At the end of last year, I wrote a post about women and money and self worth. I had just come back from spending a fantastic weekend with a group of really smart, entrepreneurial women, who had all built businesses from the ground up, and I’d been pondering the way we limit our dreams when it comes to money. I said:
I’ve been thinking about how, as women, we often undervalue ourselves, our life stories, and what we’re capable of, and that leads to lost potential. We think, “I can’t do that; I can’t dream that big; I’m being selfish to even think about this; I don’t deserve to earn (or have my company earn) that much money; I shouldn’t have delusions of grandeur.” And when this happens, we all lose. Think of all those projects that could have been created, those businesses that could have thrived, that money that could be flowing back into our communities. When we cut ourselves off at the knees we lose all that, our communities lose all that, we all lose.
And that turned out to be one of the posts I’m proudest of. Not only did I quit my job and sell a book since then, but it gave APWers the encouragement they needed to make things happen. I got a small flurry of emails (and some Christmas cards and care packages) last year from people who said that particular post made them ask for a raise (which they got), or that the post kicked them in the pants to apply to graduate school. Our own Maddie finally quit a job she hated and then launched Hart + Sol Photo with her partner Monica because of that post. Talk about dividends.
The reason I really think this conversation about women, money, and ambition is an important one to keep having in this space is because the more fulfilled we are as people, the more our relationships thrive. So, to counter all the cultural nonsense about how being a bride or a wife or a mother is fulfilling enough on its own, we need to keep talking about the ways dreaming big makes us better brides, wives, mothers, and women.
All of which is to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways women start, run, and support each other in business over the past few weeks. When I first started pondering going full time on APW, one of our regular commenters, Class of 1980, emailed to support and encourage me. She’s owned her own business for a long time, and she told me that she thought all women should own their own businesses. She thinks this, not just because the world needs more women shaping how things are done, but because women’s biology fundamentally doesn’t line up with the male timeline of the business world (and because we should all be allowed to take naps in the middle of the day as needed). Class of 1980 nailed it for me. I’ve mentioned before, part of the reason I’d always wanted to work for myself was because I wanted a family, and I felt that the working-mom/stay-at-home-mom dichotomy was bullsh*t. I was unwilling to pick between an inflexible office job, where I couldn’t stay home with a sick kid, and staying at home with my kid nonstop. And for me, the solution seemed clear: work for myself and make my own rules (somehow or other). That, and, even without kids, I wanted to be able to prioritize my family and my quality of life, in a way that office jobs did not allow me to do.
Fast-forward to two weeks ago, when I was lucky enough to attend a conference for women entrepreneurs. The conference was held in Silicon Valley, and focused on businesses receiving Venture Capital money. As someone who’s very proud of her business’s bootstrapping, self-sufficient, from-the-ground-up philosophy, I listened to the talks with some fascination. I thought, “I really don’t want outside financing, but maybe I’m wrong.” But the more I listened, the more I realized that taking VC money was not why I became a female small business owner.
You see, the VC rule of thumb was brought up. Someone said that VC’s are interested in scalable businesses. They are looking for a business that can scale five to ten times in five to ten years. Which, if we translate, means that if you accept a million dollars in Venture Capital cash (which would be a crazy small amount, in that world), in five years, you’d need to be a five to ten million dollar a year business. And that’s when the lightbulb went on for me.
I started my own business because I wanted to scale my business to my life, and because I was tired of scaling my life to my business. There might be a point, in ten years, where I want to run a five million dollar a year business. I don’t know, that does not sound appealing, but hey, I know I’m ambitious and you never know. But right now? Right now I want to be able to leave work early to have dinner with my husband. I want to take a nap when I’m exhausted, I want the freedom to raise a newborn, or pick a sick kid up from pre-school. Right now, I have no interest in scaling my business to fit the ideals of a largely male financial establishment. For me, at this moment, owning a business is about doing work I love. It’s about getting emails from people who asked for a raise because of something I wrote. It’s about proudly supporting a family. It’s about quality of life.
But then, I did the yearly APW survey last week, and I was reminded of the road blocks we set for each other as women and the ways that this does not serve us. Ninety percent of the comments on the survey were crazy supportive (and we’ll discuss them at length next week). But I was struck by the fact that, at every point of growing this website, there has been a contingent of people that have equated growth and making money with loss of vision and values—a loss of the things that matter. One comment in the survey that stuck with me was this:
And pleasepleaseplease do not add more sponsored advertiser stuff if you can get by without it.
It stuck with me because it’s a version of something I hear all too often: don’t grow the site if you don’t absolutely have to pay the bills. (Caveat here: we’ve always had two sponsored posts a week, and that number is never going to increase, though the site will obviously continue to grow in other ways.)
So here is the rub. On one hand, the male-centric, VC-funded world wants businesses to grow at an insane rate: five to ten times a huge investment, in five to ten years. On the other hand, our female-centric, progressive world wants businesses to not grow at all, because growing and making more money somehow means that you give up on what you believe and who you are. Or as I said in my last post:
I think as women we do a really good job about shaming each other about money. When was the last time you saw a guy tell another guy that because his new creative project was making money, he was a sellout? I mean, basically never, right? Guys say things like, “DUDE. That’s so awesome that you’re doing so well.” And women say things like, “Have you thought about how you’re selling out and destroying the soul of your endeavor by making this much money?” Because, you know, we’re ladies. We’re supposed to give things away for free, because we’re nurturers. Nurturers of the world, apparently, for free. So I need to learn how to turn those voices off, and see success as an okay thing. And yes, see MONEY as an okay thing. Even for me. As a woman. As a wife.
So we have to find balance, I think. We have to carve out a corner of the world where it’s okay to be successful, and to continue to grow and achieve as women, while still scaling our professional work to our lives. For APW, growth is important to me because it means more of what I value. It means giving my staff a raise (that they very much deserve). It means being able to produce new sites and new conversations for those of us who are a step or two beyond our wedding. It means continuing to build a sustainable business doing work that I love.
And I think this is true for all of us. Our job as women is to encourage each other not to settle. To tell each other that we deserve happiness, whether that’s being a mom, or owning a business, or quitting our job to go to grad school, or asking for a raise. Our job is to say, be self-full, that’s not selfish. To tell each other that you’re allowed to reach for more happiness. That you should try to grow your dreams to include others. That we can keep asking for more, growing our projects, and being ourselves. That this is good for the world, good for our families, good for our relationships.
What’s next for you? Because where you are is great, but I’m pushing you to keep climbing.
Change. Grow. That’s a wonderful, very brave thing.
Photo: David & Me, apart together, by Emily Takes Photos