biz ladies: Keeping Your Cool as a Small Business Owner

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from New York-based jewelry designer Pamela Liou. Through her own experience in the creative business realm, Pamela has learned a thing or two about maintaining composure in business. So today, she graciously offers us some tips for keeping your cool along the way. Thanks, Pamela, for this helpful post! — Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump . . .

Balance between one’s work and personal life is difficult enough to achieve, but when you’re a small business owner and at the helm of an enterprise, it is especially hard-won. I founded my jewelry design company, Langoliers NYC, while I was still in college in the wake of the financial crisis. A changing economic climate coupled with the urgency of new orders and vendor relationships spelled countless late nights and embarrassing panic attacks on the subway.

The early days of Langoliers felt like a baptism by fire, and maintaining my composure was all but impossible. Many of my friends who are their own bosses — be they consultants, freelancers, or business owners — have shared similar experiences with me. After all, no one cares about your business nearly as much as you do, and when the solvency of a company rests squarely on your shoulders, the pressure can wreak havoc on your peace of mind. Creative industries can be uniquely insidious because so much of the work is a personal, artistic expression. Rejection can sting.

In time, I’ve matured enough to turn a corner, and although I still have to put out the occasional fire, things are different now. I don’t lose my mind over every hiccup anymore, and I make a concerted effort to have a little more compassion for myself. Here are some useful tips I’ve learned through the years:

1.  Create rituals.

A newly minted business can bring unforeseen challenges, but creating consistent workflow will establish a rhythm to your days. Rhythm brings stability. As a visual learner, I drew up a simple flowchart that I’ve posted in front of my desk to keep me on task. Once I started doing this, I found ways to amend my daily rituals to become more effective. I figured out that starting the mornings on the right foot set the tone for the entire day. Taking the time to clean and get arduous tasks completed the night before helped me to remove resistance and ease into a good flow. Record your progress so you can create more streamlined habits that work for you.

2. It’s okay to not be okay.

My friend, another fashion designer, said this to me once, and it really resonates with me: No man is an island. Ask for help. Once you do, you realize that you’re not alone and that there are many people out there taking the same leap of faith. I was too scared to reveal anything for fear that it would affect my brand. Fashion is like theater in a lot of ways, and maintaining that posture of control felt like a necessary part of the pageantry. The thing is, when you try to ignore not being okay, it comes out in other ways, like a virulent game of whack-a-mole. It’s always best to address problems as they arise. Nothing is worth getting sick over — physically or mentally. Opportunities never go away, so take the time you need to get back on the proper footing. There is a caveat to this: Ask for help from people who actually care about you. Do not try to get the wrong people to heed your cries for help, especially if it’s in their best interest to maintain the status quo.

3. Technology is your friend.

It’s 2012. This is officially the future. You don’t have to be a cyberpunk priestess to navigate new technologies. User experience is more intuitive than ever, and I’ve been much more productive since I embraced new tools to help me consolidate my efforts. One tool I absolutely love is ifttt.com, which allows me to coordinate tasks across multiple platforms. Social media is now a snap. I use it to automatically sync all my Tumblr posts to my Twitter account, upload email attachments and Flickr uploads to my Dropbox, and so much more. Tools like Indinero.com compile P&L reports on the fly and help to make my financial information mobile. Small fixes to our SEO quadrupled our web traffic and helped us employ a long-tail strategy for our marketing. 3D modeling software like Rhino has allowed me to explore new fronts in parametric design, saving me precious time and reducing waste when it came time to print.

4. Enjoy the process, not the result.

On some level, everyone who goes after her dreams is engaging in glory-seeking, and when validation in all its forms — press or sales — does not come, the whole thing seems hardly worth the effort. But it is! The reason I got that early traction was because I loved the process of creation. It was a meditative distraction from writing my whopping 126-page thesis. I think the love showed through. I wasn’t doing it for my ego, and I had no intention whatsoever of selling my work. It was only until people started stopping me on the street and buying my jewelry off my neck that I realized I might be on to something. Preserve the desire to learn and create at all costs because it is fragile and fleeting, especially when money is changing hands. See it as practice instead of a test, and go easy on yourself. It’s not about “being good,” because if something sucks, you just edit it out.

5. Avoid the point of diminishing returns.

There’s an event horizon where constantly working makes you a less productive and effective leader. Set boundaries and time constraints so that you’re not constantly mentally preoccupied with your next to-do. You need to recuperate in order to do your best work, and isn’t that what it’s all about? Getting the best work out with the most sustainable methods? Which leads me to this lesson . . .

6. Don’t confuse conflict with productivity.

That 11th hour frenzy is kind of fun. Isn’t it cinematic? Rushing to get something done, and doing it by the skin of your teeth? Just barely eeking by? It’s part of the classic western narrative, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey. We’re fed these stories about overcoming a barrage of obstacles, vanquishing opponents and becoming the triumphant victor. But here’s the rub: It makes for a great story but an exhausting life. The story will never conclude. There is no permanent denouement in real life — just another conflict around the bend. If you follow the fashion calendar, you have to do this two to four times a year! Sisyphean, isn’t it? Well the truth is, a lot of people like to pile on work so that they feel more productive, when in actuality, they aren’t moving forward. People are very protective of their sense of conflict (see also: “Fashion is not a grueling quest for survival” ), but don’t let the contagion of frenzy spread to you.

7. Quit to win.

When something is just not working, it’s better to cut your losses than to double down on the same failed strategies. Quitting seems weak and somehow counter-intuitive to the American work ethic, but believe me, it takes courage to walk away. You have a finite amount of time and resources to devote to your work. Why waste it on something that doesn’t stick? What separates the average from the exceptional is not always hard work — it’s the ability to allot time to strategic projects. If early results of an experiment are so-so, stop vacillating and stop being attached to a result. Quit that time-consuming project with no foreseeable ROI, fire that agency with mediocre deliverables, and abandon developing that product with no market traction. Chalk wasted money up to tuition, and put your chips somewhere else.

8. Preserve an identity outside of your company.

When you don’t, you start to see everything as a personal affront. It’s so easy to fall into this trap because, damn it, you put so much of yourself in your business! People like to complain about their bosses. If you’re paying someone, they’re complaining about you, and it can’t be helped! For an unrepentant people pleaser like me, this was difficult. In general, I felt like people were attacking me personally because I didn’t make enough of a distinction between Pam the Principal Owner and Pam the Person. When you work with people day in and day out, those lines blur even more. At times, I stopped standing my ground, and in the end, it only hurts the company, which ultimately compromises people’s jobs. It’s like being a parent who wants to be their child’s best friend — it’s a relationship without a center. Now I have projects outside of my company, and a community of people who only know Pam the Person. I joined a writer’s group, took a few classes, and started blogging about my experiences.

9. Nobody is obligated to like your stuff.

This one is a doozy. Werner Herzog once wrote a letter to a young filmmaker that articulates this point far more eloquently than I can: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

There’s this attitude going around that sounds something like, “Oh people are just too stupid to get it.” Wow. That’s pretty condescending to your prospective customers, isn’t it? And you must feel like you’re to entitled to their money, don’t you? Well you shouldn’t, because people work hard for their money, and they don’t (and shouldn’t!) relinquish it easily. You just need to make a better case. Maybe you need to work on your salesmanship.

10. When it comes to your competition, keep the blinders up.

Stop reacting to other people, and start forging your way ahead. I advocate a good amount of market research, sure, but there’s a big difference between being educated and being obsessive. For instance, trolling around the internet for people knocking you off is just keeping you from moving on to your new creative endeavor. And honestly, if people are knocking you off and making money off of your designs, then it’s your fault for not capitalizing on your opportunity to gain market share. Also, designers have this false sense that they’re the proprietors of whatever trend they started. No one can own red. No one can own triangles. This is absurd. I’ve had people go into business using patterns that I gave away at the Urban Outfitters DIY event, and I was a little hurt about it. Then I moved on. Agonizing over your competition puts the power in their hands, not yours.

11. Listen to your body.

If you’re miserable, it’s a sign that perhaps you’re going in the wrong direction. Your body is a sophisticated, finely tuned instrument that is designed through millions of years of trial and error to collect information about its environment and process that information in the most biologically advantageous way. Listen to your body. Listen to your emotions. If you’re drained, it may be because your body intuits that you are pursuing something that makes you uncomfortable and “forging ahead” is causing massive amounts of resistance, and that resistance is depleting you.

12. Long-term thinking comes once you’ve satisfied your short-term needs.

There’s a hierarchy of priorities, folks. In the early days, I was constantly thinking about what was best for my company in the long term. This kind of thinking kept me very protective and paranoid because I didn’t want anybody to see anything I was working on until it was absolutely perfect. What I should’ve been doing is testing to see if my products had traction in a nascent period before I invested so much time and money into development. It’s okay to not be perfect. Early adopters like rooting for a rough-around-the-edges brand and seeing it blossom. If a brand launches totally sleek and perfect, it comes across more as a Goliath than a David. People want to see you grow. Don’t sit on things. Deploy, deploy, deploy.

13. Choose the people you surround yourself with wisely.

I would like to end with a quote from two people I respect, and I think this is really important:

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.” — William Gibson

“Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good, kick them to the curb. And the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non-included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.” — Amy Poehler

  1. Jen says:

    I always look forward to the Biz ladies post and this one is phenomenal! As an independent graphic designer and illustrator, I felt like this article was written just for me. Thank you for this superb article that has a wealth of great points I’m eager to apply to my business!

  2. Laurel says:

    Woah, well said on so many levels. My husband and I have been running a small business together for the last three years, and even though we clean houses as opposed to designing clothes, all of these fundamental principles apply. I relate especially to what you said about having a life outside of the business and not allowing your business to define who you are as a person. So difficult to do when you are immersed in it all the time, but it is essential to maintain who you are outside of what you’ve created.

  3. Rose says:

    This was incredibly helpful, thank you for sharing your advice!
    “No Man is an Island” is a quote from a poem of the same title by John Donne.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Awesomely comprehensive. thank you for the tips!

  5. Exactly what I needed to hear today! #7 and #11. Thanks, Biz Ladies!

  6. Eleanor says:

    I needed this post today, thank you!

  7. colleen says:

    This is hitting a few notes for me…well quite a few! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  8. Robin says:

    #7 – Quit to Win – is such a tough one for me personally. I have a hard time letting go of things even when I should. But quitting can be so incredibly empowering sometimes! It frees up your mind to tackle bigger and better things. Thanks for providing a much needed reminder today.

  9. meeralee says:

    this was very smart, well-written, and encouraging. thank you for taking the time to write this and share it with us.

  10. Jaimee says:

    Such a positive and timely post. It translates so well into so many areas beyond the creative realm. I love the emphasis on listening to your body, your intuition and surrounding yourself with supportive people, and not kvetching about how people don’t get you as an artist. Well done!

  11. Amie says:

    This was a MUCH-needed kick in the pants. I am a stay-at-home mom with an empty nest on the horizon and I have a burning desire to turn my passion for creating jewelry into a viable business. I found myself nodding in agreement and talking to my computer screen all the way through this post. Thanks so much for sharing your insightful thoughts!

  12. Good advice for sure. Learning as I go :)

  13. Alison says:

    This is insanely well-written and insightful. Wow. thanks.

  14. catherine says:

    speechless. thank you.

  15. Christina says:

    I love those two quotes you ended on. :)
    And the good advice also. Thank you, Pam!

  16. Tess says:

    Such clear, kind & realistic advice. Thank you!

  17. Sue says:

    Thank you for the great post! I love tip #4.

  18. Lucy says:

    BRILLIANT post! Thankyou Pam and D*S for such wise and generous advice!

  19. Colleen Pugh says:

    I really like this post. I’m just a little lost on point 3 as I just can’t work out what ifttt is 15 mins on google hasn’t helped much. My worry is it sounds a bit broadcast rather than engagement focused. If anyone has a good link about what it does I would love to see. I guess I should just try it out really:)

  20. Shannon says:

    Fantastic advice and so well written. Thank you for sharing your insight Pam!

  21. Pamela says:

    Thanks everyone for all your supportive comments! It’s great to know that I can be helpful to such a wide and exciting group of female entrepreneaurs. Colleen– I’d love to clarify. ifttt.com is in beta right now, so I’m not sure where it’s going to go. I love it, because it’s so customizable. I hate those one-size-fits-all social media aggregators. I like to be a little more exacting when it comes to my social media strategy. One of the “recipes” I created was archiving all my attached files in my dropbox account automatically. I use it for personal stuff, like sending me an email reminder whenever it’s going to rain. I guess I hope more people use the service because it’s free, and I hope it sticks around. You can coordinate a lot of your social media stuff inside facebook or twitter through preferences if you’re not comfortable with an outside service.

  22. Anna says:

    I think this might be my favorite Biz Ladies post ever. Congratulations on being so brave and talented and then sharing it with all of us! What a treasure.

  23. I loved reading this–just what I needed with my morning coffee…thank you so much, and so well-written!

  24. Interested in hearing more on #3… what SEO help did you have to recognize where to tweek. Any other technology/software tools?

    Excellent article!!! Cheers Christine

  25. BRILLIANT post. Love the honesty, the info and the quite. Thankyou Pam and D*S for such wise and generous insights!

  26. Kate says:

    This is the best Biz Ladies post so far. So much wisdom and truth, so widely applicable. I’m sending this link to my colleagues in food industry, and friends in music industry.

  27. Kat says:

    Yay! Thanks for the awesome post. I’m messing around with ifttt right now to automate some of the stuff I waste my studio time doing! Great resource!

  28. Share Design says:

    Thank you Thank you! A great piece of advice!

  29. Kathy says:

    Pam- Awesome advice. Truly words to live by. I’m in the transition from designing for the fashion industry to earning a living off my own line. #12 rocked me- it’s so true and yet runs so contrary to my instincts. When you read books about non creative based start ups-they are huge advocates for testing. Someone once told me that the best thing to do was “orphan” my work once it was out there–to not be attached to the success or failure of a piece- but to love the process as you said.

    I love your work- I get so many compliments on the “Kim” ring that I got on your Fab.com sale.

  30. Elizabeth says:

    Some of the best writing I’ve seen on D*S, and applicable to many fields. Grateful you took the time.

  31. liz says:

    You are making such a positive difference for all of us who read your insightful article. Thank you for caring.

  32. Christina says:

    Pam thank you so much for this post. # 8 I have been working on a lot recently and # 9 is great advice.

  33. ali thompson says:

    number 13 is a home run. such a great thing to be reminded of. why do we keep the crazies around??!!
    xoxo

  34. Sissel says:

    Oh my goodness, great article. #13 really hit home with me today. Thanks for the well thought out advice. I feel rewarded time after time by this blog, and today I am rewarded again. I’ll stand a little taller and kick those crazies to the curb. So many positive people in the world, I no longer want to waste my time with those who are not.

  35. I really needed this today. Thank you so much. I’ll be chewing on this for a while!

  36. Bri says:

    Love this article. Will be referring to it often.

  37. Jen says:

    Love, love, love the quotes at the end. Great article!

  38. Dcruz says:

    Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
    — Oscar Wilde

  39. Eve says:

    I’m a female business owner and really took so much from this advice,…the best nugget for me is keeping your blinders up when it comes to your competition. If one focuses too much on what others are doing to copy you–it seriously interferes with your own creativity and you find yourself creating in preparation for what the competition will do rather than what might be an organic idea or what is best for your customer/consumer. I will be copying this and pasting it in a place I can refer to often!

  40. Julia says:

    Wow I stumbled onto this today and am so thankful for this encouragement! I’m been running low on energy and drive and reading this today jolted my spirit to re-think some strategies. Thanks for being transparent and allowing me to lean from you journey.

  41. Monna says:

    My favorite quote
    “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.” — William Gibson

    “Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good, kick them to the curb. And the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non-included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.” — Amy Poehler

    This is so true! Not to mention #12 That’s a keeper!

  42. Very well written, perceptive, incredibly relevant advice. Thank you!

  43. Great post and lots great tips even for those of us who are not new to our businesses :) Thank-you!

  44. Thank you so much for sharing all this knowledge, this is such a great article, so complete. Great insights and ideas. I will not forget this article! Now, I’m going to check out the jewelry :)

  45. aneh says:

    These are genuinely great ideas in on the topic of blogging.
    You have touched some good factors here. Any way keep up
    wrinting.

  46. Desiree says:

    Thank you !!! I’m quitting my job TODAY and just re read your article…i have it on my favourites!! All the best to you!!!!!

  47. This is a topic which is close to my heart… Cheers!
    Exacttly where are your contact details though?

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