When life happens during open hours | Column

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal 

Did I ever think everyone should own their own business? No. But certainly the idea has crossed the minds of many who have never taken the necessary steps, yet may still hold the view that it would be great to control their own destiny.

Well maybe yes, and maybe no. Read on.

A little over a week ago I visited with Liz Kovacs at her store, Icing on the Cake in Bellingham.

wrote a piece on Liz’s store a few months after it opened in 2010. I was intrigued by the fact that with Liz’s background as a project coordinator for a technology giant, she had managed to make the jump to retail operator of a specialty baked-goods store, and she even had gotten herself professionally trained in cake decoration before she made the final leap.

One thing about Liz: If she is going to do something, she is going to do it right. But technology to cupcakes—not an easy connection to make!

That was more than four years ago, and with a bit of experience under her belt, some wholesale, some farmers market and special orders, she decided to capitalize on the newly established market for gourmet cupcakes and opened her store on West Champion Street.

As we visited last week, I wasn’t surprised to learn that not everything had gone smoothly since she opened her shop. But I was amazed at how not smoothly they had gone.

Liz very generously proceeded to fill me in, and it turns out she has had three surgeries in the past two years and her daughter has suffered with a significant ailment, as well.

If you are a small business owner, you know there is often no backup staff for your business, and your life happens while your store is open. There is no separation.

Liz, with the help and support of her two daughters, other family members and friends, has managed to keep her customer base engaged and, now at full health, things really seem to be thriving.

She has dealt with events in her life that were completely unpredictable, and now finds herself in a place where she has learned to operate the business in a manner that supports her life values. She also marveled at the opportunity to develop capabilities she had never imagined herself to have when she was an employee for so many years.

What I was most apparent to me as we talked was Liz’s sense of wonder at having successfully dealt with the challenges of starting a small business while simultaneously dealing with her own and her family’s significant health challenges.

More than anything, she was grateful for the confidence she has developed in her ability to provide for her business and her family. She is also grateful that she has learned how to ask for help rather than shrink the size of her vision when the going gets rough.

And she is clear that life is not necessarily a team sport, but it certainly is an interdependent web of accomplishment. Nobody makes it all by themselves.

You might expect the trials of life to show, but Liz looks great, smiles and laughs easily and actually seemed to enjoy telling me about what she had managed to learn while facing up to the realities of small-business ownership. It was hard not to wonder whether she had been smiling through the whole period.

When I asked, she assured me that she had not and that there were many points of doubt about continuing on the path she had created. But she was quick to add that the learning that has occurred has been profound.

She told me that the number one lesson she learned is to keep her family her first priority. The trap she had overcome was letting her business dictate her schedule.

To that end, she has strategically established store hours and days of doing business that support her commitment to her family. She maintains that she now has enough confidence in her craft and her products to know that the people who want what she offers will learn her hours and make their choices in a sort of partnership with her.

After all is said and done, Liz is still pretty much the person I met two and a half years ago, with some important differences.

Confidence has now replaced dogged determination as her number one strength.

Vulnerability has awakened her to a world of options that were not visible when relying strictly on rugged independence.

The cupcakes are great as always, but now talking with her is a bonus for anyone who chooses to stop by. She’s fun and that is new. It seems to suit her well.

 Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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