Uh oh, success! There are few things in life as demanding as an unexpectedly vigorous small business

I’m suffering from a weird problem, one of those problems people say they’d like to have, called “success.” PainScience.com is doing almost too well. Success is harder than failure in some ways. The money is good, a marvel for which I am crazy grateful … but my dream? The kind of life I set out to create? That is in some real danger.

Escalating administrative burdens can easily suffocate the fun parts of being in business. Many people who start small businesses want them to stay small, usually so we can (mostly) keep wearing the hat that defines us (butcher, baker, e-book maker). We’re more interested in whatever our business is about than we are in running a business. Fast growth — too many customers, too much “paper”-work, too many phones ringing — can make that vision recede in the distance like a mirage.

I’ve often told my customers that, even though my business is all online and virtual, I still try to run it like a quaint little old bookshop with a sleepy cat in the window. Emphasis on sleepy. Instead, my virtual bookshop is starting to feel like an Apple Store.

Well, okay, not quite that busy.

But you get the idea. For someone who wanted a sleepy bookshop, instead I’ve got a virtual stampede through my digital front door — more than 20,000 visitors every day now — and the cat has fled all poofy-tailed to the stock room, and mostly all I’ve seen of her for ages is a pair of yellow eyes deep in the shadows between some boxes on a high shelf. (Okay, metaphor, you’re drunk, go home now.) But seriously: it does feel busy.

The administrative vortex

Seems like I used to get a lot more done back in the early days, when I was working full-time as a massage therapist and building PainScience.com in my so-called “spare” time. How can that be possible, now that the website is my full-time gig? It‘s probably an illusion, but a convincing one. Most of my work today doesn’t register as real work, because it’s not writing, and I’m a writer. That most satisfying part of my days has shrivelled to a fraction of what it used to be.

In the beginning, all my time was spent on creating content — there was almost nothing else to do yet! But now I feel like I’m having a content-o-centric day if I can spend just 20 or 30% of my time writing.

The rest of my time is spent treading water in an administrative vortex, trying not to get sucked down the drain: paying bills, filling in spreadsheets, rebooting servers, tech support for my customers, tech support for me, answering the un-ignorable email, explaining jobs to contractors for the third time (or 4th, or 5th), sifting through backups looking for a scrap of critical data, manually processing a glitched order, issuing refunds (gratifyingly few), a volunteer project, a favour for a customer, and, yes, I confess, sometimes too much commenting and cat video sharing on Facebook. (But networking!)

Mostly it’s all normal operational stuff for an online business, but yikes: it’s quite a lot more than I thought I signed up for.

Passive, schmassive

I once had the amusing notion that my business would generate “passive” income — that is, earning without doing much, the holy grail of entrepreneurship. The plan was to make a big up-front investment — years of intense, unpaid, nerve-fraying work, circa 2003–2008, RIP — and then the business would eventually generate a cash flow to keep the lights on, and then a surplus to slowly pay me back for all those late nights, calculated at … $20 per hour? 40? How do you put a price on the frayed nerves, all those meals wolfed down while hunched over the keyboard, the fitness sacrificed on the altar of ambition, the missed chances to be with family, friends?

Make it $60/hour at least.

The plan was, if all went well, I’d spend maybe a decade watching the dough roll in, minding the store for 10-20 hours per week before finally breaking even by some reasonable measure, followed by a slowly dwindling but easily maintained “pension.”

Sounds lovely. Here’s what’s happening instead:

Business is so good that I had a decent cash flow by 2011, and I might just break even by 2016. That’s really quite good … but I might break myself before I get there. That “10-20 hours per week” of store-minding part simply isn’t working out. I’m now at a solid decade of 40-80 hours per week (with occasional spikes up to the advanced, do-not-try-this-at-home 100-hour level). Basically, it’s taking more work to manage the business than expected, both administration and content. I have to publish and update a staggering loss leader of good quality free content in order to inspire the sales. It all works … but so far it only works if I work super hard.

Light at the end of the tunnel

I’ve made success sound pretty bad! Here’s three reasons why it may not ruin me after all:

  1. Cash. Money isn’t everything, but it sure is useful. The profits can pave the way, if managed sensibly. For instance, I already hire some people to help out. I can hire them more (and pay them better), sharing both the wealth and the burden.
  2. Perfectionism. I have that disease… and I’ll be a lot happier with my success if I can be it. And I think I can.
  3. Luck. Mine is likely to improve. From 2008-2011 I suffered some Very Dire Distractions during the coming-of-age of my business, which made a mess: many dropped balls and loose ends. Cleaning it up is a huge but finite chore — it looks bad right now, but it can be done.

Dear friends & family: See you in February!

For many years I have not called enough. I have neglected you and almost every part of my own life except the ambitious part. Although it wasn’t all for nothing, thank “God,” I am a bit of a workaholic mess. Ironically, it’s not just my relationships and health that have suffered. My business is a bit of a mess too. A profitable mess, but a mess. And so my over-work is not quite done yet.

I’m going to go away and work super hard for the next two months.

I’ve always made a token effort to remain available. I’ve never disappeared entirely. This time, I am. This is going to be a serious sabbatical. I’m going to work and stay fit only. No parties, no pubs, no lunches. No time off, no Christmas. People who work hard joke about having “no life,” but they usually do it while actually having one. I really won’t. I am going deep into my quiet place, and I’m staying there until early February, 2014.

And then I will actually will break my work addiction, and start to actually enjoy the fact that I can easily afford to have a life, both the time and the money.

Sorry I’ve been gone so long. Just a little bit more. See you next year, everyone!