Ideas + Insights

The pleasures and perils of scaling a business.

Tess Robinson

Before I had my daughter, I assumed my life would seamlessly and swiftly fall ‘back’ into place after my baby was born. She would enter the world effortlessly and gracefully in a similar motion to a dollop of ice cream leaving a scalding hot spoon. We’d fall instantly love and then I’d return to my busy schedule and growing business after 4 months of maternity leave. She’d be my trusty and obliging sidekick – happily tagging along to work with me and championing my every move. We’d have a nanny on hand, ‘sort out’ the daycare situation when the time came and I’d be able to return to my normal levels of busy with a beautifully balanced side of baby.

…I’ll just wait here while all the parents on my list have a good old belly laugh.

Fast forward 10 months and I can tell you that I’m about as close to the above reality as I am to joining NASA and flying to the moon in a zebra spacesuit by 4pm Friday.

The integration of baby and business has been about as smooth as a flying mallet through a pane of glass. It has been crazy, yes, but beyond beautiful and utterly humbling – I speak more about my journey so far on the One Wild Ride Podcast.

But I’m not here to give you the blow by blow, nappy by nappy account of how incredible this journey into motherhood has been. I’m here to talk about how scaling my business early on allowed me the time, space and freedom to become a mother.

Retrospect is a beautiful thing, isn’t it?! When I was 22 I sacrificed travelling, partying and a wardrobe full of Zimmermann frills to get this business off the ground. At the time, it was a lonely journey and most days I questioned whether I was doing the right thing. But looking back today I am utterly and eternally grateful to my younger self. The beauty of starting a business at 22 meant that I got a few runs on the board, built this baby up to a team of 15 very capable staff and put plenty of systems in place before I even started thinking about having a family.

It wasn’t easy. There have been moments of demoralising and debilitating doubt, complete and utter exhaustion and, on multiple occasions, wanting to fake my own death, move to the Bermuda Triangle and never look back.

But the one thing I’ve been continually surprised by is how satisfying it is to grow and scale a business. This feeling of satisfaction, reward and gratification became especially apparent last year when I took maternity leave and Smack Bang continued to grow and thrive without me.

Let it be known, there are still many rough edges at Smack Bang. And dark corners of the business that still scare the pants off me. There are still, and always will be, plenty of mess and mistakes. It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy and most of the time I’m just Googling the answer to simple business equations like how to balance my income with my expenses.

Buckle in folks, this one is a biggy.

Let’s start with the perils.

The perils.

  1. You’re like a hamster on a ferris wheel
    The other day I was watching an episode of the late great Anthony Bourdain (rip my man, can’t wait to eat pasta with you in heaven), and he was in the Philippines watching a makeshift ferris wheel. It was as rickety as an old rotting bridge and dangerous as a red rag to a bull. Forget automation, there were a dozen or so, barefooted guys making this 30ft thing spin. To me, it was not dissimilar to running a growing business. As a founder, you’re both the person on the ride (holding on for dear life, hoping that this precarious thing has at least 10 more minutes of life span in it). But you’re also the guy running, jumping and pulling – you’re exhausted, running on adrenaline, your feet are burnt by the ground beneath you and you’re getting paid VERY little for the output you’re exerting.
  1. There’s a bit (read: a lot) of unpaid overtime
    When I first started Smack Bang we were incredibly lucky, we were Busy, with a capital B. Our workflow felt akin to drinking from a firehose. I would design for seemingly 90 hours straight. Then write for the next 90 hours. And then hustle new clients for 90 hours. Then when I was done that, I’d move onto the next thing for 90hours. Things got messy. When you’re moving at the speed of light, you’re also out-growing your systems just as they’re getting implemented – it’s chaotic, stress-inducing and you feel like your life is one giant game of hot potato.
  1. Growth is a truly scary thing
    The more clients, the more hires. The more hires, the more demand for work and therefore, more clients. It’s easy to start feeling like a G.I Joe being pulled every-which-way with no end in sight. Managing people is no easy feat (which is why I count my lucky stars for my General Manager each and every day) . Let me tell you, there is no worse feeling than letting people down. Whether that’s a member of your staff or one of your clients. You’ll make some crappy decisions along the way that could possibly end in a pile of your salty tears on the floor. You’ll have moments in business of absolute self-doubt and overwhelming anxiety. Moments that will downright make you want to quit.
  1. More money = more problems
    There’s no denying that running a business comes with a fair dose of fear. Particular when it comes to cash flow – every small business owner’s pile of steaming hot mess. In the words of Notorious B.I.G, more money = more problems. More money typically means more clients. More clients mean more staff. More staff means more cash flow issues. And on top of all that, as your business grows, taxes just get more and more complicated. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that Rolex might have to wait a couple more years.
  1. Time is scarce
    Business is hard enough as is, and somehow in between skimming your eyes over important emails, checking your P&L, processing payroll, woofing down another meal at your desk, frantically meeting deadlines all whilst planning the most instagrammable Christmas party for your staff, you’re meant to find room for life. Lack of time is no joke.
  1. You’ll sometimes forget to breathe
    There will be moments of serve burnout where self care feels like it is simply not an option. But when you’re suffering from stress, overwhelm, anxiety it will 100% be reflected in your work. I’m telling you loud and clear that as a business owner, your business depends on your health, happiness and productivity. If you’re tired, there’s a reason. Honour it and address the fatigue.

To this day, I’m still learning on the fly and despite the pitfalls that sometimes come with running a business, I wouldn’t have it any other way. So now, to end on a much lighter note – the pleasures of scaling a business.

The pleasures.

  1. You’re in the driver’s seat
    The liberation that comes with doing what you want, when you want to do it. I’ve always loved the thrill that comes with being in the driver’s seat – the risk and responsibility is all yours, but you get to drive as fast as you like, take the bends how you want and create your own destination. I’m super grateful to get to do that every day.
  1. You can stop doing for the sake of doing
    I believe the worst epidemic that our modern world faces is the disease of being constantly ‘busy’. So, my one piece of advice for you, If it doesn’t exactly spark joy (thanks Marie Kondo) you outsource it. Cut out the stuff you don’t want to do and focus on doing what you’re best at. I love this quote by Beyonce and can 100% relate – “I don’t like too much structure. I like to be free. I’m not alive unless I am creating something. I’m not happy if I’m not creating, if I’m not dreaming, if I’m not creating a dream and making it into something real. I’m not happy if I’m not improving, evolving, moving forward, inspiring, teaching, and learning.” Focus on the tasks that inspire and promote growth and your business will thank you in tenfold.
  1. Play to your strengths and delegate the rest
    Creating an uplifting and thriving culture is 1 part science, 2 parts art. When you get it right though, boy does it feel good. We have a great leadership team in place that inspires everyone (including me) to do beautiful, smart and thoughtful work. I feel constantly inspired because of my team, each member having their own unique skill set. So rather than wasting my time on things I don’t love or tasks I know someone else can do better, I champion our staff to operate in their genius zone. Once you’ve figured this out, you can start delegating and begin narrowing in on the shit you love doing.
  1. You get to keep your curiosity alive
    I am a big believer in being a forever student, and let me tell you, owning and running a business involves SO. MUCH. Learning. You’ll be faced with new challenges on the reg, but each one is an opportunity to learn and grow. Going all the way to the fiery pits of hells and coming back allows you to enforce some serious boundaries in your daily work life. And if I can let you in on a little secret; scaling your business is all about working smarter not harder.
  1. You get to watch your Sea-Monkeys grow
    Watching your team grow is an incredibly rewarding experience. From one kid who loved watching Sea-Monkeys grow to another, you know how satisfying that was. I love knowing each member of my team personally. I love knowing what drives them and what excites them. I love hearing about what they had for breakfast and what their Mum’s cousin’s next-door neighbours favourite song is. Truly, I do. Managing a small army has made me a better person, truly. I’m more compassionate. More empathetic. More resilient. More engaged. More accountable.
  1. Getting to work when it best suits you
    Leave your 9-5 mindset at the door because you get to determine your own hours of work now, and ain’t nobody gonna make you feel guilty about it. Discover when you’re most productive and form your days around a schedule that not only works for your lifestyle but promotes an effective working cycle, meaning you are on the clock when you are at your sharpest.
  1. It’s an empowering challenge
    Launching and running a business is a wild adventure. It’s like the heart monitor you hear in the ER. A blearing signal that lets you know your soul is not just rotting away in some grey cubicle with a hoard of other lifeless robots. The thrill of entrepreneurship is your daily dose of adrenaline. Self expansion and seeing what you’re capable of and unlocking your true limits is one seriously empowering adventure.
  1. You might just change the world
    Call it an ambitious target, but you can create some serious change by harnessing your platforms for the greater good. Your business doesn’t have to be the next Facebook or Patagonia to be an agent of powerful change. It can be as simple as opening the doors to a bigger conversation within your community in order to inspire and provoke change. And this alone is a good enough reason for me.

Image credit: Maria Esme del Rio

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