A year after I graduated I was at my college homecoming when a drunken undergraduate approached to congratulate me on how amazing I was for owning my own business. As I tried to gently adjust his image of how ‘well I was doing,’ I found I actually had no idea how to communicate an honest picture of what owning my own business really looked like or felt like in that moment.
His compliments seemed to be centering around a picture of financial success which was totally inaccurate. I was depending on a freelance job for 99% of my income, and still struggling to afford my very basic lifestyle. But I didn’t know how to weigh or explain how, along with that struggle, my business was very real. There was a community that was beginning to depend on the service I was building, a growing sense of how necessary the work was, and then there was the love, freedom, and excitement that I was experiencing from watching this thing I made find its legs and its place.
There is a binary that we often feel when we think about business–that it is either thriving or it is failing. It is either making you six figures, or it is a joke. It is either full time, or it is not worth your time. It must be this, or else it is that.
Recently, during a meeting with our Retail Residents (two amazing women who worked with us for six months on starting their own businesses), one resident made a comment along the lines of “I like the direction I’m headed but I don’t really get how I do this full time.” I’m not sure what I said in the moment, but inside I yelled, “My god, you don’t! At least not yet.”
There is this middle option or stage of business-ownership that is often misunderstood and rarely ever given enough airtime. It’s the mystery between starting and arriving. There is not much conversation about how to navigate it, what it means, and what it means about your ‘success.’ When you’re in it it will be very slippery and your main task will be figuring out how to keep your hands around it.
After my conversation with the drunk student in the bar, I worked two different full-time jobs, I worked no jobs, I went to summer school in another state. I also organized a pop-up shop, opened a brick and mortar store, merged my business with another, etc. That was me navigating the middle option.
The middle option looks like starting something but keeping everything in your life the same, except what you do in your free time. Or it looks like changing your life a lot by making a bet and seeing if it pays off. Or it looks like bartending. Or it looks like having a day job. It definitely looks like sticking with your thing while you do all of the above.
The thing that is slippery is staying honest about what you need from your work and your life. How much time does your idea need for it to stay alive? How much does this idea feel like a burden, and how much does it feel like a blessing? How much financial risk can you take? The answers are always changing and if you navigate them well, you will learn, adapt, and sacrifice in the appropriate measure: you will be sustainable. If you are afraid to ask yourself the questions you run the risk of burnout, resentment, or feelings of failure. You will quit. It won’t work. My journey is to figure out a way for both my business and my life to stay flexible enough to accommodate all the changing answers.
This is not a post to encourage anyone to cop out or set their goals lower. It’s more of a love letter to my partners and the people in our community who are living in the middle option. It is also a picture of the sort of dedication that it might take you to realize an important vision of your own.
It is totally possible to arrive, to thrive, to have the sort of business that is easy to explain in passing to the drunk semi-stranger at the bar. We have seen that happen plenty of times, too. It’s just this: there will be some time between when you start, and when you arrive. Your middle option might just be a small stepping stone. Ours has lasted six years (and counting!). If you can surf it well, you will survive. You have permission to be there.
I’d love to hear from you if you are in the middle option. What is hard? What is great? Are you going to stay there? Are you hoping to head somewhere else? Tell me.