Sometimes I think about what life before the business was like and I can’t quite remember anymore. I know on Mark’s end there was a lot less running around. His work day at the restaurant started around 5am and he would come home around 3pm and that was that. I’ve been freelancing for as long as I can remember so things hadn’t really changed on a day to day basis when we started the business except that we went from a one person freelance household to our whole income being variable. And then, of course, were the health (and now dental) insurance questions. We always had to fund our own retirement so that wasn’t a benefit we were missing. We’ve always tried to be responsible and do all the things that you’re supposed to do when you’re an adult: start college funds for the girls, have at least 6 month’s worth of expenses in savings, get life insurance, get homeowner’s insurance. In some sense all this responsible adult stuff was a way to prove to ourselves that we could keep up with everyone else who had conventional 9-5 jobs.
When Mark lost his new job over 4 years ago that started us down this whole path of dual self employment, we had one goal. We needed to be profitable and we needed to replace the income that he lost. Granted, a chef’s salary isn’t so big to begin with so that it was an insurmountable goal, but I don’t think either of us expected to hit that mark as fast as we did. I know that it’s not common for a new business to be profitable in it’s first or second year, let alone it’s first couple of months, but we worked smartly and efficiently. We started the business on less than $3,000 and did everything ourselves. We were also very lucky. Press came to us, stores called inquiring about wholesale, all kinds of people were interested in our story and sales came easily. We hardly had to do anything outside of making the goods and fulfilling the orders. Coincidentally, my freelance income grew, partly due to the sudden flexibility of Mark’s schedule. Balancing full time freelance hours with a toddler and a baby were no longer a source of stress. We were able to send both girls to preschool and retain our PT nanny and continue being responsible adults in our upper middle class neighborhood just like our peers even though nothing about our life was stable.
In a lot of ways, business was easier those first couple of years. We were able to get noticed simply because there weren’t as many businesses like ours around, but that gradually changed over last few years. Now there is a lot of competition – on Etsy, at the markets, on the web, and in our home borough of Brooklyn. Just so many small independent food companies. Online retail started changing too. Flash sales became a new trend and new sites seemed to crop up every day. Some of these sites started selling food. It was hard to compete with the discounts. Our online sales started to show some signs of decline, while expenses and the cost of food kept going up. But Mark and I kept doing our thing. We started to do more wholesale and that now accounts for 50% of our business whereas before it was less than 20. While our yearly profits have remained stable, this also means that Mark has to work twice as hard to fulfill those wholesale orders to earn the same amount as retail on those cookies. Unlike the early years when we were, perhaps, right at the beginning of the small food entrepreneurial trend, we now have to hustle and roll with the punches and figure out how to navigate the new trends. But such is life and such is business. Things never remain the same. It can’t.
My work schedule this year has been such that I’ve had more time to think about all these things than in past years. Projects have chronically been delayed so in a way I feel like I’m revisiting that first year when we had to scramble to get the business up and running just to start making some cash. But maybe this is what we need. Product ideas that have been on the back burner for years are now being considered again. When I think about all the ways we can expand the business, there is no clear answer. 4 years after making our first sale and mailing our first package, Mark is still the guy baking and packaging the cookies, packing up the orders, loading the boxes into his granny cart and pushing them to the neighborhood post office. He’s still the guy working the markets and driving the wholesale orders to the stores around the city every week. He’s still the guy. We do this so that we can earn a profit. So when I think about expanding the business, I don’t automatically think the answer is in the cookies. I think, what we can do with this brand? What can we do with this blog?
I remember thinking we had it made when I wrote that last check for preschool and when we decided to say good bye to our PT nanny nearly 2 years ago. I couldn’t even wrap my head around the money that we would be potentially saving, which was no token number at tens of thousands of dollars a year. What would we do with all that extra money? Finally go on big non-family visiting vacations? Buy a new car? Buy some new furniture? But a funny thing happened this year and last. We made less money and lost a few steady consulting jobs, almost exactly as much as we would have saved if we earned the same amount the previous years we were paying for preschool and a nanny. So instead of buying a new car or a new couch we just ended up…even. Funny how that works. But it just proves once again that your spending fluctuates with your income and sometimes you find a way of making what you need, which is why we don’t feel any “richer” than when we were in our mid 20s making 1/3 of what we make now. In fact I ate out more and bought a lot more stuff back then. It’s a reminder that as a self employed freelancer and business owners we have some amount of control over what we can earn. Unlike a fixed salary where you’re budgeting your household expenses to a finite monetary amount, our income is variable. Variable doesn’t always mean down, and this is what I have to remind myself. Variable also means up. It’s time to focus on the up.