The Scalding Truth - An Expose on Building a Small Business

GreenWoolDyePot Every hooker knows what the picture here is all about. Dye pots. They're hot. When I teach beginner dyeing one of the first things we go over is the safety sheet, "dos" and "don'ts" of safety because dyeing wool is a hot affair (you can quote that). Yesterday I was dyeing four and a half yards of straight up Cushing Silver Gray Green for a 3' x 5' commission I'm working on. I usually like to play with making recipes for my colors, but the customer loves this color just as it is and it makes it super bomb proof to reproduce in the event I need more. I've dyed wool so many times and yet I am never cavalier about the fact that those pots are HOT. Yesterday, however, I lost my focus for a moment while pouring out one of the pots while the spent dye water was still pretty hot. The scalding water hit the side of the sink and splashed on to my stomach, burning me through my shirt (ok, I wasn't wearing a work apron...dumb). I recoiled, which splashed a bit of the water on to my face. It wasn't a good scene. How does an experienced dyer get burned? Carelessness. It's really that simple. If you're focused the chances of this happening are slim to none. But I was very tired yesterday. I have been working from about 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days lately, sometimes longer, up to sixteen hours a day on occasion. And this brings me to today's topic: the scalding truth about building your own business. This is not going to be a "woe-is-me-this-is-so-hard" downer kind of post. This is actually going to be a "go-out-there-and-kick-it" kind of post, but I think it's important to go out there and kick it with realistic expectations, because it is unrealistic expectations that cause discouragement, disappointment, and quitting. If you think, "This is really hard. I must be doing it wrong," and you make all kinds of adjustments (you spend an hour a day in meditation, you make sure you have time to exercise, you take breaks, you go to yoga class, hell, you just savor your wine or Jack Daniels over dinner) and it's still damned hard and impossibly 16 hours a day time consuming at times, you may think, "I'm just not cut out for this. Those other people must just have it (the Mary Pickfords of small business owners) and I don't." NO. It's damned hard. It really is. There's nothing wrong with you. There. Doesn't that feel better? Who am I to say this? Well, here are my proposed qualifications. I have a Bachelors' degree in business administration/marketing from the University of Delaware and was regularly tortured with case studies which I had no idea would come in so handy thirty years later. I grew up in a family business which grew to seven figures and it was damned hard for my father and brother, primarily, and the rest of us at times, to build that. I worked for a small independent real estate company for a decade, and the level of integrity, dedication, and yes, love, the owner there brought to that enterprise remains an inspiration to me. My own mentor has a strong business background as well as being a very fine artist and sometimes when I've asked her, "Do I have to do that?" her unflinchingly honest reply has been, "If you want to be successful you do." I have watched with unending admiration the building and growth of Beekman 1802, where we are so very fortunate to be collaborating artisans, and Josh and Brent don't have a lot of downtime. (Do Josh and Brent have any downtime?) And finally, I have been on this odyssey that is Parris House Wool Works since 2011, full time since 2013, and it's teaching me a great deal about the real world of small business, and more importantly about myself. It's pretty hard. So, for those of you either in business already yourselves (many studio owners out there reading this have waaaaaaaaay more experience than I do and I welcome your comments), or those thinking about making that leap, this blog post is for you. May you find it reassuring. I hate to bring up the overly used analogy of childbirth, but I'm going to. If you went in to that experience not expecting any pain or discomfort whatsoever, and then experienced pain or discomfort, you might also experience undue fear and discouragement instead of being able to better endure one of life's most rewarding moments. Other relevant analogies might be marathon running or producing an epic piece of art. In any case, these things can guessed it...damned hard. So let's get specific. You are going to need to work long hours. Unless you somehow have the capital (which I will talk about later) to hire a staff from the get go, you are going to need to work long hours, at least some of the time. In fact, if you are the one in charge of creating this thing, even if you do have a staff, you're probably going to have to work long hours. There is just a lot to do, and much of it has nothing to do with the actual product or service you are providing. You will be amazed at the amount of peripheral work that materializes in any business, including marketing tasks, social media (I do not consider this optional in 21st century enterprise), accounting, and if you have an on line shop or shops, keeping those updated and sharp. Getting help with these functions is important, but in the beginning the chances are good that you may not have the cash flow to do that. Once you do, you will probably hit another growth phase and you're going to be up to your ears managing that growth and creating your product or service, which is what you got in to this in the first place for. You may not make a profit right away. In fact, you may operate at a loss for a few years. Sad, but true. Not that long ago I read an incredibly keeping-it-real and yet inspiring Facebook post by Josh and Brent of Beekman 1802. They had gone to pay for a doctor's visit for Brent and their debit card was declined because their account only had $1.71 in it. That's right. Beekman 1802. That company with a full blown food line in over a thousand Target stores nationwide (highly recommended, by the way - delicious products and supportive of small American farmers). Josh and Brent have plowed every last available dime that business makes back in to that business, while also giving grants to small farms annually AND helping to support over 160 small artisans like us, and that's how it is in the early years. It just IS. So, if you think you're a failure because your new small business isn't a money vending machine, think again. In the case of Beekman 1802, there is not debt on the business. This is a well publicized fact that they offer out when asked about their business practices in public interviews. However, this may not be possible for you. You may need to take on some debt in order to purchase initial inventory, build a studio or work space, or buy equipment necessary for production. If you are offering something that's strictly a low overhead service, like on line coaching for example, these costs will not be nearly as high. If you do take on debt, it's going to be critical that you service that debt and pay it back on time every time to build or maintain an excellent credit rating. And that costs money. Do everything you can to pay that down or off, which means not taking money out of the business for anything non-essential. This need for initial capital and the ongoing cost of doing business is where product vs. service companies may differ substantially. For example, Parris House Wool Works not only makes a physical product, we supply others who are making physical items for their own use, and occasionally for their own resale. In order to buy at the best wholesale prices, we often need to buy in quantity, and that is sometimes painful. But again, that pain is normal. If it hurts a little to make this month's inventory buy you haven't failed. You're running a young business. You will reach an awkward stage where you don't feel like you're making enough to hire help, but you also know in your bones that if you don't it's going to stunt your growth. Hello! Waving to you from just that place! And I'm going to solve that, because here's the thing about having a small business all your own: you solve things you never thought you could and move on to the next challenge. Eventually this becomes a valuable life analogy. It's not always going to feel good. I recently read an essay by blogger Mark Manson about life purpose and pursuing dreams, and serendipitously, this essay was also referenced by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book "Big Magic" which is this month's pick for our Hooks & Books book group here in Maine. Mark's essays are not for the faint of heart, so brace yourself. What Mark wants us to do when we are considering pursuing dreams is to be really honest with ourselves about "what kind of shit sandwich" we're willing to eat. Those are his words, not mine, but the point is clear. Nothing is going to be unicorns and rainbows all the time, and whatever passion you choose to pursue, it better be one that you're willing to eat the inevitable shit sandwiches for. Yesterday was a shit sandwich day in my business life. I have too much on my plate right now because of deadline convergences beyond my control. I am not yet at a point where I can pay for too much help (see the previous topic points). I was tired, and I burned myself on the dye pots. After that, I had to make a phone call to find out what the heck was going on with a glitch in an ordering system I work with. And that's just a mild shit sandwich day. They happen. And when they happen to you, you have not failed. In fact, you are working through problems and issues that are your best education, and you will get better and better and better, and way more confident, about handling future problems. You are going to have to juggle your time so that your personal life is not sacrificed. This is my first year as an empty nester. It is so much easier for me to do this than it would be were my sons still little boys. I completely get that, and if you are a business owner with small children, I bow down to you. At the other end of things, if you are caring for elderly relatives, I bow down to you as well. Your personal life always - always - has to come first. Sometimes making that happen without dropping the ball on your business is a challenge, and it's a continual issue. Sometimes you'll have to drop the ball on your business, and that's ok. Once again, you have not failed. You will only feel as though you have if your expectation is that you can always do it all. You are going to need to market yourself. And by marketing yourself I will always mean being you, not trying to be anyone or anything your aren't. Having said that... Your customers and clients need to know you exist. When my father was building his business in the 1950s through the 1980s, he had way fewer options for this than we do today. Are we not the luckiest generation of business owners ever to walk the planet in that we have the internet? This blog post is not a how-to on marketing, so I will not go in to what I think you need to do specifically. I'm not expert on that myself and I'll leave that to the business coaches, social media pros, and your ability to Google. I'm just saying that if you have any qualms whatsoever about shouting to the rooftops that you're here, that your product or service is pretty darned awesome, and these are the all the ways a customer can find you, your damned hard business may be super unbelievably damned hard. But again, the silver lining is that this aspect of the business is fun. I have met so many wonderful people in our craft through social media and the internet, including people who have much to teach me. If you aren't as in love with the internet as I am (you still have to use it - sorrynotsorry), there is no overestimating the value of face to face contact either. I have gained so much not only for my business but for my personal growth just going out and teaching, meeting new people, chatting about our craft, going to events - all of that. There is no substitute. I suppose this gets back to Mark Manson's post about finding your passion, the part that doesn't include the words "shit sandwich." It had better be a thing that you love so much that you can't NOT do it, that you want to live it, breathe it, talk about it, and DO it. If this thing you're doing is that kind of thing, marketing yourself may just feel like talking about your favorite subject to people who dig it too. This brings us full circle're going to need to work a LOT. Sometimes when things are particularly intense with Parris House Wool Works, I'll vent a little bit on my personal Facebook page. I'll post that I'm working twelve to sixteen hour days and that I need a freaking break. I'll disappear from my personal Facebook for days because there's no time to even look at it, because if I do the distraction is completely unaffordable. It is during these times that well meaning friends, including professional business coaches, urge me to chill out, take a long break, stop pushing so hard. I usually acquiesce and say, "Yeah, you're right" and then feel like I'm somehow failing in my work because there are times when I know with my deepest intuition and common sense that I have to push that hard to accomplish what I want and need to. But that's how this post came to me. I realized I'm not failing, and if you can relate to all of this, neither are you. If I look at every successful venture I use as a role model, every business person I've ever admired, every athlete or artist or writer I hold in high esteem, they all say, in one way or another, "It's damned hard." They also say they wouldn't have it any other way. The caveat here is that there may well be people who can make it all happen without any of the damned hardness I've outlined above. Hooray for them! I think they are exceedingly rare, especially in businesses that create a physical product or have significant capital or overhead costs. I think they are nonexistent in some industries, for example, the restaurant business. Does anyone work harder than a new restaurant owner who wasn't bankrolled by a trust fund or something? I'm watching from afar a brand new craft brewery go together in Norway, Maine and whew, that looks like a nonstop work campaign. If you are one of those people who can make this seamless and never end up with a you-know-what sandwich on your plate, ignore this entire post. If you are not, then I hope you will take heart. If you are the owner of a small enterprise that you are hopelessly, madly in love with but are still struggling with sometimes, take heart. If you are thinking about starting that small labor of love, take heart. It's like raising children, making art that's really you, becoming an athlete, going as far as you can at this particular moment in yoga, or anything else that brings you a little closer to the best version of yourself - it's hard. And that's ok. Happy entrepreneuring and happy hooking! - Beth

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