Is owning your own business right for you?
by Jane Hoback
Many people dream of owning their own businesses: being their own bosses, setting their own hours, working at something they love in their own space. For people living with multiple sclerosis, who might have trouble with conventional 9-to-5 jobs, it’s worth considering. But self-employment has its own challenges, as well.
Christine Gschwind and Maria Boustead are two successful business owners who have MS.
Gschwind, 38, diagnosed in 2002, in 2013 founded her business All Squared Away, which sets up organizing systems in homes and businesses, and she continues to run it from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Boustead, 39, was diagnosed with MS in 2003. She launched Po Campo, a bike bag company, in 2008, and operates out of a co-working space in Brooklyn, New York.
Both women shared their experiences dealing with the unique benefits—and challenges—of being business owners living with MS.
How and why did you decide to start your own business?
Boustead: I really wanted a bag I could put on my bike when I rode to work that wasn’t a clunky piece of gear. I was previously a designer for coolers and insulated lunch bags, which is how I learned the manufacturing process. Then I worked for a design agency that did branding and packaging, so I learned how to position a product in the marketplace. I worked on Po Campo for about three years while I still had a job. I really liked my work, but I wanted to try to do something on my own, to be involved in something start to finish.
Gschwind: In 2007, my youngest child had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I learned that individuals with autism flourish in clean, organized spaces. Over the years, as I worked to improve our home for him, I developed different organizational strategies. It was almost like a hobby. I went through a divorce in 2008 and I had to find a way to support my kids. In that struggling economy, I couldn’t find a job. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get paid to organize for other people? I researched the market, and I just went for it.
How do you manage your MS and how does it affect your business?
Gschwind: I have complete freedom and flexibility to take care of myself. I can schedule daily exercise, or doctor appointments or treatments. If I’m feeling fatigued, I can take a break. Occasionally I have optic neuritis symptoms. I had blindness at one point and I’ve had paralysis on the left side of my body. But I’ve been lucky—it’s been a while since I’ve had a major relapse. I’m up-front about my MS, and in the rare instances when I have to reschedule an appointment, my clients are always understanding.
Boustead: I’m fortunate that my MS is very mild. But I know there could be a day when I wake up and I can’t do something. And I never want Po Campo to be in trouble if I can’t work on it for a week or two. As a result, I’ve put processes and systems into place where other people can help—somebody else can fill orders, for example. I outsource a lot of the work. So if something happens to me, Po Campo can keep going.
I understand how much in business is unpredictable. Also, when I have had exacerbations, stress was a big part of it, so I’ve gotten really good at managing stress. Every morning I give myself an hour—I call it my well-being hour. I do yoga, I meditate, and then I have a nice breakfast.
My symptoms flare up in the heat. Because I have an outdoor product, I’ll sign up to do bike rides, but if it’s too hot, I’ll send someone to go in my place.
What’s the best thing about being self-employed?
Boustead: I like being the boss. I like coming up with the vision and the strategy. Also, when I get nice notes from customers—I call them Po Campo Kisses—that makes it all worthwhile.
Gschwind: The best thing is being empowered and being in control. MS is so unpredictable. At times, it’s taken control over my body, over my vision. Running my own business gives me a sense of control. That’s been invaluable.
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.