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Somewhere on the line between Before and After – Part 2

IMG_2571When I wrote the first instalment of this series, we were just about to start our journey. We had a vision of a simpler life, of starting our own business, and of removing ourselves from the rat race. We’d returned from our travels in the US with a clear view of what was going to happen next – build a studio in our garden (which we’d saved up for over a few years), then begin to build a Personal Training and Pilates business.

One of the things that I think makes this blog different to others is that we’re not a success story (yet). I would like to hope that we’re in the process of becoming one, but the fact that we’re within the process at the moment gives us a different perspective to what you would normally get from the ‘I quit my 9-5 and became a millionaire’ stories that are abundant on the net.

It’s now just over six months since we started, so it’s time for me to reflect on what’s happened so far, and it’s time to give you an update.

Before you start, you know how I sometimes ramble on and blog posts become a lot longer than I intended?

Well, that.

The first six months in these new lives of ours have certainly been different to the lives we led before. Sometimes that has been positive, and other times we’ve been thrown challenges that we certainly didn’t expect to face so soon into our entrepreneurial journey. We’re still learning a lot, we’re beginning to answer questions that weren’t even on our minds six months ago, and the experience is leading me to continually reflect on what it is that I’m actually working towards.

Here’s some things that have happened in our first six months as business owners, and some things you could consider if you’re thinking of treading the same path!

IMG_3006If you build it…
When we started out, we were a little bit ‘Field of Dreams’ about the whole thing – if we build it (in our case quite literally), they will come. I suppose it’s because we knew that we’d saved up enough money to cover just about six months worth of bills, should the worst happen and we fall flat on our faces. I’d also landed a one day a week teaching role, and had been asked by my former employees in Corporate Land to do a few days here and there helping them with their communications.

Now, what this all meant was that there was no immediacy or urgency required for the business itself. Looking back, this was both good and bad. Good, in that the lack of pressure allowed us to only pursue avenues that really interested us. Bad, in that perhaps we could be even further advanced towards our goals if we’d had bills to pay and we had to really, really hustle. Even so, especially for the Pilates side of Live Simple, things progressed quickly.

How quickly? Well, six months later, all of Angie’s classes are full. In fact, some of them have a waiting list! To be honest, this wasn’t too much of a surprise to me (although it was to Angie). She is a brilliant teacher, the classes are small and personal, and the setting is peaceful and calm. Angie has really tried hard to not only make the classes about learning Pilates and all of the benefits that brings, but also to make sure that her clients get to switch off from the world for an hour, just focusing on her calming voice and relaxed approach. It feels like a pretty unique recipe, and the feedback that we’re getting is overwhelmingly positive.

Angie is taking even more classes with Body Control Pilates this summer, so will be a REPS Level 4 practitioner soon, as well as being able to teach intermediate matwork in addition to pregnancy and post-natal Pilates. She knew exactly what she wanted to be able to do, and is now filling in the gaps.

As for the Personal Training, well, that has begun really positively too! It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the same level of interest that Angie has had, but when I started in October, I had one client. Now, I have seven people training with me regularly. I’m really proud of that, but I’m at the stage where if I were to push on a little and take on more people, I would be able to slowly remove myself from the other ‘transitional’ jobs that I’m doing.

You can’t focus on everything…
At the very beginning, we focused all of our marketing efforts on launching Pilates. Looking back, it was a hugely successful campaign – our friends, followed by word of mouth, were our biggest leads to new clients, but the Pilates marketing (mainly using inexpensive and targeted Facebook marketing) found the extra clients that we needed. And then they started bringing their friends too!

But, this focus on Pilates meant that I didn’t push my own offering as much as perhaps I could have. Part of me wonders whether it was self-doubt that caused me to focus on promoting Angie (who also doubted herself during those first few months). I know I had one happy client who was really changing her life, but how would I find others? Why would they choose me? Why would they pay my rates? I’ve come to realise that running your own business causes your monkey-mind to switch over to ‘self-doubt’ mode pretty quickly, which isn’t helpful at all, but which can be used for motivation once you realise what’s happening!

No matter why me-of-the-past decided on that approach, it’s going to change soon, as I’ll finally have the time to put effort back into Live Simple marketing. Why haven’t I done much of that for the last three or four months, you ask? Well, that leads nicely onto the next point…

What to do when you start a Pilates business and almost immediately break your foot
Talk about unexpected. It’s a Saturday night in January, and me and Angie had finally decided to break Lucas out of his need for a night feed. Our approach was simple – Angie was going to sleep at her folks’ house for several nights in a row, meaning that even if Lucas wanted a night feed, it just wasn’t an option anymore.

First night; he cried for about an hour and a half (with me in the room patting and shushing, quite calmly actually!). Second night; it was just 45 minutes. Third night; he hardly stirred. Fourth night, he woke up at 10pm barely breathing.

Holy. Shit.

Lucas was about 15 months old on that Saturday, and it’s the first time that we’ve really faced an emergency situation with him. He’s had colds, quite serious eczema and allergies, but nothing that we’ve not felt in control of. This was different.

I immediately called Angie and explained that Lucas was making some strange noises that sounded like he was having serious trouble breathing. She came home pronto, and we called the non-emergency NHS line, 111. After listening to Lucas breath on the phone, the operator calmly dispatched an ambulance. To cut a long story short, we were whisked to Broomfield Hospital and Lucas was given a nebuliser and some steroids to make sure he could breathe. At 2am, we were finally sent home, with Lucas appearing to be relatively normal, and with instructions to call an ambulance if he deteriorated again.

So commenced a sleepless and fitful night for all of us. In the morning, Angie, who was sleeping with Lucas in her arms by then, picked him up, started making her way down stairs…and missed a step two from the bottom. She fell, twisted to protect Lucas, and screamed.

Our second trip to Accident and Emergency in 10 hours resulted in confirmation that Angie had broken a metatarsal in her foot, as well as seriously sprained her ankle. After some painful jabbing and resetting, we were sent on our way, foot in plaster and on crutches, not quite knowing what had happened in the past 12 hours.

If it sounds pretty dramatic, well, it was. It all just felt like it came out of nowhere, and it required a huge and immediate adjustment, with Angie not able to care for Lucas on her own as well as being in pain and requiring her own care, and Lucas still not right after his emergency room visit.

As far as the business went, everything took a back seat. We immediately cancelled Angie’s Pilates classes for the next six weeks, informed all of my clients that I wouldn’t be able to train them that week while we worked out how to deal with everything, and just tried to get through the first few days.

It was pretty rubbish. Very rubbish.

But here’s where Covey‘s idea of an emotional bank account gets credence. Since starting the business, we’ve gone out of our way to build up a lot of goodwill. We’ve done what we’ve said we’d do, we’ve treated people well, and we’ve gone the extra mile wherever possible. Angie was worried that the break (and the break!) would mean people left to seek Pilates elsewhere, but what actually happened was that not only did not one person leave, but by the time Angie started teaching again, we’d had even more enquiries and were now full! Partly, this is testament to Angie’s teaching skills and the atmosphere she’s created in her classes, but I think it also relates directly back to our vision of Live Simple as a business – do a good job; treat people well; be nice.

When we started, we brainstormed everything that frustrated us about businesses we interacted with, big and small, and vowed to be different. It’s working. So what do you do when you start a Pilates business and break you foot? You make sure that you’ve done the absolute best job possible, exceeded expectations from day one, and if disaster strikes, you’ll be supported to the hilt.

You have to say no to stuff
Saying no doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a people pleaser. But, learning to say no, by assessing each opportunity against your goals (or against Derek Sivers’ concept of ‘Hell Yeah!’ or ‘No’), and making a rational decision, is absolutely vital.

Here’s an example. Quite a few people know I’m technically available for supply teaching. I’ve got a lot of buddies who are teachers, all working in different schools across Essex, and all struggling with a general lack of quality supply teachers. Since it became known I was available for teaching, I’ve been offered at least five other teaching positions or opportunities to do some supply teaching in other schools. Each one was tempting, and made sense from a financial point of view. But, I’m not looking to be an amazing classroom teacher – I want to be an amazing Personal Trainer – so each one was turned down.

The same thing has happened with my writing work, communications consultancy, and with offers to work in gyms or run classes. A few things, I’ve said yes to. Writing for Example Marketing (who created this website, by the way) is perfect, as I can do it while I’m on babysitting duty and Angie is teaching (and Emma and Gav are in the same position as me and Angie, so they get it!). I’ve also coached some teachers at a local school, which has been a great way to make a little extra money, work with different bodies (every single one is different) and practice my group-management skills. On the whole though, anything that distracts me from being an awesome Personal Trainer, or which takes up time that could be spent training or learning, needs to be met with a ‘no’.

It’s funny really – it’s quite easy to have the view that leaving the corporate job was a huge risk, but look at the opportunities I’ve been presented with since doing it! They would never had come my way if I was still tied to the desk.

We’re only now beginning to find an effective routine
When we started our business, we laid out our vision of what our week would look like. It looked pretty good, in our opinion – a lovely balance of work and family time. The reality has been slightly (okay, majorly) different, especially between January and April when Angie was out of action. 

So much of how we’ve been operating has been reactive, rather than proactive. But, now, one hour at a time, we’re starting to fix the lack of routine, which has caused me in particular a lot of headaches!

Here’s an example: my own training was becoming increasingly sporadic, and knowing that squats and deadlifts are probably the biggest bang-for-your-buck moves, I focused on those. While that allowed me to stay in good shape, I wasn’t training anywhere near as regularly as I am used to, and it was really bothering me. So, that meant looking for specific opportunities where I could agree with Angie that I can be free for training. That means every Tuesday morning, after I’ve finished with my first client at 06:45, and then Sunday mornings after Outdoor Fitness. I would still prefer to train three or four times a week, but at least I now have two set sessions, and I make up other elements of my training before and after clients, whether I’m in or out of the studio.

We know Paolo gets grumpy if he's not in these longer, more reflective posts, so here's me teaching him how to bench press.

We know Paolo gets grumpy if he’s not in these longer, more reflective posts, so here’s me teaching him how to bench press.

The return of Creativity
All my life, I’ve considered myself creative. Largely, I’ve expressed that creativity through performance, and primarily through music. Without wishing to harp on about fatherhood (because I wrote all of that down in my reflections of my first year), the lack of sleep, exhaustion, and the sheer extent of the challenges we set ourselves on top of trying to get to grips with parenting was, well, a bit ridiculous. Looking back, one of the major casualties of the intensity of the first year was my creativity.

I’m an ideas guy. I always have been. Maybe it’s an idea for a business, or a song, or an app, or how to fix something at work. No matter, I’m your guy. And yet, my creative thinking just switched off and didn’t turn back on again.

Until…

I started a band playing Country music. The thing is, at the time of writing, this band has had one full rehearsal together. ONE. And yet, since Jim and I first laid out our vision of what we wanted to do, so much has changed, and it has been incredible. An old musician pal of ours wanted to get involved, full of riffs and ideas for tunes. We found an amazing singer, full of songwriting experience. Suddenly, the concept of a band playingSkylight covers in a pub (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all – we still want to do it) didn’t seem to be the right objective any more. I was completely inspired by our first run through, and before I knew it had written my first Country tune. Just like that! From nothing, to inspiration, to a song that is already sounding bloody brilliant. And the return of my songwriting brain transformed my creative thinking in every other aspect of my life. The ideas returned. I had a new way of looking at the app that I want to develop. I found the breakthrough to the thing that’s been bugging me about Live Simple. In short, by finding my creativity in one area of my life, the switch flipped and it can flooding back everywhere.

What have I learnt from this? Well, how often have you sat at work, unable to find the solution to a problem, and then the following day you’re out for a stroll, or in the shower, and BAM! There’s the solution. You just had to get out of your brain’s way to find it. I now realise the impact that not playing music had on me. I think you need a way to switch off, create or just experience something exhilarating. Music does all of those things for me, and I feel better for having it back in my life.

Understanding opportunity cost
This concept has become increasingly important to me as I try to reflect on our first six months and imagine our second. It’s easiest to explain with an example.

When I teach on a Friday, I’m paid to do it. The money has helped us transition away from full-time corporate land, and teaching children is a rewarding way to spend a day. But, each day I work at school is a day I’m not working on the business. The money that I’m earning is buying my time, but in a number of ways, it’s distracting me from my main goals. Think of it like this: how much is my Personal Training business missing out because I’m devoting an entire day (plus change) to teaching? What extra marketing could I do? What business ideas would I have the time to develop? What training could I do myself to make me a more effective coach?

Do you see what I mean? It’s a balance that I think all new business owners have to face, and at some stage it’s going to require a bit of a gamble. We’ll see…

The biggest conundrum that we’re facing
Here’s the thing. Me and Angie love working with our clients in the studio. Each time we walk down the garden to teach, we feel real pride at the fact that we’ve created a business out of nothing. We had an idea. We made it happen. And it’s right there! It’s quite a feeling.

But, at the same time, with the work for my old company as well as Example, I’ve got a source of income that is entirely geographically independent. When I’m editing, writing, blogging or planning, I could be anywhere in the world. And that is exciting.

You see what I mean? The thing is, I LOVE the Personal Training that I’m doing. It hasn’t once felt like work, and people are changing and growing (or shrinking!) in front of my very eyes. And yet…the idea of being able to rent our house out and go and live by the beach for six months, and still carry on earning money through writing work…well, it’s really appealing.

As an aside, by doing some contract work for my old company, I’ve realised that I don’t necessarily hate the corporate environment – by making the experience happen completely on my terms (a few days a month rather than every single day) and removing all of the junk that I hated about corporate life (appraisals, a boss that never said “thankyou” or “good work”, endless meetings, politics, eLearnings and nonsense), I not only enjoy it, but I feel like I’m doing a better job there than I’ve ever done. I work for a hard-working team, I am well-briefed every single time I go in so that I work with purpose, and I have a boss and a team that thanks me for helping them. What a difference to how it used to be.

Anyway, I don’t have an answer to all of this at the moment, but I know it’s going to mean a total return to the drawing board to work out what it is we’re striving for. Is it to make a difference in people’s lives through health and fitness, even if that fixes us to Chelmsford for the time being? Or is it to live the life we want, anywhere we want, through well-paid writing work? Would it be possible to combine both? Sounds like an avenue worth exploring…

Has it been worth it so far?
Of course! I’m significantly happier with my career right now than I was at this time one or two years ago. And if I compare Angie now to Angie that used to wake up and cry before work because she was dreading it so much, there’s just no comparison.

In some ways, I’ve ended up with a situation far more complicated than a year ago (hardly Live Simple, eh?). Instead of just going to one place of work, day in day out, and training people on the weekends, I’m now trying to do lots of different things during the week. It isn’t the end goal by any means, but the thing is, I like it. This makes me think that perhaps it wasn’t simplicity that I was seeking; perhaps it was variety. I’ve heard some people say that they like their jobs because ‘every day is different’. For me, I can truly say that now, and it feels good.

That said, I still crave a simpler life, and I know I need to re-connect with the original ideas and philosophies that inspired me to make all of this change in the first place. It’s not easy building a business, doing a great job for my clients, keeping on top of the teaching work, being prepared to switch on my internal communications consultancy brain every now and again, and trying to be the husband and father I want to be. At some stage, even though I knew this was going to be a transitional period, I’ll need to make some tough choices.

But guess what? They’re our choices to make. We’re in charge of what happens next, no-one else.

Which makes it all worthwhile.

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