Real Talk: My Biggest Struggle as a Business Owner

Real talk: My biggest struggle as a new business owner was standing up for myself and not allowing someone to take advantage of me.

Starting out, I felt frantic and desperate to close a sale.  I didn’t have a ton of proof of my work, my reputation, or anything like that.  Sometimes, I felt frustrated and exhausted by the end of the day because I couldn’t just say no.

It always turned out the same: that one thing that I decided to do on the house wound up taking me three times longer than normal, because the client always needed to see it alternate ways, and I felt obligated to do it because I wanted them to be happy. (Ultimately, it was my sanity that suffered because I felt taken advantage of.)

It wasn’t only that, though.  It was also working excruciatingly long hours because I was sure that my clients would be pissed if I didn’t deliver nearly immediately. I didn’t stand up for myself and my mental well-being.

At the time of writing this article (early 2017), I found it really difficult to separate helping myself and helping my clients.  Now, at the time I’m updating this article (early 2022), I realize that the cliche, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” rings true.  Balance is still difficult on some days, especially with additional responsibilities and businesses, but I find that I’m far less likely to allow my business to run my life. You can absolutely have a successful business without having to sacrifice yourself, time with your family, and your free time.  (That’s not to say that the hustle doesn’t pay off – I truly believe that Autumn Lane is as great as it is now because of all of the legwork we did early on. I was just completely unbalanced in my approach!)

Why It Was Hard For Me

One of the reasons why I think that it was so difficult to stop someone from taking advantage of me was because I didn’t want them to think that it was all about them paying me money and nickel + diming them.

Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing that you’ve ever heard? It IS about the money, though. That’s ok.

Autumn Lane Paperie is a business. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a part time job or side gig. This business is THE way we put food on the table for our family. It has to be about the money because we have to make ends meet and live. Heck, we even employ my oldest two girls, so it’s truly a family business.

More Real Talk

Confession: I used to feel hugely guilty when I told someone no. I also never liked pointing back to policies so that I could show people that I wasn’t just telling them no for the sake of telling them no.

Reality: If I (or we) didn’t say no, I’d (or we’d) never stop working. If I didn’t say no, I would over-promise and under-deliver, and I would feel even worse when my client didn’t love it. I know that the rest of the Autumn Lane family feels this way and operates this way, because that’s how we’re running this deal.

Not setting boundaries — whether it’s what you are or aren’t willing to do, or the number of revisions you allow, or any other thing — basically means that you’ll never reach the conclusion of what you’re working toward.

How Things Have Changed

It’s January 2022 now, and I’ve adjusted this post a little bit (grammar, y’all) but the core message stays the same. It feels awkward for me to look back on this post, knowing how run down and exhausted I was because I was throwing myself head first into the business and making clients happy. What I’ve realized about setting boundaries as a business owner, and encouraging/enforcing boundaries for the ALP family, is that it makes us much better at what we do. When we aren’t stretched thin, or working on revision round 28 for an indecisive client, we’re able to dive right in to the creative process and produce better, thoughtful, memorable design work for our clients. I also think that the expectations within the client/designer relationship become much more clear when boundaries are set, and we’re able to say no.

I no longer look at policies as something to dislike pointing back to – it’s not often that we need to, but it’s a protective measure for our clients and us to make sure that we protect the professional relationship.

As a piece of parting advice – and something that gets brought up frequently within our company and our family – don’t bring up problems without presenting a solution. Telling a client no doesn’t have to be a hard & fast, straight up NO. It can be flexible, and I truly believe that it ought to be. Perhaps when you’re feeling a bit stretched thin or like you need to say no, you can consider how to solve the issue between yourself and the person pushing/asking/requesting/demanding. What will resolve the perceived issue? What will make them happy, and will also make you happy? More often than not, there’s a middle ground…it just requires a bit of communication and setting expectations instead of always giving in and saying yes.

These COVID years have brought out the meme-worthy, internet-famous Karens, but there are far more awesome, understanding people than there are Karens. It’s entirely likely that your client won’t go all Karen on you – it’s more likely that they don’t understand a key piece of information, aren’t up to date on your processes or policies, or they just need a bit of a helping hand or advice, and they aren’t sure how to arrive at what they feel would be the solution.

You, as the professional, should lead them down that path.

And, of course, if all else fails…your airtight, awesome policies are where you head as a last resort.








1 thought on “Real Talk: My Biggest Struggle as a Business Owner”

  1. My biggest business struggle? Exactly this. I remember night after night while running Typographics, working until midnight or later, just to please my customers. Opa asked me late one night, ‘What about your family?’ Wham!

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