Startup Diaries: The Unexpected Hard Work of Owning a Business

[Startup Diaries is a new original series of articles from Yahoo! Small Business Advisor that chronicles the day-to-day and week-to-week struggles of a variety of startup and new small businesses.]

Amanda Kaiser and her husband purchased a struggling New Orleans coffee shop in October 2011. After nearly a year in business, Hurricane Isaac hit in August 2012, causing significant property damage that has temporarily closed the doors at Avenue Cafe.

Owning a business is often glorified as the American dream. It is one of the few opportunities in life to truly dig in with hard work and dedication to realize a dream. It is a beautiful idea, and one I believe in. However, having lived this process firsthand I also know that this is an obviously over simplified description. Everyone with the experience will say it is hard, but few elaborate on what hard means.

When deciding whether to start a business about a year ago, I thought hard work was something I was already used to. I worked nearly 30 hours a week to pay tuition while attending a highly regarded university full time and maintaining good grades. As a mom to two young children, I thought hard meant a lot of work with few breaks and not much help. My husband and I went into business together with the understanding of long hours and sacrifices, but there were many things I did not expect.

In most life situations I had previously experienced, my hard work quickly paid off. Studying hard resulted in good grades, working long hours led to high paychecks, and so forth. We purchased a coffee shop that was struggling due to an over extended owner who never had the time to be there, so we knew long hours were a must. After three months of ridiculously long hours, no family time, and at least one of us working every day of the week, our business was doing much better. Total sales were up over 60 percent and our regular customer base was steadily growing. And yet, the month ended with us still coming up short rather than seeing a profit. A profit in three months is rare, but to work so hard and see the sales grow with nothing to show for it was more than discouraging. That was part of the hard I did not understand; despite all the hard work and sacrifice, it may not show results immediately. I really struggled to rationalize all the sacrifices we had made and even the decision to buy the business, wondering if we had actually hurt our family financially instead of working toward a positive future.

Similar to facing the unknown were the unexpected setbacks that were truly beyond our control. Located in New Orleans, ideally situated on the parade routes, we saw Mardi Gras as our guaranteed gold mine. Unfortunately, poor weather led to many parade cancellations that severely affected our sales. Even rougher was the arrival of Hurricane Isaac in August 2012. A small storm that left most in that area untouched, it caused structural damage on the other end of the building from our shop. At this writing it is still not repaired or reopened, putting us at over three months out of work.

Clearly, the last example is a bit of a unique circumstance, but really has hammered home to me how hard being a small business owner can be for a myriad of reasons. That being said, I would not discourage others from tackling the challenging but rewarding moments of business ownership. Rather, I wish to offer the complete picture so others can be prepared for the hardest moments. Planning for those situations makes things easier and more manageable. That planning can include fully understanding disaster and damage clauses in a lease and insurance policies, while never assuming the best-case scenario. Hope for the best-case scenario, work for it, but be ready for the worst and it will ease that much of the load.

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