Business Musings: Bread and Cupcakes
I’m allergic to dairy. It’s one of the many allergies that sent me to Vegas. In Lincoln City, restaurants didn’t understand that no dairy meant no butter, no milk products, no cheese. The restaurants would often scrap off the offending item if they accidentally mixed it into my food, not caring about cross-contamination. Between that and my perfume allergy, I was no longer able to eat in any restaurant in the city by December.
So Vegas has been wonderful. When I say “allergy,” a restaurant here snaps to. They get it, because the competition for customers is so severe that everyone lives and dies by their Yelp reviews. One allergy screw-up and a restaurant is out of business. It’s been absolute heaven for me—except for bread.
I can’t find good dairy-free bread anywhere. I find some in grocery stores, but that bread is…mediocre at best.
So today, I was at my new haunt, the vegan bakery that supplies vegan desserts to half the restaurants in the city, and has fueled my sweet tooth since I moved here. I asked the owner if they made bread. They did not, although, she told me, every restaurant they do business with will buy dairy-free and gluten-free breads if they would provide it.
“You should!” I said with great enthusiasm.
“Oh, we can’t,” she said, looking tired. “We’re already doing too much as it is. We simply can’t take on any more.”
I get it. I really do.
Her bakery is so good that her clients want more. Not just more of what she already makes but more items. There’s a market, and they know she would fulfill that market with integrity, and it would add to the restaurants’ bottom line.
But she can’t.
Because they’re moderating growth.
It’s sensible. It really is. If you’re good at what you do, you will end up with more work than you can do.
When Dean and I started Pulphouse Publishing a hundred years ago, and people asked us for more of this and more of that, we worked hard to supply it. We hired more people, rearranged the business half a dozen times, and grew and grew and grew.
The problem with that was that the money didn’t grow and grow and grow with it. Accounts receivable grew, because our clients had 90 days to pay us, and often took 120 before we got too pissy.
The fact that the money didn’t arrive for nearly four months meant we were always running behind. It was a treadmill at top speed. It felt like we were going somewhere, but if we stopped moving, we would careen backwards and hit the wall.
Which was eventually what happened.
It left me gun-shy. Dean evaluated and obsessed and figured out what we did wrong, using facts and figures and tons of numbers. All that work, necessary as it was, simply confirmed what I had already known: we grew too fast and without the proper financial support.
That was a mistake we vowed not to make again. We’ve come close a few times with WMG, but we’ve always pulled back.
It means that we’re constantly saying no to things that would be good for our business, and eventually good for our bottom line. It’s extremely frustrating, because when you pencil out the numbers, it’s clear that doing all of those things would be great—if we could pull it off.
And that’s always the gamble.
I saw that frustration in the bakery owner’s eyes today. She knew that they’re refusing to service a market that would make them tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. But it would probably cost tens of thousands to start up, and a lot of time and energy and maybe a loss of focus on their core business.
Writers get into this same situation. I’m in it right now. I’m getting settled from the move. I can finally see what life here in Vegas will be like. I know how Lincoln City will continue to factor in, and I know where I’ll be when. It no longer feels chaotic.
I’m still organizing my writing, revisiting deadlines and figuring out what I can do with my entire research library in boxes. And as I’ve been doing this, and I’m realizing just how much better I’m feeling, which is bringing hours back into the day, projects have reared their abandoned heads and asked, What about me? You haven’t thought of me for years.
I’m interested. I really am. I want to revive the old projects, do the work that fans are writing me and asking for, get a few projects done before any film/TV starts shooting (three possible at the moment), and explore some new ideas that have come up in the last year. I know if I schedule too heavily, I’ll break out of the schedule, because that’s what I do (and have done since I was a kid). So, I’m assessing what I want to do, and what would be best for me here, given the resources that I have right now.
A very real factor is time. There’s the time it will take me to write something, the time it will take me to rebuild my knowledge of a world I haven’t written in for a while, the time it’ll take to research something I want to write about.
But the bigger factor is the treadmill. I’m feeling better now. We’re having to look at the overall schedule for all of the businesses, given the changes my health has caused, so this is the perfect time to redo all of our plans.
If we’re going to add anything—if I’m going to add anything—the time is now. Just like this is the perfect time to delete something as well.
But we have to be really cautious. Because the biggest mistake we can make—as a business and I can make as a writer—is to work at the very edge of my productivity. Not the bottom edge, but the top edge, where every waking moment is spent on words or a deadline or something for the business.
I’ve done that in the past—did that during the early years of Pulphouse Publishing, in fact, through the time of my editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It leads to burnout, and a lack of interest in the work. And writing ceases to be fun.
Writing should always be fun.
Not gleeful, screaming-on-a-rollercoaster fun, but something that we look forward to every day. And pushing it too hard, putting too much emphasis on it—even with the good things—will eventually cause writing to become work. Ditch-digging, back-breaking, garbage-hauling work.
The quality won’t necessarily go down (although it might), but enjoyment will and there’s no reason to do this profession if it’s not fun.
That look on the bakery owner’s face was cautionary for me as I’m slowly returning to the land of the living. That frustration combined with the knowledge that taking the slower road, doing less and keeping the business alive, was the better choice—that look. I’ve experienced it.
But I’ve also fallen backwards off a treadmill (metaphorically and in real life), and it’s not something I want to do again.
The question is balance. How do you—I—all of us figure out how much is too much? How much is too little? Are we pushing hard enough or not engaging enough?
Sometimes the numbers are clear. For the bakery owner, adding in bread would mean at least doubling her workload (not counting a learning curve on figuring out how to make bread in bulk), adding employees and maybe another site for baking. And delivery trucks and sales people, and, and, and.
When you’re a single-employee shop, as many of you are, increasing your writing production might mean that you’ll need to hire someone to handle the publishing duties. Because those take time as well, and what’s the point of increasing production if you can’t get the books out?
That very question was why, in 2010, Dean and I realized we would have to start another publishing company. We had too much writing to do, and we needed someone to handle the production.
We couldn’t afford that someone in 2010. We had a dollar amount in our heads, and we needed to get the business to that point before we could hire anyone. And I wanted to hire Allyson Longueira. I knew what her job at the local paper paid her, and I wanted to pay her at least that, if not more, since we couldn’t guarantee the job for longer than a year.
We talked and talked and talked to her, and she was willing to wait for us (thank heavens!). We didn’t hire her until April of 2012, which makes this her sixth anniversary month. Clearly, we made it through that year, and then some.
But we had her entire year’s salary in the bank when we hired her. Learned that lesson from Pulphouse.
Even when you have the money banked or the time or the ability, you don’t always have to grow and expand. A lot of businesses remain the same size for reasons other than financial. Quality of life, enjoyment of the type of business it is, and a whole bunch of other reasons.
Because any growth will change the nature of the company. It’s that simple. It’s like being promoted past your competence. I know a lot of people who have turned down a management job or who refused to relocate to another city because they liked where they were, and what they were doing.
Quality of life factors are just as important as the financial factors.
And every change should be penciled out for its costs, not just financially, but in time and energy, with a search for potential headaches.
You’d think writers would be immune from some of that. But I watched a friend of mine increase his production to the edge of what was comfortable for him. It lasted a month before a life event caused him to derail, which frustrated him, and made him decide to work harder than he really should have.
The odd bottom line—something I’d seen happen to other writers as well—was the harder he worked, the slower he got. He was and is a speedy writer, but he was working at half-speed during that time. He was tired, he wasn’t interested, and there was much too much to do.
Fortunately, he’s the sensible sort and he saw the impending burnout before it destroyed him.
But it was close.
It’s frustrating, though. Just as frustrating as it is for the bakery owner. Because the possibilities are out there. And for us writers, those possibilities are easy to imagine. The ideas are graspable, and yet…
Writing and business form a fragile alliance. Too much emphasis on the writing, and no business gets down, which means not enough money to continue the writing. Too much emphasis on the business, and it can destroy the writing by overburdening it or forcing the writer to work on projects she’s no longer interested in.
Every business has to find its balance. And that balance is as unique as the business is. Just like every writer must find their balance.
It’s tough, and it often requires a reassessment every few weeks or months.
If we do it right, we end up with a thriving and successful business as it is, rather than constantly imagining what it could be.
Yes, I’m sad that the bakery doesn’t offer bread. But I’m so happy that the bakery is here, in this city. Because I lived in a city where the only dairy-free sweet I could find was a fairly mediocre raspberry sorbet at the grocery store. Or unless Dean or I baked the sweet ourselves—and that was time consuming.
I would much rather have a great cupcake and no bread, than bread and cupcakes for a year or so, and then no cupcakes at all.
That’s what we writers have to remember when we think we need to work faster. Nope. We need to continue to work smart. Because working smart will keep us in cupcakes, even if we never get to the bread.
The inspiration for this blog was a stupid noodle in my head that I should start another blog series so that I could do another nonfiction book. The Branding Book will be out soon, and it’s causing WMG as many fits as it caused me. I don’t need that kind of headache right now, but it sure would be nice to have a new nonfiction book in the fall…
And no. I’ve got other things to do, such as continuing this move, and finishing two major fiction projects.
I will have more posts soon, though. I’m starting to read through the saved articles from the past few months, and I’m finding them quite inspiring.
Thanks to all of you for sticking with me during this transition. And to many of you for remembering that this is a reader-funded blog!
If you saw anything you liked in the last few weeks, please feel free to leave a tip on the way out. If you want to support the blog in a more direct way, head over to Patreon.
And thanks for all the kind words, support, and suggests as I scrambled across country. (For those of you who asked, the cats are doing better than expected, although they are protesting the lack of comfy chairs at the moment. [There will be more chairs by fall.])
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Bread and Cupcakes,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright Canstock Photo/BVDC.