02 Apr 2021 Defining Your Boundaries: 4 Things to Consider When Starting A Business
Warning: This post contains a sad dog story.
Bogey was the perfect dog. A mini Australian Shepherd from the misty mountains of Galicia, he was hypoallergenic, happy, and healthy.
My husband and kids had been campaigning for a dog for years. Not a canine lover myself and still overwhelmed by three sleepless children, my answer was always a firm no. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown. Suddenly, having a dog was not just cool, but an essential part of any sensible family. At home, the arguments gained new ground:
- Having a dog will be so good for the kids — especially after everything they’ve been through.
- If we had a dog, we could go out for a walk anytime.
- The kids will learn so much about responsibility.
The heightened stress of three months locked at home with three kids and a work-from-home-husband warped my perceptions. I let my guard down and caved in. Saying yes was so easy! And now the kids had something wonderful to look forward to. There was one condition: I told my husband that he’d be in charge of all things canine. Food, training, walks, veterinarian visits. Everything.
As the big day neared, so did the red flags.
Red flag #1: During an interview with a dog trainer, she laughed when I told her I’d delegated all dog responsibilities to my husband. “The CEO of the house is the CEO of the dog,” she said matter-of-factly, tossing back a strand of Cruella-de-Vil-like hair.
Red flag #2: A week before picking up Bogey, I had a vivid dream in which I begged my husband to return him. In the same dream, one of the children’s bedrooms flooded.
Despite the red flags, we carried on. The kids had now been waiting nine months for the dog. We’d dedicated hours to picking a name. It felt as if we were already in too deep.
We moved into our new house a few days before bringing Bogey home. The house was in disarray, boxes everywhere. And yet, the most important boxes of all hadn’t arrived: Bogey’s gates and cages (a.k.a. his boundaries).
The word chaos doesn’t come close to describing the first few hours with Bogey. After a brief blissful moment when the children oohed and aahed and petted him, my husband and I were literally divided in two. One of us on Bogey, making sure he didn’t pee on the brand-new carpet or choke on a Playmobil. The other one on our toddler Diego, making sure he didn’t fall down any of the half-flight of stairs, which we didn’t have in our old home. I felt as if I was living a very stressful episode of the Amazing Race, except without the million dollar prize at the end. On the fourth night, while my husband slept on the couch for three-hour intervals and I waited for Diego to wake up crying again, I wondered how we’d gotten into this mess.
The next day, I told my husband we needed to return Bogey to his breeder. Cruella de Vil was right: every puppy ultimately needs a caretaker who is home, and in our case, it couldn’t be me. Precisely because we loved him so much, Bogey deserved a better life.
Bogey’s goodbye was dramatic: I wept, my husband moped, the children whined, and alas, a pipe broke in the children’s bathroom, literally flooding one of the bedrooms.
You may be wondering: why recount such a sad dog story? As my dog-whisperer brother-in-law reminded us a few days later, Bogey came into our lives at the exact moment he needed to. I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that Bogey arrived as I was starting a new business. The timing meant I had to make a tough decision about my needs and desires versus those of my family. Ultimately, it was a test. I needed to redefine my personal boundaries.
Much like a child or a dog, a new business requires two things. On the one hand you most love, feed, and nurture it. On the other hand, you need to establish clear rules and boundaries to ensure its survival.
Grappling with this decision was also a stark reminder of the responsibilities that come when you start a business. Much like a child or a dog, a new business requires two things. On the one hand you must love, feed, and nurture it. On the other hand, you need to establish clear rules and boundaries to ensure its survival. At the beginning, it may seem as if these two needs pull in opposite directions. Ultimately though, a successful entrepreneur is able to find a balance between the two.
When I started Gala Consulting 11 years ago, I’d worked many years in corporate, non-profit, and the NGO world. I knew what it was to follow other people’s rules, and I was eager to create a space where I could make my own. What I didn’t know then was that this independence also comes with a new kind of responsibility. When you’re going solo, you’re the only one placing limits. Quite honestly, I don’t think the word boundary was even in my vocabulary back then! This meant I was constantly learning from mistakes, which, while also part of the process, exposes you to unnecessary risk. Through the years, I’ve learned to be more aware. Ultimately though, I’m always in learning mode. Much like personal boundaries, the ones you build for your business are tested every day.
Here are four of the boundary lessons I’ve learned:
1. Be picky about your clients.
This might seem counterintuitive: if you’re trying to grow your business, wouldn’t you want to attract as many clients as possible? Actually, this isn’t always the case. Precisely because you’re starting something new, you want to be careful about who you’re working with and make sure your expectations and visions are aligned with your clients.
During my second year with Gala Consulting, I started working with a student who came recommended from another family. Only a few weeks in, I could tell he had a very low commitment level. With college essays, it’s very difficult to advance when the student is not invested in the process. I had to make a quick call early on and back out of the project. I called the parents and explained that my success was dependent on the student’s dedication, and that so far, he hadn’t demonstrated any willingness to work together. I returned my 50% retainer and moved on, shifting my focus to other students.
Had I not backed out of this relationship early on, I would have gotten myself into a big ethical dilemma. The parents would be counting on me to guide the student to a completed application, but, without the student’s input, I could not have completed the project. What’s more, had I backed out any later than September, the student wouldn’t have had enough time to regroup. When you’re in a business that depends on referrals, your reputation is extremely important. What’s more, the stakes in college essay writing are very high. As difficult as it was to back out, it was the right thing to do for both the student and for me.
2. Clearly define your scope of work.
When it comes to writing consulting, I first found it very challenging to place time limits on my work. The college application process comes at a very stressful time for students. Back then, I felt that placing time and draft limits would make my students more anxious about the process.
Not having boundaries worked out okay during the early years, but in one scenario, I found myself working through twelve drafts of a single personal statement. Don’t get me wrong – I was very happy to work with this motivated, thorough, and rigorous student. However, the experience made me realize I needed to place some limits on the number of drafts and length of my calls.
Once I did, I realized how important it is to maximize the time I spend with my clients. These days, we are all juggling the demands of school, work, and home life. High school seniors are especially swamped with exams, social events, and school projects. If I’m more aware of how much time we have on a call or how many drafts we need to get to the finish line, we’ll be much more motivated to stay on task.
I still consider my limits quite generous: that’s because I don’t believe in rushing the writing process. However, over time I’ve managed to find a balance between maximizing efficiency and respecting each individual’s writing journey.
3. Set personal work limits.
Now more than ever, it’s important to separate your work from your personal life. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself glued to your phone reading emails and mentally solving problems at all hours. I have a very active writing mind, which means that even when I’m not writing, I tend to be thinking about what I’m going to write. Consequently, I have to be very conscious about placing limits on my work hours.
Two of the things I value highly are: 1. Sleep, and 2. Time spent with my family. One limit I’ve placed is to not check my phone after 9 p.m. If I do, I’ll end up reading somebody’s draft and staying up all night thinking about how to improve it. Because I’m most productive in the mornings, I try to disconnect as much as possible in the afternoons. My way of turning work off is to keep my phone in my office. If I have a call, it’s limited to a block of time.
Meditation is another tool I find useful in helping separate work and personal life. Just taking three deep breaths in the car before picking my kids up from school helps refocus my mind, so I can put that essay on the back burner for a few hours while I focus on being with my family. I practice meditation daily, with the aim training my mind. If I’m able to shape my brain so I can turn work on and off more seamlessly, I don’t have to sacrifice efficiency or miss out on precious moments in my day.
4. Take every set-back as a learning opportunity.
Recently I spoke to a friend who was starting his own business and had a bad experience with his first client. As he delved deeper and deeper into the project, he realized that the client was using marketing language to deceive customers. As a consumer research expert, he felt his own integrity being compromised. For him there was no choice but to back out from the project.
When a client’s mission is misaligned with yours, it’s very difficult to carry out purposeful work. If you stay true to your ideals, better and more meaningful work will come in the near future.
In my friend’s case, the experience caused him to call his whole business venture into question. I applauded him for using the experience as an opportunity to redefine his purpose.
In some cases, you really do need to return the dog. Other times, bumps in the road are exactly what entrepreneurs need to define their boundaries. They key then is identifying where the line was crossed and what you can do to reinforce the limits, so both you and your business can thrive.