On Benefit and Bonuses, or How I Let Down My Only Employee

The following is a guest post from Jenny Schmitt, founder of CloudSpark.

I’ve had the same boss for nearly seven years now. In that time, I’ve had one pay raise, I’ve worked nights, weekends, holidays and compromised on vacations and family time. To be fair, my boss isn’t a complete dictator, I did get maternity leave twice (both times were unpaid of course) and I do have some flexibility in my hours and how I complete my work.

But this year, this year I want more. I want a better boss.

As a solo PR pro, I find that I’m the hardest boss I’ve ever had and yet, I’ve invested very little in defining how I will reward myself as an employee. When I worked at agencies and managed teams, I made sure my team got bonuses (if possible) and I made sure benefits extended beyond the employee handbook. We took afternoons off and went to the movies. Or we took a longer lunch out to someplace new. Or we took a cooking class for a creative break. I constantly looked for small ways to reward good work and encourage creative thinking. Now that I’m managing the team of me (and sometimes “we” when I have virtual partners) I realize I’ve let down my only employee. And this year, I’m changing the benefits and bonuses that I’ve too-long ignored. How?

1. A full rate review.
In seven years, I’ve raised my rates once. Despite winning awards, despite gaining top-notch industry knowledge, and despite gaining expertise, I never took more than a cursory look at my compensation. (Disclosure: Kellye Crane and I author the Show Me the Money! Series on the Solo PR PRO member site, it’s all about setting rates and financially succeeding as a solo PR pro.)

2. Investing in a monthly creative break.
Once a month, I’m taking work time off for a creative break. The only rule to this one is that it can’t be professional development; it has to be completely unrelated to work. For example, take a horseback riding lesson, go see a movie, take a cooking class, go to the aquarium or a museum. Whatever it is, it’s scheduled time away from traditional work hours and it’s an endeavor that is meant to wake up the right side of my brain.

3. Defining new boundaries of when I’ll work.
This one is more difficult because the office is a mere 15-second commute. I’ve committed to no more client (read: billable) work on the weekends and to at least two laptop-free nights each week. No more Skype-ing with clients who happen to see I’m there in the evening hours, no more promises to have something by the next morning when the assignment comes in after 3:30pm. Someone smarter than me called this “setting boundaries.” I’m only surprised it took me this long to set them.

4. Building in vacation days and holidays.
I’m at a point in my career where if I worked for a traditional company, I would qualify for four weeks of vacation a year (if not more). So this year, I’m taking four weeks off. I’m setting aside a week in the Spring, two weeks in the Summer, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s as real vacation days (e.g. no laptop, no conference calls, no quick client calls). I’m also going to take traditional holidays, days in previous years I looked at as bonus days to “catch up on work,” like Memorial Day, July 4th, the day after Thanksgiving. And if I’m feeling radical, I might just take Columbus Day too. I’ll be sure to communicate it in advance with clients and assure that they understand these are times I’ll be unavailable.

It might seem like a short list, but it’s a start. To define the benefits and bonuses for the year ahead is to redefine the value I give to myself as an employee. And that, is certainly a start to being the better boss I want.

What’s your boss going to do for you this year?

Jenny Schmitt is a veteran public relations and marketing professional and sought-after conference and keynote speaker. Nearly seven years ago, she founded CloudSpark, an award-winning Atlanta-based strategic communications company. Jenny brings a solid foundation of business strategy development, communication expertise and marketing experience to match a client’s immediate needs or their long-term vision. She serves on the board of PRSA Georgia and the Atlanta chapter of Women in Sports and Events.

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  • KarenSwim

    Jenny, you and I are at the same point in our business (7 years for me too) and I have had the same thoughts this year. I’ve been awful to myself as a boss and vowed to change that this year. I started taking federal holidays off, really off rather than off with only a few calls and catch up work. I have also planned to take several weeks of vacation, and set weekly goals to change up the routine with a non-work activity. It’s funny that I went into business to have a life and earn a living but have neglected at times to strike that balance. Now, is the time to reap the true joys of my solo career. Solidarity my solo friend!

  • Jenny,

    Thank you for the inspiring and honest guest post. As a fairly new solo pro, I need to be a better boss, for sure. The setting boundaries item is something that is very tough for me, as well.

    Jason

  • We shall support each other on this one Karen! I’ve finally realized that “one more weekend” to catch up is a fallacy for fools. Setting boundaries is going to make me a better PR pro and hopefully next year I’ll give my boss a thank you card.

  • Jenny I think this is a great post.  The problem I have is whenever I think of taking some ‘me time’, I think ‘well I want to do some more work to re-invest in me’.  

    The one thing I am trying to get better at is giving myself off time on weekends.  I’m trying to shoot for at most part-time then.  Thanks for the reality-check!

  • NancyRogers

    Jenny,
    Creating a benefit package and work environment that appeals to you is a big bonus of solo practice. Having been solo for 20+ years; I finally realized that I was not traveling as much. Making a list of true vacation days was an eye-opener. Lunch out is standard. However, sick days without a phone and netbook meant surgery. We do need to give ourselves a break. You are right to consider Would I work for this person? rather than Would I hire her/him? in managing our business.

  • Jason – welcome to Solo life. I tell people frequently that I’m the best boss I’ve ever had but the hardest too. We work hard to deliver the best for our clients, but I’ve seen it come at a cost to any balance I had hoped to create. This drive edges out room for creative thinking and taking a real breaks that refresh. And this may seem shocking, but most clients are okay, really, when you tell them you’re unavailable at a time they propose. Shocking, really.  Learn early to set the boundaries – deem a few laptop free nights, take real breaks where you competely disconnect – and you’ll be a better boss with a happier employee. To your success!

  • Love this post, really hits home. I’ve only been solo for a year and a half and can feel the burnout coming. It’s not fair to neglect my husband, friends, and home to do “just one more thing”. Even if it’s starting small with just one of the suggestions above, it will be easier to work toward a better balance. Thanks for your honesty!

  • I LOVE THIS!!!! It’s funny. My assistant just said to me last week, “Why do you always sacrifice for us and put yourself last? You’re going to burn out and we need you not to do that.” So I’m doing the same thing for me. You go! I’m so proud of you!!

    P.S. Once the book I have coming out in May was written, I stopped working weekends all together. I shut my computers down and I don’t turn them back on until Monday morning. It means for long Mondays (and sometimes Tuesdays), but I find I’m far more productive.

  • Mack – perhaps we need to divest “professional development time” from “me time.” Like you, I’m always reading or researching or up to some other nerdy endeavor to learn more. Yet, I’m realizing that this pressure to “invest” can come at a cost for the right side of my brain to intervene and create space for new thinking and process the ideas or information I’ve read.

    Can we create a litmus-test for good quality “me time”? Perhaps you’re spending it with family, faith or friends, or just being disconnected from the boundary of your work and professional side.

    Most of us need a reality check and the permission to take time to be more well-rounded, to be balanced in our whole lives (not just our professional ones).

  • Oh good question – would I work for me with the benefits and balance offered? As a 20+ year pro, you’ve clearly found some balance and kept from burning out. Send me a postcard from your next traveling adventure. It’ll be a good reminder to get outside the office for a few minutes more.

  • Sandra, trust me you’re not alone. This might be at epidemic levels with Solo PR pros and anyone who’s self-employed. We create this illusion of needing to get “one more thing done” and you know, there’s always one more thing to do. We have to create clear stops, clear breaks and with a home office and the connectivity of smartphones, it’s so very tempting to cut into the time I have for others to meet the needs of clients. But here is the question that shook me up – when did clients every become more important than my family? The answer came afer I looked over my time a two-weeek period and realized I’d given more personal time (in addition to working time) than I had for me or my family.

    Start small, declare a few nights a week as “laptop-free” or honor three weekends a month as “work-free weekends.” Be well Sandra.

  • Gini – why is it that even with mirrors we can’t seem to see the work trajectory we’re on? Like you, I had more than one close colleague and a very patient DH point out that I was working ridiculous hours and not getting enough balance and rest. Let’s be thankful for the honest folks around us who point out what we might not see.

    I like that you’ve fully declared “work-free weekends” and still found you’re kicking butt on Mondays. I also hope it gives you more time to be out cycling in the fresh air and giving mind and body the rest it needs away from work. Here’s to pulling the plug!

  • It does! In fact, I’m going for a ride at lunchtime. I found it helps my afternoon focus…especially now that I also have a 15 second commute and turn on my computer at 5:30 a.m.

  • Great post, Jenny. I’m getting close to hitting 8 years as a solo, and I’ve been there! There are a few years there where I wondered why I even went solo if I wasn’t going to enjoy the flexibility and benefits it gave me. Then, I had the whole balance thing figured out and loved it. Beach with the dogs each morning (get up a little early to go through email/news beforehand), swimming or other exercise 5X/week and plenty of weekend fun

    My challenge now is getting back to this with a 14-month old. In the past few months, I’m seeing the light again, and it makes a difference. My beach visits have been pretty consistent, but I’m just now getting back to the pool and running. And for the first time, I took the week between Christmas and New Years off entirely. Didn’t even check email (clients knew they could call me if there was an emergency). I’m a better PR pro, wife and mother because of it.

    I love your idea of taking a creative break. That’s one area I need to improve. I get so bogged down at times in the day-to-day, I forget how helpful that can be. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll add that to my list of “growth areas” for this year. 🙂

    Congrats on the new boss! I hear she’s pretty brilliant.

  • Your boss seems a bit uptight and, well, bitchy. 

  • And I need to move to San Diego for the beach incentives. Glad you’re finding the balance, we can help each other on the creative breaks with reminders in our Outlook calendars. Send sand if you can.

  • Well, that *was* the rumour around the water cooler. But since January she seems much, much better. If her old persona returns, you have permission to send in an intervention.

  • Rebeccargeller

    Jenny, I’m new to your blog — a friend who is a fellow business owner sent it to me — and I’m so grateful that she did.  Your post really spoke to me because I relate to so much of what you wrote.  I have a social media marketing consulting practice to help small businesses and find it very challenging to not let it take over my life and to “turn off” and enjoy time with my two young kids.  I especially love the “laptop free” evening idea!  Thank you for encouraging entrepreneurs to strive towards balance.  Great post. 

  • Your point about productivity is so important, Gini! I beat that drum a lot (as the Solo PR crew can wearily attest), but it’s so true. 

  • Rebecca, we might be twins. I’m managing this all with two young children as well and finding balance is especially challenging. I’ve come to these lessons the hard way, so I’m hoping you feel inspired to set boundaries now. You’ll be a better whole person – to clients, friends, family and to yourself.

  • It’s a lesson I just learned this year. I was so accustomed to the big agency way of doing things – you have to show up in the office on weekends to prove your dedication – that it took me a looooong time to break that. My New Year’s resolution, though, is focus. So no more “oh that can wait for Sunday” stuff on my task list. It has to get done during the week.

  • “It has to get done during the week.” I’m taking that Gini, thank you!

  • Le sigh Jenny. Can I just raise a glass of wine and say THIS?! 

    Now steps 2-4 – I’m sorta ok there. I have my own ways of ‘me’ time and rewards – unpaid vacations, nights with just the TV, cards/wine with friends. But #1 is the killer. I’ve been a bad boss, devaluing my work for far too long; and trying forever – with both existing and potential clients (just stopped typing this comment to email – again) to better set rates – that it’s become a deal breaker of sorts. 

    It’s not that I’m not willing to put in the time, to tackle that 3:30 p.m. job for a real opportunity; but I’m not going to do it for minimum wage. And when you add up all the time you really spend doing certain things, thinking about projects, planning and strategizing never mind executing, then factor in the experience and expertise (OMG, how much time do we spend reading/learning every day?!) – that’s what it boils down to. 

    So here’s to making myself a better boss… maybe bumping into you at the aquarium or a movie sometime. FWIW.

  • Janet L. Falk

    Jenny,
    Your post reminds us of key issues that keep us productive and humane. Here’s another:

    Make sure you have the tools and the support you need: technology, subscriptions, temporary professional assistance.

  • I see several of my very favorite colleagues from across the country weighing in. Hi everyone!

    What a thoughtful, thought-provoking post, Jenny. I am yet another solo that just hit the eight year mark; it seems this is about the time give or take a little when we hit the wall. We’ve enjoyed some success, perhaps a little more than we can handle, but in this economy we can’t say no to business. We extend just a little more, then a little bit more… and we get lost in the mix.

    I admire those people who can set boundaries. I find it very difficult. Most of us are in this profession because we are people pleasers. Saying “no” is not in our nature. But we have no one else to blame when we “train” clients by responding to them at all hours, working during a weekend on something that truly could wait, not charging rush fees, and not taking time off.

    I decided I would start small. I have a client who is the CEO of a service business, and it is her life. She sends every email to me with the “High Priority” exclamation point clicked. Seriously, every single one. All requests are “immediately.” She floods my inbox on Sunday, because she has nothing better to do.

    I finally informed her that as of Jan 1, 2012, my office would no longer be “open” on Sunday; also, that requests made after 3 p.m. would be addressed the next business day, unless she wanted to pay a 20% rush fee. She still floods my inbox on Sunday, but I ignore her, and she will often “acknowledge” that she “knows” I won’t see her message until Monday.

    When she decided to participate in a major charity event on a Sunday, I informed her unlike the past five years when she had chosen the Saturday option, I would not be available. She pushed back hard, but I stood my ground. That one little victory has made me realize the sky will not fall and my clients will not fire me if I say “no” once in a while.

    One new “benefit” that I now reward myself with: I hired a personal trainer and I go to his studio at 8 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I book nothing before 10 a.m. on those days. It is utterly selfish time, all about me and my physical health. I do Crossfit, P90X-style training, it is wicked hard and I love it. Ironically it also makes me a much better professional because it keeps me in good physical and mental shape, and lets me clear my head. (And that’s why I never show up on the Solo PR Pros twitter chats anymore, wah).

  • I had to laugh out loud at the client with every single email as a high priority – too funny! One thing I’ve always done — and it sounds like you’re doing it too — is “train” clients to not expect us to be at their beck and call 24×7. It’s not sustainable, and even if we stretch it out a bit, clients are still getting better service from a Solo PR Pro than they would with a large agency.

    Now the exercise bit, I’m still working on. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • In all seriousness, the life/work balance is that elusive goal that so few people know how to find or where to balance. 

    I’m happy to say I’ve found a somewhat balance but it is hard. 

  • Davinia, number one is listed there for a reason. Valuing our work and expertise is an easy step to skip, and it seems more prevalent in women, but no one should discount our efforts, least of all us. Kellye and I have tried to address some of the discussion on value and pricing in our Show Me the Money! series on Solo PR Pro, but I still meet PR pros every week who seem to want to apologize for their very affordable billing rates.

    Your point is also so very important to those that believe being an entrepreneur or Solo PR pro is a cakewalk with heaps of free time.

    Let’s meet up at the acquarium sooner rather than later.

  • Thanks Janet. I’m certain I could make better use of the tools and technology and certainly a virtual assistant. From what I hear, virtual assistants can be a definite help to any solopreneur or small start up. For the tools and technology, I need to ensure they’re helping and not adding to the tasks at hand.  Be well, Janet.

  • Hi Gayle, thanks for the thoughtul post. Not to anyone’s suprise, most clients are perfectly fine with the new boundaries. And prospective clients understand when I’m at capacity (even with a small team) or their needs don’t match our expertise. In each of those instances, I’m able to refer them to other talented PR pros that can match their needs. By setting boundaries, I’ve found I’ve increased my focus, productivity and still have time for my whole life, not just my work one. 

    And Crossfit? Enjoy that sweat-fest, I successfully completed Insanity and most of P90X. Amazing what it does for our physical and mental health.

    Keep going! 

  • Jason Anthoine

    Saying “no” is both the hardest and most freeing thing you can do. Proud of you for having the courage to define your professional life rather than have it define you. I admire your boldness!

  • Jenny – thanks for writing this. I’m starting my 4th year #solopr, and have been blessed with almost a year of major billings following 2 years of, well, the opposite. This taxes my ability to take good time off — it’s not rare to have client work that’s due Sunday night. I rationalize it by noting that I have set rates appropriate for such sacrifices. I still feel like I’m pretty kind to myself – I would rather put in some weekend time than toil away into the night. I’m nearly at the point, however, of redefining what I’m willing to do — sticking with the strategic pays a lot better than the tactical, and I like it better! 

    Cheers – and congrats on your new boss!
    Sean 
    @commammo:twitter 

  • Thank you for this article! I knew when I went solo this year that I’d be working for the meanest boss I’ve ever had. I saw my dad take only about a month’s worth of vacation in 30 years as a business owner and thanked my lucky stars that my business is portable. Of course, that means my business goes on vacation with me.

    I’m working on setting those boundaries. Part of that, for me, is letting go of the rules that apply to ordinary business. Why am I up and at my computer at 8 a.m. when no one in my communities is talking at that time? Better to work out and have some “me” time. That way the Saturday evening conversations won’t add extra hours to an already full week. Sure, it’s still 40 hours, but MY boss says those hours don’t all have to be in a row.

  • Thanks Jason, did you see this article from Daniel Pink? http://www.danpink.com/archives/2012/02/how-to-say-no-especially-to-things-you-want-to-do A great piece on how to say no even to things you want to do.

  • Sean – and that’s part of the mentality of the solo-life, we know about business cycles so when we have the work, we want to do all we can for it. For me, it led to some real issues in balance and at a cost to the time away that is so valuable for recharging the brain. So stick to it and do what you do best (but be sure to build in a few benefits for the work you do!).

  • Angi, one of the best things I know about my work is the flexible hours and the 15-second commute time. As you start on your solo career, remember why you wanted one and be sure you’re getting the benefits and bonuses you want from the effort. Define who you are as a boss – and be that boss. The good kind.

  • Shira

    Bravo, Jenny! i always put my employees first when I had a bigger office and it’s only now that I’m working from a home office again with a remote person in chicago that I’m treating myself much better. i finally get regular vacations and let myself take mental health breaks when needed after taking nine years to learn that lesson. Great post, you fierce redhead! 🙂 

  • Shira, you’re one of the women I admire for creating the career you’ve wanted. Thank you for showing and sharing how it’s done. And you’ll be proud, for the last 90 days, I’m finally being the better boss I want. Onward!

  •  I really liked this example. Gayle, did you inform the client in writing over email, or via a phone call?

  •  Thanks for the link. Great resource and good tips!

  • Love #2–you’re inspiring me! I took #4 to heart this year. Actually my son forced it. He has four different weeks during the year where we don’t have daycare and he doesn’t have school. So, we’re using that as an excuse to take vacay. And, one of those trips is happening in a couple weeks when I come your way to hit Augusta! 🙂

  • Laura, I did it via email, at the time of renewing our annual contract. The new provisions were all added to the contract renewal she was to sign. (I renew all client contracts every year). I anticipated some potential for pushback. If I got it, I was prepared not to renew her contract. She had become so demanding that I would have given up the work rather than continue to be at her beck and call. Now if I could just break her of that nasty “High Priority” habit.

  • Funny isn’t it Arik, how it’s our kids that can keep us in balance. Put him on the payroll! (And let me know when you’re here for that little golf game.)

  • Just read this. I am 10 years into this, and I have to say that it doesn’t really get any easier. I long-ago put the weekends off limits, and except for dire circumstances, I stick to this. However, you can get some flack from colleagues over it and sometimes clients, too. Also, there is always this nagging feeling that I am just not doing enough anywhere. 

    This year, I laid down the law and I exercise at least three times a week after getting the kids off to school/daycare. It means I often can’t be at my desk until 9:45 or so. I always thought I couldn’t do this, especially with my clients on the East Coast wondering why I am never in until 10:45, but I realized I HAD to do it or my health would suffer.
    I love the flexibility this career has brought me, but it is also very stressful.

  • I haven’t been a solo PR pro for 5, 6, 7, or even 8 years. I’ve been an official solo PR pro for one month. I’m never without my laptop. I’m never without my strategic thoughts. I’m never without my plans, fears, excitement about chasing after new business. All of this races through my head even as I bathe my little 2-year old son. It makes me sad at times but I do it all because I’ve committed to chasing the dream. I have no idea if it will be a success (even in just one month there have been plenty of downs to go with the few ups that keep me going). But I admire you and everyone else who has posted here because, and PLEASE keep this in mind, where you are today is where I’m hoping to be in 5, 6, 7, or even 8 years. Are you over-worked? Yes. But you are successful. Maybe it came with a lot of sacrifice. But it did come. You may think you are close to being burnt out. I say you are beyond successful.  

  • This article is a great source of information, you Pictured the things really well. Keep it up and keep blogging.

  •  Good for you, Kami, for making exercise a part of your routine (I’m still working on that one)! One thing we indies have to keep in mind: though we often feel like we’re “not doing enough anywhere,” our traditionally employed friends feel that way, too. We just have more control over where our time is spent, so perhaps that adds to the guilty feelings sometimes? Interesting to think about…

  • Congrats, John! I think you’ll find that it becomes easier to (at least occasionally J) quiet the work-related thinking once you’ve been at it a bit longer. Love your positive words for everyone — though it’s sometimes a struggle to find the balance, I think everyone agrees being indie is better than the alternative any day of the week!

  • John, I echo Kellye in congrats on making the leap. You’ll find much satisfaction from building and creating a successful business – just be sure you’ve kept a few benefits for your only employee. It’ll make the success much more enjoyable. If you need any help in your journey, please reach out to the Solo PR pro community. To the best of endeavors! Jenny

  • Great point Kellye. I am prone to blaming myself first. Out does feel like a lot more responsibility than when I was employed.

  • Kami – this year, I did the same as you, adding in my gym time as blocked off time since January. It’s made a world of difference and it really is the one thing I do (consistently) for myself. Your point is clear, it rarely gets easier. Jenny