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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  • I’ve also been thinking a lot about this.

    I started my business in June and it’s going to be at least October or maybe even January before I have a chance at a positive cash flow.


    And I’m getting all these messages about failure all the time. Someone said to me on Twitter yesterday “There’s no money in publishing.”

    But that can’t be true, can it? Otherwise there wouldn’t be any publishers!

    I started this business because I saw a gap in the market and a need and I am now laying my bet that there is enough of a need to create a healthy business filling it.

  • “When you start working with other people, you spend a lot more time thinking about their paychecks than your own.”

    AMEN TO THIS. Things were tight over at the Empire this month, and at a certain point I made the decision to pay my staff instead of myself this pay period. Oddly, it was WAY easier to do that than to even consider not cutting every one else’s checks on time.

    In some ways, having a staff feels just like parenthood. I feel the burden of responsibility for making sure everyone’s rent can get paid, everyone’s learning something, everyone feels encouraged and supported. Having help is awesome, but I don’t think I ever factored in how much work managing people was… including the incredible stress of feeling financially responsible for people I deeply respect.

    • meg

      Yes. Someone told me they wanted to stay a blogger, not someone who managed people, and I thought “That’s fair, know yourself.” Having a staff is hands down the best thing I’ve ever done (again, know yourself), but it’s a Huge Thing To Undertake.

      It also shifts my opinion (even further) of bad bosses I’ve been exposed to, who don’t take their responsibility seriously. You can’t always pay people what they’re worth, in the beginning, for example. But if that’s true, you should be doing every other thing you can to make their experience better. And if you don’t treat people right, there is no excuse, in my book.

      • Marisa-Andrea

        Having once worked for a complete sociopath, I totally agree.

        • meg

          Who hasn’t? Or is that just how it goes in our family?

  • Laura

    This. When money becomes a tool, not a reward.

    • This thought is great even if you’re not necessarily running your own business. Money as a means to an end, rather than its own end.

      It feels much better to think, “I’m working to take home this paycheck in order to eventually buy a piece of land somewhere and make art and rescue animals!” than to think “I’m working to take home this paycheck, because you can’t ever have enough money… I guess.”

      • Ash

        This is great.

  • Marisa-Andrea

    Huge kudos for having the kind of business ethics where you actually care about what your team makes, valuing their worth and wanting to compensate them for what they do. We need more businesses like this.

  • Rachel Rizzo

    Love this conversation. Thanks for sharing the process!

  • First of all, someone passed me that otter link this week, but titled it, “Look! A creature smarter than Todd Akin!” which made me giggle even before she started doing her incredible trick.

    Secondly, I really like looking at money from different angles. This is a good assessment of how you see it in your paycheck differently than when you’re writing one. I have been experimenting with bartering lately and it’s been fun to turn certain conversations about money on their head. (Latest example: Babysitting for a neighbor – do I really need to get paid to read a book after a toddler goes to sleep? No, just give me dinner and let’s call it a community.)

    Happy Friday!

  • KC

    I’ve always seen money as an increasing-opportunities thing – you have more life flexibility with less debt, more money, more earning-money skills and more frugal-living skills (surprise opportunity for a year overseas? sure!) – but I think that mostly comes from growing up being close to someone who felt trapped in a really unhappy job in the legal profession; if money had not be an Issue (both in terms of living-within-means and in terms of debt), she would have been able to do more of what she always said she wanted to do rather than be unhappy and sort of trapped in a bad retail-therapy cycle for literally decades. And you can also take care of people more if you have money (friend’s car breaks down and they’re broke? got the $500 extra right here Natural disaster? can send something to the Red Cross or whatever).

    But a living, growing business is still different (especially a partly-because-we-want-to-make-the-world-better business, not a solely-here-to-make-money business), and having employees you’re really responsible for is different, too, from just having the ability to hand off cash or donate to nonprofits or whatever (having children may be more like that, though, since they really depend on you). And it’s an especially odd thing when you want all the sides to have more money – in your case, I assume you like your advertisers and want the advertising to make as little of a dent in *their* small-business budgets as possible; your staff is awesome and you want to pay them more; you want to expand the business to do more awesome things to improve the world; you still need to make the rent and save for a rainy day and retirement and baby and stuff.

    Hope everything thrives in the right direction! And have fun on the balance beam!

  • Meredith

    “…is like doing backflips on a balance beam” :)

    Not related at all but as a gymnast, thanks for the love! And I can legit do backflips on a balance beam. I bet managing people and their paychecks and money is WAY harder, though.

    • meg

      Oh. I don’t know. I bet doing backflips on a balance beam is WAY harder :)

      • Sarah

        Both sound super-impressive to me.

  • It was really interesting, how my priorities regarding money shifted when I started a business doing what I really care about. I work part-time as a legal assistant and part-time running my own flute/piano studio (and playing gigs) and my relationship to money is completely different at each job. One is all about getting enough money so I can survive; the other is such a sheer joy that I am still amazed that I get to do it and get paid, too! (I’m guessing you can figure out which is which.) And by the same token, I have to be much more conscientious about remembering to charge rates that are fair to me for the job I love, because that money gets reinvested into the business and allows me to keep doing what I enjoy.
    All of which to say, it’s a very different perspective and not one I’d really considered until this post. Thank you!

    • Megan

      I clicked through to your website, and it looks to me like you’re worth every penny you’re charging AND more. I only say this because I recently raised my rates, and despite the gripping fear, not one parent questioned it. So here’s one vote for charging what you’re worth even if you would do it for free! Also, cheers to having work you love.

  • Anya

    Beautiful! Thanks so much Meg. This makes me much more excited about starting my own business. I really get the feeling for one of those abstract terms that’s thrown around on the news all the time “creating wealth.” It seems like as a business owner, that’s exactly what you do. That is SO awesome (in the original sense of the word). Keep it up!

  • KC

    The company I work for seems to think of money in much the same way–how do we use the cash flow to benefit people the most by extending the lifetime of this company? And it is 30+ years strong. I wish the same to you, Meg!

    The other day, my husband pointed out that my own family has an example of this. My grandfather started a business with his brother-in-law, neither of whom had education past the 8th grade. Grandpa died 18 years ago, but the sale of and continued revenue from the business bless our extended family in countless ways. No, we haven’t inherited millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars (I don’t even think that would be good for us). But the money has been used to pay college tuition bills for cousins and taxes and upkeep on a family lake cabin. Debt-free start to adulthood and a place we all cherish to come home to? That’s a great inheritance and something I give my grandparents all the respect in the world for providing to us.