hustle and roll

August 3, 2012 |  Category:   life rambling the biz

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.

 

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FYI, a reminder that our big summer sale is still going on strong. Valid on all our Etsy shops too. Code: SUMMER12

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  • Fiona richards August 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    Hi Jenna, I’m not sure that we’ve ‘met’ before but I read your post and knew that I wanted to write something here – I’m not really sure what. Just that I know what you’re feeling. I remember the day that I had these very same feelings a couple of years ago – hubs and I are both self employed designers producing product. I think you may find that by saying all this out loud a change will come – something moved you today to write this post and it will be the same impulse that will inspire a change forward – soon. And it will be a good one – and the right one. Saying things out loud changes everything. I heard you – others will hear you . . .

  • Peter N. August 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I don’t think you were lucky in the beginning, you make good products. In spite of any trends going on, the flash sites, the competition, etc, something I’ve only learned recently is if you focus on your product, and make good products, that trumps anything.

    I’m going through the same thought cycle as you right now. How do I compete with Gilt groupe and Zara? That’s something that I struggled with and kept me from starting my line for a good 4 years.

    We all have a story and point of view, and I’ve always felt that yours with your family and beautiful aesthetic is something that is the most essential product. A unique voice. It’s something that I don’t think many small business owners understand and why they end up failing.

  • Jenna August 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks Fiona and Peter for the encouraging words. We’re definitely forging on – we’ve lasted this long! And Peter, I am pulling for you, you know that.

  • Mieke Zamora-Mackay August 3, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    When I’m feeling particularly worrisome about my own family’s situation, I think about how you guys are standing so resiliently, pursuing your own family’s goals. You’re raising some beautiful children who see that their parents are working hard to achieve their goals. That is a lesson that is invaluable.

    I’m sure it all feels rather unnerving at times, especially when the unexpected challenges come. As long as your focus is on meeting your needs, all the unnecessary things will just fall by the wayside.

  • Jenna August 4, 2012 at 12:34 am

    @Mieke thanks for your kind words. Really!

  • Pink Ronnie August 4, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Hi Jenna,
    I’m always in awe of how honestly and openly you share here on Sweet Fine Day. I love reading your long(er) posts and feel so honoured to be able to share in your family life and journey – both the joys and the struggles. I think it is amazing the way you and Mark have built your lives over the last four to five years, overcoming so much uncertainty about the future. My husband and I relied on my freelancing income for about 3-4 years, so I know a little of what it can be like, but we didn’t have children back then and we didn’t have to worry much about health insurance like you guys. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for your blog. Will always be here reading.
    Ronnie xo

  • Linda August 4, 2012 at 5:24 am

    Hi Jenna and Mark,

    first of all thank you for sharing your thoughts on everyday life here. I really like your writing!
    As I have never ever been self employed I can’t tell what it feels like but my mum had a canteen years ago and for her it was just a tough job struggling to pay all insurances, money from the bank etc.
    I really admire the work you do everyday and the love you put into your work. All the presentation of both your work shows that you must really love what you are doing.
    And even if there are many people and businesses working in the same sector it just makes a real difference (to me). If there is a local business that produces quality food I’ll return because I am aware that I am supporting the right cause and people that really care about what they are doing. I would not search for others that are doing the same thing. It’s like buying a baguette in France. Once you found the baker that is able to do the best baguette in your hometown you buy it there (I don’t know whether if this only works for me?). What I want to say is that I totally appreciate what you are doing even if there are lows too. Please keep it up! I will come to NYC next year and I totally want to come by your store…Sending you many positive thoughts! Best wishes from Germany!

  • Sophia August 4, 2012 at 9:32 am

    You both set an admirable example of making conscientious choices for how you want to live and how you choose to raise your family. Inspiring.

  • zivar August 4, 2012 at 11:10 am

    i really dig your blog and appreciate your perspective.. thank you for sharing your life with us. i am inspired and all the wiser for it.

  • Suzanne August 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

    As a household with a mostly self employed income source I can relate to your post. Being self employed has huge rewards and endless opportunities if you can take the time out to think about and initiate them. We too sit down and try and make all the numbers work..some months they do….some months they don’t, but just when you feel like it’s not worth the effort a new and unexpected opportunity always pops up and you remember why you don’t work for somebody else 9 – 5. I hope that new unexpected opportunities come your way…I’m sure they will 🙂

  • Jo August 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Jenna, with increasing competition, is your business really sustainable? I fear that pressure on Mark will only increase, while profit and payout decrease. He may be working twice as hard while earning less and less for your family. I HATE reading “encouraging” comments that are meaningless as Hallmark cards (that’s to you everyone above me) – but the fact is, it seems like the marketplace is going to get more crowded and Mark will start weighing the costs and benefits. Maybe you guys will hang in there and find a new niche. After all, you’ve been in this for some 5 years, no? Maybe you’ll branch into a new food and hang in there like Magnolia Bakery does among all the gazillion cupcake shops. But even Magnolia’s new owner admits that he has to double up on marketing, advertising, and differentiating just to stay above the water.

    you guys need corporate accounts, and I think you know that will take a ton of scaling up, bank loans, etc. because i don’t know how long mark can do this for. Until he’s 50? 60? You know what I suggest? Start the route of getting into Whole Foods. It’s gonna take a shit load of work on you – you’ll need to up your insurance, up your product, etc – but Whole Foods makes it wonderful by letting you start small. Start there. Work REALLY hard at it and kiss ass. It’s what works for small retailers like yourself. Then go for bigger accounts, like Costco. Otherwise, Mark is gonna spend his entire 40s doing nothing but baking cookies and getting less and less. That’s gotta piss him off.

  • Jo August 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Here’s a tip: there’s a small mushroom-made-from-coffee grounds company from Berkeley (really, I know..at first glance, WTF?) by 2 college grads. They hustled and got into Berkeley’s Whole Foods. Just ONE location. And then Whole Foods started to pick up their product to their other stores. Then it just grew from there. The accounts let them get financing and get in touch with more powerful vendors. Put it this way, Jenna: all that meaningless “Hang in there” and “You’re setting an example for your family” is advice anyone can give. If a business consultant gave me that kind of crap when I faced a serious problem of feeding myself and my family, I would kick his ass. Go for the corporate accounts and event companies. If you fail and go nowhere, you can always go back to doing exactly what you’re doing now.

  • Jenna August 4, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    @Jo it’s sustainable because profits are stable every year even if we need to generate them in slightly different ways. I don’t think encouraging words are meaningless at all, particularly since I wasn’t seeking business advice. This post wasn’t a commiseration on competition and the state of the business. More an observation on how the landscape has changed in the 4+ years we’ve been in business. As I said, things always change. Up to you to figure out how to adapt to the change.

  • Kim August 4, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I worked for a small business (with big name/world renowned clients) for years, so I completely understand what you guys do and deal with.

    “… If you fail and go nowhere, you can always go back to doing exactly what you’re doing now.”… WTF?

  • Christine August 4, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Hi Jenna,
    I own a Pilates studio in Seattle. I used to have a steady, well paying job with the Cadillac of benefits. I used to make a ton more money. Interestingly, I have less debt now than I ever have and I’m the healthiest I have been in ages. Why? A corporate job with little flexibility meant that I spent more all around: childcare, clothes, gas, meals, vacations – you name it. I also spent more because I could. Now I can’t so I don’t. There you have it.

    All businesses go through the cycle of growth, plateau and then hopefully a change (external or internal) that will spark growth again. Your intuition to always be thinking of what’s next is spot on. Maybe it’s corporate accounts. Maybe it’s something that makes the business more scalable. Or maybe it’s something entirely different like a new product line or partnership. It’s so exciting I can’t wait to read about it.

  • tammy August 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    I have been following your blog on and off now for a few years after discovering you on Etsy. I have a handcrafted jewelry business. Selling my wares in a local shop in Rhinebeck, NY and on Etsy. I have recently rediscovered your shop & blog again, which I love reading btw! I love your blog, family, business, and photos! Keep up the awesome work. I am planning on making a purchase soon, especially with the 20% OFF SALE going on. :o)

  • Jo August 5, 2012 at 3:02 am

    I didn’t mean that kind words aren’t welcome. Or support, especially since it can lead to sales. Also, I also notice how Americans are overly focused about making people feel good at the cost of credibility.. My real question is: how long is Mark going to spend entire days, week in and out, year in and out, just baking cookies? Is he really going to get old in that commercial kitchen of his? Let’s say they decide to hire someone. Then what? Does he have lots of friends? Does he go out for beer? Fishing? Other than being a fantastic husband, father, provider, where’s his personal time going to? It’s like his entire life revolves around the three women in his life. Working his tail off so his two kids get the best of everything is commendable (what else can you say about someone like this) but if Suze Orman heard about this, she would bitch at them, that’s for sure. Any financial planner would. Let’s put it this way: if Mark suddenly dies or becomes disabled and they don’t have great life/long term care insurance, forget orthodontics, private school tuition, fashionable clothes for the girls. JENNA will be the one baking cookies and working her tail off to pay the mortgage. And I can’t help but feel like they deserve a better cushion.

  • Jenna August 5, 2012 at 9:16 am

    @Jo you have now crossed the line with your comments once again. You questioned our “precarious situation” 2 years ago in my line of freelance work and now you are doing it again with Mark. Let me give you a tip for a change. First of all, there are ways of commenting without rudely writing off the other readers and the supportive words they are choosing to put out there. Second: do you always focus on the negative in your life? Is this why you feel the need to point out the worst case scenarios for a total stranger you know nothing about other than what you read on the blog? Death? You speak of Mark’s line of work and his days spend baking in the kitchen like it’s the most horrible way to spend your life. Have you ever considered that he actually enjoys his work and that’s why people choose the line of work they are in? The thing I take most offense with in your comments is that you talk to me like a child. Not even our parents talk to us in this manner. Of course we have considered all these things, but it’s really none of anyone’s business to discuss. And if you did know anything about our life, you would know that I’m still the main breadwinner for this family and it has nothing to do with baking the cookies.

  • Mary August 5, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Hi Jenna.
    My partner and I are already fans of your cookies via Dean & Deluca. But we had a chance to try out the Milk Chocolate Curry popsicle yesterday at the Flea. And it’s f’ing fan-tas-tic. Looking forward to Whimsy & Spice expanding! By the way, we suggest a coconut milk/cardamom pop and an avocado/almond milk pop… and yes, we’d be happy to taste test them in case of poisoning.

  • Jenna August 5, 2012 at 9:48 am

    @Mary – so glad you got to tried the pops! It’s been challenging to get the word out but every week they’re selling better and better. And yes! We were thinking of something like a cardamom coconut popsicle actually (did you read our minds?) for fall if time allowed. thanks again for the feedback.

  • Jo August 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Jenna, I apologize if my tone offended you. I really do. I do know you’re the breadwinner, since whimsy and spice was only originally meant to replace Mark’s income, not both of yours. I’m also glad that Mark is doing what he enjoys. Your company is growing, gaining loyal customers and is profitable, which is the most important thing because it’s been paying for the tuition, nanny, etc. But talking about long term plans is not being negative. If you open up ANY financial planning book, listen to ANY financial planner, heck, even listen to a financial talk show host including Oprah, you would see that death, disability, income decline happen a lot and it’s normal to talk about them as if they happen a lot because THEY DO. But you’re right – explaining this would be like talking down to you as if you’re a child. I know you’ve contemplated all of that and are probably a lot more involved than your average breadwinner out there. Since you seem to be the family member writing all the checks, you’re probably hyperaware of money. But Jenna, how do you plan to grow? You’ve decided a store is not right for you (a wise decision probably) and sound like you’ve already got some major local retailers reaching out to bigger customers for you (Dean Deluca, cafes, etc) Shipping your cookies to another state alone costs a bundle, so why not find ways to make them more accessible? Why not go for the bigger accounts, like Whole Foods? You don’t have to jump up and down in indignation when someone like myself believes a woman in her 40s should enter her peak working and earning years able to give herself all the things she may have wanted without going down the route of “kids first”: what about YOUR adult braces, YOUR desire for travel, YOUR love for eclectic items? Are these things ever going to happen? As for Mark, If he’s literally getting up to go to work and coming home to sleep, cook and take care of the girls and starting that cycle again, it’s just wrong.

  • Jo August 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I”ll end with my last comment

  • Kyra August 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Jenna,
    I don’t really have anything substantial to add like your fellow business owners up there, but just wanted to say I LOVE your stuff. Maybe it sounds silly, but a reward of delicious sweets to looked forward every week to was one of the things that got me through the physical,mental and emotional pain of officer training school earlier this winter. I move around a lot due both to the air force and my civilian job in the airline industry, and love that I can have your cookies wherever I am in the country. We’re obviously in very different fields, but I can relate to choosing a line of work you love even if there are some real downsides to it. I don’t know the first thing about owning businesses other than it’ crazy hard work (parents were your typical laundromat owners) but I’m glad Mark likes what he does and is good at it too so people like me can get a chance to enjoy such delicious treats in life. Also, I always want to try these ice cream pops and drinks you mention in your blog and am so bummed that I’m rarely in New York even though I’m from there. Please keep it going!

  • Jenna August 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    @Jo That’s enough. You’ve made your point and I won’t publish your comments any longer. You’re not saying anything we don’t already know, but the assumption on your part that I haven’t considered anything about the future or growth or sustaining the business is what I’m referring to when I say you talk down to me like a child. You can also make suggestions and offer advice without being so condescending. The fact the you keep pointing out all the negatives and worst case scenarios about our life IS being negative.

  • Jenna August 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    @Kyra Thanks so much for all your orders this past year. It makes it extra special to know that the packages have helped you through some times. All the best to you in your training.

  • Sara Jensen August 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I think we know what Jo does with all his/her free time.

  • naomi August 5, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Jenna, you and Mark are true inspiration to all that look forward to your blog, your multiple talents and business success. (+ your adorable kids) Jo’s comments were beyond negative and not even worth commenting on. Kudos to you for keeping your cool.
    Funny that people think that having a staff job has any long term stability. There is absolutely NO stability in any “9-5 or normal job” anymore. (unless you have tenure) Hard working and talented people in all fields that I know have been laid off over the past few years within a days notice after contributing and working at a company for years. Your create a product that brings joy to others and impressively supports your family. Staff or freelance, I think it’s true that most of us are running on a hamster wheel to get by. (and I bet your hamster wheel is nicer than most:) Bravo to you and Mark because you both are awesome!

  • Jenna August 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Thanks Naomi! And yes! I do realize that there is no such thing as a stable job. But I did mean that while a person does have a job, a steady paycheck that you can rely on week after week is something that we don’t have. I think most freelancers can relate to this – after a project is finished and you’re invoicing, playing the waiting game to get paid is a whole other ballgame.

  • naomi August 6, 2012 at 12:49 am

    indeed:) I’m a freelancer now too and the waiting game is definitely not fun.

  • Kathleen August 6, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Thank you for sharing … the uncertainty, the adaptability and the balance that comes with being an entrepreneur, freelancer and having a family. Your way of articulating it – even the hard parts – is really graceful. XO.

  • ana August 6, 2012 at 8:53 am

    I am really glad I live in Europe reading this! no worries about health insurance

  • nina August 6, 2012 at 9:11 am

    After years of allowing comments to flow freely on my blog I learned the hard way to never ever again publish/pay attention to/comment on negative *trolls.* They suck the good moment of life right out of you.
    Now, as a fairly recent reader here (and a total admirer of your blog), let me check out your summer sale. I hope you ship to Wisconsin!

  • Brett Torrey Haynes August 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Thanks for being so gracious in the face of negativity. I stopped responding to negative comments on my blog as well. A positive perspective is a huge catalyst for success. It’s not unrealistic, it a choice. I haven’t featured artisans who make edibles on my site dedicated to the handmade community. I think it’s time I did. Thank you for doing what you do and being willing to share.

  • heather August 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks for the genuine post- felt like there was so much that rang true for me, my family and business- so I appreciate your candidness!
    I’ve spent this summer re-thinking some of my own strategies and have decided it’s still right for me to stay small, try to do as much local and direct sales as possible rather then try to expand to grow. I think when you are a small business owner with a family the measure of success is going to be different- that bigger isn’t necessarily better. There is something really great about doing what you love to do, having time to spend with your family and slowly growing a business organically as you are able to grow it. I totally admire your courage to keep at it, Jenna, to understand where your market is at this time, and to keep going steady and strong through the grind.

  • Katherine August 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Hey! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the outstanding work!

  • glaudius August 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I read somewhere that businesses are like people, they go from infancy to adolescence and maturity. At each step there are many changes that occur in the nature of the business and how it has to be conducted. And it is not just a monetary growth but a growth in structure, purpose and people. I would guess that is what you are seeing. You are feeling a pressure, a need to change something about it, even though by your own admission you are earning more money now than before.

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