Cheryl Richardson: Learning to Start Over

Is it possible to start a new business on the eve of your 60th birthday while settling into an empty nest and going through a divorce? That's what Caitlyn asked when she emailed me her story. "I've spent the past 20 years raising my family. I've always been curious about what makes human beings tick, so when my three sons moved out on their own, I went back to school to get a degree in social work. Now I'd like to start my own therapy practice."

The question was, could she? Caitlyn had finished her program's intern training and was working for an agency helping low-income families. But she was already tired of spending more time on paperwork than on helping clients. On top of that, she faced a life change that was both frightening and exciting. "My husband and I have long known we needed to end the marriage, so there's no question it's the right thing to do. But I also know that once I close that door, I'm truly on my own. Am I crazy to consider starting a business at this late stage? Do you think it's even possible?" That's what Caitlyn and I set out to discover. I had no doubt that if she were willing to do the work, we could create miracles.

Dreams to Life
On the face of it, Caitlyn seemed to be well on her way. She'd already set up a home office, shared her business idea with a few close friends, and listed herself on a therapy referral website. Once these pieces were in place, however, she couldn't get motivated to do anything else. "I'm afraid this won't work," she told me. "I worry that, at my age, I'm just not hip enough to pull this off, and that I won't make it on my own." I had a sense that these concerns concealed the real issue: a fear of independence. With more information and a plan, we could get her moving forward again.

I had her focus on creating a vision of what she most wanted from her business -- a good place to start when giving birth to any new idea (and the more specific your vision, the better your chances of making it happen). I asked Caitlyn about her ideal practice, hours, and clients. What did she think would inspire her best work?"

I'd like to see about 10 clients a week," she told me, "and work with another 10 by phone. I'd help people dealing with emotional issues that accompany health problems, an area I've experienced myself, and those going through relationship challenges and life transitions like divorce and loss. Finally, I'd love to work with clients who can pay their fee directly so I can stop having to deal with insurance company paperwork." Sounded like a good plan to me. Now that we had a clear idea of her goals, it was time for a little foundation building.

In my first few conversations with Caitlyn about her work, I noticed a pattern: She minimized her talents and the effect her counseling had on clients. This is a common challenge with women: We take our talents and gifts for granted. One way to regain momentum is to remember times when we've been successful in the past.

To build Caitlyn's confidence, I asked her to develop four client success stories, describing where the person's journey began, what kind of changes he or she made during therapy, and the end result (Caitlyn would change the details to protect confidentiality). The exercise made a huge impact. "I'm so caught up in day-to-day tasks that I never step back to see how far I've come. Writing these success stories forced me to review my case load, and I was surprised to see how powerful my work has been for my clients -- and for me."

Now she was ready to work on a description of her services, writing what she did in a way that would feel authentic, inspiring, and attractive. For starters, we edited her listing on the referral site, which was more clinical than client-focused. If she personalized her message, sharing what she loved about her work, readers would feel more comfortable contacting a stranger. She also needed to narrow her offerings.

Too often, business owners (whether lawyers, contractors, or consultants) advertise their ability to cover every need under the sun rather than focus on the two or three services they're best at. By the time we were finished, Caitlyn had a terrific new listing‚ and we were left with one more step: spreading the word.

I wanted Caitlyn to identify three people who fit the profile of an "influencer," someone who loves to talk and finds joy in sharing resources that help others. When building a business, it's imperative to have these people (realtors, hairdressers, school-board members) on your side, as they have direct access to large groups and communities.

At first, Caitlyn felt uncomfortable asking for referrals. But then I explained it this way: She'd simply be sharing how she might be of help to members of their network who were struggling with life challenges. When I put it like that, she thought of three friends right away: a nurse, a yoga instructor, and a life coach.

Caitlyn came to our final meeting excited about her progress. She'd had successful conversations with her influencers, who referred two new clients. A third came from her updated Web listing. "Doors are really opening up," she told me. "Now, for the first time, I feel hopeful instead of afraid." By the time we were finished, Caitlyn had become a bona fide inspiration to others looking to break out on their own. Can a woman turning 60, getting divorced, and settling into an empty nest start over and create an amazing new life? You bet she can!

Need Cheryl's Coaching?
Cheryl Richardson is a life coach and author. Email Cheryl, describing your situation.

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