Chronic Illness: The best reason to bootstrap?

Five years — and 4 days — ago, Thomas and I stood in front of one of Otto Wagner’s most beautiful Jugendstil buildings, sweating gently in the unseasonably warm sun, and said “I do.”

And 4 days ago, at 10pm, he turned to me and said: “We missed our anniversary.”

Because we essentially forgot we were in September.

Because we’ve both been sick for 3 weeks.

This isn’t really a blog post about health — this is just something that can happen when you move countries and don’t have the antibodies everybody else does.

And as I lay in bed, for maybe the second week, I thought a thought I’ve been thinking for years:

Thank god I don’t have a fucking job.

Thank god I run my own business

For nearly a month now, I’ve been too sick, and far too tired, to work. At all. Email? Piled up. Strategy? Impossible. Tweeting? Barely. Walking 2 blocks in the summer heat to my favoritest farmer’s market? Total nonstarter. Ladies and gents, I was too tired to troll eBay for mid-century furniture. That’s how sick I’ve been. Thomas, too.

It’s been a bitch of a month.

So, with our asses stuck in bed, how much money did we lose?

…None. This is what happened while we were laid up:

  • Freckle kept chugging along, billing every day.
  • Our tech ebooks made a few sales.
  • Early days with this particular virus, I did drag my ass out of bed to run the 30×500 Bootcamp with Alex. But, we could have rescheduled it and that would have been fine, too.

Because I have employees. Right?

We do have 2 really awesome employees (plus a virtual assistant). But… that’s not what keeps the lights on. Freckle is a software as a service, not a hamster wheel. It bills every day automatically. Nobody has to be there to press some kind of Run Another Day button.

Devon and Cannon make sure our Freckle customers are as happy as possible: they answer emails, write blog posts, fix bugs, think of ways to make things better. (They don’t touch our other products.)

But, I speak from experience when I say: Freckle would survive just fine for a month or two or three, even without that daily caretaking. Momentum would carry it for quite a while; customer attrition would be present, but remarkably low, considering, even with support emails going unanswered.

I know this because…

I have a chronic illness.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Fibromyalgia. Hypothyroidism. Dysautonomia. Anemia. I have some devil’s brew of sucky health problems.

What it comes down to is: I’m out of the picture, a lot. Yep, I have better days, weeks, months. But there have been multi-month stretches when I was too sick to work, and Thomas was too busy taking care of me to take care of Freckle. And guess what? It still made money. It still paid our bills. It still made most of our customers happy. We’re still in business.

Freckle turns 5 years old this December and will cross $1,000,000 in lifetime revenue at about the same time.

Yes, being stuck in the house for weeks at a time, exhausted, can be pretty lame at times. But I often think about just how much worse my life could be:

  • I could have a boss breathing down my neck, making my life hell.
  • I could be fired and lose my healthcare and income
  • I could be told my sick days are “out” and I had to use up scant paid vacation… or unpaid leave
  • Two words: “Disability insurance.”
  • I could have an investor breathing down my neck, making my life hell.
  • I could have an investor who fired or replaced me.

I shudder to think what my life would be like if we hadn’t spent the time and effort to build our business.

Yes, the pay-off is far from instant. Yes, the addiction to a weekly paycheck (or fat consulting checks) is incredibly tough to break.

And every minute of mastering those urges, every minute of stress, and “unpaid” work (investment work), has paid me a million times in return, for the peace of mind to just be able to take care of myself, relax, and get well.

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  1. Josh Brown

    Sorry to hear about your illness. Your story of bootstrapping Freckle is inspiring, as always – thanks for sharing. I’d love to get to the point where you are with products, but it’s hard to invest the time when there’s currently very little pay-off. How’d you get past that initial period when you weren’t making any money? How’d you stay motivated?

  2. Tea Silvestre

    A colleague and I were having a related discussion about Why be in business for yourself last night and this is a fabulous extension (which I’ll be sure to share with her). I’m wondering tho, what made you start Freckle to begin with? Was it your chronic illness? Where did the idea come from? And how did you find the “grit” to keep going during the early days? (If you’ve already written that story, I’m happy to have a link…)

  3. Mark Roseman

    I’d been hoping you’d write this blog post for a while. And very glad to see you continue to be open about this, because it’s something not enough people talk about.

    My wife is a psychiatrist and specializes in working with people who have chronic physical illness. The impact on those with conventional employment is usually devastating, which often precipitates or at least worsens their psychiatric illnesses. Some of them are able to make the transition towards a somewhat satisfying new form of career, but the great majority aren’t. It’s incredibly rare that they are able to thrive career-wise in the way you have.

    Of course, once depression or some other psychiatric illness comes into the picture, it’s much harder to take advantage of the good days to make that transition happen. And unfortunately, the incidence of mental health problems after chronic physical illness goes through the roof.

    I know one of the big reasons I’ve structured my own work the way I have is my own chronic illness. I’d have trouble with a 9-5 government job (completely ignoring the whole big-organization-bureaucracy side of things), let alone a typical tech industry position.

    My wife, who herself deals with chronic migraines, has it much harder, since for her type of work, if she’s not there, her patients aren’t getting help (and she’s not getting an income). She doesn’t end up missing many days, but some days she’s there are harder than others. On the plus side, since so many of her patients are off work, they’re also easier to reschedule (and incredibly understanding).

    Particularly when people are just starting out, they never think about chronic illness. And since nobody talks about it (and those who it happens to often drop out of the workforce altogether), when it actually happens to people, which can be at any age, they’re completely unprepared. It can be devastating to begin with, and the effect on their career, which for many people is their main source of self-esteem and identity, can be traumatic.

    At the very least, people should start thinking about learning the skills needed to not have to depend on conventional employment, as a sort of “insurance policy” if nothing else. Sure you pay now and probably get nothing in the short term, and there’s not necessarily any pay off ever, but if you do end up needing it…

  4. Chris Hulbert

    Hey amy, long time reader here.

    By interesting coincidence i’m reading a book about fibromyalgia et al at the moment. If you’re the open minded type, you might want to consider reading it, it might help? “John Sarno – The Mindbody Prescription”

    Otherwise, best of luck with it all! Hope your sick spell doens’t last too long.

  5. Rebecca

    Thanks for this post Amy. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain (degenerative disks etc) and depression for the past couple years — even while taking 30×500. How did you BUILD freckle while dealing with the exhaustion and pile up etc? Sometimes I feel like I’m either treading water (or barely staying afloat) or else beating myself up for not figuring out how to get things done.

    Would love your thoughts on some techniques for working around the chronic illness and still getting things done and getting your life to a point you CAN have passive income. Been making work and life changes, but would love more ideas.

  6. Graeme

    Great post Amy, thanks for sharing something like this. It’s so true.

    I run a bootstrapped, largely passive business (print + ebooks sales, doing LSAT Prep), and had a major health issue in the past year. I was able to take a month out without worry, and all the followup time required, and yet had my best year ever in terms of financials.

    I also eat Paleo (which has helped immensely with chronic digestive issues + fitness), and the flexibility to set my own schedule has made it so simple to eat according to my principles.

    Here and there I’ve had brief spurts of doing a 9-5, while teaching a month long class for a company. My stress levels rocketed up every time, even though I probably worked fewer hours those months.


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