Many years ago, before entertainment was available on demand in the palm of our hands, a traveling circus was considered to be one of the most enjoyable distractions available for most middle-class families. I have many fond childhood memories of an evening’s enjoyment watching the various attractions presented under the big top. Without a doubt, one of my favorite performers was always the high-wire act. In it, one of the circus performers would slowly walk across a thin wire, suspended high above the audience. Carefully they would make their way from their starting platform to one at the other side of the tent, with nothing to aid them but a long pole they would carry for balance. Invariably, they would appear to stumble once or twice for effect, ultimately regaining their balance and making it safely to the other platform. The crowd would roar its approval, and young children in the audience would imagine themselves the recipient of all that applause, carefully suspended high above the ground, navigating that treacherous tight rope without any protection from a deadly fall. It was breathtaking!
Little did I realize that many years later, I would become that tight rope walker; opening a small business without any idea what I was doing and lacking a net to protect me from a precipitous fall to certain death. Damn, what the hell was I thinking!
Walking the high wire in our business
It’s amazing to think about the number of different ways in which running a small business resembles walking the high wire. It seems like everything we do in our businesses is like walking a tight rope; one slight misstep can often spell the doom of everything we’ve worked for as we plunge headfirst toward bankruptcy. But, just like those high wire acts of old, knowing the hazards of the job, properly utilizing the available tools of the trade and practicing our act can help to ensure that we stay alive, perched high above the crowd that’s sitting there, just waiting with anticipation for us to fall from the sky.
One way in which we walk the wire each day is by simply doing our job. Whether we’re a real estate agent, a home inspector or another type of worker in the service industry, we’re constantly attempting to balance the various aspects of our position. While we certainly are doing our jobs to provide an income for ourselves and our families, we cannot forget that we have responsibilities beyond our own monetary concerns. Our clients are depending on us to provide guidance through a process that we know well, but they have very little experience with. They’re counting on us to look out for their best interests, hoping that we’re able to balance our need to make an income with their need for guidance.
Many people in the service industry fail to maintain this balance, leaning too far to the right and focusing solely on their own personal profit, or leaning too far to the left and worrying too much about their client’s interests, often to the detriment of their own personal financial situation. The most successful service providers work to maintain this balance, providing the best possible service for their clients while simultaneously ensuring that they have enough income to keep their bills paid and their family comfortable. It’s certainly important to provide the best quality service possible for your clients, but if you aren’t able to make enough money to keep your lights on, then you won’t be around to help serve future clients.
Maintaining work/life balance
Another area where balance is important for the small business owner is in their own personal life. One of the most difficult things about owning a small business, and one that I wish someone had told me about ahead of time, is how easily it can consume every waking moment (and many of the sleeping moments) of your day. Having previously worked a normal job, we’ve grown accustomed to depositing our paychecks on Friday and kicking back to enjoy our weekends. We’ve really never had to think about all the things that go on behind the scenes: who figured out our payroll, who made sure the checks arrived on time, who did the marketing to help produce the clients that paid for those checks. And most importantly, who dealt with the problems when one of those clients was upset?
New business owners are often ill prepared for the realities of running their own business. We’re not only doing the actual work but handling everything else that goes on behind the scenes. Marketing, accounting, bookkeeping, taxes, human resources, scheduling, customer service, secretarial duties; the list of jobs that you’re now responsible for can seem overwhelming. These new added responsibilities can quickly consume all our time, often to the detriment of our personal life. While it can be a difficult task to achieve, maintaining a proper work/life balance is instrumental in your success. What good would it do to work 24/7 and have a thriving career, only to lose everything and everyone that you care for in the process? Walking that fine line between working too much and working too little can mean the difference between success and emotional ruin.
Moving past a party of one
In order to achieve our desired level of success, most of us will (eventually) have to open up and allow someone else into our business life. While working by yourself is often the easiest way to maintain control over most aspects of your business, running a one-person show will often limit your growth potential. The reality is that in order to grow our businesses, most of us will have to end up working with others. Whether that means we hire people to work for us, or we partner with someone to work with us, growing our business means expanding beyond a workforce of one.
No matter if you hire outside your circle of influence or you partner up with a close personal friend, balancing the competing needs of multiple people can be a difficult task to achieve. It’s an unfortunate reality that most of us realize all to late, but money can be an overwhelming force. Many inexperienced business owners, myself included, go into a business relationship with blinders on, naively thinking that friendship trumps everything. The harsh reality is that, in all but the rarest of situations, money rules the day. We have to look no further than today’s headlines to see friends and family fighting it out for control of a mutually held company.
No matter what your idealistic thinking tells you (“oh, they would never do that to me, we’re best friends…”), money changes people. It will pit long-term friends, family members and spouses against each other. Don’t trust your instincts, don’t rely on someone’s promises, don’t believe in your altruistic beliefs in humanity; the overwhelming odds are that you’ll be disappointed. Money rules all.
Be prepared for this inevitable confrontation and address the situation ahead of time. Enlist the help of a qualified attorney and draft a proper contract to help mediate any potential future issues. It may seem like it’s an unnecessary expense that you can ill afford at this time, but a small investment now can pay for itself many times over in the future. I can tell you from experience, this is an incredibly important step for those of us with little business experience who are joining forces with someone who has much more business acumen. Make the investment to protect yourself, because no one else is going to look out for your interests.
The excitement of watching the circus high wire act made a lasting impression on many young audience members. Their skill and ability to balance on that wire, seemingly unfazed by the dangers lurking below, is enough to awe any spectator. But don’t mistake their abilities for luck. Even though we weren’t around to see it, those performers invested lots of time practicing and dedicated themselves to careful planning, so that they would to be able to pull off their stunts. With a similar dedication to your craft, you’ll be able to walk the fine line between the extremes that threaten to send your business careening downward into the waiting crowd.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might beLao Tzu
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