Four years ago this past August, I was decorating a Bollywood themed cake when my phone buzzed with a text from my younger brother. The text said that my Dad had collapsed at the gym. I wasn’t too concerned at that point, as it was the middle of summer and my family live in a warm climate – so I thought maybe it was a heat exhaustion issue. I was worried, but not worried, you know?
I called and spoke to my siblings about the situation, but then kept on decorating. I had no choice. It was a Friday. The single busiest day for cake makers.
Within an hour, my phone rang. It was my Mom.
She was calling to tell me that my Dad had died of a sudden, massive heart attack.
I honestly don’t recall much detail of what happened right after that – I know my employee drove me home, I remember my husband coming home, and I vaguely remember getting on a plane within hours of that phone call.
I have no idea what happened to that Bollywood cake, or those orders due that weekend. I know only that I walked away from everything – my life, my kids, my chef job, my business – and went home where I needed to be, and I stayed there for over a month. At that point I was extremely fortunate to have a one-day-a-week employee who could step in for me, and the business was small enough that she could pretty much handle things on her own (with email support from me from overseas.) I was very, very lucky in that respect.
Recently one of the readers of this blog emailed me to say that she finds herself unexpectedly (yet joyfully) pregnant with Baby #3 – and she’s not sure how to keep a baking business going while she’s “baking” a baby. After registering her kitchen, taking on orders, and climbing the hill to success, she’s facing one hell of a big roadblock! (Adorable and fabulous as babies may be, they have a way of changing things just a wee bit.) (Boom-tish!)
Her email got me thinking about writing a post on how small businesses owners cope when life just gets in the way – and I’m talking life smacking you in the face with a heavy metal cake pan, not just the day-to-day drama of living.
The truth of it is, you cope as best you can with the resources you have available to you at the time. Major life events – be they tragedies or celebrations – are often unpredictable. LIFE HAPPENS, as they say. So what do you do when life happens to you…and you own a small business?
Here’s what I think:
Where you have a bit of lead time (like a baby, a sick parent, moving states):
Put in some plans for what you’re going to do. Like for a pregnancy: don’t take orders for the month before you’re due, and the months after. For any major life event, start to educate your customers. The closer you get to the event, communicate a fair bit – in other words, be open and honest with them that this is a bump (ha!) in the road but that you’ve planned for it. NOBODY likes unexpected events, not least of which your clients who are depending on you. Make a plan for how you are going to manage, and how your clients are going to manage – and then tell them about it. Accept that you can’t keep going at the same rate you are now – and start to slow down the wheels that are currently turning if you do not have employees who can fill the breach of your absence. ALSO – Do some planning for how to speed the wheels back up again once you are ready. What I wouldn’t do is fall off the planet entirely. Slowing down is fine – stopping the momentum entirely is a bad idea (both for you and your clients.) Maybe you stop taking new orders, but you still post once a week on your blog, or you update on facebook, or you share some pictures of your own baby shower cupcakes. Whatever. Keep the lines of communication open and TELL your clients and potential clients what the deal is – just don’t disappear without a trace as that breeds mistrust.
Where you have no lead time at all (like in my own experience):
Just do the best you can with the resources you have available to you. Again, be open and honest and communicate with your clientèle as much as you are able to. If they’re used to talking to you personally and they’re getting a call from your employee or husband – they KNOW something is not quite right. If you email every day and suddenly there is no reply for several days -they’ll know something is amiss. Human beings, while sometimes cruel, are actually generally pretty understanding. In those days right after I lost my Dad, I have huge holes in my memory – but I know at some point I’d asked my employee to just hold it together for me until I was able to. She understood completely, and she rose to the challenge. BUT I made it a point to communicate with HER, too – every day I tried to call and check in, and when I realised I would be gone longer than I thought I asked her first if she could continue looking after the business for me. My clients understood. My employee understood. We still got their orders to them, and they forgave her if she was missing a few details or had to ask for their understanding or patience.
Above all else – remember that we’re not brain surgeons, we’re not scientists curing cancer, we’re not the heads of State. We bake for a living. Is it important? YES (especially to your clients). Should we let people down? NO. But…you know…life happens. We can’t always predict it. Will your client be angry that their wedding cake was made by someone other than you? Maybe. But…ultimately…when the cake hits the fan, you are a person. You have a life. A sometimes unpredictable life.
Sometimes we have no choice but to choose ourselves or our families over our business. There is NO shame in that.
It’s an entirely reasonable, and entirely human thing to do.
Any client who does not understand that is welcome to find themselves another cake maker.
My Dad was gone. My family needed me.
I went home.
I have no regrets about it.
Cake can wait. Funerals – and babies – cannot.