Thursday, May 21, 2009

A turning point

Before I made Mama my full-time venture, it was more of an idea. It was something that I put out there sporadically and only when time allowed, so there was never any consistency or any real progress. At least not financially. I just did the math and realized that I am in my 7th year of business. Mama will be 5 in September, and I started out with a different product line before Mama. In that 7 years, I primarily focused on developing products and branding, but didn't really spend much time on sales. I get so excited by ideas, and I was constantly coming up with tens of hundreds of them. If time wasn't a factor, I would have a very diverse company. But you can't build a company solely on ideas, particularly if you're not getting them out to the masses. So when I decided to make a go of it full-time, I pared down to the essentials, focused on what I had and started selling. The response has been amazing and it's given me such pleasure on so many fronts. But my glamourous life as a small business owner consists of working 7 days a week, as many hours a day as I can keep my eyes open. Let me be clear - I am SO not complaining. I remember many times within the last 7 years when I was slaving away at a job I didn't particularly like, visions of Mama dancing in my head, when I heard about small business owners who were working round the clock and dared to complain of a lack of sleep because of their mad success. I would have given my right arm! So now I am figuratively armless, because I have joined those masses of sleepy entrepreneurs. And I am delighted to be one of them.

But I'm realizing that I can't keep going at the rate I have been for any sustained period of time. The hectic pace is largely dictated by the various facets of the business that are commanding my attention. I'm doing a little bit of everything - retail store, festivals and markets, wholesale, private label, internet sales, and the list goes on. I'm jumping at all of the opportunities and there have been many, which is the most incredible feeling. There were a few months of sleepless nights in the beginning of the year, and now I sleep like a baby. Mostly because I'm so tired, but I'll take that over insomnia any day. However, the multiple paths have begun to leave me feeling like a jack of all trades and the master of none. I'm a person who benefits from some focus, but I find myself running around like a crazy person all day responding to the various opportunities. It's a dream for a person who is relying on their business to grow, but it's also somewhat of a conundrum in the grand scheme of things. I want to keep everyone happy, but if I'm overcommitted, no one will be happy. You know what I'm talking about.

I know that I'm exactly where I should be, but it's making me take a hard look at where I'm going. "Work smarter, not harder" has been running through my head lately, but I'm not even sure where to start working smarter. Actually, that's not true. It's that the concept of working smarter involves spending more money, which is also hard. Either spending money on people to help me, or spending money on services that I currently perform. For example: I design, print, cut and apply all of my own labels. It takes longer than you can even imagine. Probably about as much time as making the actual products when all is said and done. I could either hire someone to help cut and apply the labels, or I could outsource the printing. And then I could still use someone to clean the containers and apply the labels, because it's a time-consuming job. It's a tough call, because both are additional expenses that come with their own risks. Label printers require large minimums per label, and without counting, I probably have at least 20 different labels for all of my different products. That's a pretty large investment out of the gate. Products and information evolve as I discover more about my business, so I tend to alter my labels at least once a year. I don't sell as many products per year as I would have to buy labels for, so I'm stuck with labels that I won't even use. So maybe I suck it up and use all of the labels, but that's unlikely. OK, so maybe I hire someone. There's the liability of putting someone in contact with the sharp blade of my paper cutter (though the worst I have ever done is slice a hole in my shirt, I'm sure worker's comp wouldn't see it that way), plus there's the need to find someone with the precision necessary to get the job done. It's not rocket science, but it does take a certain amount of skill to get the labels lined up and make clean, accurate cuts. I've been doing it for 7 years, so it's second nature. I need another me. This is just one example of the many things that I'm constantly assessing. The same considerations go for web design, bookkeeping, manufacturing, and selling, all of which I do myself. Granted the latter four don't risk losing a finger, but hopefully you get where I'm going with this. Growth requires people to help, and that terrifies me. It wouldn't terrify me if I had the right people, but finding the right people is either pure luck or a lot of trial and error. The latter part is what inspires fear. I learned to manage people in my former career, and I've been told that I'm a good person to work for. But I don't really have any skills in hiring people. Film work was job to job, so if a person wasn't right, I just toughed it out and didn't hire them again. Didn't have to have the tough conversation about why they weren't right. There was always the out that I had my "usual" people. Call me a chicken, but it's no fun to look someone in the eye and tell them they're not "a good fit for your company" (i.e. not good at their job), and you're letting them go. So growth is scary because it involves other people and all of the stuff that comes with.

The next phase of my business in my mind has always been wholesale. This means selling my products to retailers who sell them at their stores. And it's the obvious next step for a business who wants to grow substantially. Which means cold calling retailers if you're a masochist, or a trade show if you want the easier, but more costly path to the masses. Trade shows are EXPENSIVE. And there's no guarantee that you will recoup your investment. Because it's not just the expense of the trade show itself, you're also selling your products for half of your retail price. The whole purpose is to sell volume. Volume mandates growth. Buying more stuff to make your products, hiring more people to make it. This traditionally is an action item in the business plan of a business like mine, so it's where my mind has been. Truth be told, it's not something I'm terribly excited about. I'd much rather have a retail store, which I do, but retail stores have their own financial risks. There is a lot involved to owning a successful retail store. "If you build it, they will come," is not a realistic marketing plan. Just so ya know.

The long and the short of this is, it's all a risk. You just have to decide which risk you want to take. And up to this point, I haven't been able to choose one. I go back and forth on a weekly basis, and have my finger in all of the possible pots, in the smallest of ways. But you get to a point where you need to stop trying things out and pick a direction. And so...

I had a meeting today about a new opportunity that has gotten me really excited, and in a curious way, has gotten me mentally on track. It won't necessarily lessen my workload, but will streamline my focus, and it offers growth without the hugest investment. It involves entering into a niche that comes with no guarantees, but makes a lot of sense when I take a hard look at my business and who my customers are. And it involves me putting my tradeshow/wholesale plan on hold, because I know I have to stop trying to do so many things at once. Which is a huge relief, to say the least. It's happening fast because I'm hopping on a train that is already moving, but it's made me think that I can grow my business for the time being while still staying small, which makes sense for my life where it is right now. It allows for other life things to happen, without the pressure of managing a business that is growing exponentially. It also allows for other ideas I've had in the past 7 years to come into play. Ideas that I loved at the time, but put on hold because I didn't have the means to move them forward at the time. I know I'm being vague, but I want to share the new direction once I have my head around it. I assure you, it doesn't change any of the work that I'm doing now. Rather, it complements it and allows me to grow at a pace and in a direction that I'm more comfortable with.

More exciting details coming soon!


Russky23 said...

The above post was very interesting. I am a student who is interested in the world of entrepreneurship, my father having his own small business of which he is the sole operator. He sells off of an e-bay store for the most part. He has many of the same concerns that you talked about. Like how other people cannot do as good a job as he does, or there are too many details in the production for someone else to possibly remember. So I recognize the issues you are having, and as a potential entrepreneur would love to speak to someone who has been through the gauntlet before and maybe learn a few things about small business. I am especially interested in knowing what you have been doing by way of marketing, as I am a comm. major studying advertising.

Emilie said...

Hi Russky!

Thanks so much for commenting! I have a feeling that where I am with my business resonates with a lot of small business owners. It's hard to give up the control and bring others into the mix, especially when we start by doing everything ourselves. I'm trying to get my head around it, because I'm realizing day by day that it is becoming too hard to try to do everything by myself.

My marketing "plan" is very grassroots. I don't have much money to spend on marketing or advertising, so I rely almost exclusively on word of mouth. I participate in a lot of Farmers markets and weekend festivals that also help get the word out. I am also a part of several co-ops around town that allow me to meet other small business owners, and we all help each other out. It's really great.
Feel free to contact me directly if you want to chat more about business. my email is

Thanks again for reading and getting in touch!