenophobic harassment and abuse in the UK spiked dramatically.

As a country composed of other countries and various post-imperialistic remnant states, the United Kingdom is a complicated concept to grasp, both politically and culturally. And while I’m pretty supportive of Scottish independence right now, the thought of the UK tearing apart breaks my heart.

That’s an awfully emotional feeling about a political entity.

But the trouble is that people vote emotionally, particularly in a referendum. People voted Leave primarily out of a conviction that the EU was holding Britain back, or out of a fear of “people who don’t look like me.” A shocking number of people voted for an outcome they neither expected nor wanted.

While I’d be happy if a Scottish independence referendum were called tomorrow, that’s largely based on emotional, rather than rational, reasons. I’m not certain enough about Scotland’s economy—or about how negotiations between a post-Brexit UK and the EU, or between Scotland and the EU will shake out—to say that it’s in Scotland’s best interests to gain independence. But I feel betrayed by England, and I feel like Nicola Sturgeon has been the sanest voice in this whole mess, and I literally just bought a flat in Edinburgh three days before we collectively voted to tank the economy.

I don’t think I’m qualified to make the decision regarding Scottish independence, and I’m certain that the vast majority of voters aren’t, either. Isn’t this what we elect politicians to do—understand the nuances of economies and political relations, and negotiate those relationships in our best interests? Of course they often mess this up, but the people aren’t doing a better job, are they?

As it turns out, nobody bothered to think about this, or ask these questions, until we’d actually made a decision. The sheer irresponsibility there is unquestionable. The prime minister who called the election, the morons who campaigned to Leave and made empty promises without any backing, and the treasurer in charge of ensuring our economy doesn’t tank, have all pointed fingers at one another in the days following the vote, each maintaining that it wasn’t their responsibility to think up a plan for what “Brexit” would actually mean. Incorrect. They were all responsible for figuring out a plan. We needed as many plans as possible, and the people that we elect to take care of these things for us should have at least given it a passing thought before just handing an uninformed populace the ability to vote for their own uncertain future.

But the voters also should have asked these questions. Not by Googling “what is the EU” after the polls closed. Not by voting for a massive political turnover without bothering to ask what that would actually mean and entail, in a desperate attempt to express dissatisfaction with the established powers.

Michael Gove said “Britain is tired of experts” in response to the dizzying array of third-party analysts who warned that a Brexit would invariably lead to a recession, and it turns out he was right. The people are wilfully ignoring both their elected leaders, who begged them not to choose the nuclear option, and the experts who warned them it would be a catastrophic choice. The response is either an embracing and turning toward hatred and xenophobia or a profound feeling of regret.

The future is pure conjecture at this stage. There are a huge number of variables, and it’s unlikely we’ll know the outcome for years to come. But one thing is almost certain: everyone loses. The economy likely will be in shambles for years. Ironically, the people most likely to have voted Leave are also the most likely to be hardest hit by the incoming recession. Remain voters lose out on the rights and freedoms afforded by the EU, like the right to bum around Europe for as long as you feel like and the right not to be totally screwed over by big corporations. It’s likely we’ll choose to stay within the EEA as an EFTA member, either via a Norway-style arrangement or a Switzerland-style arrangement, either of which means we’ll need to contribute to the EU budget, and accept the free movement of people—both of which were huge contentious issues for the Leave campaign. We’ll need to be bound to EU laws without being able to influence or shape them any more. So basically, we’ll be in the same position we were before, except we’ll have a weakened economy from an extended period of speculation and market volatility, we’ll have wasted a huge amount of time and resources trying to get everything sorted out.

I travel a lot. I have been to over fifty different countries. I can’t remember the last time I spent a month straight in the same place. The concept of a “country” doesn’t always mean a great deal. Sometimes there’s a huge cultural variation within a country, and sometimes three different countries can be more homogeneous than three different areas within the same country. I consider “country” to be shorthand for “a place with some sense of cultural identity that makes it different from another place”, but it doesn’t really mean all that much in the long run. People are more or less the same everywhere. It’s just that the wrapping is different.

In spite of that, over the last few years there’s been rising nationalistic movements all over the place, particularly within Europe. The obvious comparison feels cheap. The irony, of course, is that the EU came about more or less to prevent this kind of nonsense—to bind the constituent countries of Europe closer together, so we wouldn’t spend all our time and resources actively trying to murder one another over religious differences or border disputes. Economic recessions always prompt people to look for a scapegoat, and it’s easiest to blame the people with whom we identify the least. Because that worked out just fine for Europe the last time.

And so the UK democratically elects to leave the EU and suddenly there’s a huge rash of hate crimes, directed at everyone: from Muslims and Indians to Poles and Italians. It doesn’t even make any sense—these assaults are directed at anyone who looks slightly different or who speaks slightly differently, regardless of whether they’re EU citizens or born-and-bred in the UK. And we’ve already established (sort of) that we won’t be doing any mass deportations, right? Trading all the EU citizens who contribute taxes to our economy for the pensioners living in Spain would be a travesty on several levels. So all the taunts of “go home!” and the graffiti and the leaflets and all the terrible things people are doing—it’s all just baseless hatred, rooted in unchecked emotion and unfounded racism.

This is what breaks my heart the most.

While the prospect of the UK breaking apart and the EU dissolving is saddening, watching people violently attack one another in a place I call home is utterly and indescribably heartbreaking. The wide-ranging array of immigrants and the resulting cultural diversity within Britain is one of the things that makes it Great. It’s one of the things that makes me love it in spite of all its many faults. For fuck’s sake, we have “The British Curry Awards”. The unexpected side effect of hundreds of years of imperialism and destroying other people’s countries is that you absorb bits of pieces of those cultures. And so in Britain we have curry and halloumi and pierogies and jerk chicken and duck pancakes and gnocchi and thank heavens we do, because otherwise we’d all be eating mushy peas and boiled potatoes.

Farage declared the referendum a victory for “decent people”. While not inherently racist, this is unquestionably code for “white British people”, or whoever the fuck these lunatics think counts as “real British people”. From a national standpoint, I am British, first and foremost. But I wouldn’t for a second say that makes anyone else any less British, and I don’t dare presume that anyone is any less British than me because they look different. (Actually, generally I assume they’re more British than I am.)

National identity isn’t about where you were born, or where you live, or what colour your skin is, or even what it says on your passport. It’s a fluid concept that can change over time. It’s based on arbitrary borders that may not remain consistent throughout a lifetime. And like any other aspect of personal identity, it’s yours to choose. It’s nobody’s place to police whether or not you’re “British enough”.

Farage called this Britain’s “independence day”. Many have pointed out how incredibly offensive this is, given that most other countries in the world celebrate “independence day” as an independence from British colonialist powers. The irony there is pretty palpable.

And so there’s a little part of me that thinks maybe this is for the best. Britain has felt increasingly like a country at odds with itself, both politically and culturally, for a long time. The referendum result is a clear indication of that split, and of how the desires of one political entity can drive the choices of the entire union.

Maybe the country that I love, and loathe, and have extremely complicated feelings about but have always, always, felt like it’s my home and a part of who I am—maybe that country is dead. Maybe the United Kingdom is too broken to fix. You know how sometimes you’re in a relationship and you have this really sad realisation that it’s just not working, or you have a terrible fight and say awful things and nothing will ever be the same again? That’s how I feel about the UK right now. We broke it and we can’t fix it.

Maybe it’s better if we all went our separate ways and try to stay friends.

Our belongings, finally 'home'

Life redux

Six years ago, I bought a one-way plane ticket to London. I sold all my things, applied for a passport, and said my good-byes.

Then the airline went bankrupt.

I took it as a sign from the universe and stayed in Canada. In hindsight, I’m happy I did. My business grew. I made new friends. My empty passport inspired me to start travelling all over the world. I learned to appreciate Canada’s unique values (friendly people, good wifi, poutine) while recognising its failures (winter, a strange infatuation for Tim Horton’s, winter). I moved from Lunenburg, to Halifax, to Montreal. I developed stronger ties to the family I like, and I broke ties that were toxic. I even broke a few hearts, including my own. I grew up a little bit. Somewhere along the line, I almost turned into an adult.

By the time I was ready to try again, I had a partner-in-crime to keep me company and a bank balance greater than $2.48, two things that I would have sorely missed all those years ago. I loved my life, but it felt like time for a change.

Change No. 1: A new house

And so, one cold day in February, I packed up all my things and moved to Bristol, England—a town only twenty minutes from where I was born.

The thing nobody ever told me about moving countries is that apparently it’s a pretty big deal. Do you have any idea how hard it is to do normal human stuff like open a bank account when you haven’t lived in the country since you were four?

Our belongings, finally 'home'

We sold everything that plugged into the wall, and almost everything that was furniture. This is what was left.

We didn’t have a flat until May (we cheated and lived in Athens, where it’s cheaper and sunnier, for a while) and the cargo ship that contained all of our worldly belongings (a monk’s bench on its second voyage across the ocean, forty-six boxes, and a thirty-nine year old motorcycle) didn’t arrive until June. Up until last week, our mattress was sitting on a large cardboard box on the floor.

Now, months later, I have a bed and a National Insurance number and I’m starting to feel almost as though I have a life established again. But I’m still saddled with a credit record that affords me a credit card at 35.9% APR, and I still feel like a foreigner in my own home. The road to normalcy is long, slow, and full of potholes.

Change No. 2: A new job

In the middle of my move, Automattic offered me a job, and I accepted.

This change was a long time in the making. I’d been looking, on and off, for nearly a year, trying to find a job that fit my (rather exacting) standards. My business, as much as I loved it, had stagnated. I didn’t care enough to invest the time and energy to help it grow. I was pretty sure that growing it would require me to do less of what I love (making stuff) and more of stuff I’d rather gouge out my eyes than do (network, answer RFPs, dress in business casual).

And so I quietly launched a hire-me! website that took me nearly a month to build, and started looking around my a job that’d light my fire. I had a pretty clear concept of what I wanted: something that let me combine design with development, that paid me fairly and allowed me to travel, that didn’t require me to keep “office hours”, and that allowed me to work with smart, interesting people who’d challenge me to learn more.

Automattic ticked all the boxes. Culture-wise, it’s the perfect match for my sometimes flighty work habits: autonomy, rather than constant supervision, is underscored. They put me through a trial-by-fire that, combined with my move and my ongoing client work, meant I had very little sleep for a few months, and eventually offered me a full-time position.

Libretto WordPress theme

My second theme for WordPress.com, Libretto

What does this mean for Triggers & Sparks? Well, for the time being, it is no longer. This website will remain, in some form or another. I’ve only recently gotten around to rebuilding the theme so it’s less business-focused, more story-focused. It’s a work in a progress, and I’m still figuring it out. My goal is: more stories, more travel, more ramblings about design and life.

Oh, and the tattoo on my shoulder? Yeah, that’s still my most beloved tattoo. I ran a business for nearly ten years. I’m super crazy proud of that, and I’m happy to have a permanent reminder in my skin.

The Aftermath

I’d love to say I handled all this change with grace and ease, but that’s an outright lie. Fundamental parts of my life changed all at once, and I didn’t handle it well. Individually, I think I would have been able to handle the change.

But when everything changed all at once, it threw me for a loop. I was already exhausted from my trial and emotionally drained from personal issues. Trying to stay on top of all the minutia of re-starting my life in a new country, while learning the ropes at a new job, took a toll.

I stopped exercising, something I usually do every day. I stress-ate. A lot. (Translation: I ate chocolate like it was going out of style.) Unable to prioritise my health, something I’d worked hard to make time for, it deteriorated. I gained around twenty pounds, enough to tip me into the “overweight” band of a BMI scale. (Thanks, overly muscular frame.)

The move damaged my relationships, some irreparably. While it breaks my heart to lose people I care about, I know that these are relationships that were on their way out anyway. Leaving, whether temporary or permanent, strains a bond: either it snaps, or it builds up extra layers. Every time I move I end up with fewer, better, friends. I’ll probably never have a huge party, but I know some fantastic people who love me fiercely.

And the recovery

Slowly, as I begin to feel more normalised, I’m re-establishing my priorities. I exercise almost every day, and I’m fitting into my jeans again. I’ve revamped this website and I’m aiming to start writing in it a bit more. I have plans to get back into hand-lettering, and to reboot Suitor, but I’m adding things to my life one by one, as I think I can juggle them.

Rather than focus on what I’ve lost, I’m focusing on what I’ve gained. Recently, I met up with one of my all-time top-rated humans on the planet in Barcelona, and we spent a few days drinking mojitos before noon and hanging out on the beach. Simple, non-flashy, and I didn’t even add a new country to my list, but it was the most exhilarating trip I’ve had in some time. Every night, I’d wandered back to my hostel, tired but with a giant smile on my face.

Changing my life was a violent, tumultuous process. But I broke through to the other side, and I’m happy here.

I love whiskey! And also, sometimes other people. But mostly just whiskey.

What I did on my summer vacation

This summer, I did something absolutely unheard of: I took a holiday.

Anyone who’s ever met me will attest to the sheer implausibility of this ever occurring. I’ve been accused of being a workaholic on more than one occasion, and I struggle constantly to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But at a certain point, I realized I was burnt out. I was stressful and panicky, I was overworked, and I couldn’t deal with minor problems well anymore.

So I took time off. I took (almost) the entirety of August off. I hadn’t had an actual holiday since 2010, when I went to the Amazon. And that was mostly a holiday because I didn’t have hot showers or power, let alone wifi. And it was Christmas. Maybe it was time to try it again.

Luckily, my clients are fantastic and understanding. I had a holiday. A classic type-A personality, I couldn’t just laze around on the beach all day. Here’s what I got up to.

1. I went to Brazil and read a lot of Wikipedia.

It seemed fitting that I go to Brazil again. (Maybe in four years’ time, that’s where I’ll be for my next holiday!)

I skipped the Amazon this time and went to Recife instead. I was really hoping for all the fantastic food and lively culture that I’d experienced in Brazilian bars in New York and Lisbon. Instead, it rained for days. The city was difficult to navigate by foot, and the beach was infested with sharks. I stayed inside and read a lot of Wikipedia.

Honestly, it was rather lovely.

2. I learned to play tennis.

Fresh air and sunshine, exercise, an excuse to wear adorable outfits–how on earth didn’t I pick up tennis before this?

3. I took up hand-lettering.

I spend 90% of my day staring into a light source, swearing at Photoshop. It makes me incredibly happy to get away from the machine and make something with my hands. Ink has always been my medium of choice, and lettering allows me to combine my love of type and calligraphy with my love of time-consuming, detail-oriented work.

I love whiskey. And sometimes, other people. But mostly whiskey.
This may or may not have served as the invitation for a far more formal event than the skulls would belie.

I’m aiming to start integrating hand-lettering into my work more as I improve. I taught myself a Uncial script for a client and hand-lettered the header on her site, which was probably a cost-ineffective exercise, but since I wasn’t running my timer, I’ll never know. (Note: it wasn’t. But it was a lot of fun to do, and the result looked lovely.)

4. I drank wine at lunch.

I’ve decided this is a habit I should make a part of my daily routine.

5. I built an app.

Everyone I know is looking for work, and I realized there wasn’t really a good way for people to track their job application process that wasn’t an Excel spreadsheet. So I made one. I call it Suitor. (Because you wear a suit to a job, right? Do people still wear suits to jobs? I’ve been working in my pajamas for so long I don’t remember what offices are like anymore.)

Suitor screenshots

It’s like an Excel spreadsheet, except smarter and prettier. So, like an Excel spreadsheet in the same way a Mercedes is like a Kia.

Suitor was intended to be a simple project, a quick one-off project so that I could re-learn Rails, get some UI experience, and build something useful in the interim. It’s turned into a much more complex beast than that. I’ve improved my git workflow, I’ve become passionate about UI, I can now write jQuery without having to constantly consult the API docs, I’ve set up a server, implemented a deployment system, and configured mail records, I’ve integrated Mandrill for transactional email, I’ve tested until I’m blue in the face–this project has taught me a thousand new things. It’s a labour of love, and I’m not sure what (if anything) will come of it, but it’s taught me a lot.

And I’m currently offering up some limited invites to the beta: sign up for an invite here.

6. I learned the world doesn’t fall apart without me.

Sometimes my ego wishes it would, but it doesn’t. Taking time off allowed me to learn new–mostly complementary–skills that I might not have had the time to incorporate otherwise. It allowed me the space to step back from my work. And, most importantly, it allowed me the opportunity to get excited about my work again.

I’m going to do it again next year.

Down with shared hosting!

Shared hosting sucks. For nearly ten years, I hosted my own sites, and some of my clients’, with a popular and well-known provider of shared hosting (who shall remain nameless). Even with all the speed bottlenecks, sludgy response times, restricted access, and security holes, shared hosting was cheap and easy. And until last year, I had no problems.

Then everything fell apart.

Completely out of the blue, all my sites slowed to an absolute crawl. Most of the time they wouldn’t load at all, but when they did, it took several minutes. I had clients emailing me, rightfully angry and worried, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. My hosting company’s customer service dropped the ball, telling me that it was a server problem and they were looking into it, but with no estimation of when the issue would be solved. I didn’t have enough control to do anything to fix what ended up being a server configuration problem.

This went on for days.

And it wasn’t the first time. I’d had sites that were hacked. I’d had days where my sites weren’t working, for reasons beyond my control. I spent a lot of time talking to customer support and getting frustrated. This wasn’t the only time I’d had a bad experience with shared hosting, but it was the one that made me realize it was time to do something different.

By the time the whole experience was finally over, my sites had been completely inaccessible for over a week. I needed a month-long vacation somewhere very warm (with very plentiful mojitos) to recover from all the stress I’d been under, and my clients weren’t happy.

So I decided to do something about it. I moved my own site to a private VPS and, with the help of my programmer boyfriend, started learning to take care of it myself. It was certainly a steep learning curve. Server administration isn’t a skill designers often possess, and it’s a lot trickier than I would have expected.

But after a few months of tweaking and configuring and sleeping next to my phone (set to go crazy if the server went down for even one second) I finally figured it out. Now the server is rock-solid: it’s fast, it’s stable, it’s secure. I’ve been hosting this site and a few clients on it, and for the past six months it hasn’t had a single issue.

Wordpress, with love

A motorcycle I named Katy

How I fell off the face of the earth for six months (while proceeding to criss-cross it)

My intentions have been good, I swear. I’ve started writing this blog post quite a few times. I’ve definitely thought about it a great many times. I’ve sworn, an immeasurable number of times, that no, really, this week, this week is going to be the week I’m just going to sit down and write the damned thing. And every time, something else comes up that becomes more important, and it ceases to be a Priority.

So in the interests of getting something written, and getting back into the habit of actually writing here on a regular basis, I’m just going to write about the last six months. No deeper meaning or message. Just a “here’s what I’ve been doing for all that time where it looks as though I may have fallen off the face of the planet.”

1. I lost more things, and had more disasters, in more foreign countries.

While I was still living in Barcelona, I ended up living above a rather curmudgeonly gentleman who took an immediate disliking to me. He proceeded to call the police on me, cut my power so as to leave me without electricity for three days, and scream obscenities at me in Spanish whenever there was noise in my apartment after 8pm. My “hosts” there sided with him, in spite of an absolute lack of empirical evidence, and nearly booted me from the place. (While it worked out in the end, it was an extremely stressful situation that often lead to my nearly living out of the fantastic co-working space there.)

I took off from Barcelona and started living out of a backpack again soon after that. I travelled down into the south, which I loved, and then spent a day hiking all the way across (and then up) Gibraltar, a country so tiny you can actually do that. (And in order to get there, you have to wait for the airplanes to land, then walk across a live runway.) I left my iPhone in a bus station in Spain en route to the ferry in Morocco, which meant I was suddenly forced to reckon paper maps pilfered from bus stations and information counters again, which I’d rather forgotten how to do. My power cord decided to fray and die on my last day in Marrakesh, which just happened to be the day it was a sweltering 48°. (I ended up sitting on the rooftop of my riad with tortoises crawling over my feet, reading German fashion magazines in a desperate attempt to stave off the conviction that I was slowly being roasted alive.)

And then, once I made it to Lisbon, things got crazier. I stayed in a gorgeous little house within the castle walls, near a hookah bar that was open for ages and made lovely cocktails. Lisbon was fun and exciting and gorgeous, and one of my favourite cities ever, I’m quite convinced.

And then I came “home” to discover that my house had been broken into. They stole anything that might possibly have any value: my laptop, my broken power cord, my hard drive (with all my backups on it), my hairdryer, my travel adapters, my tiny speaker, and a five pound note that could only be spent in Gibraltar.

On the plus side, now I own a new laptop with a Portuguese keyboard that confuses the hell out of everyone but me, and my bag was much lighter by the time I got back to Canada.

Katy the motorcycle

I named her Katy because I woke up one morning and had ‘I caught the Katy’ stuck in my head. Her key is tied with a big red ribbon that flies around while I ride her, and it’s basically the girliest thing I could have done to a sportbike beyond putting streamers on her handlebars.

2. I bought a motorbike named Katy.

I think my original plan was to head from Spain, stop in London briefly, spend a week in Iceland, then head back to Halifax. Somewhere in Spain, these plans all changed. (I’ve noticed lately that I judge time not by duration or season like normal humans, but by country of residence, then work it out from there.) Instead, I ended up crisscrossing up and down Portugal a bit, then flying out to the Azores—tiny little islands in the middle of the Atlantic that I wasn’t even aware existed—for a day before flying back to Montreal instead.

Technically, I now “live” in Montreal, inasmuch as I live anywhere. I’ll eventually have an apartment here, but for the moment, I’m still wandering a bit, and using Montreal as something of a base.

A number of people have pointed out that it’s a little strange that, within a couple of weeks of returning to Canada, I had managed to procure a motorbike, but had no particular intention of finding an apartment. I think this is utter nonsense. If push comes to shove, I don’t really own that many things. I can sleep in my motorbike like other people sleep in their cars.

At any rate, I came back for the summer. I learned to do crazy things, like ride a 125cc motorcycle on Montreal’s ridiculous highways. I got in the habit of singing/screaming at top volume, inside my helmet, when I thought the wind blast or insane traffic was going to send me careening off the road to my death. I went for long bike rides through Laval with my dad. I learned to ride at night, in the rain, with a passenger, and all combinations thereof. I learned a lot (although I still have a great deal to learn) and I learned a lot about myself in overcoming my own fears and self-doubts, and, even though I didn’t go anywhere further than Ottawa for three solid months, I actually had a rather delightful summer.

3. I went back to Europe again.

I lived a thirty-minute train ride from London for two months, and came to grips with the fact that, in spite of considering myself equal parts Brit and Canadian, England feels no more like home than Canada does. I did a whirlwind tour of eastern Europe, exploring various post-Communist bloc countries via long overnight sleeper trains. I returned to the hot baths of Budapest, much more intense at night in the winter, when the air is seven degrees and the water is absolutely mired by a layer of steam. I bribed the conductor of the Russian train for a sleeper car, using only hand gestures and my two-word command of Russian. I wandered through Transylvanian towns, thinking of vampires and gypsies. I was surprised by the elegance and charm of Bulgaria. I explored Belgrade’s strange bars and drank far, far too much rakkia for my own good. I learned bits of strange languages and fell in love, all over again, with the Balkans. I lived in a place that spoke English again, for the first time in an entire year, and discovered that it’s not really all that different.

Dia de los Muertos

Oh, and I did this for Hallowe’en: painted faces with black eyeliner and lipstick, and then went to a fantastic Rodrigo y Gabriela/Día de los Muertos show held by the Mexican embassy in the abandoned Tube Old Vic tunnels underneath the Thames.

4. I saw snow for the first time in three years.

And wow, did I ever see a lot of it. I came back to Montreal for the holidays, and had my first “family” Christmas in years. (Admittedly, it primarily consisted of my sister and I drinking a lot of champagne and then preparing a massive quantity of tapas, but it’s still the closest I’ve come to normality in ages.)

I was really, really, really excited to see snow. The first night I was back, I wandered around in the snow, absolutely fascinated by the strange quiet it induces in a place.

Nearly a month later, and I’m less entranced. I remember why I’ve been avoiding winters for so long. Canada may have many things going for it, but it is a cold, cold country. I forgot how cold -20° feels. It’s cold.

But I’ve been spending time with people I love, which I’ve missed. And recently, I’ve been struck by the desire to “slightly redesign” my own website, which of course has turned into the sort of project I’d charge three figures for, because I’m an obsessive nutjob and I can’t stop with just one tiny little tweak. But I’m learning a lot of new things, and I’m refining my processes. I have all sorts of ideas for where I want to take my business, and this new site is just the tip of the snowy, snowy iceberg.

Snow!

Montreal in the winter. It proceeded to snow about four feet and destroy my plans of going to New York for New Years’, which I only just now realized would have a beautiful sort of alliterative-feel to it, and now I’m a bit sadder I didn’t make it after all.

Originally, I’d planned on writing a long post talking about my big nine-month cross-world tour. I had big plans: I was going to make this great big infographic with all kind of numbers and charts and pictures. In my head, it’s the most brilliant thing anyone’s ever written and/or designed.

Ultimately, I failed at putting it all together, I think in part because I’d built up so much expectation in my head, that I wasn’t able to translate it on paper. I was trying the sum up this trip as one single entity, when the thing is—I don’t think I ever stopped. I still haven’t stayed in one place longer than a few months, and I’m still constantly wandering about, exploring new places. Hell, Montreal is, in many respects, more foreign to me than London is.

In 2011, I spent five months in Canada, and went to seven countries in two continents. In 2012, I spent three and a half months in Canada, and visited twenty-two countries in four continents. I haven’t even returned to the city I originally left, some fifteen months ago, except for a brief stopover in the airport (where I was met with beers and tackle-hugs from my best friend.) Travel isn’t a passing infatuation or a temporary state of being for me. It’s who I am, and it’s a part of my life I don’t think I’m able to deny anymore. I’ve worked really hard so that I’ve been able to do this—to travel consistently, to make up my own rules, and to change my location without losing out. And, somewhere along the line, it started working. This is just what I do.

Maybe this means I can actually start writing about design again.

A door is not a door

Breaking rules and busting heads

In the past twelve hours, I’ve booked two flight itineraries for six different flights to be taken in the next three weeks. In December and January, I’ll have visited around eleven different cities (possibly more), in five different countries, on two different continents. In February, I’ll be adding even more countries and cities to my list. By the time I return to Canada in the summer, I’ll have lived in seven different countries in four continents.

I am, without question, a vagabond.

Booking a flight can make my heart race. The feeling of landing in a strange city, lost and confused, gives me great pleasure. I actually get a huge rush of endorphins, like a high, at the exact moment that I feel an airplane leave the ground. I am happiest, and most sure of myself, walking through a foreign place and watching everything around me. If I stay in one place for longer than a few weeks, I begin to get intense wanderlust.

It struck me the other day that what I’m doing is not exactly normal. Most people don’t take off from their homes for long stretches of time, and those who do most often travel in a way that’s markedly different from mine. When I meet new people, I often get thrown by their questions: yes, I’m travelling, sort of. But I’m still working. And I live in the countries I travel to. No, I probably haven’t seen that famous monument, and I quite likely don’t care much to, either.

A door is not a door

This is actually the only photograph I have taken in San Francisco, and it’s technically in Mountain View. Still, I find it more interesting than a snapshot of a monument that’s already been photographed a million times over, by people exponentially more skilled than I (and likely wielding better cameras than the one in their phone).

I went to San Francisco last week, but I didn’t see Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge. I went to México City prior to that, but didn’t bother with the pyramids. While I recognize that some things are tourist traps with good reason, the more I travel, the less interest I have in these things. Part of this is because they’re often crawling with tourists, especially in Europe, but another part of it is that visiting often feels empty. Sure, they’re beautiful or breathtaking or interesting, but I’ve invariably seen them already in movies and photographs. The crowd of tourists mindlessly snapping photographs of these much-photographed monuments, as though checking off items from a scavenger hunt, only exacerbates this emptiness.

I don’t want to see the world through a lens. I want to taste, smell, and feel it as well. That’s why I’m travelling instead of watching a documentary or zooming through Google Street View. I want to experience and interact with the world around me.

The true journey, as the interjection of an “outside” different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country–its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot)–making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.

The incomparable Italo Calvino, “Under the Jaguar Sun”
(About travels in Mexico! Must find prior to leaving.)

I’ve always been prone to making up my own rules. While I technically wrote something of a business plan (in about two hours, at four in the morning, off the top of my head), I didn’t do most of the things you’re supposed to do when running a business. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I ever made it work, and how it continues to work for me. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t really do much of anything in the traditional way—my work, my education, my relationships, my pastimes, and my travels are all plotted out according to a set of rules that exists solely in my own head.

Puente en Ensenada

Seriously, I live here. This is not always what comes to mind when people think “Mexico”. I like it for its dirty parts as much as for its pretty parts.

Somehow, though, it all works. I become more and more delighted with my life as I veer further and further from the orthodox.

I’ve noticed that sometimes people don’t understand this. I received a birthday card one year that said “Don’t worry, you’ll find your place and settle down eventually,” and it took me a while to stop being offended by the implication that I’m unhappy because I haven’t roped down a man, staked out my plot in the woods, and started producing children yet. While I know that many people are happy with this sort of prescribed life, I know I’m not one of them (or at least, I’m not yet, but I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be). It frustrates me that sometimes that means people will see me as a failure, because I’m choosing to do things in such an unusual manner. I absolutely love my life, and not everyone who “has it all” would say that. Some of the coolest, best-adjusted people I know are weirdos like me.

So buck with tradition. Drop out of school, live out of your car, take six different wives. Don’t break the rules solely for the sake of breaking them, but don’t allow them to fence you into a life you didn’t choose. The world is full of people who are stuck by circumstance, but as a citizen of an affluent country, you have such a myriad of options open to you. Don’t follow the status quo just because it’s what we’re trained to do.

I want a world full of free-spirits and vagabonds.

Teeth

From a dentist’s window in Ensenada. I’m not sure if this is considered an unorthodox marketing tactic in Mexico or not, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll choose to believe that it is.

Gas-nap

How a motorcycle made me a better businessperson

Last weekend was my birthday. (I won’t tell you how old I turned, but I am now officially starting to feel old. If you’re really interested, I’m sure a quick Google search will turn up something that’s not yet a lie.) As a present, my boyfriend took me on what can best be described as a “whirlwind trip”: we rode his motorcycle 3000 kilometers to New York City, and back, in four days.

It wasn’t until we’d hit Bangor, Maine on the second day that I realized just how insane of an idea that was.

For starters, when I say “motorcycle”, I don’t mean a cushy touring bike with backrests, stereo speakers, massive windshields, luggage racks, and padded seats. This was a beast of a superbike, with a tiny little triangular seat on the back that looks like a miniature rocket. I jammed all of our vital belongings–two computers, several pairs of shoes (Excessive maybe, but it can’t come as a surprise), my flat-iron, three books, clothing–into my giant orange backpack and strapped it to my back. The effect was as though I’d gained a 30lb hunchback, and my balance was thrown so out of whack that climbing up on the bike was roughly akin to mounting a nine-foot tall horse with a broken leg. After an hour, my bum ached like I’d never felt before, and my feet would keep going numb. By the end of the trip, I had friction burns on my thighs and back pain that lasted for days—along with a giant smile on my face.

It was most assuredly one of the most insane, intense, incredible things I’d ever done.

Motorcycle!

Yep. This thing. I may as well have ridden a rocketship. It was also hot as hell, so every time we stopped I’d strip off the moment I clambered down and fling my things all over the place, as evidenced here.

Things I think I can’t do

When the constant pain wasn’t distracting me, I was busy being terrified. Three deer standing at the edge of the road waiting to jump out and kill me. Taking turns at 100 and leaning 45 degrees with the bike. Flying into my driver during an emergency stop coming into the city. Foggy night riding while a thunderstorm lit up the sky around us. Lane-splitting between trucks. Construction coming out of nowhere. Other cars cutting and swerving in. I’m a nervous passenger. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was say, “Listen. I cannot do this anymore. Drop me off at the nearest exit, and I will hitchhike my way home. Thanks for the ride!” By day four, when we needed to make good time, and the riding was getting intense, and the wind blast was so crazy I was convinced I was going to be pushed off that tiny little seat, I was verging on downright miserable. The only thing that got me through was sheer determination.

That determination—less charitable people would call it “bull-headedness”—has gotten me through so much. Earlier this summer, I went to Cape Breton with a friend. We found this charming place where you walk through the woods, clamber down a cliff using a system of ropes, cross through a rumbly river, and swim in ice-cold saltwater through a cavern until you reach this lagoon amid the rocks. Above it, there’s a cave in the side of the cliff, and more ropes. The boys who had gone the day prior told us we’d need lots of upper-body strength to pull ourselves up. One of them had even needed to be pushed up.

Of course, I figured I wouldn’t be able to make it. Possessing an extra x chromosome already predisposes me to be rather lacking in the upper-body department, and my twice-broken wrists of last year put me at something of a disadvantage. I remember perching atop one of the rocks, about to jump into the icy lagoon, looking up at the cave in the cliff and being convinced I’d never make it.

Then I gritted my teeth, pulled everything in my body together, and I made it! I’m certain it was that stubbornness, not any hidden reserves of strength, that fuelled my success. I’m also pretty sure that’s how I’ve structured the entirety of my life.

Things that scare me

Breaking both my wrists last year made me pretty skittish about my vulnerability. Being in a couple of car crashes in quick succession when I was eighteen made me an extremely nervous passenger. As a general rule, I very much dislike things that are beyond my control.

Obviously, riding pillion on a motorcycle is sort of a double-whammy for me. But I’m quite certain that forcing yourself to face things you fear makes you a stronger person. As a result, anytime I think “Oh, gracious. That sounds scary.” or “That sounds hard. I wonder if I’m capable of doing it?”, I take it as a sign that I must do it. Learning to ride a motorcycle (I have a license now!)? Moving to South America for five months? Going ziplining? Life modelling? Bring it on.

And of course, running a business is one of these things. I’m amazed that I’ve been doing this for so long and I’m still terrified of it and convinced I can’t do it at all. What if I mess things up and ruin my reputation? What if I get jerked around and can’t pay my bills anymore? What if the stress drives me totally insane and I end up wandering about aimlessly, muttering about em-heights and kerning?

Running a business is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and it never stops being terrifying.

Being a brave little toaster

Facing fears in other areas of your life forces you to become stronger and more self-assured. That sense of determination—the “I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m damn well going to try as hard as I possibly can”—is enough to push you to do everything you can in order to make it happen. I think, ultimately, I would have killed my business had I not started pushing myself to confront fears in other aspects of my life.

I’m a big fan, however, of pushing boundaries incrementally. If you suddenly dive into something terrifying, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, and no longer retain the ability to respond in an agile way when things change, as they invariably do. It’s important to push through things you’re afraid of, and things you don’t believe you’re capable of doing, but you can’t allow yourself to become locked up by them if you take on too much at once. It’s a fine balance.

It’s for this reason that I keep ramping up my adventures. I’m deep in planning mode (by which I mean “vaguely thinking about from time to time”) for my next crazy adventure, which is shaping up to involve a few different continents. By pushing things a little further every time I do them, my brain starts learning that it can handle whatever challenges I can throw at it. I stop being apprehensive when something crops up and I think I can’t manage it, because consistent experience tells me that I can.

Gas-nap

This is the classy way to relax. (Don’t worry, I’m in Connecticut. The gas stations are spotless.) I was performing some variant of this sprawl, often with the backpack still strapped on, at every gas station down the eastern seaboard (when I wasn’t busy doing cartwheels to stretch out.) Coincidentally, this is also how I look when I’ve had the week from hell and have been working nonstop putting out fires, scrambling to get things done, and generally going crazy. Like this one! Good times.

And hey, if I hadn’t pushed myself to make it through this trip, I may not have learned how to smoke a cigarette while riding a motorcycle in New York City. You’re welcome, lovely clients. I do crazy things to make you happy.

Desert, Namibia

5 strategies for coping with the summer slump

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.

Birthday

Five things I’ve learned during five years in business

Every year, I have the best intentions to celebrate my business’ birthday in some fashion. Every year, I remember two weeks too late. Triggers & Sparks is basically my neglected child. I suppose that might explain why every now and again, it throws temper tantrums.

There are a number of anniversaries I could celebrate—the day I left my full-time job, or the day I was first paid for work, but this one falls nicely in the middle and is simple enough to remember: by sheer coincidence, the date on my official business registration is 06.06.06. While I’m neither religious or satanistic, I do believe in serendipity, and thought a pattern of numbers that has such impact on people could only be a good sign. Next year will mark my official six-year anniversary. Maybe if I set an alarm for it now, I’ll actually remember to break out the champagne and fireworks when it rolls around.

Birthday

Alright, so I did throw a birthday party in early June, but I must have been so distracted with celebrating human birthdays that I totally forgot about my poor little business.

I’ve learned a lot since I built my first “professional” website—obviously—in trade for a beautiful bicycle that was stolen about ten minutes after I got it. Here are the most important things.

1. Never say no. Instead, say “expensive”.

This flies in the face of everything that everyone says about being a freelancer, but I stick by it, and it’s worked quite nicely for me. If someone comes to me with a project that sounds boring, tedious, or generally awful, I won’t say “no, I won’t do that” unless I know I’m not capable of seeing the project through to its completion well. I’ll just say “sure, I can do that” and quote a nice high figure. That way, if the client balks at the price and tells me they can’t afford it, nobody’s lost out—it’s basically like I’ve said no. However, if they say yes, I’ll proceed with the project and be well-compensated for whatever additional frustrations or tediums come along with the project.

This approach may sound mean, but it works. It also means that sometimes I can charge less for the projects that are going to be more fun, but may not have as large a budget. Of course, this only works so well because I abandoned hourly billing for almost all projects and switched to a flat-rate, which has been a major blessing. And switching to flat-rate only worked once I’d been doing this for long enough to be able to tell how long certain tasks take, which took at least a year.

2. Stop working 18 hour days.

This is a constant process for me. My five months in South America helped me enormously with my workaholicism. I actually find it challenging to work weekends now, and I usually only work around ten hours a day—sometimes even less!

For years, I’d to work every single day, from the moment I woke in the morning until the wee hours of the night. This felt normal, after all—when I was in school, I was always working as well, and even when I was working, I was doing freelance work after getting home. I’ve always been like this—I have a lot of energy and I feel better when I’m productive. But running a business is so unstructured (at least the way that I do it) that Extreme Workaholic Behaviours simply aren’t sustainable long-term.

I spent the first few years of business constantly burnt out, and eventually it really started to get to me. I was letting things slip. I’d have little mental breakdowns in which I’d burst into tears, babbling about “the juggling balls break when I drop them!”, and then would refuse to leave my bedroom for a few days until I’d recovered. My work was suffering, and my brain would probably have eventually imploded on itself.

These days, I work less. I socialize more, and I try to do healthy things I never had time for before like eat and exercise on a daily basis. I’m happier, I’m doing better work, and my clients are happier. Everyone wins!

3. Talk to everyone and their dog.

I will take a meeting with anyone. Anyone! Since coming back to Canada I’ve actually been having lots of in-person meetings and I’ve realized I really miss it. (That may just be because I don’t usually drink coffee unless I’m going to meetings, and it makes me very excitable.)

Oftentimes these meetings won’t lead to business at all, so they’re a time investment that may not pay off. I’ve actually been tricked into “meetings” that turned out to be more like “dates” more than once, which can be a little awkward when you realize what’s happened.

Meeting people and talking to them is never an efficient use of my time. However, it allows me human interaction that I often lack sitting in front of a screen all day, and I often learn things I wouldn’t otherwise from an email conversation. There’s something to be said for sitting down with a stranger for an hour. Everyone—generally speaking—can teach me something, whether it’s of relevance to my work or not, and I’ve learned so many things for all these millions of meetings over the years. They’ve also helped me become exponentially more sure of myself. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk and realizing that—surprise!—you know what you’re talking about can do just that.

4. Constant work is worth its weight in platinum.

Cash flow issues can really make or break a business. (Canada Post employees, this is why I give you dirty looks when I pass you milling about in front of the dead post office that contains my cheques.) I have a line of credit that covers me when I’m waiting for invoices to be paid, but it’s not an ideal situation as it becomes very easy to accidentally end up in over your head when you can’t really budget effectively.

Years ago, I started doing regular weekly work for a local clients. It’s often not the most wildly exciting work, and it doesn’t pay nearly as well as the one-off project I do, but it’s been a lifeline for me. The fact that I don’t have to write up estimates, go to meetings, send endless emails, negotiate or wait for the work, means that I can offer a lower (hourly) rate than I usually would, and getting paid every two weeks means I don’t worry so much about my cash flow anymore. Basically, it gives me the bits that I liked about having a “real job”—stability—without cramping my vagabonding-unscheduled-flower-child sort of style of business.

5. Work less, charge more.

I charged all of $300 for one of my very first websites. It was such a bad idea, and the incredibly low rates I started off charging definitely explain why it took me a few years to actually be making any money at all. My rates increased fairly dramatically for a little while until they reached something of a plateau. I’ve hit the balance point where I feel that what I charge is fair, indicative of my ability, and allows me to buy shoes every now and again (okay, sometimes more often than that, but don’t tell).

Charging more means that I can spend more time on projects, which I like to do. I’m kind of on the anal-retentive super-detail-oriented side anyway, and charging $300 for a website simply doesn’t allow me to do the kind of quality work that I like to. From time to time, people still email me looking for the cheapest option, and I explain that I’m no longer competing on price. I don’t want to be the IKEA of graphic design. I want my design work to stand up, and I’d rather my clients not have to build everything themselves from incomprehensible diagrams. My clients pay more now than they used to, but the work they get is infinitely better. They get my full attention, they get support whenever they need it, and the end result is always much, much better than it would have been had I been charging bargain-basement prices.

And again, my clients are happier. More and more, I’m working with clients I love, who respect my work and my suggestions, and who really are a delight to work for. I’m happier working for these people, and they in turn refer other awesome clients over to me. It’s a lovely cycle.

Budapest

Just one part of world I've seen—the beautiful, complicated Budapest. Summer 2009.

All told, I’m so lucky to have come this far and still be running my business. I have the kind of freedom I’ve always wanted—I can travel the world, I can sit outside and work on sunny days, and I’m constantly challenged and excited by new projects. I’m never bored, I get to meet some great people, I make my own rules, and I very rarely have to wake up at 8am.

I never intended to start a business, and every now and again, I consider going back to a real-live job. However, the longer I do this, the less and less likely that becomes. I really do love my job.