This is the final installment in my four-part series for Edible San Francisco, sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned about starting and growing a food business. In my first essay, I wrote about taking the leap. In the second, I wrote about building a community from scratch with no prior experience or connections (during a worldwide pandemic, to boot!). And in my third installment, I outlined some strategies for how to hire and support a great team.
For this final essay I promised myself that I would dig deep and go beyond the shiny wins. And if you’ve been following us on Instagram these last six months, you have seen some pretty shiny wins. In February we bought a kitchen, and by July we successfully rezoned it for retail and acquired a restaurant permit. We started walk-up service on Thursdays, making fresh hot dumplings to order. And all my efforts to build our team paid off: I was able to take my kids back to Austria to visit family for six whole weeks. (It was my 4-year-old’s first time meeting his grandparents!)
But the reality is that the last six months have been so tough. I discovered that growing a business was a lot harder than starting one. (Read: Dumpling Club isn’t yet profitable and we’ve got a long road ahead of us). I made a couple of really expensive mistakes that put financial stress on both my family and my team. And I said goodbye to three separate teammates, one of whom unexpectedly passed away in June. Each of their losses was, and continues to be, incredibly painful.
For a while, I was at my lowest. I felt burnt out by the relentlessness of it all and I’d never been lonelier. It was at this time that I decided to spontaneously email 10 other female entrepreneurs and chefs—some that I knew well and some that I’d only admired from afar—and ask them to join me at Dumpling Club for a casual potluck on a random Monday night. And miraculously, everyone came. Ten brilliant, funny, spirited women showed up with huge catering dishes (I’m looking at you, Haley) and boxes full of food and we all talked and laughed and cried for hours. Our big topic was “How To Cope With It All” and I knew that’s what my final essay had to be about.
When people ask me what I do for self-care, I usually make a joke about hot water in all its forms (baths, showers, soup, tea). But sometimes you need more than a scented candle and a cuppa. So here are some tips that have really helped me, and if you’re a current entrepreneur or planning to venture forth, I hope these tips help you too:
Connect with other entrepreneurs who are going through what you’re going through.
Before starting Dumpling Club, I had always worked in a big team at a large company, so striking out alone was a jarring experience. My immediate inclination was to turn towards the people closest to me for support: my husband, of course, and the rest of my family; my friends; and my team, the people who I worked with daily. But seeing me distressed would inevitably distress my husband; my friends and family were mostly in corporate jobs with their own headaches but not entrepreneurial ones; and it didn’t feel fair or appropriate to burden my team with whatever troubles were brewing.
What’s been really cathartic for me is talking with other entrepreneurs. Not only do I learn a lot from my peers, but it’s healing to be reminded of how much we have in common. Someone once gave me sage advice that goes something like this: Find a group of people who are at the same stage of entrepreneurship as you, so you don’t feel alone. Find a second group of people who are one step ahead of you, so you can learn from their mistakes. And find a third group of people who are five or 10 years out, so you can see what success looks like. I can’t remember who gave me that advice, so now it’s mine to give. Use it!
Set boundaries for when and how you work.
I’ve written about this before and I’ll write about it another hundred times if I have to, because it’s so important. Nowadays, every business is an Internet business. And the thing with the Internet is that it’s always on. Which means I, as a business owner, seem to be always working—whether that’s responding to a customer email, checking my DMs or creating content. And because I’m connected, that also means my team’s just a text message way … can you see the slippery slope in front of me?
It took me a while to figure this out, but it is ultimately up to me to decide when to work, even though it may be hard to resist the temptation. Now when I see a customer email after 6pm, I wait until the next morning to answer it. I’ve reduced my production schedule so that I can spend time on Instagram content during business hours instead of during dinner with my kids. I don’t always succeed in treading my own boundaries, but I cut myself some slack when I don’t and try again the next day.
Treat your employees like your teammates, not your family.
Do: Have regular team offsites (like hotpot and karaoke! oyster happy hours! bowling!) so that you can all spend some quality time together. Don’t: Hang out with your direct report every weekend and have them sleep over on your couch whenever they need to. (OK, I’ve never done that, but one of my other entrepreneur friends shared this story with me and I can totally relate.)
It’s pretty common for small businesses to refer to themselves as a family, but think about how that plays out: Have you ever fired a family member? Told them they missed expectations and laid out areas of improvement? Or how about the other way around: Your employee wants to leave the job, but feels pressured to stay because you’re “family.” Setting up those expectations can lead to some pretty difficult scenarios.
I used to think that it was my first responsibility to take care of everyone on the team and keep them happy—and if I’m being honest with myself, I still mostly feel that way. But recently, it was one of my own staff who reminded me that my first responsibility is to run a good business. Because if Dumpling Club fails, then I won’t have the means to take care of anyone.
Prioritize your time.
My last essay was titled, “If the team wins, you win,” so this might seem like the antithesis. But while my team is my #1 asset to getting things done, I am my best asset to growing my business.
Part of it is because of my drive: Nobody will work as hard for Dumpling Club as I do, since it’s my dream. But there’s also some pretty functional reasons that I’m Dumpling Club’s best asset: I do all of our marketing; I make all of our strategic decisions; and I’m still the creative powerhouse behind our products and offerings.
When I came back from my summer trip, one of the things that I did was allocate time to myself at the beginning of each day to be creative: no admin work, no operational planning and, above all, no emails. I think about the one creative goal I have for the day and I spend an hour on it before I flip over to the tactical stuff. Achieving a zero inbox is temporarily satisfying, but coming up with a new recipe or finishing out our merch designs is infinitely more valuable work.
I feel like a giant fraud writing this because I don’t pay myself. 🙂 But I really should and here’s why.
First, a business can’t be considered profitable until the owner is making a six-figure salary and there’s money left over every month. I don’t need Dumpling Club to make me millions but a $100,000 annual salary is not unreasonable to support a family of four in San Francisco. We’re at the point where we nearly break even every month, but I don’t pay myself, which means we have a long way to go.
But the real reason to pay yourself is to make sure you don’t burn out. When I started Dumpling Club, I mentally committed to a five-year haul. Now that I’m halfway through, I’m thinking that number is closer to seven years. And that’s a long time to be in financial misery.
Start out by paying yourself minimum wage and increase your salary over time. When times are tough, you may skip a paycheck to make sure your employees get theirs. But try to keep paying yourself. You’re worth it. And just like the wisdom of the airplane oxygen mask, if you don’t take care of yourself first you’ll be of no use to anyone else.
This concludes my writing for Edible San Francisco but it’s only the beginning for Dumpling Club. I have so much more growth ahead of me as an entrepreneur and business owner. Already I can look back on my first essay and think of five more learnings to add to the list. So don’t let this be the end of the conversation. Please feel free to reach out to me at any time to share your thoughts. You can find me on Instagram @dumplingclubsf or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep in touch!