Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was totally a child of my environment. I had dreams and fears, and I was impatient to get on with life. Life was uncomplicated. At least that’s what I choose to remember. I didn’t say it was easy, but I believe it was simple, predictable and uncomplicated.
I often hear myself thinking ‘kids these days …’ as I look at how much things have changed. Ironically, those are pretty much the same words my father used when referencing my generation. Mind you, I feel that the children of today are also borne of their environment, also with dreams and anxieties, only perhaps more so. Definitely more so.
As life has become more complex, faster paced and much smaller, the dreams and anxieties of our children are more evolved now. Argue with me if you will, but I think it is tougher growing up today than when I did.
It is not hard to draw a meaningful analogy between the development of small businesses and children. So, I will spare you the detailed description. But I wanted to look at one small part of it. That of separation. Separating business from pleasure, home life from work life, almost a quality of life discussion. Those of you who own your own small business will completely understand what I mean.
I have been down many roads to get to where I am. A high school teacher, an IT sales guy, divisional head of a multinational across Asia Pacific, Managing Director for different corporate services and trust companies in Hong Kong, a joint venture partner and finally a small business owner myself.
So, I now will bravely put up my hand and make the claim that the main difference from being part of the corporate machine as an employee to that of a small business owner is this – it is easier to walk away as an employee than as a small business owner. The risk is different. The commitment is different. The options available are different. The pain tolerance is different.
And so it follows that the separation of business and pleasure is different. Or should I say, the willingness and/or ability to separate business from family life can vary significantly.
Apologies if I have upset anyone here. But I was a career employee. As a child of my generation, I wanted the wife, two and a half children, house with white picket fence and a dog. I expected to work 9 to 5 then go home and play with my kids, talk about routine things around the dinner table, get up the next day and do it all over again, 5 days a week.
My life as an employee was nothing like that. Regularly working 60 hours a week, arguing with the boss, pushing to meet deadlines, trying to earn a better salary and get a more impressive business card next time I changed jobs. My business and personal life were really not separated, but at least when I got home, I didn’t read emails, or rarely answered phone calls (except for the occasional conference call at 2am with my boss in Boston or Nice). But I had the choice to leave and that’s what I did to pursue my career goals (and get away sometimes from obnoxious bosses).
Life as a small business owner is oh so different. And while I absolutely love what I do, I do it 7 days a week. Yes I have more flexibility (but not for the first three years!), and yes it’s great being the boss. But separation of business and pleasure is much more difficult than I thought it would be.
I truly believe it is much more challenging now for small business owners to separate business from pleasure, or simply take time with their families. There is always something else that needs to be dealt with, always one last project to finish, always one more phone call to make. And then you can go home. Or simply take the work home with you (which is what my wife says I do every day … and she’s right). Small business owners don’t quit. There is no 9 to 5. And the challenges that they face to get quality time with their family can be insurmountable at times.
In Asia it is the cultural norm for business partners and clients to be friends and vice versa. In my opinion, much more so than western countries where we often try to keep them apart. So, it is quite the cultural shock for foreigners living in Asia to adapt to this. Some don’t adapt. Those that stay as expats for many years invariably do.
So is it possible to keep them separate? Can you run a small business and still keep balance? I’m going to stick my neck out here and say absolutely ‘yes’. But it is oh so hard to do. The most successful small business owners that I know manage it by going back to these eight basics:
1. Family first. If their child is sick, they will cancel a business meeting to take the child to the doctor
2. Put it in the diary. They block out places in their diary just for family, to get their hair cut, or go to the kids’ birthday party
3. Be honest. Rather than make promises to the family, knowing they can’t keep them, they will book the day on Sunday to take the family to the beach, or the movies, or an evening to help with that science project
4. Be consistent. They will kiss their kids good night every night (if they are not traveling), or turn off the TV during dinner every time they are not on plane somewhere
5. Be open. They will openly say that their wife is very ill, or a death in the family, or a business that went bad has completely thrown out their plans and they forgot to call you back
6. Take time for themselves. They go to the gym, or have a round of golf, or take that yoga class. Can’t take care of their families unless they are mentally and physically able to take care of themselves
7. They communicate. They will pick up the phone, or grab a 15-minute coffee chat to resolve an issue. They do it themselves – directly and simply
8. They have a brilliant PA. They will hire the best assistant they can to just get things done
Life is tough enough for most small business owners. Separation of business and pleasure may not be possible for them but balance certainly is.