The Small Business Files: The Early Days

The primary motivation for throwing in perfectly good careers (lawyer, commercial analyst) and taking off for the other side of the world for us was taking over the small business that had been in the family name for almost a hundred years. To say we were even more in over our heads than we possibly could have imagined is saying something – this year has been a baptism of fire like I never anticipated. However, we have learnt some very strange and helpful things along the way, and I had the urge to write them down.

Working with your spouse takes a special kind of patience

I married a very excellent human who beats the pants off me on every single measure of kindness, patience, generosity of spirit and exactitude, but even so, working with your spouse is a uniquely ridiculous dimension to add to your relationship. The first thing my partner said to me when I informed him of this utterly new path we were embarking on (after, of course, congratulating me and saying what a great idea it was), was a story of a former colleague who had taken off to do a similar thing, but was back within a year carrying horror stories of working with family and failing to agree (we not only work together as a married couple, but very closely with my father in law) and basically hating every second of it. I felt extremely encouraged. But we are 7 months in, and there have been moments where I’ve wanted to kill everyone, but to the credit of my husband and father in law, who are both very outstanding men, we are all still alive, and have found a way to productively and positively work together. To do this, on my part, requires internal reminders whenever I’m ready to yell that ‘everyone is doing their best to make everyone else’s life easier’. I literally repeat that to myself when I go to drive to the gym and my car is missing because it’s been taken to help a crew out on a jobsite (this happens all the time, and is my favourite example because nothing enrages me more than booking into a class and getting ready to book it down the highway only to be staring at an empty driving and questioning how the hell I got to where I am if there is no car?!) It’s a good reminder that no one is out to ruin my day. They’re just doing the best they can to make everyone’s life easier.

Productivity looks different in small business ownership

It looks like every time you are sitting there with the white noise of the impossible list of to dos threatening to drown you, picking up and doing any one thing. ANY one thing. It may be the least important thing. It may be the thing that was more efficient to do at the same time as this other thing because it’s on the way to the other thing. It may be something that doesn’t need to be done until 2020 (sometimes I write lists of plants we might need if the predicted weather stays exactly the same for the next two years, of which there is zero chance because Michigan). But it is nonetheless a thing that needs to get done, and unlike my rose-coloured-view of my life before at Big Law Firm, no one else is going to do it. There is no nice cleaner who comes in at 6 every day to vacuum the floor and wipe down my keyboard and deal with all the rank dishes left in the kitchen (god I miss that). That is our job. There’s also no nice IT team to come and fix my phone when emails aren’t working, or fix the internet when it keeps telling me the IP address doesn’t work, or the printer won’t EFFING CONNECT when someone is waiting for a plan or an invoice.

To deal with this, I now maintain a list titled ‘Things That Are Stressing Me Out’. It includes fun items like ‘fixing monthly taxes’, ‘company branding overhaul’ and ‘buy printer ink’. Whenever I feel paralysed by the white noise, I just add items to that list. If I’m feeling virtuous, sometimes I complete one or two items. Usually the least important ones. That act is often enough for me to find fifteen other things I can do quickly that will drown out the static of stress for a while.

No one does your filing

I miss my secretary so bad. First, because she was the best, coolest person I’ve ever met and I love her. Second, because she just got my shit done. If I needed help with anything, she did it, better than I could, in half the time, and freed me up to do the billable work. I am now my own secretary, and if it were up to me, I’d be fired because I am useless. I leave piles of important paperwork everywhere, and I have no consistent systems that are employed with thought and consistency. I do prefer to blame this on my fellow work mates who like to ignore my lists and workflow solutions. But it really comes down to me, and it is exhausting. Often, ‘deal with file pile’ is at the top of my ‘Things That Are Stressing Me Out List’. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that second is ‘don’t have eyelash extensions and really want them’. Anyway, just like folding the washing, this job builds up to the most impossible and scariest thing in my mind, but every time I actually do it, it takes 5 minutes and a load off. Work in progress.

Routines can’t exist

We naively thought that owning a business would mean magical things like ‘control over our own time!’ and ‘ability to set routines that suit us!’ While my days are now much more fluid than they were in my previous world, so that I can do things like go to CrossFit at 10.15 and then spend an hour at home cooking and showering and pottering and grocery shopping (because I go into the office at 6.30 with husbo), you are just as subject to the unpredictable timing of the whims of clients and colleagues as you are in any other job. The main thing you have ownership over is how you choose to deal with them. We haven’t chosen to deal with them in an orderly and routine fashion (well, I personally am a big fan of the orderly routine I devised but I’ve been kindly scoffed at), but that is in some ways a reflection of the small town approach to life. But just like a traditional job, you have to do what has to be done, it’s just different people asking/telling you what those things are, and when they want them.

Seasonal businesses are a whole different ball game

We moved to our new home right in the depth of the sad part of winter. There was a deep blanket of snow over everything we could see. The ground was frozen solid. Things don’t grow in the snow and in solid ground (fun fact). So, this is our prep season. We get ready for the onslaught of summer in northern Michigan. We buy inventory. We plan. This year we built a building! Many of these things cost money, and they cost a lot of money, and rudely, we don’t really make any money (because well, there isn’t any actual client work to do). So when the snow melts and the ground thaws, you go, and you go as hard and as fast as you humanly can, and then you go some more, until the ground freezes again, because you have a short short window in NoMi where the sun shines and you can bear to be outside.

That’s enough for now. Despite and because of all of the above, business ownership is just as rewarding as I always hoped.

 

 

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Woops

Well world, I blinked and summer was OVER, the leaves are changing, the air is a little cooler and I cannot believe where we are right now. The end of the year is in sight, and we my friends are still alive!

What’ve we been up to lately? Well, for one, dealing with the metric tonne of tomatoes that my first vegetable garden has put forth. I have thrown away more perfectly good tomatoes than I care to admit, because it is physically impossible to deal with all of them. The freezer is packed to the brim with pasta sauce, cherry tomatoes, diced tomatoes, baked tomatoes and on my laziest days, whole tomatoes shoved in bags. I’ve eaten egg and tomato omelettes with kale (another bountiful garden friend) every day for months and I am DONE. All of that aside, I’m very proud of my budding green thumb. I never truly appreciated the deep sense of pride that comes from eating food you watched appear before your very eyes. The garden has also produced a petrifying number of poblano peppers (no idea what to do with them, but they are very cute looking), and the most delicious green capsicums. Those I was able to eat at the pace they grew, because I am the ultimate consumer of capsicums with every meal. My key takeaways from my first season as a vegetable grower are: visit your plants every day, tell them you’re proud of them when they give off fruit, and harvest regularly, since I felt for every one kale leaf I snapped off, another ten would shoot out the top. Bonus tip, snap kale leafs from the bottom of the plant, so that the energy keeps shooting up.

The major enemy in my veggie patch was a little bastard called the tomato hornworm. When the plants were weighed down with green tomatoes that were just not ripening, we noticed that there were leaves disappearing, looking like they’d just been munched right off. Turns out this is the classic calling card of this mean green tomato machine, and we spent several weeks hunting and squishing the disgusting things until they left my tomatoes well alone. While I was initially devastated, the tomatoes were so prolific I almost wish they had eaten a few more off so I wasn’t feeling so wasteful.

Other than the quaint life of veggie farming, I harvested a bajillion raspberries, blackberries, and black raspberries in the hottest weeks of July. Across our farm are lots of wild berry bushes, and myself and Taco the berry hunter would spend hours filling buckets with berries that I turned into cobbler or froze to later top pavlovas or make jam. I haven’t actually made the jam yet because I realized I actually don’t eat jam that much and kind of love berries in their original form too much. Taco also loves berries in their original form, and would literally snort like a pig while eating the ripe ones straight off the vine. We had some magical afternoons in the woods at the back of the farm exploring for new plants, getting prickled and dripped on and stuffing our faces. You’d almost think he was a fellow human.

We continued to learn daily the trials and tribulations of running a business. We’ve both been expanding our skillsets – me into mastering the bookkeeping and taking on permitting, and the husbo into scheduling, and both of us into mastering the plant material that makes up the idyllic northern Michigan landscapes. There is an infinite number of diseases to learn, watch for and combat, and new plant varieties that come out each season, but the magic of living in the greenscape of Petoskey is that we can watch it unfold. The leaves are starting to turn and my pumpkins are starting to ripen, so a whole new set of learning is about to take place as trimming season kicks off, and larger landscaping projects come back online after the summering crowd departs to the real world again.

And why stop there? I’m proceeding with studying for the various tests that make up passing the bar in the State of New York (who knows when that will be, but I’m hoping February 2020), and decided to bite the bullet and get certified as a personal trainer, which has always been an ambition of mine. We have wonderful plans for a two week escape to New Zealand, and to defrost in Australia in January. And if that isn’t a whirlwind high level update on the random things that make up life here, well I don’t know what is. Although I did forget to mention that I am OFFICIALLY A PERMANENT RESIDENT, and I opened a bank account and my debit card has the Disney princess castle on it.

Looking forward to sharing more regularly as fall comes up.

Today’s To Do List

  • Pick berries – the season is too short! The berries came into bloom last weekend, and already they’re starting to wane. I’ve eaten my weight in fresh raspberries that glisten in the sunshine, and Taco has discovered his favourite treat. We let him run free in the woods at the back of the tree nursery and he comes back full of sugar and stained in berry juice. It’s awesome.
  • Rip out dead redwood trees with a loader. Driving the loader still petrifies me, and I absolutely hate when I accidentally end up with both front tyres up in the air because I’ve cooked the controls and can’t dig the bloody tree out. But I no longer sob my way through the hour I spend in the machine, so that’s progress.
  • Dry basil. There’s a basil jungle happening in my veggie garden, and since the tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet, I’m stripping back the basil bushes and experimenting with drying it out to give to my sister in law, and to stock up for winter.
  • Run 10km on the wheelway. I’ve decided to run a marathon. It’s been a few years since I did a few long distance runs (at a safe plod, but still covered the distance!), so I’m working my way back up to being used to being a little bored and choofing on anyway.

What a life hey?

Phone calls

Observation of northern Michiganders in their natural habitat: most appropriate cellphone greeting is ‘Hey you wild turkey!’

Fridays at work in Northern Michigan

I drive into the farm – the clouds are starting to set in over what has been a brilliantly blue summer. I’m singing along to my Broadway musical spotify playlist because I have fantastic taste. I pull around past the first crop of trees to see my husband holding a shotgun. He’d spotted the woodchuck that lurks in the outcropping of stone bravely venturing into the open space in front of the woodbark. In a normal world, this would be an opportunity to stay away and continue to coexist peacefully by ignoring each other. In northern Michigan, your father-in-law keeps a shotgun in the truck. Husband goes on the prowl. The woodchuck wisens up and disappears. We never found the woodchuck. There is now permanently a shotgun in our office. This is my new normal.

28 & Feeling Great!

As always it’s been too long between courses. I write a thousand blog posts in my head but very few make their way onto the internet! I’ve come to realize I have put a lot of pressure on myself to record life in many forms – but in this particular season, there’s just too much life to be living to be writing it down regularly.

Spring was short lived around here as summer hurried along to grace us with the lavish long days of sunlight. We’ve had the occasional day of grey, but on the whole it has been day after gorgeous day. As life is now revolving around the outdoors, I’ve paid a fascinates attention to the blooms that occur around us, and it’s been eye opening to watch the wave of colour occur. Coming from somewhere that is permanent sunlight, I don’t feel the change in bloom and colour is quite as drastic as northern Michigan. And almost daily I feel like I watch some flowers poke up while others die off. The pear trees were magical in early spring, which gave way to the lilacs, and now the peonies, which are luscious. The daisies have sprung up now the crocuses bid farewell. And honestly sometimes I feel as though I’m living in a storybook.

I’ve experimented with my first real garden and seen crazy results. Kale has flourished (shame it tastes heinous) and the tomatoes are already bearing fruit. I had one small capsicum which was eviscerated by an overenthusiastic puppy, but more are popping out. I never understood it before, but there is something deeply calming about watering your garden, observing the daily changes.

In all this I’ve become extraordinarily obsessed with our home. Someone more insightful than me commented that it stems from an international move. Despite the many similarities between the USA and Australia, for which I’m very thankful, there is always the great divide between belonging effortlessly and working hard everyday for even the smallest things- navigating the shops, working out where to get your car fixed, making a phone call. And everywhere you go you use a voice that doesn’t fit in (although I’ve adopted a fake twang for when I can’t be bothered), and you work hard to walk on the correct side of the lane and find that rice doesn’t have a big aisle marker but is confusingly hidden with the condiments. So all you crave when you get home is a space that feels like yours. We’ve been very fortunate to rent from the in laws, but it did come with the minor drawback of having their ‘stuff’. It is a great gift, as house stuff is devastatingly expensive. But it came with the sense that no space was truly my own. I’ve attacked this with rigor, scouring Pinterest and the cheapest stores around to bring a sense of me to my home. I’ve realized how slow that process is (SO SLOW), but I’m already feeling more ownership of our house.

Alongside this is a new obsession with homemaking. We are working hours like I’ve never pulled before (and husbo is taking it to the next level), leaving minimal time for eating well, tidying up and sanity, although the state of the house causes further insanity. I’ve never been a naturally tidy person, and my mind is always on the millions of projects I’d like to tackle and then brought back painfully to earth by the insurmountable burden of keeping house. It’s a bloody pain in the arse and generates a lot of internal friction between my modern beliefs that the home burden should be shared and feeling like a slave, while also recognizing I have more disposable time and the balance of life means the home is currently my problem. Also, I’m the one insisting on a certain state, so it isn’t exactly fair to force husbo to do what I alone want. Anyway, my constant battle.

I’m still ploughing through my reading goal, and sit at 23 books. My most recent read is Turia Pitt’s memoir Unmasked. I’m completely besotted with her and subscribe to her weekly email, so it was enjoyable to read in more detail her story. Her strengths definitely lie in providing practical and logical tips for getting out of your own way and getting stuff done. And I just love her incredible full and fabulous but normal life. I’m now harassing the husbo for ideas of how to be more awesome and fabulous.

Until next time!

Spring is here!

I thought I’d never say this, but spring has darn well arrived in northern Michigan and I’m thrilled about it. Although today is only a meagre 3 degrees, it is finally bearable to exist outside. The skies look blue. The frost laws are coming off! Trees can be dug! Birds are singing! It is, simply put, bloody delightful.

However, with the dawn of spring comes the dawn of work season. We are continuing our large build, and seeing some exciting progress towards livability (hooray). Tree baskets are coming out, and the phone has begun to ring from people who want to dig trees, and people who are ready for their homes to be beautified. The ice is coming off the lakes, so docks are going in, and people are ready to spend their summertime in Northern Michigan. Thanks to an extremely irregular spring (or so everyone likes to tell me), the lakes are only now defrosting, and many are being told their docks won’t be put in this year, as there is just no time. It’s all relatively unheard of, and the basis of a lot of small talk.

As a result of work commencing, I’ve now been fully immersing myself in the business of working. For most, this probably goes without saying, but I’ve come to realise that a lot of business ownership is HR and running errands. A lot of people need looking after, and a lot of things need to be done, to allow your employees to work. On top of that, and for me especially, there’s a significant amount of learning to be done in the business of trees. I found some pretty helpful resources at the local library, including a great little read called ‘Running a Successful Landscaping Company’ (there really is a book for everything). My next goal is to conquer the various reading and study materials issued by the nursery association for certified landscapers. At this stage, I have accumulated 0 of the required 2000 hours of landscaping work experience required to certify, but I tell you what, I will learn every detail in those darn books if it kills me. The 2000 hours can come later.

In the non-work world, we’re booked in for a weekender to Nashville, TN in July! I’ve been slowly working towards my 52 books in a year goal, and trying to desperately to kick the horrid little post-wedding weight gain with some serious Crossfit commitment. If America wasn’t so bloody good at pizzas, I would be fine. I also went through the mortifying (now kind of funny) experience of being followed to my car by staff at the grocery store after someone accused me of not paying for my groceries (I had bought a $1 pack of cookies and two king-size Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, there was a reason I was getting out of the store as fast as possible). They knocked on my window while I was scarfing down the cookies and made me return to the store to prove I’d paid. If I’d been in my right mind I would’ve told them to shove it, but instead I handled it like a mature adult and cried. All over my $1 cookies.

Adjustment is slow and steady. I’ve grown a really nice network of people I know and small group of friends, which does wonders for the days when the sky is grey and the dog is eating your shoes and you start to question what the heck you were thinking giving up a warm and perfectly pleasant life that you enjoyed complaining about. I’ve attended a lot of the events run by small businesses and charities. I go to the library practically every second day just to look around.

Taco is now 4 months old and so big I can barely pick him up. He now enjoys barking at and biting me, stealing my undies and going to Crossfit. He can jump out of the car, but isn’t fond of getting in, and prefers to lie down on the floor of the car rather than the seat while driving. He loves to go to the large housewares stores and pee on their floors, and inexplicably has become low-key insta famous thanks to a cute video of him ‘helping’ with shoveling the driveway of the winter-storm snow.

Two months married!

Okay so I spend a lot of my life on Pinterest, and see a lot of amazing Pinterest cover pages about how people make one gazillion dollars a minute just by blogging and if I follow their two easy tips, I can too! But what I feel like this stupid pins fail to disclose is that even if you did make an email subscriber list, and you made pretty pinnable pictures and you became an affiliate to every program under the sun, you still need to sit down and write, and I tell you what, that is hard. So, in short, I will not be becoming a viral blogger sensation anytime soon. I am too lazy. But I do want to record a little more of our new life as landscape business owners in Northern Michigan.

Firstly, we’ve officially been married for two months and it is darn great. And we’ve been living in our new town for almost two months, and that’s darn great too. And I have worn lululemon to my new ‘job’ every single day that I have worked and that, my friends, is the pinnacle of living.

Small town life is taking a strange type of adjustment. There seems to be a preference for older people to live around you, which is sad for my social life. In fact, we were so hard pressed for youthful activities that we went with our friend to a Bunko tournament in the neighbouring Boyne City. This is a six-monthly event where all twenty people over the age of 60 who live in the town get together and get extremely competitive about dice-rolling. As described by Wikipedia, it is a game of zero skill and complete luck, but that didn’t stop many of the people at my tables getting a little chatty when the scoring wasn’t perfect, or when someone called a Bunko (lol) (I got a Bunko) when it was questionable if they had indeed Bunkod, or if someone rang the bell for getting to the final score of 21 when they maybe hadn’t! Oh my. The drama. I lost almost all of the games I played, which did mean I got to move around a lot, as you change tables if you are the loser, but was kind of a hit to my self esteem and belief in my dice-rolling capabilities. However, I did roll a Bunko (hooray) and my prize for ending up with the Bunko bag (who the eff called it Bunko, honestly) was a free ticket to the next Bunko tournament in November, so I’ll keep you updated on whether there is any significant improvement in my luck that time. But it also means six months until my next outing, so we’ve started to look for other ways to occupy our social time.

Taco the pup is now three months old and three thousand times bigger than when we first brought him home. We were very smug about how quickly he learnt to stop peeing inside, but he’s now kindly reverted back to peeing on the carpet outside our bedroom. I’m convinced it’s more a show of defiance that he too is darn important rather than failed potty training, but we’ll see how things develop. Taco spends pretty much the entire day with me – I intentionally wake up 20 minutes earlier than required so I can let him out of his crate and get maximum cuddle time, since that’s his most snuggly hour. Taco is gradually mastering dog skills like the full downward dog morning stretch – although he just faceplants into the carpet, he is giving it his best. He also yawns (surprisingly not a common occurrence as a minipup), poops in odd locations like halfway up rocks, and likes to curl up on my feet while I’m cooking. After our little wakeup snug, he goes for a big run around the perimeter of our farm, comes with me to the office, home to cook breakfast, back to the office, to the Crossfit gym, to the office, in the car to the shops, then for another walk. And even with all that together time, he somehow grows when I’m not looking. It does pay off because I am officially Favourite Parent, and the only one from whom he tolerates extended cuddles, but on the downside, it is my jacket that is ruined from his co-opting it as his bed, and my socks that seem to vanish into his crate.

The day to day running of a seasonal business has taken lots of life adjustment. I haven’t been involved in an industry that is as heavily dictated by the weather as landscaping (funnily enough, you can practice law no matter what the weather, which clients seem to like even if they don’t want to pay for it), but the long frosty spring has meant that many activities can’t occur because well, the ground is frozen. In fact, it is early April and we are experiencing a winter storm, which blanketed our farm with snow so deep that Taco literally disappeared into it. That makes it very difficult to plant or dig trees, lay pipe, pour cement, or do many other things, including, in my case, becoming a zero-waste person and burying my compost. When I tried to bury my first bag of compostable kitchen waste this morning, I could barely lift my shovel (my hands were very cold on account of the frost), and when I did manage to get it moving, I quickly found out the ground, and all the green waste on top of the ground, was frozen solid and my Very Impressive CrossFit Muscles would do little to shift it all. The solution was to hide the bag of compost under one or two leaves and hope that nature would have its way and I would single-handedly save the planet. I think it went well, but I’ll keep you updated.

However, other than being a zero-waste household (Clark is PUMPED about it), the frozenness doesn’t stop other things happening. Really, what I’m learning, is an extended winter means more time to prepare for the upcoming season. Prepare, in seasonal business terms, really means more time to spend money on things. And on things that aren’t very romantic or fun either, like large amounts of pipe, and tree baskets. What I am really looking forward to over the course of the year is watching what these preparation orders become – in terms of actual work product performed by our employees, and final landscaped homes in the area, and all the steps along the way to get them there. That was the kind of oversight and involvement I craved previously, and while I’m finding out it is really hard to keep yourself up to speed on all fronts at all times to put together that picture, I hold onto the belief that the final knowledge of the lifecycle of the season will be extremely rewarding.

I need to brave the winter storm to undertake preparations for the husbo’s birthday tomorrow. I’ve scraped more car windows in the last week than I have in my life (cars don’t frost shut in Australia, weird), and I can’t say I love it. However the one time laziness won out and I figured that the warmth of the car would melt the snow and ice was extremely traumatic – unsurprisingly, I was wrong about the warmth of the car beating out the snow and ice. Driving with such limited visibility is extraordinarily dangerous and absolutely petrifying, so I bailed out into the driveway of the dentist’s, and used my cold fingernails to desperately try to remove some of ice. It kind of sufficed.

Well, enough procrastinating, this snow is going absolutely nowhere. Happy spring, and more updates about Life as a Landscaper to come.