Working without a net, embracing change and bouncing back

I was going to start this with a whole “2020 has been a tough year” thing, but the more I thought about it the more problematic that seemed. 

Tough is a relative term. What’s been tough for me and David, would look pretty easy for someone who has been in lockdown for months. 

What’s been tough for us has also turned out regularly to be a joy, a challenge, a nightmare and a blessing – sometimes all at the same time.

We’ve tasked ourselves with reinventing our business after closing the cafe and we’ve been excited to be able to work on this snazzy new website as well as developing new products and an online store. 

There are also a bunch of opportunities to build communities through the website forums and groups we’ll be working on going forward. We’re also planning a lot of video content to share here and on our YouTube channel.

It’s been a big change from face-to-face customer service and managing a big team and all of the other day to day cafe business with suppliers etc. And it’s been an opportunity to work on things that we could only momentarily think about after hours in the cafe every day. 

David and I moved back to our childhood home, the Clarence Valley in Northern New South Wales in 2013, just over seven years ago now. And we moved here for the opportunities it presents. We had both lived in the city for more than 15 years.

We opened our second cafe Irons and Craig in September 2013 and named it for our Grandmothers. 

With our offering of local, fresh delicious food, a delicious, custom roasted blend of coffee and a quirky beach house to do it all in we think we were pretty successful.

We won a number business awards and were nominated for quite a few more; we were included in travel guides and written about in national newspapers. Our coffee was even included in a global guide to the best coffee places. 

Owning a small business is a constant exercise of adaptation – and there have been countless moments since we started on the journey with the cafe that we were either forced or chose to change our menu, opening hours, service model, suppliers, staffing or sundry other aspects of the business. 

For us the last six months have been an exercise in working out how to best adapt. And adapt we have. Embracing and anticipating change is something we have always done in our business and this year more than any other in recent memory I’ve been glad to know that adaptation is not a one-off exercise.

We moved 100 percent of our business online fairly early on in the COVID19 lockdown. We closed the cafe to customers in April and moved out of our space in May, taking our range of relish and jam and other products and building an online store. We miss the daily interaction with real life people, but what we are doing with is right for now, and most importantly it’s right for us. 

In true fashion, we are already looking at changing the way the website works, and I’ve been redesigning product labels and working on recipes. It’s all change all the time around here.

New projects

Owning a small business is a constant exercise of compromise, there is no walking out of the shop or office at the end of the day for a small business owner. The business is life, and life and family and social life is always in the shadow of the needs of the business. And that’s neither a problem or a positive, it’s just a fact. 

Being aware of the need to be ready to adapt to whatever comes at you is important, as is an awareness of when to choose to step sideways or dig your heels in and stay the course.

Being aware of your own personal narrative around your business is also important.

The biggest challenge I faced after we decided to close the brick and mortar shop front was how I was able to define myself without the cafe. I had poured so much personal creative energy and thought and passion into the physical place that it was difficult to understand how to behave without the cafe. Leaving the shop behind was hard, really hard. But it was made easier to leave behind by realising that I had attached so much of my personal value to the place and that now it was time to reapply that energy to something new.   

Ask any small business owner about their business and they’ll talk about passion and dedication and there is a very fine line between those things and an unhealthy level of obsession and workaholism. There is also the not insignificant pressure of being the sole person responsible for providing for a family. 

We all face an uncertain future and I’ve found a sense of reassurance in the knowledge that we each get to choose what changes to make and when to make them. The world can be running away from us at breakneck speed but it’s up to us to jump on the wagon or choose to stand on the roadside and watch it all race past.

Owning a small business is a trapeze act and most of the time it feels as though you’re working without a net. There’s the risk involved, there’s a required amount of talent, there’s a necessary technical skill needed and it’s all tied up with a flash of showmanship. And at the end of the performance, the thing that keeps us climbing up that ladder is the applause of the audience.

At the moment for many business owners, us included, the trapeze has never seemed higher or less secure, the performance more dangerous or the audience reaction less certain. 

The trick to surviving the trapeze isn’t just about being well trained, well prepared, managing the risks and hanging on and making sure you don’t fall.

The real trick is knowing that you don’t have to climb the ladder in the first place unless you are ready to choose to take that chance. You can do a different act in your own circus and there’s always room for another clown.

After all, what’s a circus really without it’s clowns? 

A comfortable place to sit

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