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.