This is a guest post from my wife Darla, herself an entrepreneur and chef with a healthy dinner delivery service and a food/recipe blog. Darla and I made different trade-offs with our businesses and I wanted her to share her perspective.
A lot has been said in response to Jason’s post about sacrificing your health for your startup. Some think his position is excessive; some say it depends on your goals. Can you run a lifestyle business that doesn’t require so much personal sacrifice?
I did. I started Fork In The Road, a wee little healthy dinner delivery business. I actively chose to stay small and was profitable and happy for years. So what about sacrifice? Here’s my story.
I have the typical ambitions of an entrepreneur but I also wanted to plan for my future as a mother. Some women can divide their time and energy between kids and a career, but trying to do both would make me incredibly unhappy. From the start, I decided that when I got pregnant I would walk waddle away from the business for as long as needed to give 100% to my family. I also wanted to have time for travel, for visiting my family far away, and for a social life.
Knowing I would stay small, I kept overhead to a minimum. I avoided rent payments by cooking in client’s homes. When I got big enough, I rented kitchen space from a caterer instead of building out my own kitchen. I did as much as I could by myself without hiring help until finally I gave in and hired one employee. The goal was to make a profit while always maintaining flexibility. If I was going to stop working to be a mother, I didn’t want to be responsible for a full staff, a lease, and a huge amount of overhead.
Fork In The Road was exceedingly successful, especially in the notoriously difficult food industry: Nice profits, solid customer base, over 1500 local email addresses on my weekly mailing list, a growing reputation, and regular features in local magazines (like being on the cover of Austin Monthly, pictured at right). There were too many orders to fill and 12 hour workdays were becoming 16 hours. It was hugely tempting to cross the chasm and see how far the business could go.
If I were going to take the leap, this was the time to move to my own kitchen, likely to cost $30k to build out, $50k per year just for rent and utilities, and be bound to a 3-year lease. Time to buy delivery vans and hire and train cooks and drivers. Time to consider delivering to nearby cities, from which I was receiving constant inquiries.
I started to give in to my ambition. I negotiated a lease for a perfect, cheery kitchen space, and started pricing equipment. I was ready to sign on the dotted line.
And then my sister called.”What weekend are we going camping?”
My stomach sank. I felt nauseous. I couldn’t go. We had been going on an annual camping trip for years. In the past I would just close down for that weekend and eat the loss. But now there would be this new expensive lease and new employees and revenues were going to have to grow 5x to become profitable again; I couldn’t just leave and go camping. I found myself trying to think of ways to explain this to my sister without sounding like I was putting work before family. But there was no good excuse; I was putting work before family.
This trip was a dear tradition. If I was torn now, how was I going to feel with a baby?
I walked away from that lease the next day. We scheduled the camping trip.
I took active steps to limit the growth of the business. Advertising and press releases stopped. Order capacity was capped—we began to sell out each week rather than grow revenue. Menus became more limited, the delivery area severely restricted. Some customers were (understandably) pissed off.
I started to take plenty of breaks, completely closing the business at times to travel with Jason. I took very long Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, with plenty of time to visit my family in another state. Fork In The Road was the definition of a lifestyle business—small and based on values other than just making the most money. I had attained my goal of having time for fun and family and kept making a very nice profit, even though there was no growth.
Sounds great, right? I made good money doing what I love and now I get to focus on my family. We now have a one-month-old baby girl and I can be a stay-at-home mom without feeling like I have to keep working to feed the business’ growth or keep employees’ jobs intact.
It is great. But what I haven’t told you is that I still had to sacrifice a lot.
During those early years, desperate to get established, I worked myself ragged. Time for fun? Ha! My legs were swollen from being on my feet for 10 hours a day, there wasn’t nearly enough sleep happening, and the “healthy” chef was eating pizza after long shifts more often than I’d like to admit. The home phone which also served as my office phone rang around the clock. I drank too much in a misguided effort to take the adrenaline edge off a night of frantic cooking when I needed to go to sleep as soon as I got home. For many months I was going to work at 2:30 a.m., cooking until 9 a.m., sleeping an hour, and then driving 150-200 miles making deliveries until 6 p.m. When not cooking, I was doing the accounting, maintaining the website, drumming up business, getting press, talking to customers, creating menus, and building delivery schedules. Later, I finally hired a prep cook. But early on, there simply wasn’t enough money to hire any help.
It is hard to grow a business to a profitable level. Orders don’t come in by luck or magic.
I had no social life. Even when I had time, I had no energy. It’s not like anyone would have found me interesting anyway; I was so consumed with the business that I didn’t have anything else to talk about. If you wanted to discuss how to more efficiently make 200 servings of food in a few frenzied hours, alone, on an awful stove, I was in. Otherwise, I was completely zoning out.
Just as I supported Jason being so single-minded in those days, he had to do the same for me. If we hadn’t been so supportive of each other, we would have been in trouble.
Once the business had grown enough to be profitable I finally reaped the benefits of staying small. Orders and work hours became reliable and stable because I wasn’t always chasing down new customers. Exercise was back in the routine, decent nights of sleep, vacations, a sensible diet, and the ability to be social and interested in other people’s lives. Now I am devoting myself to being a mother, having already established myself enough that I can go back to work at any time. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
But in order to achieve the work/life balance I eventually attained, I had to sacrifice just as much as any business owner, large or small. Even a lifestyle business requires obsessive devotion to get going. You might have to sacrifice your healthy habits, your social life, or your reliable day job paycheck.
Something always has to give.
What are you thoughts on this? Is your story different? Leave a comment and join the conversation.