If I asked you what your hardest business problem is, you’d probably say it’s a lack of time. Some of you might say it’s a lack of money. Others would say it’s a lack of orders, not getting paid or appreciated enough, or being exhausted.
It’s not ANY of those things.
In my opinion, the hardest problem with small business is LONELINESS.
Does this sound a little familiar?
One morning, you hesitantly post a picture of your latest creation and say, “I’m not that happy about this one but I’m so glad it’s done!” and you get a dozen compliments on it. Your hesitation is because you thought the cake was a little crooked and are worried someone will comment on it.
In the afternoon, you send a few of your cake friends a photo on WhatsApp and get some reassurance that no, it didn’t look crooked. You’re still a little worried about it. They tell you it’s perfectly level.
In the early evening, you post online about your frustrating day and how the kids knocked over that figure you worked for hours on. Several people will sympathise enthusiastically. They’ve been there, done that too.
In the late evening, you put your kids to bed, look longingly at your own bed before sighing and taking out the bag of flour, the cocoa powder and the box of eggs to start baking. Some hours later your husband pops into the kitchen, where you are busy cutting out some fondant squares for a Minecraft cake and he says, “Night hon,” kisses you and heads off to bed.
A few hours later you are searching YouTube for a tutorial on how to cut squares out faster.
In the wee hours of the morning, you swipe away the final dusting of cornflour and with a weary sigh, you head to bed too, but not before checking Facebook one last time to see what everyone said about your cake or your hard day.
The next day, it’s much of the same except this time, those late hours are spent replying to the seemingly endless stream of emails from people who you know think you’re too expensive. At 11pm, your husband wanders into your corner of the kitchen where you keep your laptop. He says, “Night hon,” kisses you and heads off to bed.
The next day, you wake up to an email complaint from that weekend’s customer. Turns out she thought it WAS crooked, as did the guests and she was embarrassed in front of them. She wants a refund immediately. You jump online and ask for advice about how to handle this complaint. You get tons of sympathy and a range of answers from, “Clients are assholes, no refund!” to “Ask her how she transported it,” to “Just give her the money back.” All day you try to concentrate on things and fail. You have a mild anxiety attack at the supermarket. The kids are whiney. You burn your hand on the stove. You check back into Facebook several times a day to see what people said about your dilemma. You find ants in your stash of fondant. Eventually, because you’re worried and upset, you email the client back and offer her a full refund. You don’t feel better. Actually, you feel worse because now all that time and effort was for nothing. By the afternoon, you’re a wreck, and nothing has gotten done on the home front OR the work front. By the evening, you want to zone out in front of the TV but you have roses to make for the coming weekend’s wedding cake. You sneak into the bathroom and have a little cry about it all. Several hours later, your husband sees you hunched over in front of the cutters, painstakingly putting on petal by petal, sighs to himself and says, “Night hon,” kisses you and heads off to bed. The tears come again. You start to question why the heck you’re doing all of this, if you’re never going to make any money out of it. You are snapping at the kids, you’re tired all the damn time, and frankly, you wouldn’t mind if you never saw another cake again.
There in the quiet of your kitchen, you fantasize about quitting this cake thing altogether.
At 2am you post in your caker group, “Anybody up?” but nobody replies. You sigh and head off to bed, too.
By 7am the next morning, you are up and posting, “Is anyone else sick of cake?” and all day, you get tons of replies from people who feel EXACTLY like you do. While it makes you feel better to see you’re not alone, that night, when your husband says “Night hon,” kisses you and heads off to bed…you don’t feel much better. It’s still you on your own in that kitchen. You start to doubt the look of those roses. In fact you start to doubt pretty much every decision you’ve made this week. In frustration you decide to go to bed. Then you lay awake at night and remember that you forgot to update your Instagram today and then feel like you’re crap at social media. By 3am, you’re going over and over and over that crooked cake incident. You berate yourself for it being crooked, you berate yourself for giving her money back and you end up not sleeping very well.
This is pretty much what your week looks like. Some weeks are better and some are worse but the rhythm is much the same. Some weeks you have anxiety attacks, other weeks you’re on top of the world. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, this small business thing.
It would be easy to look at this scene and think the worst problem our industry has is a lack of time, a lack of money, or too many customers whose only decision-making is done on price. I look at this scene and think the biggest problem in our industry is one we do not talk about or admit to enough.
The worst problem with small business is LONELINESS.
In the course of the week, how often do we get out among other people and interact with them? Sure, we might go to the supermarket, the cake supplies store or maybe we’ve got a day job …but none of those are actual quality interactions with people who really and truly GET us.
We spend an extraordinary amount of time in our own heads. That’s an incredibly dangerous place because that’s where the “you are terrible at this, why did you think you could do it?” voice lives.
The problem of course is wider than just our lack of connection to our industry peers. When you are working all day (either in paid employment or as a parent or carer) and then dealing with customers or cakes all night, there is precious little time for getting out. Worse still, when you finally pull yourself out of the house, there’s a voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re going to come back to piles of emails and that you’ll be that much MORE behind than you already are because you selfishly took time off. If you’re a woman reading this, then the situation is even worse for you because as women, we are conditioned to train and to serve the needs of others before our own needs. So then we feel guilty for going out, because that money should be spent on something else and that time should be spent with our families.
What does this situation mean for us?
While I’ve never done a proper study on it, my experience tells me that our industry has a higher than average number of people in it who struggle with anxiety, depression and social phobia. We also have a high proportion of introverts. I wonder if this is just the way of artists – sometimes highly creative people tend to be emotional, moody, a little bit left of field. However, I also wonder if this is the nature of the hours we keep and the product we create – it’s a lot of long, late nights and only one person doing everything.
Ironically many of us got into this because baking and decorating are therapeutic. There’s something very satisfying about the magic of baking. You take relatively simple things and create works of delicious, beautiful art that brings joy to many people. Very often people get into cake decorating on a whim and then it turned into a passion because the person finally felt they were good at something, finally found their happy place, finally got recognition for doing something, finally found a way to define themselves beyond the titles of “Mom” or “The Pretty One” or “Little Sister.” Strangely though, once caking turns into a business…the anxiety and depression sometimes get worse because there are rather a lot of worries associated with business.
While I do think the nature of artists and the demands of the product create this situation, I also think there is a THIRD factor at play here and it’s one we created ourselves.
As an industry, we create loneliness when we:
- Are cruel to one another on social media or websites, (publically shaming)
- Fail to show up for industry events, (that we need)
- Don’t sign up for classes until the last minute, so the teacher is forced to cancel and then people complain, (and that teacher has to scramble to make up the income)
- Spend hours gossiping online behind one another’s backs, (often about people we are nice to otherwise)
- Give feedback which is patently untrue (saying things look good when they clearly don’t, rather than keeping quiet or giving useful feedback),
- Complain when we get ‘mystery shopped’ by other decorators (I don’t see the big deal here),
- Don’t support local cake guilds or groups so that their numbers decline and eventually they stop operating altogether, (because what do oldies have to do with us?)
- Perpetuate myths like “customers only care about price,” “you can’t make money from cake,” and “you’re not a real decorator unless you are selling to customers,” (because it’s easy to claim that if your business is struggling)
- Know that there is someone local to us, but rather than see them as an ally we consider them a threat and refuse to have anything to do with them, (which is small minded)
- Fail to reach out to one another, (when we see someone hurting)
- Help one another out, but then reward that kindness by being cruel in return (thanks so much for that favour, now let me go back stab you.)
Small business is soul-crushingly lonely, it really is. Sure, I sometimes like the quiet and solitude of my dark kitchen too…but mostly, I wish we all made more time and effort for one another in real life. Instead we do things like the above which drive further wedges into our industry.
I recently spoke to a woman who is involved in a cake guild. Their numbers are sadly dwindling as they cannot recruit enough younger people to take on committee roles. She said, “Older members come for the friendship and company (and are a wealth of knowledge), young members come when they have time/want to see something specific (and have new techniques and a commercial focus).” She’s absolutely right but the irony here is, the young members can EASILY find techniques online…but they can’t so easily find friendship and company. Sure, you’ve got loads of online friends who you consider friends, but it’s the actual interaction which means SO MUCH more. Really, how many hundreds of FB “friends” have you got that you can call on in an emergency situation? If you needed to truly cry on a friend’s shoulder about something, wouldn’t you rather do that over a glass of wine or latte than through an endless stream of text messages? Text messages will never provide as much comfort as a good hug.
I don’t actually think this is a problem unique to small business, I think it’s a horrible side effect of the digital age where somehow it’s safer and easier to communicate to the whole world than it is to connect with a single person in real life. Since I can’t change the world at large, I’m going to try and implore our industry to change how it operates instead.
This past weekend I taught my business class in Melbourne – and in all the feedback I got on those days and since then, it says the same thing first: “I’m so glad I got to meet the other people!” and “It felt amazing to be in a room full of people who actually GET me.” and, “What a truly inspiring group of women to be a part of!“ At the end of the class, what usually happens is that nobody wants to leave. Most of the time I finish talking and everyone sits there looking a little stunned – sad that it’s over and not wanting to move from their seats. Is the content I deliver great? Yes it is – but the REAL value they are all getting is FROM ONE ANOTHER. You cannot underestimate the value of real, personal connections with one another. As human beings it’s in our nature to want to group together, to belong, to be a part of something…and yet, as an industry, we don’t take action to encourage this. The ones brave enough to organise things often get told their events are too expensive, the members are too old-fashioned, they are not held in the right city, Mondays are no good (and on and on.)
This is quite a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, isn’t it?
We’re all lonely. Some of us struggle with anxiety and depression. Most of us will burn out at some point. Many of us eat too much, drink too much, or basically treat ourselves like shit.
This is all sounding a little awful, isn’t it?
The good news is, we can change that. The better news is, several of you are already doing this. The harder news is, we can do better. Step away from the phones and computers and SEEK OUT one another in real life.
As a business mentor, I can provide you with any number of solutions for the problems like time (I’ve got lots of time management tips and tricks), lack of money (pricing classes and methods), lack of orders (marketing advice) and so on. Loneliness is a lot harder, especially as I know those suffering with anxiety and social phobia can’t just “get out of the house” even if they want to.
The loneliness problem is one I think we need to solve both individually and as a community. Here are some ideas:
- Organise monthly meet ups for your local area,
- Or if you’re not an organiser type, make sure you seek out and attend the meet ups that others create,
- Attend small business seminars and events (not necessarily cake),
- Sign up for the classes you want as soon as they are released (can’t afford it? ask for a payment plan),
- Write articles about the things you find have helped lift you up when things are hard,
- Hold a monthly Skype date so at the very least, you can SEE one another,
- Get OFF those Facebook groups which make you feel shitty (why are you still there?!),
- Make a phone call to the woman you consider your competition. Ask her out for a coffee. She might say no. That’s okay. Try someone else.
- Support the decorating guilds – volunteer some time, offer to give a demo, learn something from an older member,
- Attend the local cake shows even if they are small then APPLAUD their efforts rather than complain about how it’s not as big as you’d like,
- Be grateful for someone’s help and ACT LIKE IT (return the cutter you borrowed with a small gift of thanks like a nice note, pass on their details if there’s an order you can’t do, etc)
- Buy a little treat for someone and go meet them to give it to them in person,
- Complain less, celebrate more.
- Share good information when you find it,
- Find a female-centric business group and join it (LeanIn circles, League of Extraordinary Women, Business Chicks, etc)
- START a female-centric local business group and invite people you know in small business (not necessarily cake)
- Find a way to meet people who have nothing to do with cake – a local book group, other cosplayers, other sewers, mothers groups etc – FIND A TRIBE.
- Gather up some cake friends and work together – maybe one person goes and gets all the ingredients for a week, someone else does all the toppers etc.
- Support the work of Depressed Cake Shop
Working from home is one of the most challenging professional things I’ve ever done – which is funny when you consider I’ve worked many years in physically demanding jobs requiring 3am starts. It’s challenging because of how lonely it is – and the ONLY way I’ve found to combat this is by making a real, concentrated effort to get myself out of the walls I live and work within. For some that’s easier said than done, and the online world is the easiest one for them to be in – and for those people, I ask only that you take care of yourself. Leave the groups, block the people and unfollow the discussions which hurt you. You don’t need that kind of energy in your life.
The loneliness problem is real. We’ve got to help one another to solve it.