Dropping Out ...or, Why I left my sneakers-and-jeans workplace for the world of high heels and long meetings.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Five years ago, I was a single working mom in my late 30s with a job I loved at the epicenter of corporate America. As a regional advertising manager at Time Inc., the parent company of the magazine you're reading now, I was making lots of money and enjoying excellent benefits. I relished the challenge of selling ads. I delighted in my articulate, sophisticated customers. And yet I was haunted by an idea that wouldn't go away: I wanted to start my own business.
That's not so unusual. Starting a business is almost a religious vision for the masses in IPO-obsessed America. But I had very idealistic notions for my venture. In my dreams, my business would allow me to spend more time with my son, Brian, then 4 years old. It would be a thriving enterprise at the heart of my community, beloved by customers and employees.
Best of all, my business would be a sneakers-and-jeans workplace down the street from my home. Good-bye, high heels and heavy traffic. Hello, Child's Play, an indoor children's activity center that I launched in May 1998 in Sudbury, Mass., a wealthy suburb of Boston.
I'd been living my dream for the past two years. Revenues had grown steadily. The company won loyal customers and a slew of awards from child advocacy organizations and small business groups. And yet, earlier this year--to everyone's surprise but mine--I quit. I closed Child's Play and joined this magazine as an advertising executive. Why? I'll get to that in detail later, but the truth is, the everyday tasks of running a small business (not to mention the financial burden) eventually wore on me. I wanted out and back in the hurly-burly of the corporate world--memos, meetings, high heels, and all.
My entrepreneurial adventure actually started years before I dug up the courage to quit my day job. I'd been teasing myself with the idea for years, taking my business plan out of my desk drawer, tinkering with it, putting it away. Finally, after a week that included one too many hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate, I decided to go for it.
Getting financing was the first hurdle. I figured I needed some $200,000. Confident, I approached several local banks and was promptly rejected. I thought I was an ideal candidate for the Small Business Administration, only to find out that the federal agency rarely lends to startups. The SBA's stance as far as I was concerned: "Come back after you've been in business for two years, and we'll talk."
In desperation, I turned to the lender of last resort: Bank o' Plastic. I applied for every credit card that came in the mail and ran up a line of credit totaling $90,000. (Actually, it wasn't even my idea. The conservative bankers who'd rejected me urged me to do it, knowing I'd be carrying debt at rates that would make a mobster blush--up to 25%.) I also took out a home equity loan for $39,000 and added $50,000 of savings.
Heady with my newfound wad of money, I quit my job and signed a five-year lease on a 9,000-square-foot building site, which, over three months, was renovated and decorated.
That was just the beginning.
Next, I embarked on a shopping spree and bought hundreds of toys on the Internet, including a $7,000 Victorian playhouse made by Amish craftspeople. The total bill for that spree: $90,000. I had a top design firm in Boston create a logo. I hired staffers. I bought credit card machines, cash registers, computers, and a truckload of office supplies. I hired a food vendor for our restaurant, which I called--in a moment of inspiration--the Peanut Butter and Deli. I was happy and exhilarated. I had fulfilled the dream I'd nurtured for years.
Our opening was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend 1998. The night before, I couldn't sleep. I was afraid I was throwing a hugely expensive party for one--me. Or maybe too many would show up and the building would burst at the seams. I was worried about how to operate the cash registers and the credit card machines. Like a 3-year-old, I was worried about people stealing my toys or staffers pilfering from the cash box. I worried a child would get hurt. I wanted to run straight out of town. For one brief moment, I wanted my old, traditional job back.
That panic didn't last long, mostly because the grand opening was a huge success. Some 300 people showed up to christen the place. Everything went smoothly. Not a single toy was pilfered. The deli doled out a mountain of cookies and other snacks, and no one contracted E. coli. That night, I was exhausted and invigorated. Success was mine, at last.
But (my story is full of "buts") one troublesome thought kept jabbing me like a needle. I'd plunged headlong into a venture that apparently was going to be a weekend business. After all, that's when working parents wanted to treat their kids to a special outing at a play palace. And that's just when I wanted to be at home with my son. What had I done to my life? Once again, I found myself fantasizing about going back to my cushy corporate life.
Over the next few months my doubts got buried in the day-to-day challenges of running a business. With my staff, I explored new opportunities to bring in more customers: theme parties, special events, and new food items for the deli. We solved problems galore. Toys were constantly breaking. A mother even smacked someone else's child. Weeks after the opening and with great trepidation, I took my first day off. Toward the end of the day I dropped in to visit, and to my amazement Child's Play was operating flawlessly. Children were playing happily. Their parents were chatting sociably. I had really done it.
And then the unforeseen happened.
About a year after the opening, I began to hate the place. What had been a dream was rapidly becoming a nightmare. I fretted constantly about the financial stress of carrying so much debt. I was inexperienced in managing cash flow. Worse yet, I wasn't even interested in it. I needed a chief financial officer to count the pennies, but I couldn't afford to hire one. Instead, I hired accountants and bookkeepers. But that was expensive and stressful.
And I learned about the special curse of a service business. Friends, acquaintances, and neighbors expected to get in for free. Heck, they didn't care that I was trying to scratch out a living. It got so bad that I had to hide when I saw someone I knew coming into the building.
Other aspects of the business began to depress me. I had never worked in retail, and I was unfamiliar with its rhythms. I was stunned by how severely weather affected my business. On sunny, warm days, the place was a tomb. I began to dread those lovely spring and summer days. I prayed for rain, but not snow. Snow was a big problem. Most parents won't drive in the snow or even the mere threat of snow. I began to live in fear of the weekend weather report.
As for my dream of spending more time with my son, that had evaporated on opening day. My weekends were spent either at Child's Play or on the phone with staffers managing from afar. There was no escape from the business. Once I took an afternoon off to watch Brian play soccer. I turned off my cell phone for an hour. After the game, I checked my voice mail: I had 46 messages. I panicked, thinking a child had died at Child's Play. Sitting in my car trembling for what seemed like an eternity, I finally forced myself to call my office. One of my staffers burst out, "The refrigerator's broken." Clearly it was a crisis, but not one that necessitated a call every minute for an hour.
I also lost my privacy. I was the Lady from Child's Play everywhere I went. At the grocery store, the soccer field, the synagogue, and the beauty salon, parents stopped either to praise or complain. "Add new toys," they said. "How about chicken fingers on the menu?" "Love your staff." My son began to dread going out in public--he couldn't keep the customers away from me. And I couldn't even run to the corner store without being stopped by someone. That didn't put me in the best of moods either.
But at the heart of the problem was the fact that I was bored. Starting a business was fun. Managing it was plain tedium. There was no special joy in wiping off jelly smeared on deli tables even if they were my deli tables. Owning the business doesn't exempt you from unclogging the toilets. I discovered a lot about myself. I missed the thrill of sales. I had lost my heart for Child's Play. I wanted to go home to corporate America. And so, just two years after opening my business, I've closed it.
That's not to say I regret having done what I did. I'm a better employee now because I understand much more about what goes on in the backroom of business. I have a new appreciation for the problems of cash flow, budgeting, hiring, and managing. When people ask about Child's Play, I say I feel a lot like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Entrepreneurship requires brains, a heart, and a great deal of courage. For me, however, there's no place like home.