I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Life Lessons from the Melbourne Demons

Early on in our dating life, DH took me along to see an Australian Rules football game. It's nothing at all like American football - mostly because these guys don't wear any padding (unless they are padding their shorts, but perhaps that's another story altogether). It's literally a bunch of sweaty guys running a whole lot across a really, really big oval and kicking a ball from end to end.  They're also trying to play a huge game of 'keep away' at the same time, while wearing nothing but shorts, a sleeveless top, and shoes/socks. DH has loved the game (and his team) since he was a child, and so I really had no choice but to get to know the game and get to love the team (neither which are terribly hard to do.) The good news is he isn't much of a cricket fan, so at least I did not need to work out the rules of that game - which are pretty much like reading a Chinese instruction manual when you're only fluent in Klingon, but I digress.

While I won't claim to be a massive fan of footy (or any other) sport, I do enjoy going with him to the games, and besides it would be terribly un-Australian of me not to go. Australians as a whole (and Victorians in particular) are sport-hysterical. It's a religion, it's a way of life, it's a "if you don't like sport we will burn you at the stake" sort of situation. Sport in general and football in specific are as much a part of the culture here as the kangaroos and the Vegemite. It's just how it is, so in the spirit of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," I tend to go along  with DH for the ride.

Now that the kids are older (and no, they didn't get a choice of which team to support, either) they come along with DH and I and it becomes a whole family outing. This past weekend we went to a game together, and as I was sitting there in the stands (alternating between getting a sunburn and getting frostbite -- another distinctly Melbourne thing) I started to think about how footy, and being a footy fan, is teaching my kids some invaluable life lessons:

1) It's not over until it's over, so don't give up so easily: Victorians have a habit of leaving a game in the last quarter (before the game is over) if they think the outcome is predictable. Or even if it's not, they just want to get the hell out of the car park. Look at the stands about 10 minutes into the 4th quarter and it's like some sort of mass exodus. DH's rule is that you have to stay to the bitter end. It's not over until that final siren goes, and let me tell you - plenty of games have changed dramatically in the final seconds of a game. Life lesson here is obvious: don't give up until they've blown the final siren, you never know what might happen.

2) Loyalty. When I met DH, our team wasn't doing so well. When I was pregnant with the triplets, I took them (in utero) to their first football game, which was a Grand Final. These days, our team is back to pretty sad form (although working on it) - but it makes no difference to us. You've got to support them through winning, through losing, and through everything in between. I think the same is true for many aspects of life, you can't just run with the cool kids all the time because the cool kids won't be cool all the time. There is a lot to be said just for sticking by through the thick and thin.

3) Nothing stays the same: Like in #1, the entire outcome of a game can change in seconds. Shit happens. Sometimes good shit, sometimes bad shit - but expect the unexpected (hello,St Kilda with that 2nd go at the Grand Final.....) and learn to deal with it. Nothing ever stays the same.

4) You can be passionate without being a dickhead - I'm sometimes appalled at the behaviour of people in the stands at football games. I get it that you're passionate, I get it that your team sucks or is awesome, I get it that you hate everyone on the field except the guy with the ball - but seriously? No need to be a jerk. Really. Same is true on any other playing field - in love, in life, in business. Kindness matters.

5) Sometimes we do things in life just because other people want us to: At least 2 of my kids are not footy fans at all. They're bored, they're tired, they don't understand the rules, they would rather be anywhere but sitting in those cold bleachers. I drag them along anyway. Sometimes we just do things which make other people happy - which frankly, is just called being a nice person.

6) If all else fails, go for the food. I swear to god, I love living in this country just for the taste experience of being at the football with 50,000+ other people, and eating a hot meat pie drowning in tomato sauce (and I won't even call it ketchup.) I gave up vegetarianism the very day I hit Australian shores (true story) and there is not a single moment I regret it, especially at footy games.

...and lastly....one of the best things one can do when one is thrust into the culture which is not their own can be summed up in this one phrase, which is: "When in Rome..." That's why you'll see me in the stands, beanie and scarf on, pie in hand, yelling Australian expressions which I don't entirely understand but I THINK mean something good and inspirational for our team.

So much in life can be learned from a good (or even bad, how would I know?) game of Aussie Rules.
Go the Dees!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Epic Networking Fail - Again!

Side note: Yes, I know, all the posts lately are either a wee bit sad, or a wee bit "life is annoying" or all about business. At the moment, I've got nothing funny to share - but since I never promised you a stand up routine on this blog, you'll just need to roll with it. Or maybe go read the whole guinea pig thing again - because let's face it, a fat chick chasing down a scared guinea pig is pretty damn funny.


Yesterday morning I went along to a networking breakfast thing with a friend of mine - and shock of all shocks, I was quite keen to go. The speaker is someone who I have heard about for a long time and I was interested to see him 'up close and personal' so I didn't hesitate to accept the invitation.

I make no secret of the fact that for me networking is akin to shoving hot pokers in my eyes. I hate it. HATE IT. Which when you think about it is kinda funny for someone who can converse rather animatedly with a brick wall, but there you go. It probably goes back to my inherent hatred of sales guys, I just can't stand knowing that these people are being nice to me because they want to sell me something. Sure, some of them are just being nice because they are nice people ...but ...ehh, I just don't like the whole networking thing. Or rather, I'm no fan of formal networking - the people who know me in real life would probably say I'm an ace networker when it comes to walking into a room with a bunch of strangers and walking out with them all being my best friend.

So - I agreed because I was excited about hearing the speaker and he was in fact interesting to listen to (if a little manic, OMG did that man have ten coffees before his talk or what? I was literally exhausted after just listening to him for an hour.) I wouldn't say he had any earth shattering information to share, but then that wasn't really the point anyway (although there were plenty of people taking copious notes. Which I don't know how they did that, because he was talking so damn fast that by the time you wrote anything down, you had missed half his talk.)

ANYWAY the interesting part about this (this post is running away from me...must...stop...waffling!) is that I managed to go along to this thing and basically miss the whole networking bit of it. There were something like 440 people there (!) and I managed to say hello to my friend on my left, and thanks to her introduction I nodded politely to the guy on my right. That was about it (but I did, after much digging around and faffing about) give the guy on my right a business card, and he has like a hundred kids (ok, four of them) and they all need cake right this very second. So that was good....but...yeah. I must be the only person in the world capable of going along to a super mega huge massive networking event and not network. Actually I've got a vague idea I've blogged about this superpower before - Oh look! I did! Twice! Yup, that's me, the networking loser.

Guru Guy would tell me that being an effective networker is all about practice - personally, I think being an effective networker is all about taking anti-anxiety drugs ahead of time, but what would I know? I'm too busy hiding in the corner to find out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Customer Service, or Customer Servants?

In my experience, Australia does not have a fantastic service culture. People are nice (which is just part of who Australians are as a whole), and they'll treat you fair and well - but it's rare that a company would go above and beyond to truly provide you with exceptional customer service. Those that do are generally Australian outposts of American companies, where the service culture is alive and well and concept that "the customer is always right" prevails. I decided from the get go that a big part of my company is the service culture - meaning we go out of our way to give people a great experience, whether their order is $50 or $500 makes no difference to me. Each person gets treated with love, respect, and care and each product does, too. The same amount of love will go into a single cupcake as in several hundred of them, if we're making it for Joe Citizen or if we're making it for the Queen.

I like to think that we can give this kind of service - and clients can expect to get it - because they are dealing with a small business, where the name of the game is personal care and service. Small businesses, by nature, should be (I'm generalising here) much more able to do the hand-holding, the lovey-dovey, the really detailed personal attention stuff which customers want. I'll even say that I'm quite happy to do all of that - I really appreciate the relationships I develop with customers, and I rely on those relationships to drive the formation of other relationships. That being said - is there a situation (or more than one situation) where the customer's requests are unreasonable? Are there situations where the customer is NOT always right? Are there things people ask of us because they KNOW we are a small business, but they would never dream of asking the same of a larger company?

I'm going to share two recent customer experiences- and I'd love it if you could take the time to tell me if you think I got it right or not. I know hardly any of you comment normally but I'd appreciate it - and yes, I realise I'm opening the door for you all to beat me over the head with a large umbrella. C'est la vie, I'm really wanting to know what you all think.

Situation One - we are holding a course later in the year which is really costly to hold, and pretty costly to attend. It involved a fair amount of financial risk for us, so when we opened enrolments we made the rules pretty clear: course fees are non-refundable. We allowed payment plans, and we allowed people to on-sell their own spots OR send someone (a friend, etc) in their place - but whatever money they paid us was non-refundable.  The enrolments opened (and closed, it was a wildly popular course) 15 months before the event. A couple of people needed to give up their spots (for valid reasons - eg pregnancy, etc.). There is a waiting list for this class, but what we've found is that when we've needed to sell a spot, it can take a half dozen or more calls, emails, etc before the spot gets sold (because people on the waiting list got caught up in the excitement, but panicked when confronted with the actual cost of the course). It's a bit of an administrative nightmare. Those who had to give up their spots knew the terms and conditions and most of them were fine with it, but one or two totally raked me over the coals for refusing refunds (they did so personally AND online, god love social media!)

Here's my take on this:  If I bought a ticket to a concert or a flight a year in advance and I knew it was non-refundable, and then I couldn't go, I'd never call Ticket Master or the airline to ask for a refund. Why buy a non-refundable ticket and then complain when it's non-refundable? Surely if I knew the Terms and Conditions - and agreed to them - I'm stuck. Small company, big company, makes no difference.

Situation Two: We ran a course recently which needed one more spot filled in order to meet the minimum enrolments to run, so in order to avoid cancelling it (and disappointing those already enrolled), we offered a special deal in the 3 days before the course ran -unusual for us, but I thought it was a good way to get the course happening. I then got an email from an existing enrolee who said, "I saw you offering this course as a special deal, I assume this means you will extend the deal to everyone who is in the class?"  I politely told her we would not, that it only applied to those enrolments we got after we announced the deal, not existing enrolments. Her reply was, "So I'm being penalised for booking early? That hardly seems fair."

Here's my take on this: Theatres often have half price last minute tickets on the night of the show. Hotels have last minute booking deals, and airlines do too.  If you'd seen any of those businesses advertising last minute booking deals, would you go back to them and ask that the discount apply to you, too? Would you really expect them to agree? Small company, big company, makes no difference.

I'm not going to tell you - yet - what I did in either case (and you might be surprised to hear what I did do in both of these cases). Both of them highlight for me the part of small business which can be frustrating, because on the one hand, OF COURSE I want to give my clients the absolute best experience I can. On the other hand, just because I'm a small business, why do the rules we set (and are very open about) not expected to actually apply?

For what it's worth, I have no problem with the person asking the question in the first place - you don't ask, you don't get - but I have a problem with the ensuing shit storm which followed.

What says you, internets? (Indulge me. Seriously.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Perspective is a Beautiful Thing

I had lunch with an old work colleague recently, and we got to talking about weight (as you do when you're female and in your 30's. We're all obsessed, even those skinny chicks who claim they are not.) We were talking about how when we were younger and thinner (although I didn't really qualify for the 'thinner' bit of the conversation), we always thought we were overweight. These days we look back at our younger selves and think, "How on earth could I have that that was overweight?" We think about what we weighed then versus what we weigh now and it just seems light years different. NOW, we would do almost anything to be the weight we were then. THEN, we would do almost anything to be 5, 10, 15 pounds lighter.  We never seem to be satisfied with just the way we are.

The conversation with my friend made me think about how we always think about our weight (or our appearance) as something either we long for in the past, or hope for in the future. We never seem to just love with the skin we're in, do we? Either we're fretting about how things used to be, or we're hoping (and in some cases, working towards) a different or better future. I also got to thinking about how there are things in our lives which act as massive "yield" signs to the rest of our lives. Because something hasn't happened yet, we don't move forward with the stuff we really would like to do - we just spend our time gazing ahead at what will be., effectively stuck at the crossroads with the big yield sign.

Let's think about this for a second. How many times have you said, "I'm totally going to go on holiday / post an online dating profile / buy a new dress/ approach that cute girl / learn to surf...as soon as I lose twenty pounds." or "If only I could lose twenty pounds, I would feel so much better, which would totally change everything."

This whole "when I do X, good thing Y will happen" isn't just unique to weight loss of course. The same thing can be true of most things which hold us back - "as soon as I find the right guy" "as soon as I pluck up the courage to ask for a divorce" "as soon as I buy some new clothes" "as soon as I start my business"...whatever. So often we decide that something - someone - some situation - is the reason why we don't do what we would like to do...when our energy would be better spent just DOING that thing, wouldn't it?

I of course am no paragon of virtue here, so I fall into this same trap, most specifically with money and weight.  So I end up thinking about what I might like to do once I'm thinner (note to self, you ARE thinner, go and bloody well DO that stuff), or I end up thinking about how things might be different if I did not worry about money quite as much as I do.

Why is that? Why don't we just DO that thing which is holding us back? Why don't we just DO that thing we want to, regardless of the item which is the yield sign? What, exactly, are we all waiting for?With all the sadness surrounding the people I love, you would think I take this opportunity to realise that life is short, opportunities are many, and no good ever came of just waiting around waiting for life to happen.

In five years time, am I going to look back at this time in my life and think, "I WISH I had the time, money, energy (whatever) I did then!" Just like with the weight perspective my friend and I discussed- where we looked back and wished we were as thin as  we used to be. While I am not one to live with regret (yet another colossal waste of time,) I also don't want to long for the things I "coulda, shoulda, woulda" done way back when I was thinner, smarter, richer....

All this thinking is making me wonder what (if anything) I'd really like to be doing now that I'm not doing - is there anything holding me back and if so WHAT am I going to do about it? I think I'm going to keep thinking on this for a while, and make it a priority to actually DO some of that stuff in the coming months, because life is short, opportunities are many, and the time is NOW.

Is there anything you would like to be doing which you are waiting on, for whatever reason?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Stupidly Idealistic, or Just Good Business?

The cake decorating industry is a small one, especially here in Australia. It's filled with people who, on the whole, love what they do and are good at it. Many of them came to it via small beginnings; decorating cakes at home and learning the craft through books and online tutorials.  Some came to it through other means; by working in hospitality, qualifying as chefs, or just seeing a good opportunity and going for it.  My own philosophy about cake decorating as a business is that none of us are selling cake (or even cake supplies). We are in fact selling happiness - because do you know ANYONE who can stay miserable when given some sweet art to admire and devour? I certainly don't. We don't get called upon to create cake for life's sad moments - we get called upon to be a part of the milestone celebrations in people's lives, to help them mark happy moments, to bring a bit of extra sweetness to what is already something wonderful happening for them.

That being said, we're also in this industry to make money. Happiness is wonderful, but it won't pay my electricity bill or buy me groceries.  I totally understand that while I am in a loving, happy industry, at the end of the day no amount of love and happiness is going to keep me in business. I understand that. I do (I really do...have I mentioned my paranoid anxiety about all things money related?) Here's what I don't understand though - I don't understand the colleagues in my industry who think they are operating within a bubble of their own. I don't understand the ones who will rubbish other companies to their clients (even if they secretly admire them), the ones who will refuse to pass on a referral, the ones who will outright lie about other companies, the ones who won't open their mouths to say, "Hey, how can we help each other achieve this common goal?", the ones who won't share who their suppliers are, the ones who steal photos from other companies and claim them as their own. What exactly is the perceived benefit to any of that?

This kind of bullshit happens no matter what industry you are in - and it reflects nothing other than the different types of people who are in business. Some are nice, some are not. Not surprisingly I fall into the 'nice' category, and so I'll do what I think is right. Refer clients to other cake makers if I can't do what they want or if we're already booked out, share who our suppliers are (because I have yet to work out how that might damage us as a company), facebook post or call other companies to congratulate them on a recent win, ask questions of my colleagues and offer to do things together. I see my industry as a community and so I behave as I feel one should when they are part of a community - with morals, with responsibility, and with open communication. There are of course colleagues of mine who ALSO feel they are part of a community, but they are part of one which encourages the negative talk, the refusal to share information, the 'he said/she said' gossip. Their idea of the cake community centres more around the idea of  'us versus them'.

I don't want you to think I am an angel with a halo made out of royal icing. I'm not. I've definitely done my fair share of gossiping and carrying on - but on the whole I do it in the privacy of my own home, or within the confines of my kitchen, or maybe to a friend one-on-one.  Talking about other people is just human nature (what else can we possibly have to talk about?). And sure, some of that comes out of the sheer joy of knowing you know something other people don't (yet) know. Some of it comes just in conversation, eg "I heard X company was doing that, I don't think that's something I would do..." We ALL talk. I don't have a problem with it. I DO have a problem with the rest of it - the companies who will tell me I'm crazy for referring people on to others (seriously?),  the companies who will outright lie to you about really ridiculous things (we use half pre-mix and half scratch mix...), the companies who think that because I've asked them to send me some business cards (so I can refer on...) they think that I'm asking for some sort of nefarious reason. In recent weeks I've been really amazed at the amount of bullshit which is going on around our industry - I recently read on facebook a status update from a cake supply company which said something like, "I love my industry but I don't love all the drama, and I wish to stay out of it!" How sad to think a post like that is even necessary in the first place.  Last I checked we were all in business and out of the fourth grade.

People who know me in real life - in business or not - know that I am an open book kind of person. I say it like it is, regardless of who is listening. I lack a verbal filter at home AND in business - pretty much you just get what you get.  I'm smart, I'm ambitious, I'm clever, competitive and I'm damn good at what I do (modest, too)- but I'm not secretive, not political, and not capable of playing this stupid business game other people seem to feel the need to play. And of course, there are heaps of totally wonderful people who work in this industry who I love doing business with. I've met some amazing people who inspire me, and I probably inspire others in some small way, too. It's not all bad, of course it's not - and of course I don't expect that everyone will be on the same page as I am. It's more that I just don't really understand the need or purpose for the negative behaviour in the first place, I really don't.

So the only question left is - is my way of doing business, where acting like it's all just one big fat love-fest - stupidly idealistic, or just good business?

Either way, I go to sleep every night with a clear conscience and that, my friends, is sweet enough for me.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Small Business Advice

Thanks mostly to the influence of Biz Guy (who, on this blog at least, is soon to be re-christened Guru Guy), I've been reading a lot about small businesses lately. I seem to have signed up for more small business newsletters than I knew even existed, so every day my email inbox pings with articles to read, webinars to attend, and links to follow. Let me tell you, you can just avoid running a small business altogether if you like, and spend all your waking hours reading about running one instead. It's probably cheaper to do it that way (but possibly not as fun.)

So all these super interesting and important people (who other people think are super interesting and important, hence why they get paid the big bucks) write a bunch of articles about how to succeed in small business. You have a small business question? Chances are there is an article about how to solve that problem in 'Three EASY Steps.' The interwebs ABOUND with small business advice, but all of it is terribly sound-byte-ish and headline-grab-ish....and I think it's high time someone wrote an article about what small business owners REALLY need to know (with apologies to Biz Guy, who actually writes great articles.) By the way, I don't mean for this to sound negative about business ownership- it's more me poking a bit of fun at those endless articles.

Want to run a small business? Here is emzee's personal guide to doing so, in at least 10 easy steps. The small print: please note, advice is in no paticular order, and I highly recommend that you seek the advice of a shit load of interesting and important people before embarking on this insane idea of yours. (And by "yours" I of course mean the business idea you have which is entirely unoriginal, but you think it's original, and that's really all that matters.)

1. It's going to cost you a shit load of money. It is VITAL that you start out by creating endless spreadsheets where you cost things out all the way down to the actual trash can and bags to line it (and by the way, I really did do this.) Look at the amount at the bottom of the spreadsheet and give yourself a MASSIVE pat on the back for making it come in UNDER the amount of money you actually have to spend on this venture. Then look at the total again and quadruple it. And then just add a few more zeros for good measure...and if you're lucky you will be in spitting distance of what you might actually spend. Like my DH often says, "the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one."

2.  Every company you read about that is an 'overnight success' is one that has been going for a long time, probably went nearly belly up once or twice, and the owner is as shocked as you are that they are now an overnight success. Believe me when I say that the 'Overnight Success Inc.' business owner, before they go to bed every night, is saying to themselves, "I can't fucking believe I got away with it! When are they all going to realise I'm just muddling my way through this?"

3. People say bad shit about you and your company, sometimes to your face, sometimes not. Deal with it - I find eating an entire block of chocolate generally does the job nicely. Either that or a tub of ice cream, or both. That and crying to your partner about it and re-hashing what happened at least a half-dozen times (more if you can get away with it.) I also think it's important to take the time to justify (a half dozen times or more) why you *totally* did the right thing in this situation and the bad-mouther is just a loser with nothing to do in their life but irritate you. Never mind that the loser has now also stolen several hours of your time (in whinging and working off the ice cream and chocolate in the gym.)

4. When you hire other people to help you out, you're going to be so bloody grateful you're going to want to kiss their feet every single time they come to work. Until such time as they stuff something up, show up late, irritate you, be demanding or moody, or in general don't do things as you would do them. At which time you'll probably still want to kiss their feet because you're so damn grateful that it's not just you by your lonesome doing everything. You didn't hire people to help, you hired people to keep you company as you ride the rollercoaster. Nobody likes being the loser by themselves with an empty seat next to them (the only exception to this is flights, where being alone is a godsend.)

5. The boss gets to do the crappy jobs, because the boss is the only one who gives a shit enough about the business to DO the crappy jobs. I'm not talking about stuff like washing dishes or floors. I'm talking about the details stuff - calling clients to admit you or your staff screwed up somewhere. Apologising publicly on facebook for posting a picture of a cake not yet delivered and thus ruining the surprise (yup, that was me.) Paying through the ass for express postage because something did not get ordered on time, and praying like hell it arrives by yesterday. Driving halfway across the state to pick something up from a supplier. Answering emails at 3am. Working 7 days a week. You, boss person, will work way harder doing much more difficult stuff than you EVER did as an employee. What's more, you're a total masochist so you'll probably enjoy it.

6. You will become hard of hearing, because you'll only ever really listen to half of what anybody says to you. You're either too tired to pay attention (emails at 3am, remember?) or you're too busy thinking about all the shit you need to do tomorrow (drive across town, order something express post) or frankly, you are so entombed in your little business bubble you could give a fuck about whatever anybody else has to say anyway. Oh, sorry, what? Did you say something?The house is on fire? Oh, that's nice dear. I *must* remember to pay the extra for the express post.

7. Your house desperately needs cleaning. You don't need to look around and check, just trust me on this one. If you can remember the last time you either changed your sheets or mopped the floor, consider yourself my hero.

8. Other people will think you are completely and utterly AWESOME for what you do, because secretly they all think you are totally SUPERWOMAN and they just wish the had the balls to attempt owning their very own slice of heavenly debt.  Don't disabuse them of this thought. Being perceived as Superwoman has it's distinct advantages, namely that when people come to your house they magically either don't see the mess, or just think that even Superwomen occassionally miss a spot (or ten.) It makes other people feel better when they see that Superwoman's house is a bit untidy. Makes her seem that much more authentic.(For anyone reading this who has actually been inside my house: Right before you came and right after you left, my house was as clean as a museum. Seriously. It was. I think you brought that mess with you.)

9. There are days you will long for normal employment. You know, the sort where there is a lunch hour you are expected to take (heck, even a lunch HALF hour.) And a regular salary which lands in your banking account with comforting regularity. And nice little extras like superannuation, holiday pay, sick days, and other people whose job it is to look after the joint and pay the big bills (including your salary.) There will be days when you really need to take a sickie (because, you know, you're actually sick) and you wish like hell there was someone to call in sick to other than yourself. In those moments you will temporarily forget just how soul destroying being an employee can actually be.

10. Time off. Wait. What? Sorry? What exactly does that mean? Oh, don't worry about it. It won't apply to you anyway. (And even if, per chance, you manage to geographically escape your business...you can't mentally escape it. You can try, though - good luck with that.)

11. Other people will seek your advice because they want to become business owners, too, because you are making it look just so ridiculously EASY. Pour them a long tall glass and help them to drink the Kool-Aid. You have a moral obligation to ensure you do not endure this madness by yourself. Bring your friends along for the ride.

and lastly....

12. It's way more fun being IN business than it is reading about being in business (even when it's a clever blog post such as this one.) Go and DO stuff - you'll be glad you did (in between wishing you had vacation time and buying stuff via express post.)