The joke I always make (though, am I really joking?) is that I’m the least smart person in my family. My sister and my dad in particular are basically geniuses, and I will never be smarter than my husband. But the end of the joke is that it’s okay, because I’m also the only one good at making money. And everyone laughs, because it’s true, and then everyone rushes to assure me that I’m just “differently smart,” and I roll my eyes… because…well, I’m smart enough… but, no.
I always have been good at (or at least interested in) making money. It’s not that I ever had any focus on (or really ability to even fathom) being rich. But instead, that I was always the kid trying to organize the other kids into entrepreneurial ventures as good clean fun. I was frustrated that neither my best friend nor I lived on a busy enough street to make our lemonade stand profitable. The yard sale I
helped forced (?) my mom to set up made a little bit of money, given that we really didn’t have any of the kinds of stuff people wanted to buy. And then there was the time that I organized and directed a theatrical production in a backyard, and insisted that obviously we had to charge family members admission (this plan was slightly hampered by the fact that I had no local extended family whatsoever).
And then, I got my first eight-hour a day weekend job exactly one day before I turned twelve. In that job I managed to excel as the #2 salesperson, even though I was the only kid in a line up of adults. (I would have regularly hit #1, but whenever I made a sale that was bigger than a hundred bucks, the adult would take it around the corner to the #1 sales person to write up.) My list of sales jobs sort of cascades on from there, including the time I sold cigars when I was fourteen and was the only person on staff who could sell the most expensive $15 cigar. (Tip: tell the customer it costs $25, and then when they look like they’re going to pass out, lower the price to $15. If they ask if the cigar is Cuban, roll your eyes while you remind them that Cuban cigars are illegal, and immediately raise the price to $20 as punishment for having asked. Let them apologize as they pay you the $15 sticker price, and pocket their large tip.) Obviously, starting at eleven, I managed to get employers to violate basically every child labor law in the book for me. And I’m perpetually grateful to all those employers who let me hustle them for jobs. (Related: how young can I start my kid hustling?)
I’ve also spent my whole life embarrassed by the fact that I was simply good at… having a paying job. When you grow up in a liberal academically oriented family, “making money” is not something that often comes up in conversation as something kind and ethical people are interested in. And people in management are often not described in the most glowing terms. But those two things often go together, and they just happen to form some of my core skill sets. I’m good at putting teams of people together, organizing them in a way that forms a really viable business, and then figuring out how to take that money and spread it around in a way that makes more money. While I happen to passionately love what I currently do, I also really loved shaking down people as I sold them cigars.
It’s Not All About The Benjamins… Exactly
But it hasn’t always been so easy to accept that this is what I’m good at. Four years ago, after attending my first entrepreneurial conference, Mighty Summit, I came home and wrote this post about learning to value our worth as women, particularly in the workforce. I wrote:
I think as women we do a really good job about shaming each other about money. When was the last time you saw a guy tell another guy that because his new creative project was making money, he was a sellout? I mean, basically never, right? Guys say things like, “DUDE. That’s so awesome that you’re doing so well.” And women say things like, “Have you thought about how you’re selling out and destroying the soul of your endeavor by making this much money?” Because, you know, we’re ladies. We’re supposed to give things away for free, because we’re nurturers. Nurturers of the world, apparently, for free. So I need to learn how to turn those voices off, and see success as an okay thing. And yes, see MONEY as an okay thing. Even for me. As a woman. As a wife.
This year, I had the opportunity to revisit my entrepreneurial writing, thanks to our partnership with Squarespace. And it’s been interesting for me to see how far I’ve come in that college length of time of being in business for myself. While I still a hundred percent agree with everything I wrote years ago, I no longer have any patience for women being shamed about making money. And this year I stopped struggling with apologizing for making money. Because not only am I good at making money, I’ve gotten to the point that I’m proud of it.
In the last year, I’ve come realize that, for me, making money has nothing to do with actually personally making money. (In fact, my next goal is to maybe work on making that feel a little more okay.) I’ve always felt a sense of guilt that I wanted to make sure all the businesses I worked on were lucrative, because I’d grown up with the idea that money was a dirty force that was the root of most of the evil in the world. I spent years not wanting to look my skill in the eye, or hiding out in nonprofits, where at least the money I made while nicely shaking down long-time donors over the phone was for a good cause (and not even a little bit for my salary).
And then, in the last two years, APW started really growing. And I realized that I had two jobs: one, to make sure we are organized to be a lean, mean, profit generating machine; and two, to be an excellent steward of that money, so we could all keep our jobs going forward. Having an excellent team of people working for me made me slowly stop being internally ashamed of making money. In the same way that my family depended on me to bring home the (literal, if you ask my toddler) bacon, my staff and their families depend on me to make sure their paychecks were paid. Once I reframed profit as a way to be in service, I freed myself up from the guilt of feeling like money was essentially bad.
But The Benjamins Do Buy The Food (And Sparkly Shoes)
I suppose not surprisingly, given my skill set, I spend a huge percentage of my spare brain space trying to figure out various companies’ business models, what works well and what doesn’t. About a year ago, as David and I got day drunk at a nearly empty bar in San Francisco (the wonders of daytime babysitting), I got the sociable bartender to help me figure out the profit margin of another popular bar’s PBR and a shot deal, to help figure out how that supported their lower margin high end whisky shot sales. (That lovely bar manager broke down exactly how much bars pay per PBR, how much they pay for a bottle of Jack, and how many shots are in the bottle. Which is all drunk Meg really wants to know.)
Because of my obsessive focus on business models and profit margins (if I think your business is interesting, I will research it into the ground trying to figure out how it works, and what it’s making. As a friend said to me once, “You’ve probably done a rough calculation on what God is making”) I spend much of my spare time wanting to help out creative business owners, and more specifically, help them turn a profit. If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that awesome and creative people are often terrifically bad at running viable businesses, because they can’t move past the part where they feel like horrible people for trying to support themselves.
When I teach or consult with people (or hell, just get into a business conversation over a drink), I spend a lot of energy convincing people that they have to raise their prices beyond the point of covering their expenses. I try to convince them that raising their prices doesn’t make them bad people, and it isn’t going to get them monsters as clients (and that you can always lower your price for particularly lovely people). I’m consistently trying to make the case that if you don’t make sure your business is turning a viable profit, it won’t support you, you won’t be able to grow, and you will burn out and go out of business. And that helps nobody. Because there is nothing sadder than a truly awesome, creative, forward-thinking business that you love disappearing, simply because the owners couldn’t bring themselves to take care of the finances and make a profit.
Into the Wild
This year, I came across this quote in Into the Wild, of all places:
I remember he’d come home every night and do his accounting at the kitchen table. It didn’t matter how tired he was; he’d figure out how many miles he drove, how much Domino’s paid him for gas, how much gas actually cost, his net profits for the evening, and how it compared to the same evening the week before. He kept track of everything and showed me how to do it, how to make a business work. He didn’t seem interested in the money so much as the fact that he was good at making it. It was like a game, and the money was the way to keep score.”
For the first time, I recognized my relationship to business and money on the page. The money itself is only marginally interesting to me, beyond how you can reinvest it in people and the business, to grow. But trying to run up the score to win the game? That’s where I thrive.
I’ve learned that if you’re willing to let go of your fear of making money, you can use that money in service—of people, and of ideas. But if the only people in the wedding space willing to make any money are companies like The Knot, those are the ideas that will be out there, and those are the tools that we’ll have. The more we can encourage people with different and interesting ideas to commit to making money in service of their ideas, the better off we all are.
I’m Not Sorry
This year, I slowly stopped apologizing for running a solid business and making money. As that brilliant Pantene ad brought to our attention this year, women apologize way too much. We apologize for things we’re not really sorry for, just to give the impression of being good people. I’ve spent the last few years constantly apologizing for being a businessperson. I apologize for thinking about how to run a successful operation. I apologize for focusing on making money. I apologize for actually making money. And more than anything, I apologize for enjoying it.
But the truth is, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry, and currently I’m setting a terrible example. As I watch women business owners in my community get in financial trouble, not pay themselves living wages, burn out because they can’t hire the help they need, and even go out of business… all in the service of being sorry that they need to make money, I realize that I need to be more careful in how I use my words.
Here is what I really mean: go forth, creative women of the world. Start smart, forward-thinking, interesting businesses. And then make every penny you can on them, without a single apology. That’s how we’ll slowly create a world I really want to live in.
If you’ve been thinking of starting a small business, or have one that you’re ready to take to the next level, but have been holding yourself back (for whatever reason), check out the rest of our Squarespace entrepreneurship posts, or if you’ve got a lot of free time this holiday season, the complete APW entrepreneurship series. A few recent favorites to get you started:
- Overcoming roadblocks
- Why your business isn’t about you (well, not exactly)
- Love what you do and you’ll work every day of your life
And finally, it’s the holidays, which means it’s time to invest in yourself. For those of you that need a better website (which I’m pretty sure is at least sixty percent of you, because isn’t that always how it is?) dig into our tips for making a portfolio website, and get the ball rolling over vacation. If 2015 is for making money, without apologies, and you deserve a head start.
To Put my money where my mouth is, for 2015 we’ve partnered with Squarespace for an Exciting project that will help one business in our community grow and become more profitable in the next year, with the goal of inspiring the rest of us to keep kicking ass and taking names. We’ll have all the details for you in early January, but until then, use your holiday break to polish those business plans and business practices. Next year, we’ll stop apologizing for making money, together.
This post was sponsored by Squarespace. If you’ve been thinking about setting up your business website, the holidays are the perfect time to dig in and finally make it happen (and lucky for you, Squarespace just launched their new Squarespace 7 platform, which makes the whole process even easier and more user-friendly). If you want to get a head start on the project Meg mentioned above, Squarespace is offering APWers 10% off yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW14 at checkout. Click here for a commitment-free 14-day free trial.