Thursday, March 7, 2013

Life as a Small Business Owner: A New Crossroads + Some Tips (PART 2)

Life As A Small Business Owner, Part 2 // Bubby and Bean

Yesterday, I shared the story of my life as a business owner over the last thirteen years.  I talked in detail about my clothing line (my first and longest-running company), how I built it, the successes it enjoyed, and eventually, the major challenges that forced me to downsize the company (and ultimately reinvent my career after many years).  I also touched on where things are today, running a blog and art shop in addition to a smaller version of my eco-fashion label. 

For today's post, I'll be getting into more specific details of the present and my plans for the journey ahead.  This includes how things operate with these three businesses, how I'm applying the lessons I learned from the past, and some decisions I'm in the process of making regarding where to focus my time and efforts for the future.  I'll also share some tips that have proven beneficial for me, and that may be of help to those of you who own businesses as well. 

Yesterday, I told you guys about my journey from building my first business to where I am today.  I won't repeat the details (you can read them here if you haven't yet), but basically, from 2009-2010, I downsized my clothing business, then in late 2010, started this blog and my line of art.  The blog and art shop were side businesses, developed to supplement my income (which could no longer be solely provided by the clothing line), and to allow different outlets for me to stay creatively motivated and fulfilled.  I found a renewed happiness in my career, and although it was a hefty adjustment to transition from running one business to three, I've tried to "go with the flow" as best as I can and not force things too much.  Along the way, I've remained aware of the best ways to allocate my time between the three - something that often changes from day to day and week to week.  I've also tried to keep an open mind because I know from experience that the dynamics of a business (or even an industry as a whole) can change at any moment.  There have been regular periods of sitting down, going over numbers and schedules, and reworking where I need to focus my attention and energy in order to sufficiently run things.

For the most part, things have remained fairly consistent over the last few years.  But over the past six months or so I've started to notice another shift.  Like the "evolution" I experienced years ago when I downsized the clothing line and added the two side businesses, I've now reached a new crossroads, and am in the process of trying determine where to take things from here.

These days, juggling the three businesses has become significantly more difficult.  This past holiday season was the busiest in years for both the clothing line and the art shop, and even with the help of my angel of an employee Kari (who has been a part of Mountains of the Moon for many years now), I had trouble keeping up.  I'm not complaining - this was a blessing, and I wish things stayed consistently that busy all year long!  But after several months of too much work and too little sleep, I realized that the blog and Bubby & Bean Art have evolved to such a degree that the clothing line has had to suffer.  These projects, which used to be supplemental side businesses to Mountains of the Moon, have experienced rapid growth.  The clothing line - despite the fact that sales were fantastic over the holidays - hasn't grown for some time.  It's common sense that I would devote more effort to the businesses that are proving to be more successful, but there is also a fine line between properly dividing efforts and neglecting one area - especially when that one area has been your "main" business for so long.  When I sent out my once monthly newsletter for Mountains of the Moon earlier this week - for the first time in four months - it hit me that things had really changed.  I'd reached another crossroads.  My career has started to evolve in a new direction again, and it's time once again to apply the lessons I've learned in the past to rework the current situation into something different.

I can't say exactly what will happen down the road at this point.  But as I start to prepare for some major changes, I'm reminding myself that no matter how scary they are, I've done it before - with a positive end result. As attached as I am to Mountains of the Moon - the business that I built from scratch out of college and have kept alive for thirteen years - I have to be realistic that it may soon be time to let it go. 

From a practical standpoint, I know that it would likely be best to seriously consider closing down the clothing line within the next year.  We still have a large amount of inventory because we sold to stores and did events on a regular basis up until recently, so we're able to keep things afloat for a while.  But I don't foresee us producing a new collection.  And we have some really wonderful long-time repeat customers - as well as new customers who come along everyday.  But unlike the art shop which is an Etsy store, or the blog where there isn't overhead, Mountains of the Moon is very expensive to run.  The monthly and yearly fees that go along with a website, shopping cart system, business phone, credit card processing, gateway, LLC registration, etc. seriously add up when you're not making consistent sales.  With our costs and labor, we barely break even right now.  Closing it down would allow for more time to devote to the blog and art shop, which have proven to show consistent and steady growth.

From an emotional standpoint, it's not quite as simple.  This business was my baby.  It shaped my entire career for more than a decade, and in some ways, defined me personally as well.  Even after years of running the art line and blog, I've always considered myself to be a fashion designer.  Only in the past couple of months have I finally started answering the "what do you do for a living" question with "blogger and designer" instead of "fashion designer."  It might sound silly, but remember that fashion design is something to which I've devoted the vast majority of my adult life so far.  It's a big deal when you have to admit to yourself that you are no longer what you've "been" for a long, long time.  There is also the biggest question of all - do I truly enjoy designing clothing anymore?  The truth is, I'm just not sure. 

I should also add that I've experienced personal changes over the past year that play a major part in all of this.  I have always been incredibly career-oriented, and a devout workaholic - from the time I started school until very recently. And although I'm fairly certain that my work will always be a part of who I am, I no longer feel the need to be defined by it.  I give myself much more time to relax and enjoy life these days.  I don't feel the same pressure to succeed that I always did in the past.

In the end, I have some work ahead of me - work that will be both stressful and exciting.  But as I take some time to plan, rework and readjust, I'm reminded of the lessons I learned a few years ago when I made the transition from owning one company to dividing my time between several projects.  There are a few key points that stick out in mind that have helped me along the way, and that will prove beneficial for me as I shift gears once again and work through the current changes.  I shared some of these tips with you guys last year when I first told you about my journey, but now seems like the perfect time to revisit them. Although they apply mainly to small business owners in creative fields, I think they can be useful no matter what your career.  If you're not one for unsolicited advice, feel free to skip them, but for those who are in need of a boost or at crossroads of your own, I hope they'll help you the same way they have me.

1. Be open to change.  This is the most important tip of all.  At some point, there will be a time where you'll be forced to make changes in your career.  These might be small changes you need to make within your business, or they could be major changes where you have to do something completely different.  If you're mentally prepared for the possibility of change and willing to accept it rather than fight it, you can use it to your advantage rather than allowing it to crush you.

2. Pay attention to trends but don't be defined by them.  Successful creatives observe detail in everything they see, take notice of what people like, and recognize patterns.  But they also stay true to their own unique styles and utilize them to explore different paths.  In order to run a successful business, you have to know what your customers want, but you also need to be willing to venture outside of  what's "in vogue" if you want to stand out from the crowd.  In my case (as I explained in yesterday's post), when eco-fashion became huge years into my career, I was blindsided.  I suddenly felt like I had to be defined by a trend that in the past (before it became a trend!) had set me apart. Instead of using my talents to branch out, I let the trend envelope me, and it backfired.  It was only when I stopped feeling defined by it, and focused on what I was good at rather than only on what I thought people wanted, that I was able to get my career back on track.

3. Reinvent yourself on a regular basis.  This takes #1 (being open to change) a step further.  Reinventing yourself within your business doesn't mean completely changing who you are as a person or drastically changing direction to the point of being all over the place. It just means that as a business owner, you are never done - and I mean that in a good way.  Brainstorm new, out-of-the-box ideas through scribbled notes in a journal or drawings on scrap paper.  Design new collections or product lines and try them out on a small level (it could lead to something bigger!).  If you feel trapped in a bubble, step out of it.  Try working on some side projects.  Redesign your blog, your packaging, or your marketing materials.  Just as redesigning your living room or reworking a thrift store find into something new is fun, so is redesigning your career and yourself as a business owner from time to time.  And in addition to it being fun, reinvention is crucial in order for a business to survive and grow. 

4. Forget about money for a minute and create for fun.  This is important to both your enjoyment of life and the success of your business.  This tip - without me even knowing it at the time - prompted the birth of this blog and my art shop!  Most of us in creative fields ended up here because, very simply, we love to create.  And as much as we love what we do, I think we all know what it feels like to lose some of the passion because of the pressures of owning a business.  Most small creative business owners are far from rich, and many even gave up well-paying jobs to follow their dreams.  Sometimes it can be difficult to pay the bills.  On top of this, when you do what you love for a living, the line between business and pleasure in your life becomes especially blurry.  I will confess that this has been a huge challenge as a business owner.  But I notice that when I put my businesses on the back burner and create something for fun - even just a couple of times a month - my brain is refreshed when it's time to focus on work again. By making time for creative projects that aren't associated with deadlines or marketing or income, we can remember the joys of creating and in turn stay inspired when it's time to return to the "office."

5. Embrace your mistakes.  (They make you a better business owner!)   James Joyce said, "Mistakes are the portals of discovery."  When you're unhappy with the outcome of a business decision you've made, instead of feeling discouraged, use it to your advantage.  In life, we learn by doing.  Mistakes help us gain wisdom and are essential to improvement.  And it's our scars and "flaws" that make us unique. The same can be applied to running your business. You will be faced with situations where you regret choices you've made for your business.  Rather than feeling down about them, view them as awesome learning experiences. Creative businesses are full of heart and soul, and I feel that it is real experiences - both good and bad - that make them that way.  The trials and tribulations you face with your business are what end up giving your company character and making you a wiser and more seasoned business owner. 

6. Know when to shift directions - and be content in your decision.  This one is the biggest for me right now.  When I faced the initial struggles with my clothing line years ago, I spent so much time trying to fight a losing battle because I didn't want things to change.  I was constantly stressed and unhappy.  But when I finally let go a little, branched out in a new direction, and made the decision to accept what came out of it with a positive attitude, amazing things happened.  It can be really hard to let things go or to make drastic changes to your career, but I've found that once you make the actual move and tell yourself that it will be okay (because it will), things start to fall into place.  I'm pretty sure this can go for life in general as well, but that's a whole different novel of a post. :)

And that's it!  Once again, if you've gotten this far, thank you for allowing me to share my business adventures, triumphs, woes, and lessons learned, both in part 1 yesterday, and in today's post.  This is quite possibly the most writing I've ever done here on Bubby and Bean!  It's a refreshing subject to to talk about though, and I'd love to revisit it more often. I'd also love to hear more from those of you who own small business or have made career changes.  Feel free to ask questions, leave feedback, or share your stories in the comments (or an email).  

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  1. Loved reading these Mel! And I love that I'm able to be a part of the ongoing changes, whatever they may be! Keep on reinventing and pushing full steam ahead. <3

    1. We need to get you on the blog Kari so that Bubby and Bean readers can learn more about your part of this journey! Oh yeah, and thank you for being the best employee ever. :) xo, m

  2. It's so great to read your story and advice here. I'm so happy Bubby and Bean is doing so well for you!
    Have you considered moving Mountains of the Moon to Etsy? You mentioned the extra overhead of running that part of your business and how you hate to let it go totally. Maybe Etsy is a way to keep your business alive, but on a different level.

  3. I hope you can find a way to keep mountains of the moon alive, it's my favorite store! I can imagine it's been tough though. I wish more people would invest in earth friendly fashion.

  4. This is the most helpful and honest post I've read recently on the internet.
    I agree with you on the importance of enjoy life and not be defined by your job.
    I quit my fashion stylist job two years ago and since then I'v been slowly but steadly reinventing myself. I love what I do now and find hapiness in small things.
    Thank you for sharing. You've got a new fan :)

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience. The need to always be willing to adapt and change is a theme I've been hearing a lot this past year by other creatives.

    Blessings on your new adventure!

  6. I love the tips. I'm glad to see you following your heart! x

    <3 Melissa

  7. I'm going to put this all over my social media so I can come back go it again and again. Your story is a great example of how much things can change over time--and that it can be a good thing. I'm going through some shifting myself right now, and this is excellent advice.

    I think deep down you already know what you want to do. It's just a matter of gathering the courage. Good luck with your decision!

  8. This might be my all time favroite post!!! Thank you for the tips too, I have a business but can't seem to get it off the ground. Very very helpful!!!

  9. Thanks for sharing! I currently juggle a few businesses as well so this was awesome to read. I have a pet sitting business (that makes decent side money but exhausts me at times), a blog, and a little online art shop that I do mostly for fun.

  10. Just went I thought yesterday was my favorite post, I might have a new one! =) Thank you for this glimpse into the behind the scenes of your companies and for being so open and honest. Inspiring in so many ways.

  11. Also do you sell the art shop stuff in stores? I know a bunch around here where it would sell great!

    1. I do sell some of the cards and prints in stores. If you have suggestions of local stores that you think would be a good fit, I'd love to hear them! Shoot me an email. :) xo, m

  12. Thanks you all so much for your comments and emails - both on today's post and yesterday's. I'm so glad that sharing my story was helpful for some of you, and it's been great hearing yours as well!

  13. This post is so relevant to where I am now with my business as I am planning to make some radical changes by the end of the year. As scary as that is, because it involves jumping a bit into the unknown and saying bye to what I've already built, I am super excited for the year ahead. Thank you for sharing you story and you are so right - sometimes you need to be able to re-invent and embrace the change that comes with that!

    X Tania

  14. Great advice and very inspiring story. -Joy

  15. This is such great advice. It can be really hard to change when one way works out so well but change can be so good sometimes.

  16. Great followup to yesterday's post Melissa! Right now I think #4 on your list is one of the hardest things for me to do. Since I just have a side business apart from a "real job", I feel that if I don't produce new product every week after hours that I'm wasting valuable time. Of course that leads to burn out.

    I'm still struggling to find the right life/work balance outside my 9-5 job, but I feel that I have fewer burn outs than I used to. So I guess that's progress :)

  17. Great post Melissa, thank you for sharing your story with us :)

  18. Excellent advice, and I can't even imagine the emotions you're going through with MotM. It IS your baby, and letting go IS SO hard (this is coming from a mom of a 16 year old - letting go of your baby is NOT easy!).
    And once a fashion designer, always a fashion designer. You're right about not having to be defined by what you do (I learned this early on). What's important is that you're happy doing what you're doing. If you still love designing your fashions, maybe you could still do so - just in a smaller sense. MotM could live on in a different way, maybe. Your designs, no matter what they are - be it blog, art prints, fashion - are awesome.
    Thanks for Part 2. You are incredible, and even more so for sharing all this with us as your readers.

  19. you will succeed. i know it. i believe in you, and you believe in yourself too. keep creating melissa! :)

  20. great advice! I'm always looking to learn new information about running a successful business!



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