After reading a couple of interesting articles recently about Tree.com, the now defunct website that was to be a great repository of information on nearly every topic important to American consumers, I reflected on my own experience and thought about where I’d like to go from here.
My story begins in March 2009 when I was laid off from my last full-time job. I went into auto-pilot, submitting dozens of resumés online, applying for any job I qualified for. I got exactly zero responses. Before long I realized I’d never get any of those jobs. I was only one of hundreds, if not thousands of faceless email addresses vying for a tiny number of positions. I knew my next job had to come from someone in my network of friends and past co-workers.
A few good leads came to me from friends. One of the best leads was for a writer/editor job at Qualcomm. Eight different people in the department interviewed me. Knowing Qualcomm’s reputation for being an outstanding employer, I couldn’t have been happier when they selected me for the job.
What kept me from getting the job
Unfortunately, I have a permanent obstacle that most of the applicants I’m competing against don’t have. I can’t pass a background check. The details are irrelevant, except to say that nothing in my background would have any effect on my ability to perform successfully as a skilled professional. In fact, I think it’s ridiculous that a background check is required at all for jobs that don’t lead to any situation relevant to the person’s background. What I mean is that I understand why banks don’t want to hire bank robbers, schools don’t want to hire people who harm children and trucking companies don’t want to hire people with a history of driving offenses. You get the idea. But when circumstances like that don’t exist, the background investigation seems irrelevant and arbitrary. I always comply with the request, of course, because I have no wish to keep secrets (it’s public information anyway) and I’m very confident that the positive events in my history far outweigh the negative. I submitted a mountain of paperwork and had several conversations with various HR managers, all to no avail. Qualcomm declined to offer me the job.
No time to sulk
My intense disappointment was short-lived. I got engaged in June, and married Tony on July 31, 2009. We spent most of August in Spain – first backpacking across the northern part of the country on the Camino De Santiago De Compostela, then enjoying Barcelona, both ancient and modern.
By autumn we were expecting our first child. I was 40, my husband 42. We could hardly contain our excitement!
The Qualcomm experience and the pregnancy solidified my desire to be self-employed. I knew I wouldn’t want to return to a full-time job in an office somewhere, leaving my new baby in someone else’s care for the better part of my waking hours each day. I also knew that applying for full-time jobs while pregnant was unrealistic. No one hires a pregnant woman who will obviously request an extended absence from work in the very near future. And I was not willing to try to sneak into a job by keeping the pregnancy a secret.
But I needed to work.
A stroke of luck
I was very fortunate when contract work came to me almost out of the blue. Two of my former MBA classmates now run a successful SEO firm, and by early 2010 I had as much work as I wanted, ghost-blogging for their clients. I found the work really interesting. I researched and blogged about a wide range of general interest topics – taxes, vacations, relocations, massage and other complementary and alternative medicines, real estate, kids’ summer camps and more. I’m an experienced writer but this was my introduction to web writing, blogging and search engine optimization. The SEO firm worked with me to hone my skills.
I gave birth to a healthy baby girl in late June 2010 and took about three weeks off to adjust to our new sleeping schedule and all of the other lifestyle changes that come with a newborn. My mom came for an extended visit, and after she went home my mother-in-law, Sharon, started coming by a few times a week to help out. With her help I eased back into a regular part-time work schedule.
Things weren’t as great as they seemed to be
Sharon was not retired. She was on a leave of absence from her own job while she underwent chemotherapy for colon cancer that had spread to other parts of her body, mainly her liver. She received a treatment every other week. I’d see less of her those weeks because the drugs made her so tired.
Things went south in early fall. One day the SEO firm told me that they found an online writing service to do the ghost-blogging for about a third of what they paid me. Although I had freelanced off and on for many years I was still pretty new to professional blogging, so I agreed to review my rates and adjust them to a more competitive level. But when I crunched the numbers I realized I couldn’t lower my prices by that much. I don’t know which writing service they talked to, but I know that many such services employ English speakers in foreign countries where the cost of living is much lower. An educated person in many parts of the world can support a family on a fraction of a typical southern California income. (Here’s a perfect example in Costa Rica.) They can offer services at prices I can’t match.
I’ve seen the work of these low-dollar writers on the very sites I used to write for. It’s not bad. Offshore writers aren’t the solution for every writing job, but they work very well for some. In this case, the SEO firm can get their needs met at a lower cost. They made the right choice.
Out of work, out of time
All my eggs were in that basket. I wrote their blogs each week and happily spent the rest of my time with the baby. I never made time to search out more clients, so when they dropped me I found myself completely out of work.
At this time Sharon was approaching two years of continuous chemo. It kept the cancer at bay and allowed her to maintain something very close to a normal life. During that time she traveled, played canasta, knitted, cooked and spent time with friends and family. She was keenly aware that she was living on borrowed time, though, and one October day the bad news came. The chemotherapy was no longer effective. The cancer was winning and her doctor discontinued her treatment. The time had come for her to die.
The rest of the year was a blur. Without the drugs, Sharon’s cancer rapidly grew and spread, sapping her life force and energy more and more each day. Soon she was unable to drive, and too tired to spend time at our house helping with the baby. My husband and I began to spend more and more time helping her or just being with her. She made it to our house for Thanksgiving, and even prepared a dish, but by December 9th she was homebound and could not be left alone. About a week later she stopped getting out of bed at all. My father-in-law, my husband and I took turns watching over her, 24 hours a day, doing all the things you do to help a person who is sick. She passed away on the morning of December 23rd.
The next couple of weeks were filled with the busy work of death – planning and holding the funeral, making dozens of phone calls to friends and relatives, playing host to those who came from out of town to attend the service, and each of us trying to be a shoulder to cry on for the others.
Life after death
In mid-January the dust settled and I began to turn my attention back to taking care of myself. I’d been out of work for nearly four months. I needed to get back on the job search horse and figure out a way to start bringing in some money.
Unbelievably, a few days after Sharon’s funeral, I received an email from a former co-worker asking if I’d like to blog for pay on Tree.com. I sure was, and I sent Tree writing samples on several different topics. This former co-worker was also kind enough to say some very nice things about my skills and abilities, and after further discussion with the woman in charge, she offered me the job of editor (Channel Leader) of the Tree.com Health & Wellness blog.
Colleen Lanin, Channel Leader for the Travel blog, called it a dream job and I agree 100%. Tree asked for a commitment of 20-25 hours a week, and I got to work from home and set my own hours. I recruited reputable bloggers on a wide range of health topics, and Tree gave me a monthly budget to pay them. It felt wonderful to be in the position of offering money and significant web exposure to very talented and knowledgeable writers located all over the world. I would’ve loved having this job until my daughter goes to college.
The job started on February 1, and each month the blog felt a little more fine-tuned. My roster of contributors became bigger and more uniquely qualified. My editorial calendar and topics were more focused and timely. In June each Tree blog began developing a publication calendar to go hand-in-hand with new static content written by Tree staff writers. I excitedly planned out topics for the rest of the year and began discussing them with writers who had expertise in each subject.
I believed Tree.com was on its way to becoming one of the most widely used resources on the Internet, appearing at the top of search results for hundreds of topics. The next time someone Googled “ADHD,” the Tree.com Health Channel would be one of the top ten hits, right there with WebMD.com and MayoClinic.com.
We were told that our role was to build value, and we all worked energetically to do so. We received almost no feedback from the corporate office (I wrote one post that generated an unusually high amount of traffic, so I got an email about it from someone up the chain who happened to notice). I tried several times to analyze the site’s statistics in an effort to see which writers and which topics drove traffic. The analytics site was buggy and inaccurate and proved to be useless. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The site’s future did not depend on the efforts of those involved. If it did, the project would be alive today.
Too good to be true
All things, good and bad, inevitably end. On June 30, 2011 Tree unceremoniously notified us that the project was finished. Over. Done. One month prior to the end of our contracts, in fact. As of that date, Tree would no longer pay for content, although they would gladly let us have access to the site if we wished to contribute content voluntarily.
This article talks about the fact that Tree shelled out quite a bit of money each month without seeing any revenue come in. To me it was an investment in the future. Clearly Tree needed to build content and credibility before they’d attract significant revenue. The way we were headed, it seemed that the revenue would be knocking on Tree’s door before long. I was sorely disappointed that Tree was not willing to give the site a fair shot at success. We needed a year. We were online for just over three months.
The job really was too good to be true. But the experience didn’t leave me empty-handed.
The silver lining
I was probably the team member with the least amount of social networking experience. I am a writer and editor, not really a techie. Although I remember feeling like I was on the cutting edge of technology when e-mail was first introduced to the workplace in the early 1990s, I am admittedly no longer on that edge. I’m behind when it comes to how best to use and leverage social media. I’m trying to catch up, though, because I’m convinced that it’s the key to my success. I believe that’s true for people in most industries.
So I’ve watched the other Tree folks with great interest, exploring their websites and noticing what they do. I was inspired to finally get a website done for my husband’s woodworking business, and set him (well, me pretending to be him) up on Twitter, a blog and a Facebook business page. I’ve also been inspired to get out to meetups, seminars and conferences. That’s something I’ve really let go by the wayside since becoming a mom, and now it feels good to hobnob with other adults and be out after dark now and then. It’s been truly a joy to discover a large network of local moms who have a strong web presence and, in many cases, successful home-based businesses.
I missed the BlogHer’11 conference, but heard so many great things about it I decided to lock it in for next year in New York. I got to attend Cool As Ever Tech and have nice chats with some of the corporate sponsors who attended. I even placed a bet on a horse (he came in 4th). I discovered Java Mama, San Diego’s most awesome coffee shop for anyone with a laptop and kids. This week I’ll attend a one-day social media seminar conducted by two women who have successful online businesses. Then the very next evening I’m hoping to join a group of social media -savvy women for sushi. Some of these events are free, some cost a little bit of money. Nothing too extravagant (I’m on a pretty tight budget right now while I work on this stuff).
All of this has snowballed into my lap over the last few months, and really over the last six weeks. I have to wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t been exposed to this new world through my experience with Tree. Still sending emails to random ads for freelance writers by employers offering a few cents per word, I suppose. Instead I find myself with a clear new direction, realistic goals, and a tremendous amount of optimism for my future.
Gotta go now. It’s time to blog and tweet.