Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What You Can Learn from a Turkey Buzzard About Striking Out on Your Own

I often describe my job these days as being a turkey buzzard.

This is not something I am proud of. Well, maybe. A little bit.

That's because at a time when journalists are being laid off by the hundreds and the freelance writing market sometimes resembles a sweatshop operation, I have managed to survive.

How? I've learned to take what others might term "road kill" and turn it into a pretty decent meal. And you can do the same with your career.

First, in order to become a turkey buzzard, you've got to learn to see the beauty and possibility of a bird that scares the bejeesus out of most people, or at least invokes a shudder. My friend, Kathryn, at Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, once wrote a wonderful piece about these birds. I thought she was kinda crazy, but then I decided that maybe there was a lesson in there for me.

The lesson was this: Sometimes what looks ugly on the surface can really be pretty cool once you open your mind to other possibilties.

We all like to think that we're going to get the biggest piece of pie, the best promotion, the corner office or the juicy pay raise. But sometimes our careers don't always go as planned, and before we know it, we're staring at a dead carcass, known as our job.

That's where the turkey buzzard mindset comes in. Instead of seeing a dead career, you look at it from a buzzard's point of view and see.... opportunity.

In this tough economy, with industries undergoing great upheavals and more people facing layoffs and downsizings, it's the person who creates something from what others see as nothing that will survive.

So, let's talk about ways to prepare for the day you need to be a turkey buzzard:

* Learn to pick through the bones. Many companies these days are streamlining operations, or cutting out services because they're too expensive. But if you see there's still real need for those services -- just on a more limited basis -- you can create an opportunity for yourself.

My first freelance job was for a financially struggling publisher where I had once worked. I approached them, outlining what I could do for them, and how I could hit the ground running because I was so familiar with their business. They took me up on it and I think it was a great solution for everyone. It gave me a steady stream of income while I got the rest of my business underway, and they were able to get a qualified writer for less money that a fulltime writer, and didn't have to pay benefits.

So, if you are let go from an employer, consider if there is a service at your company that is being cut because it is too expensive and too far-reaching -- but you could provide it on a limited scale for less money. The employer would be more willing to contract with an employee familiar with the operation, whether it's coaching services provided by a departing manager, or a laid off worker becoming a virtual assistant.

* Look for hidden goodies. What others may ignore because they believe it's not worth the effort is a golden opportunity for you. The project that was ditched because no one had the time to devote to it, or the difficult (but lucrative) client that was avoided are just the kinds of challenges you can take on when you're on your own.

I don't know how many times I've heard people say: "I can't believe my employer doesn't see this opportunity. We could make lots of money on it, but there's too much red tape."

That's exactly where you come in. You've seen those chances for growth and can now go after them without being hampered by long chains of command and paperwork that would put the IRS to shame. Another advantage is that many times these opportunities are with people you've already met through your former job, so your path should be smoother when you pitch them your idea.

* Gather strength from the rest of the buzzards. Just look at the blogosphere to see the number of bloggers who have joined forces to create powerhouse destinations. These are people who have learned that combining the different talents of various people makes their product stronger. When you decide to create something new, make sure you maintain a strong network. Many of those strong connections will be from your former employer, possibly others who are looking to grasp a new opportunity.

* Scope out new territory. While the pickings at your former employer may be great, don't fall into the trap of only getting your meal from one source, or feeling like you owe them more than anyone else. Former employers can provide a good way to get your new venture off the ground, but you've always got to be scavenging for new sources of income and protecting what you've created.

Do you have a plan in place to propose to your employer should you lose your job?
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Monday, February 25, 2008

Don't Be Naive When Working From Home

If you work from your home, either full or part-time, you probably feel pretty lucky. You don’t have to fight the traffic, you get to wear your bathrobe if you want, and no co-worker is hitting you up to contribute money for another employee’s baby shower.

Everything is pretty cool. In fact, you’re so relaxed you haven’t bothered to lock the doors, you don’t hesitate to brag to everyone in the grocery store that you work from home and anyone can look in the window and see all your nice, expensive office equipment.

With that attitude, working from home could become your worst nightmare.

Just because you don’t go into an office does not mean you are not vulnerable to thieves and others who want to take advantage of your lax attitude. In fact, just as carjacking gained in frequency after annoying car alarms made it easier to just grab the car with the person in it, home invasions may become more likely because burglars have to become more aggressive when people are at home working.

Security experts say home invasions are extremely dangerous because once a criminal gets into your home or apartment, he is now out of sight for easy detection and now has free rein to do what he wants.

It's naive for people to believe rising violence in the workplace will not follow them home. This si especially true if your work involves contact with people who may have a reason to want to confront you personally -- and that could mean in your home office, with your family nearby.

For that reason, experts advise a number of steps be taken by those working from home, to protect themselves and their families. Among them:
1. Getting a dog. In a fenced yard, the dog can provide good company for your children, as well as signal trouble outside. When inside, the dog can alert you to anyone near the house when you are working.
If you must have clients in the house, have the dog trained to sit quietly in the same room.
2. Securing the doors and windows. In addition to keeping doors and windows locked at all times, get an intercom for the front or back doors. These inexpensive systems are easy to install and allow you to listen for outside activity as well as inquire who is at a door without opening it. Also, use covered peep holes for solid doors. Uncovered peep holes allow anyone on the outside to look in the peep hole and determine when you approach.
At the same time, use window blinds that lower from the top, so that you can still get light, but don’t display expensive equipment to outsiders.
If you can afford it, a video system is the best for screening visitors. If not, a good perimeter alarm system -- that is turned on while you are at home -- is a good idea.
3. Protecting your privacy.There’s no reason everyone has to know you work from home. In fact, the fewer people the better. Use a company name with a post office box, or some other delivery address other than your home. Use your company name in the phone book without the address listing, and answer the phone with your company name.
Forget just putting your first initial with your last name in the phone book. Everyone knows this is a trick mostly used by women -- a perfect tip-off to the bad guys. Have a male voice on your answering machine.
4. Being aware. You may be running around on company business, your mind on the work you have to do when you get home. That makes it easy for a criminal to follow you home, and drag you inside. Make sure you check your rear view mirror when driving. If you suspect someone is following you, drive around the block. If you are suspicious, use your cell phone to call police or drive to a well-lit place or police department.
5. Covering the bases. If you must have an associate or client come in your home on business, always have another appointment to keep -- lunch with a husband, another meeting, etc., so that they know someone will be checking up on you.
Always meet someone for the first time in a public place. If it is a sales person, then call the company to confirm the person’s identity, and try to get a physical description. Call your local Chamber of Commerce if you are not familiar with the business.
6. Delivering the goods. Overnight package deliveries and courier services probably will be a fact of life if you work from home, but anyone can put on a uniform and use a van to pose as a delivery person. If you are not familiar with the delivery service, do not open the door, but have the package placed on the step. Wait several hours before retrieving it -- bad guys can hide in the bushes and grab you when the door opens.
Only open the door to sign for a package if you are sure it is a legitimate service.


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Friday, October 26, 2007

Working From Home a Challenge

There are a lot of things I don’t know for sure in this life. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to grocery shop on the moon (my second grade teacher swore to my class that we would some day), I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how to boogie board (I nearly drowned last time and made a lifeguard fall out of his chair he was laughing so hard), and I can’t say for sure if I’ll ever understand how Billy Mays got a job selling anything (why is he always yelling?)

But here is one thing I know for sure: As soon as my butt hits the chair in my home office, I will have visitors. And let me be clear on this: I can sneak to the office with all the stealth of a Navy SEAL on a top-secret mission, and somehow a red alert goes out: “Attention, attention: Anita Bruzzese is now in her office attempting to get something done. Stop her at all costs. Repeat: Stop her at all costs.”

So the dog and two cats appear, dumping over the trash, barfing up something they should not have eaten, and scrambling to lie on the computer keyboard, my lap or whatever papers I need, all the while drooling and shedding and panting and meowing.

But should I finally manage to contain the four-legged animals, the two-legged ones soon take up the challenge.

It begins with breathing.

They know I can hear them breathing. They don’t say anything, because I made it a rule a long time ago that unless someone was on fire or Publisher’s Clearinghouse was at the door, they are to leave me alone. So they breathe until I can’t stand it and I look up.

There stands one of the males in my family, who has lost a shoe, a school paper, a computer game, his appendix…something. Something that only a female (that would be me) can find. Like…right now.

Once I get that settled, then the technological interruptions begin. There is the e-mail from someone at a bank branch in Nigeria telling me that there is an identity theft and I need to contact them right away with all my vital information to make sure everything is secure (yeah, right). This is followed by the fundraising phone call from the Fraternal Order of Canadian Geese Police; the neighbor wanting to know if we’re having trouble with moles; and the movie rental store informing us we have five movies that are six weeks overdue (oh, crap).

The reason I’m sharing all this (other than to make you feel way better about your own situation), is that I understand how tough it is to work from home without interruptions . So far, most people I know who do it successfully work at 3 a.m. when everyone else is sleeping. Since I like to be one of those people sleeping at 3 a.m., I’ve put together a list of suggestions from experts and work-at-home warriors who swear these ideas can work. I’ll let you choose which ones might help you, and hope you’ll add some of your own to share with readers of this blog:

1. Run it up the flagpole. Turn on a certain lamp or use some other sign like a sock on the door handle (kind of different from the old college days, huh) to let others know that you’re working and you don’t want to be interrupted unless it’s that Publisher’s Clearinghouse thing, or something else really important.
2. Turn off the e-mail. Some people break out in hives if they can’t check e-mail fairly often, so tell yourself nothing earth-shattering can happen in 30 minutes, and only check it every half hour. Gradually wean yourself to checking it only once an hour. Promise yourself you will answer no personal e-mails while you’re working except after an hour’s worth of honest labor.
3. Organize your space. For some reason, home offices often are an afterthought. Instead, make it a priority. Put together an organized, dedicated space where you can work, out of the line of heavy traffic and noise. I know one man who found the solace he wanted in the basement workshop. His daughters hated the spiders that could be found down there, so they left him alone. The hum of the furnace provided some white-out noise to let him concentrate, and he was able to keep all his files in once place without fear they’d get lost in the hustle and bustle of a busy family.
4. Screen your calls. As much as you would like to chat with a friend or family member, don’t interrupt your work time. Schedule a break and use that time to return calls that are important and return the others when you have time after the work is done. If you’ve decided to work specific hours, let others know. It doesn’t always mean they’ll respect them, but it will make it easier for you to ignore the phone or the doorbell.
5. Put on blinders. This one is tough. You cannot look around too much when you’re working from home or you’ll notice the dishwasher that needs unloading or a new magazine you want to read. Many things will seem much more important than that pesky old report due for the boss tomorrow, so you’ve got to stay focused on what you need to get done.
6. Schedule breaks. I can’t stress enough that even though you’re working from home, it’s still home. That means you need to take breaks and toss the football with the kids, have coffee with your significant other or just put your feet up and read that favorite magazine for a while. It’s important that your home is a place to recharge your batteries and maintain a sense of balance.

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