Entrepreneurship: It’s Not About the Money (Exactly)

A Practical Wedding

For as much as we’ve been talking this week about working together with your partner, these days, half of my time is spent working closely with people who are not my husband. Which frankly, is a nice break for all of us. These days, it’s as often the APW staff who receive my emails about “rude things people say to pregnant women” or sending me emails about “videos of sea otters stacking cups” (the latter will obviously make your day). And also, the zillion actual emails where we’re working hard, or plotting and planning things to be working hard on in the future (team of type-A’s over here).

Businesses change and grow, and holy shit they can grow fast. Looking back two years ago, when APW was still essentially a one-woman shop, seems like looking back at a newborn, when now you have a toddler wandering around the house pulling stuff off of shelves in a scene of concentrated destruction. Because really, how exactly did that happen? This year has been personally crazy in ways I never could have planned for. It started with (Surprise! On one week notice! Thank you Amtrak!) a national book tour, segued virtually without pausing into pregnancy (which, it turns out, is an epic journey of its own), and then continued with nonstop business action.

So thank god for the APW staff. When your business doubles in size in six months (even the rest of your life is crickets, which mine is obviously not right now), there is nothing you are more grateful for than having a staff that says, “I’ll take this project on!” and “I think we need to make this change!” and “Please let me screen your emails so you can maybe attempt to get a tiny bit of work done!” and “Don’t worry! We’re growing but it’s going to be awesome.” Which, is a lot like what a supportive partner does when you (double in size in six months? Ha.) are pregnant, so I suppose I’m experiencing some of the magical but complicated synergies of the universe right now.

But all this brings me back to money. (I know right? You wondered how I was going to get there.) It’s a concept that is discussed too infrequently in the public sphere by small business owners. It turns out that being a small business owner has completely changed the way I think about money—both making it and having it.

Because, money. When you’re not in charge of actually making it appear yourself (if, say, like in my most recent former-life, you’re a very fancy secretary in an investment bank where money is mysteriously turned into more money on vast and complicated trading floors in other parts of the country), you tend to think about two things: doing your job as well as you can (hopefully), and figuring out how you can maximize the number on your paycheck every two weeks, so you can spend it on things like rent, food, student loans, savings, and maybe if you’re lucky some pretty clothes.

But it turns out that when you’re the one in charge of making the money, things look very different. These days, I mostly think of money as a safety net that allows me to keep running my business, building it smartly, and doing what I love. I look at my business savings account and forget to even think of that number as legal currency, and instead I think of it as cash flow. How many months of expenses do we have saved? Is it enough that we can invest in a new project? Is the business healthy? Are all members of my staff going to get paid no matter what?

Here is the other interesting twist. When you start working with other people, you spend a lot more time thinking about their paychecks than your own. And I don’t mean this in a “pay yourself last” kind of way. Women business owners in particular, can be terrible about remembering to take good care of themselves (hello cultural messaging about how we’re not worth putting on our own lists, let alone putting on the TOP of our own lists). And on the whole I don’t fall into this trap (exactly … most of the time…). But what do I do instead? I spend a huge amount of time obsessing about paying my staff. How can I get a bigger number on their paychecks? How can I value them closer to what they are worth? How can I make it so they can buy themselves pretty clothes once in a while?

Working in online publishing (or whatever the hell you want to call this field), is an exercise in living on the front end of a very large wave. The way we receive content, read words, and interact with each other is changing in massive ways. But none of us are exactly sure how it’s going to work out. The business models are all in flux. Our job descriptions are unclear. (Am I a blogger? An online publisher? A published author? A cultural commentator? A small business owner? All of the above at once? None of the above? Some random combination? What should I say at parties?) So living in this transitional space means that figuring out how to best earn and use money is like doing backflips on a balance beam.

Which of course I love. Because it’s weirdly complicated. And sometimes you get to fly.

But it changes your conception of money, almost completely. Money stops being “something I buy things with” and starts being “something I use as a tool to create other things” and “something that I use to keep people taken care of.”

Which means, in the end, running your own business can’t be about making money. It has to be about what you want to do in the world, about what you want to create. But money is the form of exchange we use to make things happen, so you had better be a damn good steward of your company’s money or your ability to do and make will be revoked.

It’s not about money. And it is.

It’s all backflips on a balance beam. But those moments where you’re hovering in space for just one flash of an instant, doing what you’re made to do, make it all worth it.

Photo by: Hart & Sol East

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