(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(13-May) — It’s a typical Wednesday and Erica Sara is hard at work at her workbench, cutting, filing, soldering, polishing and engraving. She’s in her small studio in her North Carolina home creating and producing running-themed jewelry for her one-woman company, Erica Sara Designs (ericasara.com). To help her concentrate, she’s wearing noise-canceling headphones; her two children Orli (2) and Emmett (5) are also home as is her husband, Robert, a web designer. She has to stay focused.
“I wear them all the time,” Sara told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview last week as she worked to wrap-up Mother’s Day orders for necklaces, rings, bracelets and other items. She added: “I have a closed off space; my kids can’t get in. It’s like a production line.”
And even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this is where you would have found Sara on a typical Wednesday over the last ten years: working alone at her workbench. Unlike millions of other workers around the globe who have been suddenly forced to work from home, Sara, 43, chose this life after a career in corporate fashion where she worked for Coach and Barney’s. She is one of the running industry’s “solitary workers,” those who work alone (usually from home), yet make a big impact. Her jewelry has been featured in magazines like “Women’s Running,” Runner’s World,” “Shape,” “Fitness,” and “Prevention,” and she makes necklaces with mantras given to her by star athletes like Alysia Montaño, Deena Kastor, and Molly Huddle.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep data on solitary workers, but they estimated last year that there were 16 million self-employed Americans, and many of them work alone, from truck drivers to house painters to artists. Solitary workers are well-adapted to the current stay-at-home orders in place in many jurisdictions, and those Race Results Weekly interviewed say that their lives haven’t changed all that much due to the pandemic, at least at work.
“I thought there would be a more noticeable change,” said Sara, who explained that the child supervision plan she and husband Robert employed had to be modified because of school closures. But, she added: “In the beginning there was a small little dip, but people want to help small business and keep us alive.”
Greg McMillan, the owner and founder of McMillan Running (mcmillanrunning.com), a global on-line coaching service, feels the same way. He is still supervising his small team of remote-working coaches and staff by working alone from his home office in California’s Bay Area, and that’s just the way he likes it. He said he created McMillan Running to be a “lifestyle company” where work could be fit around the other interests and activities he and his team find important.
“I think I’m a fairly solitary person, anyway,” McMillan said during a telephone interview last week. “I always needed thoughtful, quiet time.” He continued: “Having quiet personal space has always worked really well for me. I felt like, because of that, I haven’t had the issues that you hear from a lot of people (who are now working from home). I would never work well in a coffee shop because I need the quiet. I need to focus.”
Like most micro-entrepreneurs, Sara’s move to working on her own was driven by the need for a radical life change. Working in a corporate setting wasn’t right for her, and she was also facing challenges in her personal life.
“I was going through a really rough spot in my life,” Sara said. “I was married, actually to someone else, and the marriage was going downhill real fast. At the same time, I was realizing that corporate life was really not for me. So, I sort of did a huge overhaul of my life. I left my job. I ended my marriage, and I went back to school for nutrition, believe it or not.”
Sara lived in New York City near Central Park, and she started to participate in local running races. She had always made jewelry for fun, and she started to make charms for her races (she called her races “her babies”). She had developed a group of running friends in the city and they started asking if they could buy her jewelry. Sara decided to take the plunge.
“I went ahead and learned how to create a website,” said Sara, who learned how to code. “I learned all the ins and outs of starting a business, and I went ahead and launched ESD.”
Lora McManus, the national sales manager for running apparel company rabbit (runinrabbit.com) took a similar path to Sara’s. She worked for a big bank as a project manager, then worked in the not-for-profit sector, managing the New York City chapter for Team in Training. But two years ago, the 43 year-old jumped at an opportunity to work for rabbit when she found out that their national salesperson was leaving. Although the company was based in California, co-founder Monica DeVreese was comfortable with having McManus work out of her Manhattan apartment.
“They did not ask me to relocate,” McManus said via telephone from her workspace in her bedroom. “They were used to having at least a little bit of remote distance. It was definitely one of the questions that we talked about when I was interviewing with them, about how that role would look working remotely. But, I think because of my relationship management experience, especially through the non-profit world, realizing that the accounts were all over the country, let alone the international accounts, my location wasn’t really a factor.”
McManus uses her laptop and FaceTime to do line-showings with the specialty running stores she services. Although she loves face-to-face interactions with her retailers at big trade shows like The Running Event, on-line showings get the job done during the pandemic. Like Sara, McManus said there was an initial dip in business at the beginning of the pandemic, but that things have leveled-off now. She also said that the company’s direct-to-customer demand is strong via the website.
“That was always a great opportunity for me to connect with accounts face-to-face in one spot,” McManus said of the trade shoes. She continued: “Now that those are off the table, prior to that if an account couldn’t make it to The Running Event I would just set up a FaceTime line-showing with them. I have samples of the product at home and I would just do a video line showing.”
Like Sara, McManus’s husband, Mike, also works from home (he also works in the running industry), so they have to respect each other’s space during the work day. During the pandemic that’s gotten a little more challenging because McManus’s 14 year-old daughter is also at home with New York City’s schools being closed.
“I mean, we’re in a two-bedroom, a small New York City apartment,” McManus said. “Make-do with what you have. Depending on the day and the workload and whether I’m on a lot of calls, I stay at my desk. If it’s more relaxed, like back-end kind of work, I may rotate around the apartment just to switch it up. My husband works from home as well, so we’re constantly navigating both our schedules and space, and what not. It’s kind of like a daily dance.”
Athlete representatives, usually called agents, are often solitary workers, too. Some agencies are large enough to have offices and a staff, but agents are more likely to be working alone and from home.
Brendan Reilly, owner and founder of Boulder Wave in Boulder, Colo. (boulderwave.com), is one of the world’s top agents representing marathoners and road runners. A former business economist who was based in Japan, his clients include all three women who made the 2020 Japanese Olympic team for the marathon, Mao Ichiyama, Honami Maeda, and Ayuko Suzuki, and two-time world marathon champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya. His office is in a small bedroom in his condominium.
“I’m in a two-bedroom condo in Boulder,” Reilly explained over the phone last week. “It’s just a spare bedroom. I try to keep it as a workspace. I don’t go in there unless I work in it.”
Part of Reilly’s business is also arranging high-altitude training camps for teams which travel to the Boulder area, often from Japan. When he was spending more time arranging camps a few years ago, he felt the need to have an office outside of his home because he didn’t want athletes and team leaders routinely coming to his condo. But even with the separate office, it got to be a little too much.
“I almost ended up living in my office,” he admitted. “It’s easy to let that slip. I reached that point where I needed to get this under control.”
Reilly, 60, closed his out-of-home office in 2016 after deciding to cut back the training camp business which, because of the pandemic, is basically dead, anyway. Now he’s back into his work-from-home routine, focused on representing his 12 athlete-clients. He said that his workload has been significantly reduced because there is no action right now on the field of play, but he’s trying to keep his athletes calm and focused on the future.
“Obviously I am advising them not to overdo it on the training side, especially an athlete at the end of their career,” Reilly said, referring to Kiplagat who is slated to run the rescheduled Boston Marathon on September 14. “She’s pretty much lost all of her tune-up races. All of those races she wanted to do in July and August; they don’t exist.”
For those who are still getting used to working from home, these veteran solitary workers offer a few tips. Not surprisingly, all of them take a running break each day.
“I think like everything else you have to experiment and find what works for you,” advised McMillan, 51, who starts his day between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. answering correspondence before heading out for a run. “I encourage people to get set up. Treat it like your workplace.” He added: “They should try to carve out some space.”
McManus agrees, and she also said that it’s OK not to be so hard on yourself and others during these extraordinary times.
“I feel I’m a little bit more gentle on myself, like I don’t feel guilty for taking a break,” McManus said. “Don’t feel bad for that you’re going to take an hour out of your day to do something that’s healthy for you, whether it’s a run. I don’t know. Take a break, listen to some music, just something that is a little bit more nurturing for yourself. I think it’s very easy when you work from home not to have those clear definitions, like my day starts at this time and ends at this time. Like I could work all day if I’m not careful.”
Sara offered similar advice.
“Cut yourself some slack,” she said. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.”