It may sound contradictory to run a small business when you are unable to work due to illness. After all, most small business owners will tell you that they could work 24/7 and still not get everything done.
I won’t lie, it isn’t easy. But having something to build up has been vital to my well-being. Even if I only have 15 minutes to contribute in a day, it brings a sense of purpose and direction. And very slow growth, over enough time, can still create something great.
Claymeleon started with me making things for my own enjoyment only to pass the time on sick leave. A couple of years later, I slowly started setting up structures (with a lot of help!) to build a small business around my hobby, and Claymeleon was born.
Obviously, Claymeleon runs at a much slower pace compared to other small businesses. Even though all of the formal aspects of a small business are in place, it’s more realistic to think of it as a structured hobby where I sell my creations.
Inevitably, it all comes down to being mindful of what I’m doing and how it’s affecting me.
Claymeleon is extremely valuable to me, because it brings me so much positive energy in terms of:
Getting out of bed is so much easier when I have something to look forward to. That can be difficult, since I have very limited energy and can’t really make plans. Being able to look forward to making something or working on small projects changes the entire framing of my day (even if in reality I only spend 15 minutes on it).
Because I also share about my experiences through Claymeleon (writing blogs or captions), it’s a platform that helps me work through the impact my illness has on my life. I can write about it, connect with other chronically ill people, and work through some of the thoughts that would otherwise continue to circle around in my head.
3. Low-impact activity
The basis of my small business is a hobby that I love doing and costs relatively little energy. After all, it was something I started doing when I was at my sickest. Even when I feel depleted, I can usually spend some time mindfully making something or doing easy tasks.
I have complete control over my own time and can easily take time off if I’m not feeling up to it. If I have energy, it gives me something to do. If I don’t, I can generally drop everything without having to discuss it with anyone and it doesn’t matter.
One of the first things I missed when I stopped working was learning new skills. Claymeleon provides endless avenues for me to grow, whether I’m learning new making techniques, photography skills, marketing, website maintenance, etc.
All of the above contributes to a fulfilled feeling at the end of the day. Claymeleon allows me to set small goals, do something meaningful, and all sorts of other positive boosts that give life meaning.
“Claymeleon provides endless avenues for me to grow.”
There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls to having a small business while I am unable to work. For me, the main ones are:
My motivation far outweighs my energy levels, and all of the new fun ideas I come up with end up on an endless list of things to maybe do in the future if I have the energy. This imbalance between motivation and ability is extremely frustrating.
Sometimes my motivation gets the better of me and I put too much on my plate in my excitement. That can lead to stressful situations, which can lead to overexertion. As a result, I end up having to recuperate for several days.
Being confronted with thriving small businesses on social media can be painful. I am unable to compete and that can sometimes be disheartening. Luckily, most of the time I am able to focus on my own thing and be proud of what I’m achieving, which allows me to cheer other small businesses on!
4. Difficult tasks
Some of the tasks inherent to running a small business cost me quite a lot of energy. This is where the management strategies I outline below come into play. Some tasks I put off until I have a good day, others I just don’t do, and for most I have found ways to make them less draining.
I sometimes get confused – if I can manage Claymeleon, why is it that I’m on welfare and unable to work? It usually takes a while to then realize that being able to do 30 minutes a day of something you love, at home, at your own pace, if it’s a day you don’t have to cook, when you have the energy, you can stop at any time, etc. – is not even close to the same thing as having a job.
“The imbalance between motivation and ability is extremely frustrating.”
Claymeleon recently turned one. Throughout the first year, the two main questions I asked myself about the different aspects of running a small business were: Do I have to do this? And if so, how can I do it differently so that it costs me less energy?
By asking these questions, I came up with some strategies that help me manage the difficult parts of having a small business:
I get all of the preparation done before the execution takes place. I had my website completely done, admin systems in place, packaging prepared, long before I ever started selling anything. I always make sure to have boxes completely ready to go for orders that come in. If I’m releasing new items, I make sure all the work is done before I plan a release date.
I always try to do things so that it costs me the least amount of energy, for example:
– planning Instagram posts (rather than having to think about IG constantly, I plan new posts when I feel able and inspired to);
– automatizing my administration;
– editing pictures on my phone while lying down (which costs me less energy than sitting behind a laptop);
– writing out processes on notecards so that I can refer back to how to do something.
3. Invest in energy savers
I bought software and equipment that saves time and energy and set up a good workspace where everything is within reach. It doesn’t always have to cost money; for example, my dad built a photography set-up out of an old desk that sits at a perfect height for me to take product photos sitting down. No set-up is needed so I can just go straight into taking pictures.
4. Ask for help
There are many ways that people around me pitch in (and I’m so grateful to have people in my life that are willing to!). Just one example is that my mom often brings packages to the post office and helps me out with lots of preparation work (boxes, jewelry cards, tissue paper). I’m not always great at recognizing that I don’t have to do everything myself, but I’m trying to get better.
“I make decisions about Claymeleon based on my health, not on the smart business move.”
5. Set clear expectations
On my website, I clearly state that it can take 2-7 days for me to get orders ready to ship. The intention is to remove the pressure to jump into action immediately when I get an order. I usually end up shipping orders the next day out of pure enthusiasm, but I know that when this isn’t realistic I have those 2-7 days to fall back on.
6. To do lists
I always write to dos down in my planner or on my phone. I put ideas for the future on a separate list from things that are necessary for the normal running of the business. If it’s written down somewhere, it relieves my stress. Using different lists stops me from feeling overwhelmed by an endless series of tasks. Most importantly, these are “things I would like to do” lists and not “things I have to do” lists!
7. Plan breaks before tasks
I include sufficiently long and frequent breaks in my planner before planning things I would like to do. I also don’t allow myself to plan more than one physical task and one cognitive task per day. If I happen to have energy left for something else, I can easily pick something from my to do lists. This is far more motivating than rescheduling tasks and feeling stressed that I’m not getting things done “on time” (although there shouldn’t be deadlines to begin with, of course).
8. Only sell what I’ve already made
It’s tempting to have pre-order products on my website. This means that I make the product after a customer has paid for it. However, this puts pressure on me to be productive with a deadline. I tried pre-orders once, and I won’t be doing it again any time soon.
9. Do what I enjoy, drop what I don’t
I make decisions about Claymeleon based on my health, not on the smart business move. My energy levels are leading and within that playing field my primary focus is on what I love doing. For example, while my intention was to write blogs regularly, I had an eight-month gap between this blog and the previous one. I just wasn’t up for it, and that’s fine.
Curious what I’m making in my moments of energy? Check out the jewelry in the shop!
All in all, there’s a key difference between Claymeleon (a small business run by someone who cannot work) and other small businesses. Primarily, I’m not growing a business, I’m enriching my life. If Claymeleon grows in the process, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t grow, it still brings me so much joy and fulfilment. If it grows too much, I’ll have to re-evaluate if it still works for me and what I need to change.
Now that I think about it, I actually also use the above strategies in my daily life outside of Claymeleon. After all, every bit of energy I save on chores can be used for Claymeleon instead!
What works for me can be very different from what works for someone else. It greatly depends on how your illness impacts your life, what your limitations are, what you love to do, and of course on the way that chronic illness is cared for in your country.
I have the extreme privilege to live in a country that provides welfare for people like me, so that I don’t have the (highly unhealthy) pressure of finances weighing on my shoulders.
This is vital, because turning Claymeleon into a profitable business – that is something I am not able to do. And I’m very grateful that I don’t have to strive for it.
About the author
Hi there! I’m Susan. I created Claymeleon to tell stories about my life with a chronic illness through handmade polymer clay earrings. What started as a hobby to pass the time on sick leave has turned into a small business that hopes to inspire vulnerability through creativity. When I’m not creating, I can generally be found resting on the sofa or doing puzzles with a bucket-sized cup of herbal tea.