Years ago, I heard Oprah say one of her particularly smart Oprah-isms that I filed away for possible future use. She said about her best friend Gayle, “When you become famous and you have access to lots of different things, a lot of people lose oxygen and they can’t make the summit with you. [It's good] to be able to have somebody who not only can make the summit, but stand at the summit with you and rejoices in your being able to make it.”
At the time, I filed it away as a lovely description of friendship. Over the years, it’s stuck with me as something more than that. Life, it seems, is a series of climbs. And when things get particularly arduous, you lose good people. There are always people you love who just can’t make that particular summit with you.
Right now I’m on the climb of motherhood and of business. They’re both struggles, and I’ve learned to value the people that continue to be able to keep the faith, step after difficult step. But I’ve also learned that as we climb, we lose oxygen ourselves. And as the oxygen thins, the focus shifts. It shifts from just being about you, to being about the mountain. It’s not about you on the summit; it’s about the summit itself.
Starting a business is, in a sense, an exercise in pure ego. It requires you to have a vision, and decide that your particular idea is different enough from everyone else’s idea that it’s worth pursing. If that sounds like an exercise in self-importance, don’t worry, the business will knock you down as soon as you’ve set yourself up. You’ll have to have enormous faith in your vision, in something nobody can see. The early days of business are like living in an invisible world. You can see the outlines of what you want to build, but almost no one else can. Frankly, it’s exhausting.
When I started APW, I had a really clear idea of what I wanted it to be. Within a month of opening my Blogger account, I knew what I could make the site become if I put enough work into it. Almost everyone else thought I had an adorable hobby, and for years, I lived with near constant condescending comments about my little website. But I knew what I wanted to do with my work, so I put my head down and got on with it. I cried after parties where I’d had to talk about my job, but in general, I just shut out the noise and kept going.
Starting a business can take a deep well of confidence, as you keep pushing to prove yourself. Starting a business is like getting to Everest base camp. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of faith. It takes a huge amount of determination and resources. And if you’re lucky, you make it.
Building a business is intensely hard, but at the end of the day, it’s about you. It is, on some level, about working to create a life you want. Want to travel? Try to incorporate that into your business. Want to work in a sunny office with people you love? Figure that out. Want to support your family while staying out of the cubicle? GO. If you’re setting up shop from scratch, it’s your job to create something that works for you.
When most people start businesses (we’ll exclude MBAs and people otherwise trained to start huge businesses), their driving goal is to build a sustainable company. Given that something like eighty percent of businesses fail in the first year and a half, for most of us, the dream is to build something that can support our families. That’s base camp. You can prove to the world around you what you’ve accomplished, and you finally have a bit of a break. Instead of working eighty hours a week, maybe you can hire someone to work forty of those hours for you. A sustainable small business is something to be tremendously proud of.
But what happens when you’ve reached that point that you barely dared to dream of? What happens when you’ve built a sustainable small business? At that point, you have two choices. The first is the most reasonable: sustain your business on a small scale. The second is the are-you-crazy-you-want-to-climb-Everest? option: keep pushing. The catch is this: if you decide to keep pushing, it’s not about you anymore.
In the last month, I marked the anniversary of working for myself for more time than I’ve ever worked in one job. I also realized that I’d achieved everything I set out to achieve. More than everything, actually. I wanted desperately to write a wedding book, but I never expected to do particularly well, I just wanted to not embarrass myself. My goal was to build my business to the point where I could no longer be regularly embarrassed at parties. Turns out, I built a company I can describe proudly over cocktails.
So now what? A few years ago, I wrote this:
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.
And that’s still mostly true. I do, in fact, want to be able to pick up my kid when he’s sick. But these days, I want more than that. I also want my employees to be able to pick up their kids when they’re sick. I want to support my staff doing work they love, and I want to give them raises when they deserve it. It turns out I want this business to be able to support more families than just my own.
I’ve been reading Sophia Amoruso’s excellent #GirlBoss, about her eBay-started company and its meteoric rise. At one point she says, “Not too long ago, someone told me I had an obligation to take Nasty Gal as far as I possibly could because I’m a role model for girls who want to do cool stuff with their own lives. I’m still not sure how to feel about that, because for most of my life I didn’t even believe in the concept of role models. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal.” And that, I think, sums up decisions about company growth. As APW becomes bigger, it becomes more and more important to me to fade into the background. While I’ll always write, what’s important isn’t what I think people should do with their weddings and marriages, but what you all are doing. What’s important is not that I started this site, but that my killer staff has helped grow my vision, and push it in ways I’d never expected.
Do I want to take APW as far as I possibly can? It turns out, yes. Not so much for girls who need role models, but instead, because the mountain is there, and it calls. And I’d rather fail climbing, than not try. I’d rather let my ego go, and let the climb remain. Besides, I’ve always enjoyed a good failure, because at least then you know you tried.
I have no idea what’s beyond base camp. I had enough ego to start a blog and turn it into a company, but I’m not a crazy person. I never imagined taking it farther than this, so who knows what the road up looks like? All I know is that I’m taking it with the best company imaginable. And beyond here, I have the freedom of it no longer being about me.
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