Balancing Personal and Professional as a Small Business Owner

 Photo by Savan Photography

Photo by Savan Photography

I keep referring to the past year-long period as a bit of a time-warp, a twilight zone, a blip on my radar. My husband is a doctor and his career and education require that we do a lot of traipsing around the country in order for him to complete his (seemingly endless) education. We've (since meeting) moved from our college home of Seattle to Portland for his 4-year medical schooling and then assigned two locations across the country for the following 4-year period. Residency is a 3-7 year process in which you practice medicine as doctor, work about 80-90 hours a week, get paid less than minimum wage, and are still required to take a ton of exams. The residency application process is convoluted and not worth explaining beyond the general idea: you interview all over the country at your own expense, and a computer pairs you up with a program that you'll be attending for the next 3-7 years. My husband was matched with a 1-year preliminary program (a basic requirement for his field) in Chicago and a 3-year program for his specialty in Seattle. We had a few months to pack up, move across country, settle in for 12 months and now are packing up to move back across the country.

Moves are annoying and painful for the obvious reasons: no one likes to pack, clean, drive a moving truck, or find a new place to live. Short-term moves are even more arduous and can be isolating. They remove you from family and friends, introduce you to new living environments, come with severe cost of living adjustments, and all in all take a lot of mental energy.  In the same way, they can introduce you to experiences and places you'd never have seen. They can solidify a sense of where you'd like to end up in the long-run. They can introduce you to new people, cuisines, and cultures.

We've had this blip, this time-warp, this twilight zone of a year living in the Midwest. And we've spent a year almost completely by ourselves. We've gone to about 5-6 social events over the course of the year. My husband worked every holiday, including Christmas, and at least 6-days a week for the majority of our stay here. As we prepare to move yet again, to re-register my business, to learn a new geographic client base, to find a home, to adjust to high living costs in Seattle, to make new friends, it has been taxing. The year has felt simultaneously endless and as if it's rapidly gone by. It feels like we just moved in and here I am with a pile of boxes ready to re-wrap up out photos and kitchen utensils and pack them back into a truck. 

This year, alone for most of the day, operating my business, it has felt far more personal than ever before. The year prior, I had a day job. Coming home to script was an escape and I had a growing, but manageable client load. It was a pleasure to take my lunch break to speak to brides and escape from a job I really hated. Transitioning to this business full-time hasn't taken out the joy - I love what I do - but it has made this much more of a business than a hobby. My day-job rather than my night-escape. Now, my daily client interactions are most of my interpersonal interactions for the entire week. A difficult week with clients can feel all-encompassing. A difficult personal week can make client interactions seem that much more urgent, emotional, fraught, you name it. Though about 95% of all of my interactions with clients are completely wonderful, the 5% serves as a reminder that we are people, working with people, and things can and do go wrong. 

I think this blending of the personal and professional is one of the most challenging parts of operating a sole proprietorship and small business. Once you work for yourself (often out of your home), the lines seem to blur. Personal is no longer separate from professional and emotion and stress can seep across those doorways from kitchen to small office. From the living room to the dining room table at which you do most of your work.

We're often quick to want to compartmentalize. To get up each morning and face the work day as if we aren't humans going through a human experience separate from our jobs. To shelve the emotion we feel in our personal life and get down to business. And in the reverse, when we end the day, we want to leave everything that's happened at work behind. We want to emerge as someone new and free from stress or concern. To say this is impossible is probably not an understatement. We're people. We feel. We experience. If emotion could indeed be shelved and revisited, we'd have libraries worth of emotion. Piles of "I'll read this one later." 

This year, in moments of extreme stress, I've found myself struggling to get up and sit down at my desk - something that hadn't happened to me before when this was a side business. I found myself struggling to complete a mammoth list of tasks that needed to get done. I also, conversely, found myself with more energy and drive than ever before. It is a constant reminder that we cannot separate our personal lives from our professional lives. We can absolutely mask that for clients, but we are left to deal with juggling the two.

I think the first step in managing the personal and professional in our business is to acknowledge that the two go hand in hand, that they cross lines and seep into one another and not one of us is immune to this.

The second step is to manage your client-facing self. It is okay to be sad, upset, scared, joyful, panicked, angry, gleeful, giddy - but to our clients, we should always present ourself as collected, in control, and reliable. A client has their own personal and professional to juggle and doesn't need ours added in. If you've ever had a really negative experience with an angry client, you know that when they let their personal seep into their business relationships, it's damaging to all parties. Don't be the vendor to match that client.

The third step is to remind yourself that just because you are going through a time when your business interactions feel particularly personal, does not mean that it is personal. An terse client email does not necessarily reflect that a client hates you or dislikes you. A rude client email may, instead, be a reflection instead that they are having a difficult time and you happened to get stuck in the crossfires.

The fourth step is to find a new escape. If your side business, turned real business, is no longer a hobby... you need another hobby. You need to quit work (even if it's just quitting sitting at your computer at your desk) and do something that brings you joy. We will have days when our job completely fulfills us, but we will also have days when it does not. On those days when it does not, we need something else to turn to that helps to rejuvenate us.

Fifth, and finally, remember why you're doing what you're doing. It's probably a mixture of bringing joy to yourself and bringing joy to others. What is better than helping a bride execute a beautiful wedding day? What is better than celebrating in the union between two people very much in love? I happen to think just about nothing compares. When you feel down and out, tired, exhausted, stressed, on the edge, just remember those glimmering moments when a bride thanks you or sends you photos of her beautiful wedding day. That's why you're here.