I arrived at university enrolled on a course that I didn’t enjoy. I had taken a “gap year”, during which I had lived in rural Zimbabwe, teaching (very badly) in a local school. It had opened my eyes and changed my outlook. Now I was unsure what I was doing, or where I was going. Physics no longer held much appeal. Fortunately the university supported me, and helped me switch subjects. (They could easily have just kicked me out for being useless.) I ended up with a degree in anthropology, which suited me very well.
I had no greater vision of what work I wanted to do, either. When the vacations came, I sought a job. At first I worked in a kitchen, and then I got some admin/assistant work in an office. It happened to be a Marketing Department. It was fun. So, as graduation approached I applied for sales and marketing roles. I spent a season selling pop to corner shops on the south coast, 18 months with franchises and acquisitions in newly-capitalist Eastern Europe, a couple of years building relationships with supermarket head offices on behalf of a brewery, and a year creating wild and exciting ideas for a campaign that, in the end, never happened.
In 1999, I knew I needed a new challenge. The internet was spawning lots of dot-com start ups. I guess the atmosphere gave me courage (I wasn’t daft enough to actually join a dot-com). I was offered a job by a guy with a razor sharp mind and ruthless drive. The work was exciting, and he had a fabulous list of customers and contacts. So I swapped the relative security of a company employing 40,000 people, for one employing just 2: my new boss and me. We promised to create compelling ideas and strategies for whoever would hire us. We got ourselves t-shirts printed with “corporate whore” written on the front (all lower case, sans serif, no punctuation), much to the disgust of our neighbours in our somewhat genteel shared office space in Primrose Hill. We worked very, very hard. In our own little way, we made waves and shook things up. Lots of advertising agencies hated us, because we stepped on their toes; endeavouring to do the smart thinking which they had previously considered part of their fiefdom. It was fun. The work was great. Career-wise, it proved very astute.
Six years on, my boss’ ambition and mine had diverged. At the same time, work and home were becoming increasingly incompatible. In the autumn of 2006, as Ben’s first birthday was approaching, my schedule said I should be on a plane to somewhere (mostly Asia and Latin America), every single week. Knowing I needed a change, but unsure what on earth to do, I shut myself in my office and spent a few days working out what my proposition was. Alarmingly, I found I’d written something that I could only attempt to bring to life if I were completely independent… So… I set up shop on my own. (I think my Dad thought I was mad; at least reckless.) I articulated my pitch on a few sheets of paper, phoned up everyone I’d ever met, invited them for coffee, and attempted to set out my stall. Two coffee-conversations rapidly opened up opportunities. I wrote project proposals, and secured some work. By this stage, Marisa was pregnant again. I had quite a lot to prove. I’ve never looked back.
I had read several of those “Start your own business” books. Most of them were absolute dross, but they did encourage you to have a tangible goal. I set a financial target (after all, I had children to feed), and expressed it in the form of a beautiful view of New Zealand’s South Island, where Marisa and I concocted a plan to buy some land.
I endeavoured to be a ruthlessly low cost operator. (Back then most companies would have boasted about the size of their budgets. These days there’s far more recognition of the power of “zero”.) I decided to pursue the work rather than the vanity of trying to build an empire. So no fancy office, and no PA. When the financial crisis erupted, in my second year, some of the bread-and-butter projects dried up. To compensate, I pitched for things that might, in the past, have been contracted to monolithic management consultancies, and I was lean enough and hungry enough to win more work that way.
A substantial dose of circumstance and good fortune have been involved in my “self made” story. My comfortable middle class upbringing, for starters. But plenty of graft and cunning has gone in to it too. There has been something very satisfying about each invoice, representing the client’s confidence that my contribution has added substantially more value than it cost. My old boss believed people divide into “hunters and farmers”. He was proud that we were hunters: pursuing and catching. To be good at that, you have to be effective at building relationships, and persuasive in creating mental pictures of what you might achieve together. I’ve been equally proud, subsequently, to be a farmer: nurturing and growing. That requires a different kind of relationship building, and utter consistency in delivering quality. And much of my business has come from outside the UK – from the EU and beyond. The UK doesn’t have enough exporters.
Five years in, I developed myeloma. Fortunately, I had several very kind and generous clients, who enabled me to adjust my workload to fit my physical capabilities. I was able to carry on working, through my initial treatment, my SCT and the remission that followed, for another six years. This year is the first time I’ve stopped.
What relevance is this?
It means I’ve been largely spared the financial challenges that myeloma often brings. I couldn’t get any sick pay, but neither did I have to face up to whether or not my workplace wanted me back, or the potential for discrimination. Nor have I had to fight through the “hostile environment” for benefits.
It’s like a whole missing thread in dialm.
Sadly, to the limited extent that I do have experience of these issues, the outlook is pretty bleak. I have, where possible, avoided telling people I work with about my illness. On the occasions when I have been forced to, I have typically found myself discriminated against as a consequence….
… The school (I was training to be a teacher, too, when my myeloma erupted), that simply terminated my placement, rather than even take the time discuss with me whether or how to make things work together …
… The “mentor” who made all sorts of verbal promises, and then spent the rest of our relationship doing her best to actively undermine me and deliberately removed any support I might have hoped for …
… The potential clients who stopped returning my calls …
I’d love to say it was anything different from this, but that’s the truth. Mostly, in workplaces, in my experience, people behave pretty badly towards someone with health issues. Not everyone – I have had a few very considerate and understanding clients. But mostly.
This year, for the first time, I’m engaging with the benefits system. It will come as no news to anyone when I report that it is miserly. Or that the applications processes are a bureaucratic shambles. Or that there’s a very unpleasant amount of thinly veiled cynicism about whether or not one is really capable of working – an insinuation that one is lying and trying to cheat the system. It’s demoralising and demeaning.
Financial insecurity is typically one of the biggest issues facing younger myeloma patients – and no doubt also all sorts of other diagnoses. I’m not sure I consider myself “lucky”, but in this respect, I guess I have been.