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What Small Business Success Looks Like (Do you know? If so, can you tell me?)


I've been reflecting a lot upon small business ownership this year, and I realized that among the wide variety of challenges involved in starting a business, one is this: there are no predetermined markers of achievement or success. In the course of traditional jobs, there are annual evaluations and opportunities for promotion or advancement that help a person to get a sense of how their performance tracks within a wider context. I initially wanted to be an English professor, and in that world, there are markers like tenure and promotion to associate and then full professor. There are student evaluations. And there are other markers, too, like landing publications in journals or securing a book contract. I just spent the weekend with a group of my closest friends from my University of Iowa days, and I envied them their professional successes. 
It's not that there aren't any external indicators of how I'm doing as a business owner. I mean, there's the balance sheet. But that's hardly a complete picture, especially when a business is getting off the ground. And there are anecdotal interactions with customers, which have been extremely positive and have given me a ton of affirmation. But much like everything else in building a business, the goals are open to my own fashioning. What are my targets? What scale of growth am I aiming for? And then what do I want to prioritize as a marker of success: paying myself or investing every possible penny in the shop? 
In the beginning, my feelings about the business were entirely tied to the monthly sales picture, which meant that I was feeling great in the summer and during the holidays and then downright terrible through the first quarter and early fall. After now having a clearer grasp of the seasonal rhythms, I've tried to divorce my feelings from the ups and downs of the retail patterns and focus on bigger picture concerns. What projects do I want to implement? Out of the many directions I could take the shop, what feels right? I've mostly just been feeling my way through the dark with these decisions and listening to my gut. But as a sole proprietor, it can be a lonely and doubt-ridden road.
When Josh and I were calling to tell family and friends that we were expecting twins over ten years ago, my sister-in-law made a video for us of our niece's reaction to the news. "Can you guess what Aunt Laura and Uncle Josh called to tell us?" Rebecca asks, off camera. Ava scrunches up her little face in the video, thinking hard, and then ventures, "That they did a good job at work?"  At the time, it struck me as absurdly funny, the idea of an adult calling another adult to say, "Hey! I did a good job at work today!" But it's a feeling I now envy -- the certainty of a job well done. I believe, someday, that I'll feel that with confidence. And when I do, Ava, I'm totally going to call you to say so.

Hilarious print by Allie Biddle