My middle school and high school yearbooks are filled with inscriptions (usually from people I only half-knew) that say, “Never change! Stay sweet forever.” I always assumed that these people only half knew me after they signed my yearbook because while I have many good qualities, I’m pretty sure sweet has never been one of them. Even at 13, or 16, or 17, I always thought this was the most depressing inscription possible. While I actually liked who I was at that point (a rare teenage blessing), the idea of never changing seemed like the saddest idea in the whole world to me. Surely we hadn’t all hit our peak at 16. Surely we had a lot of changing and improving to do (hint: as someone who married a high school friend, we sure as shit did). Surely the world had more to offer us than what we’d been offered so far. “Never change” seemed like such a banner of hopelessness.
It turns out, the funny thing about running a business, particularly a business in the public eye, is that people, lots of people, are inscribing “never change” on your virtual yearbook all of the time. It’s something I’ve noticed from my very early days of writing this blog, and it’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around it. In the early days, I thought it was the right instinct. Why change if you’re doing something good? Changing was clearly bad and moving in the wrong direction. So every time something happened that would impact the business at all—we re-launched the site (the smart post on that is here), I quit my job, I started writing a book—I’d reassure everyone that nothing was going to change, the content on APW was going to stay exactly the same. And it turns out, that was only partially true (but not because I wasn’t trying desperately hard to make sure nothing changed).
Running a business ended up teaching me a deceptively simple life lesson: Everything changes all the time. Trying to keep things the same is an exercise in futility. Whoops. But there are other useful lessons buried in there too.
After years of trying to keep the core of my business, APW’s content, more or less the same (while still always improving), and realizing that no matter what I did it always changed, I finally went to regular commenter Class of 1980, to ask why that was. She’s been running a business for several decades, and she always gives the right advice (like put a couch in your office so you can nap). She told me, “Something is wrong with businesses that don’t change. It means they’re not sensitive to changes happening around them, which is what causes change to be necessary.” And then the light bulb went on. Of course one’s business is always changing. Not only are you changing, but the world around you is changing, and your customers are changing. I’d known that, on a really logical level, but what I hadn’t realized is that this is a good thing. This is what good businesses do.
But what Class of 1980 and I talked about next is the hidden gold. We discussed the difference between a changing and growing business, and a fundamental change of mission.
This year, APW has grown faster than anything I’ve ever seen, and while it’s a nice surprise, it wasn’t exactly planned. Our readership is through the roof, and the whole staff is running around like crazy people trying to manage the extra work load, trying to cover the extra expenses, and trying to figure out what happened (see my post from earlier this year about growing a business, lessons that have continued times one thousand). The growth is a result of some smart decisions we made last year, but those decisions paying off is always a bit out of our control (you do the work, and then you just see what happens). And it turns out that dealing with a business that’s growing fast is one of the biggest challenges a company can face. Rapid business growth is wonderful, but it’s problematic. It means the nature of what you do every day changes somewhat. It means you have to adjust your business model so the growth doesn’t collapse your company. It means you personally change a bit (life changes us; it just does).
And at the end of the day, what it comes down to is the importance of knowing your mission. APW has always had a really clear mission—one that’s changed and grown with the site, but never one that’s been fuzzy. We want to change the wedding industry, talk about what really matters in our weddings, and talk about what marriage actually means. I want a place to write. We want to encourage constructive conversations. Ironically, we’ve (I’ve) always wanted to provide content that pushes readers to change, and grow, and eventually stop reading the site (we don’t throw around the term “graduates” for nothing). None of that has shifted. But it turns out the scary and brilliant thing about growth is it changes the ways you’re able to fulfill a mission. We’re able to produce How To content now instead of just linking to inspiration all over the web. We’re able to produce weeks of content around a theme, instead of just putting up posts. I’m able to write long form. (Here, around the web, and in a book. Squeek!) And that kind of change isn’t just good; it’s necessary. If you don’t change, you die.
And while change is scary as shit, it’s also one of the best things going. A lot of the things I did to get APW up and running were terrifying. Like, I don’t know, opening that first window and creating a blogspot account. Or quitting my job with plans to support my whole family doing something I’d made up. (Jury is out on which thing was scarier.) But two weeks ago, my exhausted pregnant self looked around the P&G Beauty shoot and had one of those moments of clarity.
That little tiny blogspot blog I’d started had turned into this: fifteen women in a room, creating something useful (and pretty), and having tons of fun doing it. The confusing vastness of that was overwhelming. And my next thought was about how sometimes we try really hard to fight what we’re good at, and we just can’t win that fight. Five years ago, I quit theatre, quit entertainment, and decided I was never going to be in a room producing some sort of shoot or creative endeavor again. I got a job at an investment bank, for goodness sake—I worked hard at quitting. And then somehow, without planning it, I ended up back in a room doing what I’d always done, realizing it’s what I’d always been good at. It turns out that change can take you right back around in a circle, right to where you need to be, if you trust it.
So now, I’m spending more of my time actually looking forward to the ways APW will change in the coming months and years. I’m looking forward to what we’ll be able to dream up to do a better job of meeting our mission. I spend less time worrying about the people I might disappoint if we change. Because at the end of the day, there is no point in never changing and staying sweet. I was never that sweet to begin with, and I always looked forward to what I, and all of us, might grow into next.
Photos from my Instagram stream. Follow me at @megkeene or on twitter at @practicalwed