A Day in the Life of a Small-Business Owner

Author: R Stell Date: May 30, 2007

You wouldn't believe the day I've had

MyBusiness woke up at dawn with two small-business owners--only to be amazed at what "all in a day's work" entails for them. We take a revealing peek into their typical day.

[5:30 a.m.] Rousing the business
It's still dark outside when Caroline Geishecker arrives at her business, North Chatham, Mass.-based Chatham Coffee Company Deli and Variety. She turns on her oven, and while waiting for it to warm, runs to her downstairs office to check for online orders needing to be filled. In between baking bagels, muffins and croissants, she starts an e-mail to the governor, explaining that he's "squishing" her again--this time by tripling the unemployment-insurance rate.

"Every time I figure out a way to make money, he finds a way to take it away," says Geishecker, who sees this kind of activism as an essential part of her day.

[6 a.m.] Getting organized
Mike Mitternight, owner of Factory Service Agency Inc., a Metairie, La.-based commercial heating, ventilation and air-conditioning contractor, got into small business because he likes the fast pace of private enterprise and "seeing things happen quickly." He gets to his office early every morning and spends the first 15 minutes compiling a list of critical phone calls to make, job situations to resolve and administrative duties to complete. He describes it as "organized flexibility."

"My list has to be flexible because I never know when a technician will call to tell me that his service truck isn't working, or a client will ask to meet with me about a building he wants renovated," Mitternight says. "I'm always shuffling things around."

Next, Mitternight tackles his e-mail, which often brings new urgencies. He deletes junk messages and anything difficult to open and passes off service-related problems, questions about equipment or specific jobs and office-management issues to others.

"It's hard to hand off certain things, but I try to delegate so that more gets done," he says. If there's time before his business opens, he runs out to grab a quick breakfast.

[6:30 a.m.] Mastering the morning rush
As the sun rises and employees arrive, Geishecker helps serve coffee during the morning rush while also finishing her baking and her e-mail. Employees marvel at how she can juggle so much at once, but she knows there's no time to slow down.

"I wake up and hit the ground running," she says. "I never have a day that I don't know what to do--most days, I don't know how I'm going to get it all done."

After the breakfast crowd disperses, Geishecker takes a breather. After battling anxiety attacks years ago, she learned the importance of taking time for herself.

"I always try to get out first thing in the morning when I'm done with baking and take a walk or go to the gym and get that done so I feel good the rest of the day," Geishecker says. "I try to keep my commitment to myself first and put my business second--even though that's difficult to do."

Luckily, her employees make it easier to step away occasionally.

"If you came in the shop for the first time, you wouldn't be able to tell who the owner was because we all act like supervisors," Geishecker says.

[8:15 a.m.] Talking shop
As employees trickle into Factory Service Agency, Mitternight meets with his service manager to review the day's schedule and chats with staff about their plans for the day as well as what's going on in their lives. He likes to mingle with employees as much as possible to build the kind of camaraderie that has become more important since Hurricane Katrina ravaged his Southern Louisiana community. Mitternight used to be a stickler for punctuality, but has relaxed some since the storm.

"This city has been in such a state of turmoil and confusion that things don't flow like they used to," he says. "You have to be more flexible. I've had to back off on some stringent requirements to cater to employees because they've been harder to find."

Some days he never gets out of the office--there are so many calls to be made and paperwork to be done. Other days, his mornings consist of visiting job sites and reviewing drawings and construction progress with general contractors.

[9:30 a.m.] Planning inventory
After a quick workout, Geishecker is back in the coffee shop, placing orders, doing inventory and trying to estimate how many sandwiches to make for lunch.

"We're in such a seasonal market, and it's so transient," she says. "Trying to make sure that we have enough food every day is the biggest thing that can throw us off."

If the weather is nice and sunny on Cape Cod, she knows to make plenty of box lunches for the nearby beach. To compensate for oversights, she trains her employees to be good salespeople; for example, they're great at convincing customers who want a certain type of bread that isn't available to try something else.

"We're all good at figuring out how to get people everything they want so they'll come back," Geishecker says.

[10:45 a.m.] Handling paperwork, calls
By mid-morning, Mitternight is back at his desk, trying to get proposals or quotes out before noon and poring over engineering manuals to make sure a piece of equipment his business is designing is up to par. After calling on suppliers to get pricing on equipment and following up on materials ordered for jobs, he handles paperwork regarding a change in his workers' compensation classification. Sitting for too long makes him sluggish and tense, so he does a few leg lifts and arm exercises to loosen his muscles and rejuvenate.

Every couple of months, Mitternight has lunch with his unofficial board of directors--his attorney, insurance agent and CPA--to stay current on any legal, human resources or accounting issues affecting his business. Occasionally, he attends noon meetings of a local economic growth and development council, bringing a small-business perspective to a group dominated by big-business representatives.

"If major economic activity is going on in our city, we want to be included," Mitternight says. "It gives us a chance to say 'Don't allocate everything to the big boys; we want an opportunity to play, too.'"

[1 p.m.] Manning the counter
Afternoons are a whirlwind for Geishecker who alternates between serving customers, making sandwiches and keeping coolers loaded with drinks and fresh salads, fruit and desserts. She loves chatting with customers about local gossip; she also tries to educate them about her challenges as a business owner.

"I spend a lot of time explaining to people why a soda costs what it does, and why I run my business the way I do," Geishecker says. "By helping others see the big picture and how it affects us, I'm hoping it will make a difference."

[1:30 p.m.] Networking
While out at lunch, Mitternight takes half an hour to network with various business partners, from his banker to longtime customers.

"I like to stay in front of people to make sure we're doing a good job for them--and to see how we can do a better job," he says.

After making his rounds, Mitternight heads back to the office to catch up with employees and people he wasn't able to reach on the phone earlier. If the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he'll drop an e-mail to his representative about a business-related bill.

[2:15 p.m.] Appeasing customers
Sometimes Geishecker gets so caught up in the social side of her business that she has to pull herself away. Customers and employees love her hands-on approach, but "when you're free fodder like that, everyone wants to talk to you or be near you."

When conversation with customers distracts her from finishing tasks, she'll make herself inconspicuous, getting out from behind the counter to wash dishes, stock shelves or make a run to a warehouse downtown for inventory.

"I've learned to keep my head down and get my work done without talking or worrying about what other people are thinking as much," Geishecker says.

Every day brings new mishaps, from the customer who regularly cuts in line for a cup of hot water to the one who lost his lunch in the parking lot, attracting a huge flock of crows.

"I laugh a lot," she says. "It takes the edge off. You wouldn't believe the stuff that happens every day. It's so funny … I keep saying that I should write a sitcom."

[3 p.m.] Lobbying for small business
Mitternight often spends afternoons reviewing e-mails and memos and attending meetings of the business organizations in which he's involved, including the NFIB/Louisiana Leadership Council, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industries and two state task forces: the Louisiana Prosper Commission and the Louisiana Workforce Competitiveness Commission.

The activism takes time, but Mitternight believes it's necessary because "if you don't get involved in government, government will get involved in your business." Balancing his small-business advocacy with his day-to-day responsibilities is a challenge, however. He recently cut a meeting short after getting word that one of his employees had been rushed to the hospital after slipping on the job and injuring his hand.

"When those things happen, you have to be flexible," Mitternight says.

[4:15 p.m.] Housekeeping
As 5 p.m. nears, Geishecker closes up shop--a task involving much more than shutting off the lights and locking the door. She checks her financial books and wraps up unfinished paperwork. In the summers, she has enough employees to help clean counters, floors and bathrooms and dump trash, but most of the time, she does it herself.

[5:45 p.m.] Troubleshooting
After fielding late afternoon calls from contractors encountering problems with jobs or equipment deliveries and discussing tomorrow's schedule with his service manager, Mitternight filters through his mail, scanning magazines and tearing out anything interesting or helpful. He also uses the quiet time to reflect and write, penning everything from articles in a business journal to poetry.

"It gives me a chance to shift gears in my mind from things I have to do to things I enjoy doing," he says.

[6 p.m.] Closing up shop
The "closed" sign Geishecker puts in her window doesn't apply to customers who see her after hours in the neighborhood.

"It used to take me an hour to make a simple stop to the store to get milk because I would see 15 people who wanted to give me their opinions on things," Geishecker says. "I've learned to say a quick hi and keep going."

Involving her husband and her sons in the business during the day keeps her grounded when she goes home at night. She rarely talks business at the dinner table.

"My family is already aware of the issues that go on during the day, so I don't feel like I have to let my business monopolize my existence," she says.

[7:15 p.m.] Going home
Though it's hard to finally leave when there is still so much to accomplish, Mitternight tries to let go when he shuts his office door.

"Some things you can't change," he says. "In the past, when one of my guys would get a ticket for parking in a freight zone for too long, I would write letters and attend hearings--all to save $25 on a fine. At some stage, I realized I'm not going to spend time contesting this when it may or may not be thrown out.

"Over the years, I've learned to bite the bullet and not take things so personally," he says. "I've learned what is really important."

[8 p.m.] Winding down
After winding down with a good book, Geishecker goes to bed early--looking forward to getting back to her business the next day.

"It's not about the money; it's part of who I am--and I love every bit of it," she says. "There's no place I'd rather be every day."

Seize the Day

"Work-life balance" is a popular concept. Everyone wants it, but how do you get it? Balance is bogus--and impossible to attain because life is dynamic, says entrepreneur James Ray, author of The Science of Success: How to Attract Prosperity and Create Harmonic Wealth Through Proven Principles (Sun Ark Press, 1999). Like Mike Mitternight and Caroline Geishecker, small-business owners should strive for harmony instead. This involvesintegrating the financial, spiritual, relational, intellectual and physical parts of life like a symphony, Ray says. His tips for achieving harmony include:

Being a workaholic isn't bad--as long as you're fulfilling your passion and not neglecting other areas of your life. If you're tired, overworked, sick, unhealthy or isolated, your business will eventually suffer, Ray says. "We get sucked into thinking we have to manage our business to the detriment of other parts of life--but our business is just a vehicle to take us to what we value most," Ray says. Some weeks you'll work harder than others, but when that period ends, shift your energy to your family or favorite pastime for a while.

Set aside 30 minutes a day to exercise. "An inflexible body equals an inflexible mind," Ray says. If possible, work out in the morning before life and business intrude. Stretch your mental muscles, too, by reading and exposing your mind to new information. "This is as much of an investment as socking money away," Ray says.

Not stopping to rest is like blasting down a highway at top speed on an empty tank. "If you try to drive on forever, you'll crash," Ray says. Slow down. Ask yourself: Where am I going? What am I creating? What no longer serves me? "Success is as much about letting go as embracing," Ray adds. Take time to analyze, plan and dream. Getting caught up in the day-to-day will make you miss the importance of right now.

You will never get it all done, so recognize when enough is enough. "At the end of the day, some things aren't going to be complete," Ray says. "You have to embrace that--if not, you're setting yourself up for frustration."

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