At the age of 60, Joann Filomena’s husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, and she was laid off from a job she loved. As she grieved, she took a new job, but found herself unhappy. She soon realized that she wanted to leverage her own life experiences to coach other widows through the trauma and pain of profound loss.
Now, at Widow Coaching Center, Joann helps widows cope with their own grief. She empowers them to become widow coaches themselves, providing the resources they need to build and grow businesses doing unique, powerful work that traditional therapists and grief counselors don’t fully understand.
Today, Joann joins the podcast to share the story of how she built a new life and career after her tragic loss, how she quickly mastered social media and online business, and how the membership model has allowed her to do work she loves for the rest of her life.
- Why Joann’s new job after the loss of her husband wasn’t a good fit for her – and how she gracefully left the corporate world to build her online coaching business.
- How Joann learned about social media, online businesses, and sales funnels – things she used to know nothing about.
- Why Joann retooled her business model to train widow coaches, rather than to simply offer grief coaching for new widows.
- What Joann did when she couldn’t find the exact podcast she wanted to hear – and how creating Widow Cast naturally led to major opportunities for her business.
- How even a small number of subscribing members early on gives you a focus group to work with as you build and refine your online platform and the services you offer.
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- “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” – Henry David Thoreau
TranscriptRead The Transcript
Shelli Varela: Joann Filomena, welcome to the It’s a TRIBE Thing Podcast. How are you?
Joann Filomena: Thank you. I’m great. And I am so delighted to be here so I can share this with you.
Shelli Varela: I’m excited to talk about a subject that oftentimes is uncomfortable for some people, but such a relief when they’re able to actually have these conversations. So, with that said, that’s my little segue into you and what you do. And would you be so kind as to share with people who you serve, how you got to be the person that was in that position, and where you started at the very beginning of your journey?
Joann Filomena: You bet. Right now, I serve widows. The main part of my business right now is I train widows in life coaching skills in the way that I’ve applied them in coaching widows and certifying them as widow coaches because it’s something we’ve never had in this country before and it’s something that is very needed in this country.
Shelli Varela: Absolutely.
Joann Filomena: My husband died suddenly five years ago. I had just been laid off from my corporate job because a big company bought up our medium-sized company. So, all of a sudden, I was suddenly widowed. Everything I’d ever planned or thought about was for the two of us so it was like my whole future like just disappeared right there that night. And I grabbed in the corporate job, just took the first offer that came because I was so financially freaked out as a widow. It started out great and then it got very uncomfortable because they were taking advantage of me and my time, and it clearly was not going to be a good fit. And I realized I wasn’t happy in the job because I was no longer coaching in that job. And that’s when I knew that coaching is something that I just wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had been coaching in the corporate world for decades that it was time. And I left that job, took a lot of guts. I only did it because I was living that year like it was my last year on earth and realized that is not the thing I wanted to be doing my last year on earth.
Shelli Varela: Right. We got to have a bit of a pre-chat and one of the things you were talking about was when you were the COO of this company, how you love the operations portion of it and how that really filled your cup. And then once you got laid off afterwards, it was obviously a crushing blow, especially because of timing. Would you be willing to talk about how you felt after the loss of not only husband but also the loss of your job? And the reason I’m hoping I can bring you back to that point is not a direct comparison, but those same types of feelings about what am I going to do with if I want to start a business or if I feel like I’m not qualified, or if I feel that life has dealt me a blower, I’m on my knees with my face in the dirt. Because you in my humble opinion, are the ultimate epitome of phoenix rising and I’m wondering if you could share that for those people who either on a similar path or to a lesser degree are going through something like that, and they don’t know where to start or what to do. What advice would you give to them?
Joann Filomena: Sure, Shelli. Let me kind of frame it. When I was laid off because the big company bought up our small company, they kept me for a while and then laid me off, being laid off was really frightening because I was 60 years old when I was laid off so I’m going to say that for anyone out there who’s like in their 50s, in their 60s, and think it’s over. It ain’t over yet. But I felt like it was over. It was like who’s going to want to hire me at the age of 60? Because they’re going to think I’m only going to work for a few years and retire, right? So, I wasn’t ready to retire entirely. I was reaching out to companies but I was really kind of scared. And then five months after being laid off, my husband had a massive coronary event, died suddenly at home at the very end of 2014. So, there I was with no job, no income because his retirement benefits did not have surviving spouse benefits. So, my income went away, my medical coverage went away at the end of 2014. And I was watching the ball drop in 2015 thinking, “This is not how I expected to bring in this year.”
And I realized then too when Jim and I brought in 2014, he had no way to know that that was literally the last year of his life and the natural thought progression was, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know that 2015 is not the last year of my life.” So, I kind of vowed right then and there less than 48 hours after he had died, that I was going to live 2015 as if it were my last year on the planet, that I really wanted to just own it, and go after it. And I did. Out of desperation, I took another corporate job right away, because I was so financially scared. I mean, zero income. It’s a little scary, right? And it started out awesome and then, as I said, it was not a good fit. I was not coaching people. I was just crunching numbers and becoming a hitman for them. They had me working so many hours. It was crazy. Then when I woke up one morning and realized and thought, “Oh, no, no, no, no. This is not what I want to be doing the last year of my life.”
So, I quit that job that day, made a graceful exit. I was really proud of myself because I gave them an exit interview, told them what they still needed to fix in their company. I felt good about it. I was like fist-pumping. And then I woke up the next morning, Shelli, and the first thought was, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have a paycheck.” I’m all alone. I’m widowed. I’m still in the midst of hard grief for losing my husband. And the only thing I knew is that coaching is what I want to do with the rest of my life. That was my direction. I knew that that’s what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life. And that’s when I began building a coaching practice working with widows, right? And the truth is, Shelli, you talk about phoenix rising, yeah, I was like I had nothing and I really didn’t even know how to do these things. I was barely on social media. I mean, I turned 61 right after he died. So, social media was still kind of an unknown to me, let alone the idea of launching a business on the internet, and leveraging social media to market it. I had no clue.
I got my certification, started coaching. I felt like I spent a year in Harvard with millennials learning how to do these things on the internet like how do you do a Facebook ad? How do you get attention? And began building my business coaching widows and then eventually realizing what I really needed to be doing was training widows how to coach because therapists, grief counselors, they’ve studied grief, they’re very good at grief, but losing your partner is so different just like next level grief and there are so many different implications. It rips your whole life out from under you. And nobody, and widows will always say this, nobody gets it but another widow. Nobody really understands how all-encompassing this is. So, that’s when I knew I wanted to start training and certifying widow coaches that this needed to be a thing in this country. So, my business was kind of built from the top down. I began training widow coaches, then realized they didn’t know the next step. So, many of them are coming back saying, “You know, I’m certified and I know how to coach,” and I realized they were going to go through the whole year that I went through that first year. I think I only made like $14,000 total in sales, and I spent a lot of that money in setting things up.
Shelli Varela: So, you packaged what you learn from the Harvard millennials.
Joann Filomena: Right. That’s when I began to offer them once they certified, they could do a one-year mastermind with me and I would teach them how I built a six-figure business online. Teach them how to market, how to talk to prospective clients, all of that so that they could build a practice. But what I missed along the way was the starting step. I begin to realize that not all widows are ready to learn how to coach and build a business for themselves. I mean, the 12-week program is amazing and a lot of widows do it just for their own personal transformation. But not all widows can even afford to do that for their 12 weeks of recovery time for what they’re dealing with. And that’s when I realized, “Oh, I need the first entry point. I need some kind of membership where widows who do not want to become widow coaches have something that is taking them step through step on how to rediscover who it is they are now, how to reconnect with themselves, how to understand the difference between being lonely or just being alone.”
All of those things, so that they go from being stuck and scared and lonely through to being able to envision a new future for themselves again and start setting goals again and being in touch with who they are, and begin feeling motivated for life, begin living life again. So, that’s where the whole membership concept came in, Shelli, when I realized I’m missing that first piece of what I offer is that like lower level offering, and that way I could serve and reach so many more widows, and help so many more widows who there’s been like a couple of things out there as far as little clubs or memberships, but nothing that included like a solid membership where they were going to receive coaching and videos to take them through a journey.
Shelli Varela: Yeah, absolutely. I know that part of me, Stu often says you come for the content but stay for the community and in our chat previous, you were giving examples of some of the things that a new widow goes through that unless you’ve been there, you might not even consider. You can be in a partnership with your person and then they pass and your entire social circle changes and you had mentioned that oftentimes they will pull out of their couple dumb friends because they just really are not feeling included and it’s making them hurt even worse. And what a gift it is for you to be able to provide a community where that individual who otherwise may be sitting at home alone can come to this group and just have a big mama bear hug from so many other people that that know exactly what they’re going through and have been there and walk that path and have a different level of empathy for that.
Joann Filomena: Right. They’re connecting with other widows but more importantly, instead of going to grief groups that are depressing, because everyone’s telling their sad story over and over again or going to a counselor or therapist that doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be a widow, they’re able to get coaching from someone who’s walked through that fire. And I am able to put myself out there as an example of what’s possible after you lose your spouse. Because so many of us don’t have great examples even. We just know our moms and our grandmothers like they just sat around the house and waiting for the mailman to come all day. We think our life is over when our spouse dies. Our friends kind of go away. They don’t know what to say to us. They don’t know how to connect with us. If it’s a younger widow, often their couple of friends feel a little threatened because her status just shifted to being single which is like the craziest thing.
The last thing a new widow was thinking about is a new husband or another man in their life. That’s not what they’re looking for. So, that’s when I realized that I wanted to do the membership site. And again, Shelli, it was just like when I decided that I would go out and build a coaching practice on my own and not work the corporate world anymore, I was back at square one. I had no clue what membership sites did, how they were built. You know, I really knew nothing about it. I had in the previous two, three years of coaching learned how to leverage social media, I knew how to do a Facebook ad, I knew how to build a funnel even though it like takes me two days just to relearn everything every time I’m going to do something new again. But the membership site, yeah, that was a big scary thing to try to take on because I didn’t even know where to begin.
Shelli Varela: Well, you are mind-blowingly inspiring for a series of reasons. I always say that not all gifts come wrapped in a bow and for you, this devastating incident that you had to go through, but then also the fear of I don’t know what I’m going to do next, like you have so earned the right to champion these women and take them from a place of being in your exact position where it’s like, “I don’t maybe have a paycheck. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m all alone,” and being the shepherd on that journey and taking them not only through the devastation with a handhold but also giving them another option for an income for a life for some security. And having done all of the legwork at 60, 61 years old to be able to learn all these things that many of these women in a state of grief that they would be in would probably not be open to doing the hard learning that you’ve done and to be able to package it to them, give them another chance, I just I don’t have enough to say about what you’re doing.
Joann Filomena: Thank you so much. You know, it’s not a real easy path and it’s not going to be for any widow for it to be an easy path. But if I can make that an easier path, and I look back at the beginnings of all of this, where when I launched my podcast, I have a podcast, I launched it because when Jim died, I went looking for a podcast in iTunes. I just wanted to hear another widow story. And when I searched, there was nothing and I thought how can that be possible? Because I know if I search Game of Thrones, there’s like 100 people podcasting on Game of Thrones, right? There was nothing. So, a year later, as I was building a coaching practice and actually, I started out coaching, stop overeating, because when I certified, Jim had only been gone about six months. It was still pretty new and fresh and raw for me but at the time, when I was working to launch Weight Coach, I realized, you know what, I just need to put something out there for widows. There has to be something in iTunes for Windows.
And I turned on my microphone, just started talking and launched Widow Cast just not as a business, just out of my own pocket straight from the heart. And that podcast changed everything because my listeners knew I was a professional life coach. I started getting emails saying, “Please, can I hire you? I am so stuck. I really need you.” So, that was like one thing leading to the next that built on what I was doing. But I am so excited at the prospect of being able to take this membership site to the level that I envision it being so that there is something in the world that’s more than just, “Join our club and maybe there’ll be a meetup group in your area,” and really nothing more than that to an actual program that can take them through all the different levels of this journey, that only another widow really knows all the different levels of this journey but it is. And, honest to God, it is like a hero’s journey, and I love that you talked about coming up out of the fire because I really see every widow having the potential to come up out of those ashes, like the phoenix rising in their life and that’s what I want them to know is possible.
Shelli Varela: Yeah. And some of them won’t be able to see it for themselves. So, to be able to look at their possibility through your eyes and through the eyes of the coaches that you’re training is life transformational, and maybe in some cases lifesaving.
Joann Filomena: Yeah. So, that was the whole idea for the membership site. And how did I do a membership site? Man, I just started doing it. Like, I was clueless.
Shelli Varela: What was the biggest fear or doubt or misconception that you had, that was much easier than you thought it would be?
Joann Filomena: It was easier instead of harder. I found easier instead of harder. Actually, I think what was easier was I decided that I would go ahead and open the doors with only a couple months’ worth of material ready for them. And that could stay ahead of them by it’s like laying track in front of the train while the train is running. I got that train headed, and I didn’t have much track out there. So, I had to lay track and every month get the next set of content and videos ready and in that membership site before the first member through the door hits that month on their membership. So, that’s kind of a scary thing to open the doors where everything isn’t perfect, everything isn’t ready, everything isn’t in place. Like when I opened the doors on my membership, Shelli, I didn’t even know where it was going to go. I knew what they needed to learn, but I didn’t have like the whole thing even written out for myself from beginning to end. So, it was a work in progress the whole way.
But here’s what made it easier doing it that way. I had a couple people who came in the doors initially, and I’m talking like I think I had three members but because I had those members, it made me have to do the material and the content month-to-month, first of all. It also provided me some feedback, right? I think by the time I was up to like eight or nine members, all of a sudden, I had the realization. It was like, oh, if I need to know what could be better in here, all I have to do is… I only have eight people in there. I can sit down and phone every one of them and say, “Hi, this is Joanne. I would really love to hear about your experience with the site at this point in the membership.” So, yeah, while it may sound like to some people who like you build this whole membership site and you launch it and you do all the marketing, and then you only have a little handful of people come in the doors. And a lot of people might think they totally failed at that point because really at that point, I had spent a lot more money on building that membership than I had come back in off of it.
So, it sounds like a failure. But it’s not a failure, because what you’ve got is you’ve got your basic group that can give you feedback. You’ve got members in there that you have to produce for. So, it forces you to build out your site for things…
Shelli Varela: For sure. It’s almost like a focus group and I would guess because I know this has been true in many, many cases is oftentimes they ask for things that you just either took for granted or never thought of. And it’s almost like once you get the momentum and you get rolling, they’ll tell you what they want. They’ll tell you what they want more of.
Joann Filomena: Right or they’ll tell you what you’re doing right which is also good. The funny thing is when I launched, I mean, I learned later that this is a thing for new sites, you know, to do an initial launch just to get those initial people in there or to build momentum. I had no idea it was a thing and I really struggled with the idea of it was such a disappointment. It was such a failure. Because like I thought I’m going to open the doors, all these widows are just going to rush in there, because there’s nothing in the world like this for them. You know, it’s so amazing. And then, like I said, I had like, two, three people and it was one step away of just shutting it down, give them back their money. This didn’t work. And instead, I just thought, “Nope. If I only have three people, I’m just going to serve them like they’re 3,000. I’m going to keep doing my thing.” And thank goodness I did. I mean, I’m not 3,000. I still don’t have a whole bunch of members. It’s still in that stages of development.
I think that anybody who launches a membership site, you need, one, jump into it. It doesn’t have to all be built and perfect. Two, realize that whole first year, maybe even the first two years is really developmental stages for your membership. And if you approach it that way, instead of thinking you’re failing because everything isn’t like fireworks are not going off in the background, that’s okay because you are laying the foundation for something that’s going to be remarkable in the world.
Shelli Varela: I think it was Henry David Thoreau and I’m not sure what the quote is exactly. It said, “Fear not for the castles that you build in the sky. There were they meant to be. Now build foundations under them.”
Joann Filomena: Yeah. And the way…
Shelli Varela: Sorry. Go ahead.
Joann Filomena: The way I looked at this membership, you know, when I talked about I built my company from like the top down because I realized I’ve got this class, certifying widows as coaches, I’ve got a mastermind for them to help them build businesses, I suddenly realized that my business did not have any foundation, those castles in the sky. It was like I was leaving out 20 million widows, no foundation. So, to me, that’s what launching the membership site was. It was putting that foundation underneath everything that I’m building and doing.
Shelli Varela: Absolutely. Well. I cannot salute you more for the work that you’re doing. It’s profound, it’s needed, and its ripple effect I think is insurmountable. And I think as time goes on, and you start seeing the results of not just your widow coaches, but the people that they’re coaching, the amount of healing that you’re creating as a result of saying yes, when you could have said no and when many people do, I just wanted to acknowledge you for that.
Joann Filomena: Thank you. Thank you so much. Because I really want to just change what everybody thinks about becoming widowed. I want to change what women anticipate. Or if your husband dies what you think widowhood is supposed to be. I want to change what society thinks widowhood is. Let’s just change that whole journey.
Shelli Varela: Absolutely. And you’re the person to do it. If people are looking for you online and they need your support, your help, or want to work with you in any sort of way, where’s the best place they can find you?
Joann Filomena: Best places to find me? Oh, gosh, if you’re interested in one of my membership, go to the membership site and get on my waitlist, because I only open the doors a couple of years times a year.
Shelli Varela: What’s the address for that, the URL for that?
Joann Filomena: That site is WidowCoachingCenter.com.
Shelli Varela: And is that center C-E-N-T-E-R or C-E-N-T-R-E?
Joann Filomena: Nope. C-E-N-T-E-R. Thank you. Widow Coaching Center. To find me, in general, is JoannTheLifeCoach.com.
Shelli Varela: Awesome. I appreciate you so much and so grateful for what you’re doing out there. It’s so needed and you’re amazing.
Joann Filomena: Thank you, Shelli.
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