Response: Sacrifice your health for your startup

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.

On the cover of Austin MagazineFork 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.

The new restricted delivery areaI 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.

30 responses to “Response: Sacrifice your health for your startup”

    • Dennis,
      There were several reasons but the most important one is this:

      In the beginning there simply wasn’t enough money to handle the cost of delivery but by doing it myself I realized that I was gaining very valuable face time with customers that could not have happened otherwise. I got so much feedback and also the personal reward of knowing my customers and establishing relationships with many of them. I never wanted to be stuck in the back of restaurant never seeing who I was cooking for.

      I did hire a delivery driver one summer and decided to go back to doing it myself.
      .-= darla’s latest blog post: Delicious Sweet Baby =-.

  1. You don’t often hear people cutting back like you did. When I think about it, especially when it comes to restaurants, it’s disappointing when a new up-and-coming restaurant gets so big that its quality and service suffers. Sound like you made the right choice! Great story.
    .-= Mark Lewis’s latest blog post: Interview with Neil Wood =-.

    • Mark,

      Often, as soon as the person with vision and passion isn’t involved in the day to day operations any more, quality deteriorates.

      Food also doesn’t scale easily. Two things happen with large quantities of food cooked all at once: Efficiency replaces technique and everything becomes bland in order not to offend anyone’s tastes. That’s why food at weddings always sucks. (Restaurants can manage quantity better because while they prep in volume, they cook individual servings to order.)
      .-= darla’s latest blog post: Delicious Sweet Baby =-.

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing. My wife currently owns a tax preparation business, believe it or not it keeps her busy for the entire year – not only the tax season. We have discussed many times the possibility of opening a commercial office and hire a few people. However, just as you mentioned in your story, we believe that if she does that, she will have as much time as she does now to go out with the kids, vacation, school projects, etc… we have 3 kids :). I will forward this blog to her.

    I definitely agree with you and Jason about having to sacrifice something, it is not an easy task to start a business and it is even harder to make it successful, and that is probably the reason why a lot of people don’t even think about it.
    .-= Ricardo’s latest blog post: Microsoft AJAX content delivery network (CDN) =-.

  3. Jason, you are a lucky man! The intelligence, depth and integrity of your wife comes through in this story. I’ve always been impressed with what you’ve accomplished, now we all finally understand the real truth behind your success.

    For both of you, the blessing of a supportive spouse through the startup process is an asset that is valuable beyond measure. It would be interesting to hear more about this side of the story.

  4. I enjoyed and learned with your post. You always have to sacrifice something… This puts enormous stress in making very careful choices.
    I am still working in the “cubicle nation” but firmly decided to escape from it. I face my forthcoming transition with a big amount of optimism, but not blinded by too much positive thinking. It is important to be positive, but even more important is to see things as they really are.
    Thank you for helping me to see.

  5. You seem to have got it backwards.

    Hiring people is a very good way of keeping your “lifestyle business”. Because you delegate your work, and then you have time for personal stuff.

    Working in your business by yourself is a good way of keeping your business small, and thus remain very vulnerable to overwork, overtime, economic fluctuations, etc.

    In my opinion, you made the WRONG decision.

    You should have hired people and worked less!

    • I disagree with the premise that hiring people necessarily allows you to work less. I think this is a common misconception. In some instances, contractors are appropriate and can save you time (or even money). For me, this was not the case.

      It takes a lot of time and energy to train employees, manage employees, deal with the increase in accounting needs, etc. Also, and this is key, you must produce more revenue in order to pay for the employee’s wages. Having finally hired an assistant (and I even hired a driver for a summer), I found that I was not able to work less. My work changed, but I did not work fewer hours. When I crunched the numbers (on a driver, for instance), in order to pay for a delivery van, insurance, and the wages, I needed to spend much more time drumming up revenue in order to take home the same profit. I also lost the benefit of face-to-face customer time. I chose to cook instead of sell.

      Yes, my business stayed small (intentionally), but I actually found that being small made me less susceptible to economic fluctuations. When you only need a (relatively) small number of customers to make enough profit for yourself, the economy doesn’t matter much.
      .-= darla’s latest blog post: Ragout of Cannellini, Sausage, Clams, and Broccolini =-.

  6. I can’t agree with you more re sacrificing to acheive success however one is less not more productive if the basics of a healthy outlook on life are not in place. For instance if I live off coffee and chocolate which is what I do when i am over worked in my business I find my thinking is muddled , my attitude towards my clients (and any business knocks that come my way) is poor, I have short temper with my kids and husband ect…. That extra money that one is going to make is going to be spent in the therapists office when the kids develop emotional problems from being neglected, in the marriage counsellors office when the marriage goes to pot, and at the doctors when health problems from over work develop.
    Working all out and exclusively on a business is for those who are young with no commitments to children.
    Anyone who is a little older must PACE themselves. This is key.
    After all as you get older you don’t have the unlimited energy of youth. One must work smarter not harder.
    It’s not how hard you work it’s how smart you work.

  7. wow. what a true article for me, kind of. I co-founded after leaving corporate america. I had a big, cushy job paying alot of money but i always was an entrepreneur at heart. So I left. Well, this job is killing me :-)… though I’m overall happy doing it.

    I used to be in great shape and run 5 miles/day 3X a week, have time for the family and so forth. And now I have gained twenty pounds and work 24X7. The phone (and texts) ring all the time. I basically eat and work so hard because there’s so much on the line and it’s so hard to acquire customers early on. After a year of doing this, we might just be turning the corner towards growth in February. We’ll see.

    I wish my outplacement dept at my last gig had a seminar “things you should know before you go” :-) I wouldn’t have changed a thing but perhaps that whack on the head early on would have modulated my expectations. LOL.

    Dahlia above says we have to pace ourselves and she is so spot on. My emerging tip is to treat the growth phase as a marathon and not a sprint. For 2010 I”ll be exercising again and trying to create a modicum of balance. I’m figuring they each play off the other making the results overall better. I don’t think I’ll stop working 14 hour days but at least I’ll be a better dad and in shape. :-)

    Thanks for the inspirational post!

  8. Those are interesting thoughts. I’m trying to get a business started myself and find myself sacrificing new things every month: no, evening activities, no more fitness, no skiying holiday, working the weekends, etc. I still don’t know how I will proceed: try to reserve time for other things and remain small, or try to grow quicky, make a lot of money, sell the business and have more free time after that.
    Difficult choice.
    .-= Luc J’s latest blog post: Remote PC Support for Your Relatives – Netviewer =-.

  9. Awesome article. I own a web hosting company, started 11 years ago and some of the folks I started with (and started before) now build data centers, while I still lease a few servers and keep to a few thousand clients. About five years ago, the growth exploded, and I shut down to new orders in a panic to re-evaluate what I really wanted – to my surprise, I decided I liked my job the way it was, liked my life, and had gone as far as I wanted to go.

    We still get 30 orders a month with absolutely no advertising and just on word of mouth alone. It frees me up to actually have a life, and pulling back the reigns was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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