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Entrepreneurship: Growing A Business

I wrapped up the “Working For Yourself the First Year” series of posts in January. But, after a lot of requests, I’m bringing the series back. Now it’s going to be an occasional Entrepreneurship series, around particular topics.

Maddie recently coined a term for me, during a particularly hard day of work. The term is “Professional Puberty, TM MADDIE” (don’t try to steal it from her!). It’s when your business (or professional life) is growing so fast that as she put it, “Your relationships keep changing in confusing and sometimes sleazy ways, and you outgrow things so quickly you can hardly keep up.” But there is a plus side. She told me, “Maybe you’ll get the APW equivalent of boobs?”

Oh, I’m waiting.

Which is to say, a year ago, when I was first starting to work full time for myself, if you’d asked me about growing a business, I would have told you that my dream was to grow APW to be huge and awesome and take over the world. Which is still my dream, obviously. But now I know that growing a business fast causes a lot of weeping, and less money/ fancy office space/ slow motion romps through a field than you frankly deserve. Or naps. Remember when I started working for myself full time, and wished for more naps? The no naps thing is totally bullshit.

In the first two months of this year, APW grew so fast I could hardly see straight, I made a loop of the whole US by train to promote my book, and just for fun I started writing regular columns for The Huffington Post and Etsy. Underachiever, me. Nap needer. Let’s discuss what I learned.

The Ducky Looks Calm (But You Can’t See Under The Water)

Growing a business seems like magic, when you’re watching someone else do it. And heck, maybe it is effortless magic for some people (but if so, I hate those people). For those of us that are mere mortals though, you’re just seeing the surface without seeing our legs paddling like crazy under the water. You’re seeing two posts a day go up, easy peasy. What you’re not seeing are the endless staff meetings where we try to shape APW content in the way we personally find compelling. You’re not seeing the hours laboring over QuickBooks, making sure the budgets and the books line up. You’re not seeing the phone calls with my lawyer hashing out contracts. And you’re definitely not seeing me as a weepy mess at the end of a rough day, trying to figure out what decision is the right one, how I’m going to balance my work load, and what new projects I should take on or not take on. Nope, you’re just seeing a thoughtful and amusing little ducky, gliding across the internet pond.

Sometimes Your Job Is Not What You Think It Is (Let Go)

A few months ago (before I hired her for Ask Team Practical) I had a conversation with Liz about women small business owners. She said something that’s stuck with me, “Have you read those articles about female entrepreneurs? And how they’re never as successful as possible because they write themselves into a corner where they’re needed for every aspect of their business and they can’t hire people or delegate or grow?” This is the truth, y’all, and figuring out how to delegate is really hard. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re so damn special, that everything you do can only be done by you. But you guys? THIS IS FALSE. Your books don’t feel “all sad” if they’re not done by you, and that’s just for starters.

Women are statistically more likely to start small organic kitchen table businesses (I mean, I still run a kitchen table business, this post was written on the kitchen table). And I’ve chatted about why not taking outside investment and then having to grow like you’re on steroids is a great thing. But when we start our businesses, we tend to have our hand in everything. And for our businesses to grow, we have to let go of some of those bits, and fast.

The profoundly interesting thing is that often we learn that what we think our job was, is actually not our job at all. With APW, I originally thought my job was to write almost every post and respond to almost every comment.  I was wrong. It turns out my job was about facilitating interesting conversations that were not being had other places. And I’m increasingly figuring out that my real mission is to get people to improve their lives offline (passionate online community is great, but my real goal is to inspire people to change their offline communities).

I can’t do it all anymore, and I’ve had to wrap my head around the fact that growing isn’t a bad thing. Now I get to do things like write a book, and go on a book tour, and publish amazing writing from other ladies. And oh yeah, employ a great staff, which has turned into one of the great joys of my life. (My dream is to have full time staff members. And an office. And more naps. SHUSH about how I can have the first two but not the last one.) Not doing it all? Such a blessing. And my current job? Totally better than what I thought my job was (though I miss responding to every comment).

Growth Takes Work (And Has To Be Managed)

We had a blockbuster few months in January and February. The site grew like a weed in ways that were truly mind boggling. A lot more of you found us in the past few months (and we’re super glad you’re here). How did that happen, you ask? Magic, maybe? (Because I’ve watched other people’s sites grow, and I was pretty sure magic was at work.)

Alas, no. The way the site grew is that I got myself out of my comfort zone and spent a month traveling the country and writing about it. It was one of the most profoundly exhausting things I’ve ever done. (I’ve been home for a month, and I literally am close to caught up only as of today.) But holy hell, did it cause the business to grow. By which I mean to say, success is almost never magic. It’s almost always bone-tiring hard work. But the good thing is? If you can find something you love, it still actually feels like work (don’t let anyone lie to you about that), but it’s work you really want to do. It’s work that makes you happy to get up in the morning. And what else can you really wish for?

Everything Changes, All The Time

But more than anything, what I’ve learned from growing a very public business is a profound life lesson: Everything changes, all the time. The thing is, APW is always changing because as a staff we’re changing and growing, and we’re trying to reflect our life experience in our work. There are weeks where we roll out new series and new content, and everything is exciting and sparkly. But then there are weeks where we’re not intending to make changes, and yet, things are still changing.

The funny part of this lesson for me has been that people don’t always love change. The least helpful piece of “constructive” feedback I’ve ever received (but also the funniest) is when right after my wedding someone told me (to help me “improve the site”) that they found my site “Less engaging, now that I was no longer writing about planning my wedding.” Which of course made me wonder if they were suggesting that I get a divorce and start all over again (which admittedly, would be a new trajectory for the site). And the thing is, I also miss the spunk and vigor of tiny APW back when I was planning my wedding. But, I would be sad if we’d stayed in that place (or if I still wrote about my wedding every week, ick). And I also love writing Reclaiming Wife, and having Liz talk about weddings, and Maddie talk about her marriage, and our new team of interns making jokes and taking over the world. In fact, I’d argue that I like it more. Besides, unlike life, when a blog changes the old stuff is still safely stored away in the archives.

So here is to growth: terrifying terrifying growth. And also naps. How can I get one?

PS. Maddie told me that some of you guys were going to think this post was smoke signals and ask me what was next. It’s totally not smoke signals, sorry to not be all sneaky like that. It’s just me writing about what I’ve learned in the last two months. So, relax!

Photos: Out-takes from the last few months by Hart & Sol West. Me in NOLA about to EAT! And getting my hair done before I left for the tour.

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