Why I don’t want to grow my business
In 2016, I left my job in high-tech and hung out my shingle as a freelance marketing + design consultant. Within weeks, I was juggling multiple clients and a larger workload than I’d ever had. I was making good money and working A LOT. On my lunch breaks, and after work, I’d schedule networking meetups with colleagues and potential clients. I worked into the wee hours to meet deadlines and keep my clients happy.
This is what you are supposed to do as a small business owner, right? Hustle, hustle, hustle. Grind, grind, grind. (All your hard work will pay off, eventually.)
The next logical step would be to acquire even MORE clients and work, and then figure out how to expand my business, either through subcontracting or hiring employees. I met a potential client for coffee in the nearby WeWork space. As we sipped our free lattes in the buzzing café, I thought, hmm… this is nice. Until I saw how much monthly rentals cost. Never mind. I decided to keep working at the coffee shop across the street for the time being. I took conference calls sitting in my Subaru in the parking garage and commuted back and forth across the bridge for meetings.
The reality was, I wasn’t happy. I was burned out. I had jumped directly from a demanding corporate management role straight into running my own shop without so much as a breath in between. I packed up my old office on a Friday and showed up for my new gig on a Monday.
Side projects, exercise, and hobbies were abandoned like shoes by the back door, waiting to be intermittently picked up and worn again. I felt incredibly guilty. My days were a never-ending hamster wheel, with 6am alarms, school drop-offs, client meetings, commutes, takeout dinners, and late night deadlines. Going to bed to wake up and do it all over again the next day.
One day I met a good friend for lunch. She also had recently left a corporate job to pursue her own venture. She showed up looking amazing (as always), glowing from a vinyasa yoga class that morning. Over salads and a glass of rosé, she told me she had a scheduled meeting with a new client, and was leaving for an extended vacation to Italy the next day. She seemed to have it all together. But how? I wondered.
I began to fret and worry that I wasn’t investing enough time in marketing myself and my business. What would I do when my current projects dried up? Alongside this burden was the realization that there wasn’t enough time to do it all. More than anything, I yearned for more time. More time to spend with my five year old son and my husband. More time to read. More time to cook (a hobby of mine). More time to spend with friends.
Our family booked a once-in-a-lifetime two-week vacation to Bali. Kid in tow, we donned sarongs and tasted civet coffee while touring temples in Ubud. We saw monkeys, dolphins, and postcard views of amazing rice terraces. Regrettably, during the trip, a deadline for one of my clients shifted and I ended up needing to keep tabs on the project and jump in occasionally. Some might say that’s the price you pay when you’re self-employed. (You’re living the dream! Work from anywhere!) But personally I was resentful of my lack of ability to turn it off, to be present in the moment, to be disconnected.
In 2018, my family moved from Seattle to Bellingham, WA, a medium-sized college town about 2 hours north. We wanted to be closer to things we loved: the outdoors, friends, family, snowboarding, and we longed to be further from the hustle and bustle of the city.
It surprised me when my decision was met with bewilderment by more than a few of my colleagues and clients. How often will you drive down to Seattle? What about meetings? It might work, they admitted, but we will have to play it by ear…
Dear reader, this was the best decision as a family we have ever made. The pace of life is a little slower here, something we didn’t realize until we moved. It takes me five minutes to drive to the grocery store instead of 20. My son and I can ride bikes to school. I have the time and freedom to walk or hike nearly every day. Because of that, I’m healthier and happier. Moving here has shifted our priorities.
However, it wasn’t without fear and trepidation. Pre-pandemic, I was concerned with how much being mostly remote would affect my business. When I became pregnant with my daughter in 2019, I had a gnawing concern than after my planned short 12-week absence for maternity leave, all my work would have dried up. I had to work hard and negotiate to pre-secure client contracts for my return. Otherwise I knew I’d never be able to enjoy that short and precious time with my new daughter, not knowing if I would be able to retain my income in a few months’ time. Naively, I also planned to use some of my time during leave to ramp up a new area of my business. (This being my second baby, you’d think I would have remembered that there is no such thing as free time during maternity leave. SMH.)
My daughter was born. Then the pandemic happened. We’ve spent the last year cooped up in our homes, conferencing on Zoom, helping our kids with remote school, and trying to stay sane. Paradigms have shifted. Remote work is here to stay, at least for a large proportion of workers.
The pandemic has given all of us a chance to reflect on what is important to us. In the blur that was 2020, I came to some key realizations of my own related to growing my business:
- I don’t want to grow my business simply for the sake of revenue growth, because I don’t want the overhead. I left my corporate job so that I could be independently creative again on a daily basis. I don’t want to hire employees and spend my time managing. It’s not for me. If this speaks to you, I’d highly recommend reading Company of One by Paul Jarvis. He has some great insights on how to do this strategically and set yourself up for success.
- What my business is selling is my own individual expertise — not someone else’s. Keeping that focus and maintaining a high quality of work is incredibly important to me. Establishing trust and building relationships is at the center of it all. I’m also extremely passionate about mentoring and sharing my expertise with others, and plan to seek out more opportunities in that area.
- I’d rather grow my business in different ways. I’m working to better allocate time to pursue passion projects and work on things I’m really excited about. This isn’t easy. I have a 16-month old toddler and an almost 10-year old. So, it happens in small spurts. Big, ambitious projects are harder to accomplish in the absence of a distraction-free environment and large blocks of uninterrupted creative time. But if I keep plugging away at these ideas a little at a time, I’ll make incremental progress towards my side project goals, that hopefully, eventually, will lead to new business.
- I have small children and right now what I need is better balance in my work and life, even if that means making less money in order to have more balance and be happier. In these COVID days, I’ve been incredibly grateful for a job that allows me to work remotely with flexible hours so that my husband and I can share childcare responsibilities. It’s been incredibly hard, but I know others have it much harder.
- I still have all the same worries and concerns as before. I don’t have it all figured out, and never will. But now, more than ever before, technology has created new opportunities. There are no barriers to your ideas. You can run a business from anywhere. It’s up to you to decide how. What kind of work. How much time. How many clients. How to make it work for you.
- All of this can and will change. In five years I might decide to take my business in a different direction, and that is OK too.
As we start to ease back into life as we once knew it, yet different than before, my goal is to not lose sight of the perspective I gained. It’s easy to fall back into the same old traps and to make comparisons. I only have one life to live, and I want to choose wisely. More than anything, I feel privileged to have the choice.