1 July 2019

2 year review (managing my small business and life with family)

Hello there. This is a belated post to share, since I was going to write this last month but better than never, right? (part of my learning about priority, if I might add?)

Two years (and a month) ago, I quit my day job as a pottery workshop instructor for people with learning difficulties and different support needs, followed by my long career in social care. It was definitely a big step for me, to leave a financial security and to enter unknown of sorely self employed business. Was I confident? Absolutely not. This was probably the biggest leap I took in my life. 

There were two main reasons for the big leap. Practicality and pursuit of my once-hidden dream to be a potter.

Most of my salary went straight into our daughter’s nursery fee. Prior to her school, my husband and I discussed the practicality, such as school holidays and other needs that came up as our concern. My employment was throughout the year including Easter and summer holiday so it was almost impossible for us to manage within just annual leave, without family support (which we do not have) or child care. Since nursery fee will be no longer required, we decided it’s a time. To change my direction to be sorely self employed and to look after our daughter, rather than continuing my day job and paying someone else for a child care. It felt like the most reasonable timing to take that leap toward my dream to become a potter. (Just note that I totally understand this does not work for everyone, so I have no offence for people who choose a child care for their option.) My target was set to allow the first few years to establish financially. It has not been easy but I have never looked back my day job ever since. 

Anyway, I have decided to write my reflection of learning from past two years of my small business. This review is primarily about my business, however, it involves working around with family significantly so you will see I mentioned that here and there. Writing does help me reinforce my learning. By sharing it, I hope some of you may find this helpful. Obviously this is entirely my own reflection being a potter and a mum to an early age schooler, and it may not be useful for everybody. However, I believe ‘checking in’ like this yearly (or whatever the length of time you choose) would help, be it your own business, family life or anything that important to you, so I’d totally recommend to take time to do so.

Some of my points might be duplicated in some ways or other, but here it goes. 8 tips I learnt on my two year small business and working around with family.

1. Drop a super woman badge

No, I am not a super woman. I cannot do everything.

This may sound silly but honestly was the most crucial mindset changer for me. I needed to unpack my ingrained habit A LOT. If you are a perfectionist, you may resonate with this. 

I grew up watching my mum, who was a house wife who looked after three children whilst my dad was earning sorely, although this was quite common in Japan. My mum rarely had a voice or stood up to my dad. When I behaved badly, my mum got told off by my dad and she contained the blame. My mum always said, “you need to ask your dad, first.” “He is in charge.” From a young age, I learnt some kind of discomfort of not earning your own money. I aimed not to be a house wife. I did not have much desire to have my own children to be honest. I have always worked. Even when I was studying (both student time and mature student time during my degree study) I was always working. Working gave me flexibility, independency and financial stability, especially since I divorced with my abusive ex-husband. Luckily I enjoyed most of the work I did, or at least found an incentive to keep going. But at the same time it has created self criticism. When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty or being lazy. When I wasn't working enough, I felt insecure or even somehow incomplete.

So when I returned to work after maternity leave, with my daughter who was born with severe medical condition, I had to face a huge difficulty. It was difficult to balance my life with work, house chores, parenting and everything else. I’ve cut down hours to part-time, which made me feel less independent. Inability to do ‘all well enough frustrated me and often criticised myself. 

Becoming self employed was supposed to be a helpful plan to adjust such stressful thinking I had, but in fact I was feeling terrible more often than not. Because I was looking at what I did not manage to do, most of the time! I was carrying a badge of a super woman of “wanting to do all well.”  After many emotional and physical overwhelms and breakdowns, I had to gradually but ‘consciously’ let that slide, by focusing on the priority one at a time, and accept the fact that I cannot deal with all and that it is ok. Acknowledging my habit was hard but necessary. Acceptance without feeling bad about myself was hard, but necessary. A super woman badge definitely had to go and it was well overdue.

2. Lower your expectation / Be realistic 

Dropping your super badge also means lowering your expectation. Because if you are a perfectionist, or even simply you love working hard, your own expectation is usually up high, and quite frankly, unrealistic!

To me, transition from the nursery to school was particularly difficult. Firstly, school hours are not even comparison to the nursery hours. (She was at nursery 8-5. School is 9-3. Nursery opens throughout the year apart from bank holidays and Christmas. School holidays are nightmare, just to remind you!) So yes, my working hours have significantly reduced. I compensate this by working in evenings and weekends, but not always possible nor practical. So I have to admit that and work around the reality.

Secondly, my daughter’s needs have actually increased in a ‘different’ way. She can get sick. She requires more emotional support. She brings homework. In addition to that my girl goes to a Japanese school on Saturday morning and I help out there. If you think babies and toddlers are more difficult, wait for it! I guess, when she grew a bit older, the things might change of course. But for now, I did not want to miss any sign of her worries if any, so spending time with her has become my priority, especially when she was struggling to settle in school.

Tune into your ‘current’ life needs. Be realistic with planning. Lower your expectation so that you have a space to be able to handle any unexpected need. (i.g. child’s sickness / unexpected urgent tasks etc) These tips all helped me, although I am still learning all the time. 

3. Plan ahead 

Are you a list person? I am! I have always written to do list in my diary, along with all schedule of work and family. But the list can easily get too overwhelmed and uncontrollable! So I have started to separate the work plan from my diary, and made my own monthly and annual planner templates that I can type in print / also pencil in. Planning ahead definitely helps me work as productively and smoothly as possible. Finding the most suitable way to plan ahead may require a bit of trial and error. This is how I did and so far I find it working for me. 

For a monthly planner, each date has three sections; morning, afternoon and evening. Firstly I fill everything that I have already fixed, including school holidays. (colour coded with school stuff, family stuff, private stuff such as E-courses or attending events. I love colour code!) By doing this, I can clearly visualise how much space (how less more like!) I have for my studio time. Then, start to plan my studio work with a target date (or deadline) for making for orders, shows and online shop.

For an annual planner, I slot events and so on, and rough numbers of items to be made for. Once I know how much making time I have (I consider from throwing to glaze firing, admin and packing) then I can estimate how many orders I can have in a year. Slotting the estimate in the planning sheet will enable me to know when I can complete my work for each clients. Bulk of my income is from trade at the moment. Most of trade customers require a lead time when taking orders. In my first year, I completely failed on this, without knowing ‘exactly’ how long I needed. As a result, I worked non-stop to meet thier expectation / lead time. This was completely wrong way round. YOU DECIDE YOUR LEAD-TIME. And in order to do that, you will need to know what your time / capacity is prior to that. Well, you will need to experience first to know exact numbers, so in a way a bit of catch 22 to start with!

How far ahead you are going to plan is depending on your business style I guess. My work plan is now roughly done up to the end of 2020. This may sound a bit far for some people, but application of large ceramic shows will start quite early in general. It still has rooms to adjust and add, and obviously things can be changed. However, knowing it in advance makes easier for me to see a bigger picture both financially and practically, also enable me to plan something different or time consuming (new idea, new practice etc). 

4. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!

Setting boundaries is a MUST HAVE skill. Oh, I’ve learnt hard way! (ha ha ha) Here are some examples with comparison to what I used to do without boundaries. 

  • You don’t have to reply to all Email. You are not obliged to do so. (and I used to do so)
  • You don’t have to do the task right now just because it came urgent. YOU decide which one is urgent. (and I used to panic and do it all once.) 
  • You don’t have to stick your head up in every single places that you feel you’d better do. Just because you feel, you don’t have to. (and yes, I used to stretch too much!) 
  • You don’t have to follow advice for what works for others. Even from someone who you admire. Their time management, frequency to send newsletter etc are theirs. You need to define yours to suit your capacity. 

I think boundaries come with understanding your priority. Your priority is yours, not theirs. Boundaries can be set for pretty much everything. Email enquiries, communication with your client, social media platform, phone calls, friendship, extended family circle, school activity volunteer, I mean everything. Of course, you want to be flexible and sometimes required to be so, but making the boundary blur often leads to unwanted stress or even a danger in my experience. 

5. Learn to say NO without feeling guilty

Alongside with setting boundaries, it is also crucial to learn how to say no. AND not to feel guilty about it! I used to find this one so hard, and guess many of you might be the same. Because in general, we want to be nice to people, right? But in fact, the more you learn to say no, the smoother and easier your business can be run. And remember, saying no doesn’t make you a bad person!

My example can be, saying no to S.O.R. (sale or return) clients. I mean, unless you have plenty of time to make work, you spent your ‘limited’ time making for practically ‘renting’ your work and waiting to be paid later. This does not sustain my business. So I have declined most of SOR now, apart from some existing clients who have sold quickly or exhibition (because it’s temporary). On my first year, I took too many SOR, because I was hesitant to say no. Now I have set target with clear numbers for existing SOR, so come September I will be reviewing and withdrawing those who didn’t meet my target by then.

Also for trades and any other collaboration enquiries, I have set another measurement on who I would like to work with, such as diversity and inclusion. If my value does not meet with their approach, why should I work with them to meet their need? The requirement need to be met in as equal measurement as possible. Weighing too much on one side is not workable for me.

6. Listen to your body

Call for action for all hardworking people. Listen to your body. Full stop.

7. Ask for help

If you can outsource help in your business and that is your wish, that could be a solution. In my case, I like working myself in my studio, and checking what I do, at least for now. So outsourcing within my business is not what I am currently looking for. But instead, I look for where I can off load my tasks outside of my business. 

I am fortunate that my husband is a calm, grounded and more relaxed person. (basically nothing like me!) He holds a space for me to express overwhelms and stress. Nevertheless asking for help wasn’t always easy for me, especially when you are not a breadwinner. But to maintain a healthy relationship, being honest to each other is most important, whether you earn less or not. So I tell him what I find difficult or struggling with and what might be helpful for him to do instead of me doing, be it house chores or parenting chores etc. For instance, he is good at ironing and mending, so that is now his tasks. I cook weekdays, he cooks weekend. Some nights he does bed time routine so that I can work evening. This year he started to work at home once a week, so that day I get a little extension of my studio time, whilst he does school run. All these sharing daily tasks is an enormous help to keep me going. 

We also involves our daughter to help out our daily routine, such as bringing dishes to/from table, hanging and folding washing etc. She gets to learn life skills, so it’s a win win! 

By the way, I’d strongly recommend “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)” by Philippa Perry. The book is about parenting, but lots of useful information about relationship in there. Her approach of focusing on repair than rapture on communication is simply wonderful and wise. If you would like to be able to ask for help, the communication is a key. 

8. Recognise small achievement / Mistakes are learning curve, not a failure

So I’ve talked about accepting what you cannot deal with, lowering your expectation, setting boundaries and saying no, all without feeling guilty. Someone like me will still think, “well, that all sounds like just doing less!” “Have I simply become lazier?”

To tackle that negative thinking habit like I always had, instead I needed to recognise small achievement on each step, if possible daily. Achievement might not be visible or a concrete result. It can be less visible or even still in progress. But recognising that progress and telling myself what I have managed so far gives me a huge positive impact. This positive impact challenges my negative thinking habit and helps me move forward. 

This is easier said than done, I know. I am still a learner. But I believe this will strengthen me in a long run. 

Since April, I have started to take a note of my small achievement. Just in a quick bullet point. In this notebook, I ONLY write positive outcomes. No matter how small they are. By physically writing it by hand, I am taking time for it, reinforcing it and hopefully making this into a habit of self acceptance. 

Here are some examples I wrote:

  • I set boundaries to the clients at BCTF and said no to SOR enquires. 
  • I unsubscribed newsletters that I no longer read.
  • I was much more patient with my daughter today. We planted tomato seeds together, which she enjoyed.
  • I wrote something personal but important on IG story today, for which I received many massages from other women. Knowing this was helpful for others really makes my heart full.
  • I completed a large order to Japan and packed (10 boxes!). Invoice done. Phew! Satisfied!
  • My session with a therapist went well today. Feeling progress and I am happy about.

In addition to that, I always believe making mistakes is an essential part of learning and not entirely a failure. Just to remind you that I have learnt by doing my first year of business ‘quite badly’, so that now I can put these 8 learning tips out here. That itself is a huge achievement for me. 

So that was that. Hope any of these I mentioned was helpful for you. If you have any suggestions that you would like to share, please feel free to do so. 

Thank you for reading. m x 

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