How I became trapped in the feast / famine cycle

For a long time, mental health was a taboo subject. It’s often referred to as a ‘hidden illness’. You can’t see someone suffering from a mental health problem and it’s even harder when they’re likely to hide it away behind a tough exterior.

As digital agency owners we’re not immune to mental health issues. Far from it in fact, as business owners whose family, loved ones and employees depend on our success, the mental health burden can be quite large.

One of the main causes of mental strain in our industry is commonly referred to as the ‘feast / famine cycle’.

This is where our businesses “feast” whilst we’re actively working on and getting paid for projects, however we suffer a “famine” afterwards as time was spent on actioning project work and not on generating new business.

The panic and stress of the famine part of the cycle is the area that we need to improve on, avoiding the mental health impact that the hunt for new business can have on our business and personal lives.

Why is this happening to me?

An important question and one that I see almost every day in the various Facebook groups and forums that I follow and contribute to. It’s a question that is asked too late and often when the person is at their lowest and weakest point.

They’ve spent the last month or two diligently working on client projects, delivering great results for their clients and getting paid for them. Now they have a big gap in their schedule. A donut in the new leads column. A big fat lonely zero.

Let’s consider the consequences that might occur at this stage:

  • Stress – It’s hard to keep putting yourself out there in a position where you need to generate leads over and over. If you don’t have a flow of incoming leads, you need to get in the trenches time and time again.
  • Panic – When you don’t know where the next job is coming from, this can be a pretty hard thing to deal with.
  • Fear – The fear of failure is something that exists in everyone to a certain degree. This fear will manifest itself more heavily when you’re stuck in the feast / famine cycle.
  • Poor self-esteem – When things aren’t going our way in business, the first person we’re going to blame is ourselves. We’re an easy target after all, as the business owner.
  • May lower standards – Whatever your process for scoring incoming leads, if you’re desperate for new business, this process can fly out of the window, leading to you accepting work from bad clients.
  • Can’t pay bills – If there’s nothing in the bank and you just can’t meet the bills and overheads that you need to survive, something has to give. This doesn’t only affect you and your family, but also the other businesses that are owed money too.
  • Find additional work – In the worst cases, you’ll need to find additional work in order to survive. This can be incredibly demoralising as it can increase feelings of failure.

There’s no fault attributed to any agency owner, designer, developer or marketer who gets caught up in the ‘feast / famine cycle’. It’s simply an unintended consequence of taking on work and trying to deliver the best work that you can for your clients.

I’ve personally seen many wonderful business owners, who had fantastic intentions and wanted to grow their companies, get caught up in the feast / famine cycle because they took the wrong approach to growth. If your sole focus is client work during your busy times, your marketing and inbound lead generation will suffer.

My Story

I want to share my own story with you, if I may. It’s the story of how I ended up in the feast / famine cycle myself, how it affected me and how I eventually came out of the other side.

It’s important before I start, to note that there are many reasons why people get trapped in the feast / famine cycle. My story is just one way, but yours will likely be completely different…

Christmas Day 2006… I was 23, living at home after University and had started my first business in April of the same year. Christmas was still a fun and exhilarating experience. My parents continued to pretend to be Santa (they still do now) and leave a sack of little gifts and trinkets out, after we had long since found out that Santa’s penchant for a few mince pies and a stiff drink, was actually my father’s.

My Grandmother arrived at our house and within minutes told us a story that was, unbeknownst to me, the start of one of the darkest periods of my life. She told us that she had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone’s Disease (MND also known as ALS).

I didn’t know what this was at the time. It’s pretty rare, why would I? Although my mother’s reaction of sobbing told me without needing words. But it quickly became something that would haunt me for a long time.

My Grandmother, Frances, was one of the most wonderful people that I’ve ever known. Obviously I’m biased, but she had so much time for us as children and lived just a few minutes walk away. I’ll never forget sneaking round to her house for a bacon sandwich and just a chance to spend time with her. She made the best bacon sandwiches. My parents were quite busy as I was growing up, so I was extremely close to my Grandmother.

Fast forward to Summer 2007, and my Grandmother moved in with my family to make life easier for her. As I worked from home, I got to see her every day and it’s time that I’ll treasure forever. But it’s also a bittersweet memory.

I had to watch daily as a proud lady slowly lost motor functions and movement. From not being able to walk easily to slurring her words and eventually barely being able to talk. I became an informal translator some of the time, trying to hear the sounds of the words and help her to get her point across.

As MND is a progressive disease, there isn’t a cure. The end is unfortunately death. And so, the time came for us to say goodbye to Frances in May 2008, not long before her 70th birthday. She was 69 when she died, which is no age at all in our modern world.

I’ll treasure every memory that I have of her and I’m so incredibly proud that even at her hardest times when struggling with MND, she kept her sense of humour. We had way too much fun with the electronic speak & spell that she was given, which she needed as speech became harder.

After my Grandmother passed away, I didn’t notice the mental state that this left me in. I was devastated, but that’s natural after someone we love leaves this world. I didn’t notice the effect it was having on me and the way I interacted with the world around me. I entered a depressive state, something I wouldn’t recognise for many years yet.

Struggling with mental health and depression isn’t something that is activated with a magical switch. It creeps up on us, with little changes that we often can’t recognise. For me, these little changes were eating more (comfort eating) and slowly pushing away the outside world and becoming more reclusive.

I was okay, why wouldn’t I be? I was just eating a bit more and I stayed inside and played video games in the evenings. Thankfully I had a wonderful group of online friends from around the world, many of which I’m still proud to call friends now. But I wasn’t okay, not even close.

My business suffered dramatically. Over a period of a few months in 2008 I got caught in the feast / famine cycle and it gripped onto me for dear life. I tried hard to grow my business, bringing in new clients but every month I did this, I then spent the next couple of months completing the work. After this had finished I needed more work again.

Every cycle that was completed, made me more desperate for new business. I wanted to keep growing, I wanted to make people proud of me. But it’s hard. The toll that this takes on your mental health is staggering. You can’t grow when you’re stuck in a place of desperation.

The worst situations involved taking on clients that I knew would not be a good fit for my business, for far too little income, just because I needed the work. These clients unfortunately created many “time sinks” where they were taking up 80% of my time, for just 20% of my income.

So what changed? Well, I’m not proud to say this part, but it was almost exactly 6 years ago to the day.

I was sat in my home office in May 2013, with a word document in front of me. This word document had the first few lines of a goodbye letter to my friends and family, and a cursor blinking at me to continue. I couldn’t take the pain and struggle of being in this world anymore, but I wasn’t prepared to leave without an explanation.

It’s hard to explain, but I had spent that morning running through many different ways of leaving this world. I didn’t want to leave a mess for anyone, and I wanted it to be quick.

Thankfully, and I still don’t know what it was to this day, but as I was wrapping up that document a little voice made itself known in my head. I can still hear the five words now… “It’s not your time yet”. I’m not religious, a little spiritual perhaps, but it was the first positive thing I had heard in months and I held onto those words as hard as I could.

I called my Doctor, broke down on the phone and they booked me in for an emergency appointment. Being able to talk to someone after being in such a lonely mental place was refreshing. They helped me to find a therapist in the local area and after a few months of working with another wonderful human being, learning about “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy”, I was thankfully in a far better mental place.

Moving forwards, I stripped my business right back and started putting into place the very same basic principles of design and marketing that I had been carrying out for my clients since 2006. Having a new perspective on life and business helped me to move forwards and grow something that I could be proud of.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still deeply affected by this today. Right now, as I type this, aside from the tears I’ve had to fight through, I’m incredibly scared of how this will be perceived by you, my peers. I don’t want to be judged by my experiences. I’ve had a hard shell for years, which has only really been broken open by Mel.

I’m still overweight (and working on that), I still struggle with confidence sometimes and I will always worry about what others think of me. But I’m okay.

I want you to know that you’re going to be okay too. It’s okay to not be okay, it really is. But it’s also okay to talk. So please, make sure you reach out and don’t struggle in silence. Your life matters more than you’ll ever know.

Reach out for help

There are many places that you can reach out for help if you’re struggling with mental health either through business or through other circumstances in your life.

Dan Maby and the wonderful team at WP&UP, have created a charity that focuses on providing mental health support within the WordPress community. They are here for people like you and I, and you can reach out to them through their website or via social media.

There are many great Facebook groups online, full of agency owners, solo business owners, freelancers and your peers. Many people in these groups have their own stories to tell and they’re packed with people who will relate to how you feel. I just want to share a few links to these groups here, please feel free to join them and to engage with others who are in their own trenches!

If you’re feeling suicidal or you need immediate help, please have the courage to talk to someone about it. Here’s a list of crisis telephone lines from around the world, from Wikipedia. Your story is important and people will listen to you.

My goal for the future

I have a goal for the future and this is to help change the way that mental health is taught in schools.

The generations that we are in were not taught that it’s okay to not be okay. We were told off if we were whining or sad. We weren’t allowed to be unhappy and to express our feelings.

I’d love to one day be able to afford to create a service that actually changes the way children are taught about mental health in schools and as they grow up. It’s important to help them to understand that it’s okay to be different and that it’s always okay to talk about how they feel.

My hope is that over the course of a generation or two, we would be able to change the way that mental health is viewed and help to instil a greater level of compassion and kindness in young people. Whilst it’s unlikely that something like this would be able to completely change mental health on its own, if it can affect just a few lives, then it’s more than worth the time, effort and cost.

You are important

You are important and a highly valuable human being.

I believe that the mental health of an agency owner is directly attributable to the processes that they have in place inside their business.

The secret to life is to stop worrying about what other people think. You are valuable, your opinions matter and you can change lives by just being YOU.

Take time to look after your mental health. It’s okay to not feel okay and it’s okay to talk. Ignore what we’re taught as kids. Life is about being the best version of you.

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13 Comments

  • Matt, this is powerful, moving, raw and life changing. Thank you for sharing this. It resonates SO much and I know that this will help change lives. You’ve been amazingly brave posting this. Love you!

    Reply
  • Dear Matt, I salute you for being such a ‘human’ and ‘humane’ person. One of the wittiest I found on the internet, and I’m even not a native English speaker! You have the gift to communicate clearly with other humans.
    I do have my fair share of sadness in my life starting with the suicide of my mom when I was 21. You were lucky to hear the the little voice inside your head.
    I encountered cancer twice and this is something you bear with you the rest of your life. It makes you humble in your thinking about what you really can contribute in this world. So say yes to every experience, be gentle to yourself and your neighbor. Accept what is and listen to your inner voice which has been a guide to me in difficult times. When I was ill the first time in 2007 I heard my inner voice say: ‘Peace, Joy, Forgiveness’. I repeated these meaningful words many times and they helped me to overcome my cancer. Mind you: I got treated with chemotherapy, but it was a doctor’s guess as there is no specific medicine type for my type of cancer.
    Thank you for your candid blog. You are a beautiful person!

    Reply
  • Matt, I realise this post has been written from some dark periods in your life but thank you for having the courage to write it.

    There is so much that I’m sure many people (and certainly many small business owners) can relate to.

    Take care.

    Reply
  • This was very brave of you Matt. I’m so proud of you. It’s great that you have Mel to support you too. I’ve really struggled with something similar in the past and my wife was my rock. I’m here for you mate!

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing your experience Matt you have been through some tough times and great to see you doing so well now. I run my own business and know the stress and worry of where the next job is and the constant chasing of invoices. Hoping your funnels will keep a steady revenue stream coming in 😊

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing this open and honest post, Matt.
    So, so important to get this out in the mainstream!

    Reply
  • Thank you for sharing your story, Matt.
    It takes a lot of courage and I have no doubt resonates with many (myself included). The more people share their stories, the easier it will be for people to seek help.

    I love the idea of children learning at a young age to have discussions about this, I think it’s brilliant.

    Investing in my mental health has, without a doubt, been the best investment in myself I’ve ever made.
    Anything I can do to support your endeavors, just say the word.
    Much love,
    Kim

    Reply
  • Very brave to write this Matt. Glad you found the help you needed. I was also very close to my Nana and when she got dementia I flew back home to South Africa to see her and also to say good bye because I knew she would not be around much longer. The sad thing is she did not know who I was despite practically bringing me up most of my life. However we did sit outside in the garden and she could remember all the war stories which she would tell me. She was from Barrow-in-Furness and there was a ship yard there so they were heavily bombed during the war so she had many stories. I was actually doing some research on her the other day and found the passenger list of the ship she left from Liverpool to sail to South Africa with two children. I actually thought she had left after the war but found out she left in 1942. I wish she was still here to ask why she left during the war because it must have been dangerous to leave on a passenger liner and I’m sure they could have been targeted. She is no longer with us so I will never know.

    Thanks again or sharing your story mate.

    Reply
  • Very powerful and moving Matt. I am pleased you found the strength to write this. It is by being open that others who are suffering can find out that it is OK and to reach out for help.

    Reply
  • Thank you for sharing your story Matt, took a lot of courage to write, I’m sure. It’s amazing how much weight can be taken off your shoulders simply by saying to your self, it’s ok not to be ok. Good luck and thank you, you give a lot to this community.

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing your story, Matt, and for being you. That took a lot of guts to write and I’m sure it will help many others. I want to give you a hug. I particularly loved this statement: “The secret to life is to stop worrying about what other people think. You are valuable, your opinions matter and you can change lives by just being YOU.”

    Reply

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