The Neurodivergent Benefits of Online Biz
I recently received this note from a reader:
Hi! I really hope you find this message. I found your profile and story and it totally inspired me. I resonate a lot with you and would love to create a beautiful life just like you. I would love to live in a creative way, with cats, journal and write about the little things I think are beautiful. However, I'm in a stage of my life where I feel stuck because I don't like my career and don't know how to change my path. I honestly feel very lost, but when I found you, I realized you do everything I love. Would you mind sharing a little more about your story with me? How you started, what you did to get to where you are today. It would really give me a lot of hope!
When I built my new website this year I decided to wipe the blog archive, so here’s the newest retelling of my story through my post-pandemic perimenopausal filter.
This post is for sweet L ❤️
I’ve been doing this Online Business Thing for 14 years and nine months.
Typing that out makes me catch my breath a little because none of this was planned — and there’s never been a plan! Turns out having an online business is a fortunate occurrence for someone who’s neurodivergent but didn’t know it.
For 13 of the 14 years I’ve assumed I was a
normal regular person who was “just” highly sensitive, introverted and unbelievable shit at things everyone else can do (like cooking and paying bills on time and, you know, sleeping). And yet! Amazingly, I seem to be okay at this Online Business Thing.
I was the daydreamy girl at school who was bullied a bit and felt most at home in the art room.
School was suffocating and I was glad to leave at 17 when I got a place at art college. Two years of general study lead to three more years doing photography. I left in 1995 and headed to London with a dream to “be a photographer” without the confidence to actually DO it. I muddled along until a serendipitous work placement at Cosmopolitan magazine helped me realise I wanted to be a journalist, so I got a crappy sales job to save the money to go back to college.
Three years later (are you keeping up?) I left with a first class degree in journalism — mission accomplished.
This time I was fractionally older and had more confidence in what I was doing.
By the end of my 20s I was working at a national newspaper and enjoying a decent amount of success at the thing I’d studied — but the fact is, I wasn’t enjoying it at all. I hated working in that office and struggled with being “on” all the time, unable to escape the brutal lighting and other people’s agendas.
I had an enviable job in the media but once again I felt suffocated.
After two years I quit and went freelance but without an editor expecting daily copy I struggled (there’s that word again) with motivation. I assumed I wasn’t cut out for freelancing, yet when I had a deadline the words got written — and good words at that! I had plenty of ideas but hated emailing commissioning editors. I was a prolific daily journaler but would procrastinate on an article till I started to panic.
Why couldn’t I get my shit together? was something I pondered weekly.
During this time my relationship of 10 years imploded and I was single for all of five minutes before meeting the man I fell neurodivergently in love with. Our whirlwind two years together were not perfect but they were certainly all consuming. My freelance career limped along with occasional wins but mostly The Panic. I supplemented my earnings with shift work at the newspaper and got by as best I could.
And then, out of the blue, he died.
I was 32 when it happened and fell apart completely. Unable to work I moved back to my hometown and devoted myself to healing. After a few goes I found a brilliant therapist who helped me unravel layers of calcified hurt, stick myself back together and discover who I really was. I survived on government benefits and credit cards and everything felt so fragile.
A year into my bereavement I discovered blogging.
And in April 2006 I started my own, in true ND style, after obsessively reading blogs for a month.
We didn’t have apps or social media back then so community was built one blog comment at a time, our “Ad-Free Blog” badges proudly displayed on sidebars.
Turned out this introvert quite liked being sociable online.
My creativity bloomed again.
At the end of 2008 I was ready to move to a new town, a huge leap in the dark I felt compelled to do. I was still living on credit cards and the occasional copywriting gig when my sister invited me to teach a class at the nearby arts centre. I’d never taught before and wasn’t sure I could, but when she said they already had a technical photography course so maybe I could do something different? a spark kindled within me.
I’d been documenting my healing path in my journal and on my blog, and falling back in love with photography played a huge part in my rediscovery of self. I pieced together my ideas for the class from journal entries, blog posts and tentative hopes and bravely put it out into the world.
It was called Unravelling: Ways of Seeing Your Self and incredibly 10 women signed up. I was elated! But then of course I had to teach the thing.
Spoiler alert: it went really well.
I still find teaching in person exhausting but that evening class in 2008 was one of those life-changing moments when you know you’re doing something you’re meant to be doing. I discovered I could articulate my ideas and inspire other people using my passion, humour and empathy.
One of my neurodivergent superpowers is oversharing and that’s extremely useful when encouraging participants to open their hearts!
Obviously I blogged about the experience and spurred on by readers eager to take the class, I figured out how to bring it online (thank you my dearest Jo for seeding that idea!). Making that ecourse was 80% giving myself permission and 20% actual writing + photography.
Without the course platforms we have today I used what I had to hand — a password-protected Typepad blog and a private Flickr group. I even added all the participants’ emails TO MY OWN CONTACTS so I could send group emails. Oh yeah baby, kitchen table all the way!
100 sign-ups in the first week
But it worked. In fact, it worked so well I had 100 people signed up within a week. The first run of the course was imperfect and real and I know for a fact women who met in that session are still friends to this day.
The course grew through word of mouth as Unravellers blogged about their experiences. By the end of the first year the course had run several times and I had an Actual Business that paid my rent — and the constant fear that it would fall apart. It took a while to trust it wouldn’t.
Three important things happened in the first year.
First, I signed up for a biz marketing/teaching course because the marketing emails were SO convincing, I was convinced I needed it. Friends, I didn’t even make it through the first week. There was nothing wrong with the content as such, it just wasn’t a fit for this introverted heart-led woman (basically it was what we’d call “bro marketing” now). A $1000 lesson learned — pay attention to how they teach, rather than what they promise.
The second was a Fire Starter Session call with Danielle LaPorte. Danielle gave me the pep talk permission I needed to believe I could do biz my way. She was kind and complimentary and even asked me to guest post on her blog — I made a grainy video answering her interview questions :-) A sweet lesson in the power of generosity.
The third was the invitation to send a book proposal to Nikki Hardin, the founder and publisher of SKIRT! Magazine and SKIRT! Books. Nikki had read my blog and taken my course and after a bit of kismet and a LOT of
procrastination hard work, my creative memoir, This I Know, was published in 2012. It was never going to hit the bestseller lists but to this day I receive emails of thanks from readers. And I did get to do an interview on Brené Brown’s blog.
Keeping it real
The book came out the same year I moved back to London and got hit with a dark depression. I made it through to the other side, my business supporting me all the way. Over the years more courses have been created and retreats led, burnout’s been navigated and friends lost and found. And yes, my little biz hit six figures in its third year — people in the online biz realm like to use numbers as a metric of success, but for me the real success is still being here, doing it my way. A cat took over my life in 2017 and a global pandemic was endured, and here I am, at 50 years young, still teaching online.
Susannah of 2009 would never have believed it was possible.
I’m a human being living a very human life and I don’t hide that in my online sharing.
Everything I’ve done in this biz has been guided by intuition. I show up online as I show up offline. I send emails the way I like to be emailed; I talk about the stuff that matters to me. I don’t see my modest success as lucky, it’s more me doing my best to be consistent because I have to pay my bills. Knowing I’m solely responsible for myself drives me on in my biz. I’m a passionate creative soul; I also have a silly London rent. I follow my joy and infuse integrity through all I do.
Somehow it works.
I got my official ADHD diagnosis on September 23rd 2022 and it’s been a year of almost daily realisations — knowing the what and the why of my behaviours (and limitations) has been game-changing. I’m still unmedicated but perhaps next year I’ll try meds, because if I can achieve all this without them, what more could I do with?
As I near the end of this epic tale, let’s look at how my online business suits my squirrel brain.
Small = Calm.
I’ve intentionally kept my business small. I don’t want to work in an office outside of my home. I don’t want a huge team of employees. I don’t want to be a manager of people — I want to create and share and dream up groovy new things so that’s what I do. I have one wonderful VA who supports me (I love you Nita!)— and a bookkeeper and accountant, obvs — but that’s it. I want a business that feels like a cosy shawl around my shoulders, not a strait jacket I can’t escape from. I want to feel calm, because my brain is never calm.
I set my own hours.
And by that I mean I don’t “set” any hours at all. I look like I work seven days a week but it’s only because I need SPACIOUSNESS. Sometimes I’ll do a week of work in a single day. Some weeks I do nothing of any importance at all. Mostly I do what needs doing, just not in a structured time-led way — it’s the best way I can describe it :-) My brain will not be trapped into little Google boxes! I often wish it could, but my ADHD has vetoed that.
I’ve created an environment that supports me.
This started 20 years ago when I first went freelance — I need to be able to control my environment. Incense and candles, the right lighting, the right sounds layered around me (sometimes silence, sometimes brown noise, sometimes Buffy, often all of the above), the coffee I like, the snacks I like, all my dopamine-boosting things around me. I need to be in my cosy quirky creation cave — in other words, I work best at home.
I use analogue + digital and constantly mix it up.
New productivity hacks work for a couple of weeks until I start forgetting them (I’m looking at you pomodoro timer!) It’s not even that I get bored, more that my brain prefers variety. Doing the same thing over and over feels like a slow death to me. My one reliable thing is checking email — that happens every day without fail so I set up emailed calendar reminders for everything. I keep a back-up paper diary for dates and use post-its galore to organise, plan and memory-jog. I also journal most days and have done for 39 years.
I follow my joy.
This is the best bit. I come up with a LOT of ideas for new courses, workshops, freebies, blog posts and not all of them get done, but some of them do and that’s how my business has stayed not only profitable but enjoyable. I find it easy to pivot. I create new systems and I break them down again. I’ve never run out of ideas because one course leads to the next which leads to a workshop, a blog post, a new obsession. My brain never stops making connections and thank god for that, it’s the engine of my biz.
The hard bits.
It’s not all washi tape and smiles! I’m not immune to comparing myself to highlight reels on social media. I worry that enrolments will flop. I battle daily with brain fog. I’m still unbelievable shit at life admin. I’m forgetful. I get overexcited and promise things I won’t deliver (working on that). I forget to check-in with my own Facebook groups (I’m sorry!). I yearn to write another book but don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford it (books sales don’t pay your rent). I’m tired all the time. I don’t get lonely working at home but I do occasionally wish I had more energy for artist’s dates (also working on that).
Reading back this tale I imagine parts of it feel relatable while other bits seem lucky, maybe even fantastical. 95% of my life has been boringly predictably normal, but the highlights have been fun.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done was surviving his death. The second hardest was writing the book.
I’m grateful for both of those opportunities.