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  • Writer's pictureMary Lilja

Reflections on the rollercoaster

After three decades of small business ownership, I have retired. I loved my corporate life for a decade before that and was blessed with important mentors, but nothing has compared to being out on my own. My entrepreneur dad once claimed that it was the way people were meant to live, and I agree with him completely. But this saying was also true in our family: if owning and running a small business was easy, everyone would be doing it.

The reality is: it hasn’t been easy. In fact, the best analogy would be that it’s been a rollercoaster ride, full of twists and turns and ups and downs.

A lot like life, in other words.

Here are a few lessons learned — thoughts to share with current and future business owners alike. I hope one or more of them might prove useful to you.

Nurture your relationships — even if you are an introvert (like me). Building and sustaining relationships is the lifeblood of small business. It starts with supporting your team and giving them opportunities to grow. And it continues with seeing your work as a mission to support your customers or clients through thick and thin.

Understand your numbers. Dad talked about “financial common sense” — the ability to see the story your numbers are telling you. Your numbers don’t lie or finesse things; instead, they paint a picture of the business. Your intuition will then help to fill in the blanks. If you don’t have financial common sense, find someone who does.

Remember that “work is a mess.” It is always a mess, to one degree or another, and that’s why it’s called work. Some of the messes are big, hairy ones; others are just little irritations, but they are all normal. So relax, take a deep breath and figure out how you’re going to clean up the mess. This life-changing gem came from the book, “Awake at Work” by Michael Carroll. I’m paraphrasing him, but my adult kids think of this as my mantra. Whenever they mention a challenge in their business lives, I will begin with, “Work is a mess,” and they will chime in, “It is always a mess, to one degree or another.”

Do your best, but forgive yourself when you fall short. I drove myself and my team to do our very best on every assignment — too hard. I had too many sleepless nights wrestling with a concept of perfection. Don’t make the same mistake. Be gentle with yourself and others. But equally important, know when it’s time to apologize, take responsibility and then fix whatever problem is before you. Then you can sleep at night.

Take care of yourself. If you are running a small business, you are the engine of your vehicle, and engines need tune-ups. I have had a 27-year yoga practice. I meditated regularly and went on silent retreats (restorative for someone who had to talk a lot!). I also took a yearly canoe trip in the wilderness with the same group of women friends over three decades. Find what works for you.

Have a spiritual practice to keep you grounded. “Lift it up” was the expression of a family friend. What a relief it was to know that I was never alone, even at my loneliest times when facing a tough decision or action. Was I bringing light or darkness? Did I express love or fear? Reflecting on these questions in my quiet time with my journal kept me grounded.

Cherish your family and friends. Don’t be so focused on your business that you miss out on the rest of your life. There were too many times when I was at home but my brain was back at the office, working on a problem. Your kids will grow up, and too fast.

Enjoy the rollercoaster ride — it will come to an end. Life mellows out when you retire, and you will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. The news got out. You sent the memo. Your media pitch was accepted or rejected. You were brilliant at a meeting or you weren’t. You won the account or you lost it.

When all is said and done, embrace the ups and downs, because you’ll have plenty of both. Having cancer taught me so many things, but ultimately just one big thing: none of us knows the future. So be here now and enjoy the ride.

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