I love running my own business but it’s killing me

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I have been running my own brick-and-mortar business for the past seven years. This business was a dream of mine, and I am lucky enough to say that it has been successful. We currently have two part-time employees to help with the growing number of customers we have, but I am still the only person in the workshop who creates the products we sell. The work is very physically demanding and the hours are very long. Our plan (back pre-plague) was to hire another employee, perhaps full-time, or add an assistant who could help with product creation, but then the pandemic happened, and all its long-term effects (exponentially rising costs, the loss of two years of business growth, etc.) have meant that it is no longer possible for us to add that third member. Unfortunately, it has also become increasingly difficult for me to manage a growing workload, and both my physical and mental health have suffered, sometimes with permanent effects.

I have considered numerous alternatives to keep my business running but improve my wellbeing, but for various reasons I won’t get into here, none of those options (moving to a new location, hiring more/different staff, moving the business online, etc.) are viable. The few steps I was able to take (such as eliminating custom orders, reducing work hours, etc.) have still left me overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out.

I’ve read some of the responses you’ve written to those in a similar “should I stay or should I go” situation, but being the owner of the business (not being able to just put in my two weeks and leave) makes the situation more difficult and complex. Additionally, I really love my job. There are many aspects of it that I would not want to give up to take just any old other job (being my own boss, the flexibility of working for myself, etc.), and there is also a layer of not wanting to disappoint our customers, many of whom would be very sad to see us close.

I also … don’t really have anything else lined up. I am exhausted, but there isn’t really anything I want to do more than what I’m doing now. I guess what I’m asking is, what do you do when you love your job and you’re good at it, but your health and wellbeing are suffering?

{ 209 comments… read them below }

  1. Up and Away*

    Would it be possible to scale the business back a bit, to a more manageable level for you?

    1. ThatGirl*

      I would think about focusing on the most profitable products and aspects, using the 80/20 rule basically. If that’s possible.

      1. independent agency fed*

        Is there any more room for increasing prices to sell fewer units at higher profits? Or cover paying for an opertions manager type person to manage supply procurement, bookkeeping, managing, etc? Partnering with a community college to find other product development workers for your niche?

          1. Andie Begins*

            That’s what I came to the comments to say! It’d probably be reasonable to look into raising prices anyway with the way inflation is going but if you have too much work for not enough time your time, it’s a good sign to reevaluate and increase what your time is worth!

        1. Beth*

          This was my thought as well! If you have customers who are attached enough to your product that they’d be sad to see you close, then I’m betting at least some of them will be willing to pay a higher price. It’s more sustainable to make and sell 10 $5 teapots a week than 50 $1 teapots.

      2. Amanda*

        As a fellow small business owner, here’s my two cents:

        1. Take a vacation, stat. Two weeks at least. If that isn’t financially doable, at least go visit some family or do a staycation. But the key is shut down, and get out of town!
        2. In our experiences, we have found that burnout comes from feeling stuck and working too much IN the business and not as much ON the business. Figure out which aspects of the business you love, and what is sucking your energy. Outsource to either a contractor, vendor, or employee what kills your energy. I know that doesn’t seem financially viable, but the perspective we’ve had to use with our business is “if we free up these x amount of hours, what revenue or energy generating activities could fill that time to help with continued growth?”
        3. Automate as much as possible. Take a deep dive into the repetitive tasks that you do that can be done by a system or a person. Then execute on moving those off your plate.
        4. Document all processes to find the redundancies and to potentially share with a future person. It stinks in the short term, but it will pay its dividends in the long term.

        The ability to think creatively about the business happens best when you are removed from it and can get some perspective. Use some time off to really think, and I swear you will find some solutions and clarity that it sounds like you really want to find.

        If you need to sell, sell, but this is so common in the business owner space that if you decide to sell and start something else, odds are good that you will be in this same boat in a few years. Might as well work on the boat you’ve got rather than get a new one.

        I’m rooting for you! We have loved running our own business but you are so right, burnout is real and it’s hard to think about doing anything else!

        1. Funfetti*

          All of this what Amanda said!

          Definitely consider raising your prices – can you do anything in blocks of time? Can the shop have limited hours? Higher prices and less time? You can do a bunch of combos to decide what YOU want. If the customers love you, they’ll come to you still. As it’s your business you get to decide how it works.

          Be proud of your success! You’re in demand, proof of concept etc. You’re not a start up who has to keep firing on all cylinders. You obviously have a product people want – so now adjust it to how you want it to work.

          If you’re still gunshy, ask one of your loyal customers about plans. They would probably be horrified to hear of your burnout! They can give you feedback on what could work – remember it’s a venn diagram between your wants and customer wants.

          Good luck!

          1. Higgs bison*

            Here’s a case study in fewer hours: there’s a local hot sandwich restaurant near me that is pretty much only open when the owner’s kids are in school. It’s closed for supper and often closed on school breaks. They make enough money to have kept it up for a few years now, and I don’t fault them for limiting their hours like that, even though it means they’re almost never open when I can actually order from them (and I make a point of ordering their excellent sandwiches whenever my schedule syncs with theirs).

            If your customers like your work enough, most will likely stick around if your new availability is at all feasible for them, especially when the business doesn’t feel like a “faceless corporation.”

            1. Ground Control*

              There’s a brewery in my area that closes at 6pm every day because the woman who runs it makes it very clear that she values time with her family and having a strong work-life balance. People respect that so much and I don’t think it’s hurt her business because the place is always hopping when it is open.

            2. JR*

              There’s a cookie bakery near me that’s closing for most of July. They said their business is slower then, so they’re taking the opportunity to close and work on some projects that are hard to do when open (and I hope they’ll take time off, too!).

              1. Pennyworth*

                I used to have a favorite Indian restaurant that closed for 4 weeks every summer so the family could have a holiday back in India.

            3. Lissajous*

              There’s a pizza place near me that is amazing.
              They only open for dinner, never at lunchtime. They will do takeaway, but pickup only, no delivery. They close for a few weeks after Christmas (our summer holidays) and often for a couple of week in the middle of the year.
              I have never seen them advertise, and the only people who know about them are locals, people who work local and finish late, and people who know locals.

              Reader, they are packed every night, plus the takeaways. It’s really good pizza, a welcoming atmosphere, some excellent desserts, and it’s BYO. They need the holidays to recharge, and as far as I can tell it just reminds their customers how good the pizza is in comparison to the other offers nearby (which, to be clear, are still good! This place is just really really good).

        2. ursula*

          Just wanted to say #2 was helpful for me to hear, personally, today, and shook something good loose in my head. Thanks!

        3. Katie from Scotland*

          I so completely agree with all of this. When you’re right in the thick of it, burnt out, and struggling, and you feel like none of the solutions are good ones – you absolutely need to take a break.
          There are always options – give yourself some breathing room (even a long weekend where you don’t work) to daydream about what it was you wanted from this business when you started it. Think about your ideal situation, make goals and plans – not fancy revenue goals, but for how you want to feel, how you want to spend your time. Then work out what you’d need in order to feel that way. Then work out what you need to do to make that happen. Start with your end result in mind, and work backwards, rather than trying to work how to move forward from where you are.

    2. Churlish Gambino*

      I feel like this is the only real answer since the LW has eliminated pretty much anything the commenters could reasonably suggest as options. I completely understand and respect that they have their reasons and have at least considered them all, but it does make giving them advice pretty difficult (and I imagine is why Alison chose this one to crowdsource).

      That said, I also wonder if there are imperfect versions of what the OP has already considered that might help. If the entire business can’t be run online, are there at least parts of it that could be? Could customers submit orders online and upload images showing the kind of custom work they want done?

      Can you take on fewer commissions (or whatever term applies to your business) but charge more? You say that your workload is growing but you can’t hire more staff. One of those things has to give. If your workload is growing but you can’t afford more staff, you need to be charging more for your work so that you can afford to hire more people or take on less work to ease the burden on your current workforce and yourself.

      1. Kate*

        Yeah I was confused by all the references to ‘growth’ and ‘missing out on growth’. If you’re literally the only person who makes the product, and adamant that will never change, obviously you can’t grow? Why is that even something you’re thinking about in this scenario? You need to do the opposite. Prune it back.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          This. If you’re only one person, there is a hard limit on growth. That’s just how it is. So either you charge enough to start paying another person or you limit your offerings to what one person can provide.

        2. Starbuck*

          I’m also confused at why there’s talk of growth and owner’s work being so busy, but that hiring someone else is still off the table – because sales don’t support it? Or costs are too high? It might be helpful for OP to articulate that further, there could be some assumption or thought trap they’re falling into that readers could give insight on.

          1. GythaOgden*

            Cashflow. Cashflow is the killer.

            OP might be able to work on IOUs, but simply not being paid is what kills many small businesses, particularly in business-to-business. Small retail can grow cash because consumers pay when they consume. If you rely more on invoicing and credit, keeping the cash coming in to pay an employee regularly could be the big problem that strangles many small businesses that want to grow and are doing well on paper.

            Knowing that my husband’s landscaper/general handyman hustler employer almost went under from a combination of a lean period and people not paying their bills, and it was only him loaning his boss the full sum that kept him employed. (He was paid back as soon as the money came in, but that’s because we both had ample trust in the guy he worked for, and knew that he paid his bills properly. Besides, if we hadn’t stepped in, hubby would have been out of a job anyway.)

            I’ve also been in B2B accounts receivable, and cashflow has a knock-on effect on everyone in the chain, just like when people are buying houses and having to wait for each other to sell. If you can’t pay your vendors, they go hungry too. The money doesn’t magically appear to fund a community magazine print run; it has to be wrung, often £10 at a time, out of everyone on your spreadsheet. And if the client is having trouble getting people to pay up…gawd help you. The pandemic took us right out of business, and even before that we were on shaky ground. No non-essential retail = no money coming in to clients. No money available to clients = no advertising spend. No advertising = no money for us. No money for us = bye bye magazine.

            Add that to the current financial situation and it’s no wonder OP is stressed.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          What Kate said.

          OP, your business is totally contingent on YOU. If you don’t show up nothing happens. So my suggestion would be to see if you can sell your business but the buyer would keep you on to run the place.

        4. Kella*

          This was my thought too. Lots of forms of business just aren’t scalable unless you add more employees, period. I think it’s likely that OP needs some kind of break if not a vacation too, but OP, if you’re expecting yourself to keep up with the growth *by yourself* you’re holding yourself to an impossible standard.

          Also, a cautionary tale about growth: I used to work for a small wholesale bakery that went from being in a handful of stores to *all* the stores in a chain across the entire pacific northwest. They had to front the extra costs for ingredients, staff, packaging, and delivery before they were paid for this massive uptick in business. It was a massive transition and it… did not go well. We employees were stressed out and constantly trying to work against the physical reality that we didn’t have enough space/time/supplies to do everything well.

          I’m not a business expert but it seems like when you are making a transition from being the primary product creator to needing to expand in multiple expensive ways, it should be treated similarly to starting the business in the first place. You’re going to have to invest money to make money and understand that you’re taking a risk. You can’t wait until it’s totally safe because it just never will be.

          1. GythaOgden*

            You can’t just add more employees on a whim. The expense of hiring is also compounded by the need for money to be coming in steadily, and small businesses often have cashflow issues because many B2B places run on 30 day credit…which can easily turn into longer because it’s a pain to get money out of people.

            I know, I did it for a few years, and it was a nightmare. A restaurant is a good business to run on cash because consumers pay for what they receive or you can call the police if they don’t. A magazine or a B2B product is much more likely to have /cashflow/ problems and so, while things might look good on paper, the business owner is struggling to get the income regular enough to pay their staff. It’s eat what you kill, with the additional problem that half the time you are only promised the money rather than actually receiving it. So, like, you go hunting deer, and shoot one. But when you go to get the meat, you find a picture of the deer impaled by the arrow and the deer in the distance flipping you off and running away. So to get the actual meat, you not only have to shoot the animal, but then run it down. That in turn takes energy away from actually hunting.

            And then imagine if you’re coming home late at night with just a picture of a deer, but no venison and it’s not just you going hungry but your family too. You can probably go out and try to find that deer tomorrow, but your employee can’t. ‘Hey, folks! I have this picture of the deer, but no meat. Can you wait until next week?’ isn’t going to fly with anyone, including the laws that say an employee needs X amount of venison per week.

            This forum would rightly be the first to get angry and upset if staff couldn’t be paid. Staff in a small business are much, //much// less insulated from the vagaries of the revenue stream. This is the BIG problem with ‘just hire more staff’…because people have never been in that cashflow situation.

            1. münchner kindl*

              But the third option between new employee- cash problems and no employee – overwork are contractors, right? They are paid by work done, not hours like employees, and can be not hired for one or two lean months.

              If enough money comes in, then the contractor can become a part-time or full-time employee, or recommend somebody; if not, they still can take some part of the work of OPs plate.

              1. GythaOgden*

                Contractors still have to be paid. If you don’t have cash on hand to pay them, they’re not going to be interested in working for you for very long.

                Looking at my spreadsheets from the job where I sold advertising for a community magazine, there were plenty of people asking for advertising from us, but a lot of difficulty in getting people to pay. You can’t run a business on IOUs, and you can’t hire staff or sub-contract work without that either.

      2. All Het Up About It*

        Or stop growing the workload! A business does not always have to be “growing” to be successful. If you truly have a loyal customer base being transparent and telling them that my options are to scale back the number of orders we take each month, or close, they will likely take door 1.

        You could as others mentioned, try Door 3, of raising prices that could allow you, if not another full-time person, than another part-time person.

        Good luck!

        1. Not So NewReader*

          The constant growth model. If a business is not growing it’s dying. There is no in between.

          There is a different model: The sustainable business model. This is where you earn enough money to keep the doors open and to keep you and yours sheltered year in and year out. It’s not popular and a lot of people laugh at the idea.
          What it takes to do this is to have a strong handle on your expenses for the business and for your personal life. That is how you know when you have reached the break even point or the point where you are balancing the work and keeping your needs met.

          1. All Het Up About It*

            Thank you for this! Something new for me to research.

            I think this idea is throughout the “work” world though. It relates back to the whole working just for money / a “good life” conversation we have on here sometimes. If your job lets you make enough money to pay bills, have some savings, and have a great stress-free time outside of the office where you can be home for dinner every night, take vacations and coach your kids sports team (or take your cat to catshows, whatever), then why do you HAVE to move up to to another role? Juts because you “should?”

            If the purpose of a job (or in this LW’s case, a business) is to make sure that we have our needs met, then we don’t have to join that rat race of doing better than before. A steady stasis of doing good, should actually be viewed as doing great!

        2. The Rural Juror*

          This! I worked for a small business where the owner never liked to tell anyone “no.” They were convinced that we need to constantly be growing and turning anything down would mean we would lose all our business. They would not listen to employees when we asked to reduce our workload and turn projects down. The effect was that everyone was overwhelmed and overworked, our customers got angry at our dropping quality of our work, and there was no reprieve in sight. Employees started quitting left and right (including me) and the business didn’t last much longer.

          Do what you can to keep your workload manageable!

    3. Calliope*

      I was thinking this and one possible way to reduce expenses while doing it is to start splitting your brick and mortar space with another business, if that’s possible. There’s a combo book/yarn store in my neighborhood for instance – two different stores that share a retail space. The book store puts on book clubs, the yarn store puts on learn to knit events, and it seems to work pretty well.

      1. Middle of HR*

        Books and yarn!? That’s like chocolate and peanut butter to me. What a great combo!

    4. ArtsNerd*

      Yeah, it seems like LW makes physical goods. I was thinking they can just reduce production and let them sell out instead of meeting the full demand. They can also increase the price as needed. This could also separate the purchase process from the production process: open up orders for X period of time. Then you have the revenue accounted for and can just focus on production and delivery.

      If you have a loyal customer base, just being really open and transparent about the changes you need to make and why will take care of almost all the backlash.

    5. InterestedFromLondon*

      I saw an article just today from a small business owner who had done just this, for similar sorts of reasons – she shared a practical guide to doing it, and also a personal blog on the emotions that came with it. I don’t know if you’re allowed to share links on here, but it was on the Balfour and Co blog.

      “Scaling back and doing less sounds like an admission of failure, one that runs counter to the image of success we’re supposed to project on social media.

      I know this because I spent most of 2022 trying to do just that- scaling back and cutting costs while projecting an image of positivity and success. But as external circumstances deteriorated, with rising inflation and increased cost of living having a knock on effect on sales, so did my internal circumstances. I was burnt out, extremely stressed and exhausted, Eventually I decided it was time to be honest- and to take dramatic steps to make a change.”

  2. Rona Necessity*

    Is there any chance you could be acquired or bring on a managing partner? If all you had to do was the actual physical creation of the products, and someone else took on the aspects of running the business, do you think you would feel less stressed?

    1. Mid*

      I was going to suggest selling–the cash from the sale could help fund a much needed break for OP, and they could ask to remain a part-time or full-time employee possibly as well. It’s hard to know what OP’s business is, but it sounds like some sort of craft, and so it might be feasible to negotiate those terms.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        That would remove the “being your own boss” which is part of why OP loves her work…

        1. Person from the Resume*

          I wonder if being freelance contractor is an option. Someone else or many someone elses sells LW’s work at their own business. Not quite a business owner, but still your own boss.

    2. Person from the Resume*

      That was my first and possibly only suggestion (other than scaling back more).

      Can the LW either sell the business and remain an employee of the same business or sell and find a job that let’s them remain the creator at a larger business? A larger business with other creators making the same thing or just one creator in a creative business that makes similar handmade items should take the pressure off better than the LW remaining the sole creator. Being the sole creator puts the pressure for all sales on the back of that one person even if he offloads the other business management work.

      What if the LW is injured and can’t perform their physically demanding job? That risk should be considered.

    3. Richard Hershberger*

      Make sure the new managing partner doesn’t run the company finances through their personal bank account…

  3. NaoNao*

    Is there any room here for an intern? I’d look carefully at the requirements and make sure it benefits them equally or more, but if you’re in a business like fashion or design or interior design, could you advertise for a part time intern and apprentice with the eye towards hiring them on once they learn to make the products?

    Another solution: Film yourself making your products step by step, try to make several detailed videos going over the process. That way you can use those to train people without you having to hover over them every day with limited resources. Write up a manual with diagrams and supplement with videos. Try to hire someone who is also experienced in this field or see if you can get outside funding / loans to hire on an experienced partner who can take over some duties. Use the manual and videos to train that experienced person on your specific details.

    Then let one of the part time people go or ask the part time person to become full time (or offer them the option, but basically “become full time or bye”) and commit to learning how to make the product.

    1. Knope Knope Knope.*

      Depending what the product is OP could sell those manuals and videos on a site like Udemy. Make sure you get email addresses. Maybe they could earn enough psssive income to hire someone.

    2. J*

      I’d really encourage LW to look at this type of option. Working with small business owners, we often tried to find a source of regular income that came from a single (or limited) amount of work. Things like downloadables, kits, guides, online classes hosted by a platform, etc. It tended to require some up front work (often engaging with a single contractor) and then allowed for some breathing room with the primary business function. I have other thoughts, like increasing the price of goods sold, but this one is one that can also span the gap if the LW chooses to close their business and needs to supplement their income.

    3. QuickerBooks*

      I would be very careful about the intern idea. As a business owner, I get people suggesting this to me quite a lot. Pre-pandemic we did have a small internship program. However, OP, if done correctly and legally (for the benefit of the intern), an intern will cost you time and money, not save you time and money. Essentially you will be getting someone who knows almost nothing, that you will have to teach everything from the ground up.

  4. Melanie Cavill*

    My first thought would be to consider selling the business as opposed to closing it outright, if you think there is enough interest in your industry, and then possibly staying on as manager? Or even in a part-time capacity, so you can remain involved doing what you love while giving yourself some much needed R&R.

    Have you taken any time off in the past seven years? Can the business run without you for two weeks? It may also be worth taking a vacation–0r even a staycation!–and getting some rest for yourself before making any decisions regarding the longevity of the business.

    1. Presea*

      +1 on vacation. Closing the business down for 2 weeks or a month is a lot less of a potential loss than closing it down forever would be.

      1. kiki*

        Another plus one on vacation. Time off is really amazing at putting things into perspective.

      2. pierrot*

        But pay your employees during this time or at the very least be prepared for them to file for temporary unemployment. A business I worked for closed for what was supposed to be two weeks but ended up being almost a month for renovations. The start date for the renovations kept changing around so we ended up having not much notice for when this would actually occur. We were told explicitly that temporary unemployment was an option (I didn’t end up pursuing it because I found another job). Maybe your part timer staff could use the time to catch up on administrative stuff if you decide to pay them but I’d just encourage you not to leave them with part (or all) of their income gone for those two weeks unless you give them ample time to prepare.

    2. Sloanicota*

      Yes, I’m a bit troubled by OP’s assertion that they might want to leave the business but also have no idea what they would want to do next. To me, that’s is a “don’t rush to do something right this second” moment – you need some reflection time. A sabbatical or vacation would be ideal although I know that’s especially hard on small business owners.

      1. DEJ*

        Pre-pandemic, I worked in the entertainment industry and knew I was burned out and needed to move on, but I had spent my entire life working in that industry and it was a lifestyle and a huge part of my identity and thoughts of ‘what else would I do?’ were just completely blank. Literally absolutely nothing. Then I got laid off and ended up falling into something where I make more money and have good work-life balance. It takes awhile to recalibrate your mindset.

    3. Ama*

      Yes I spend a lot of time on YouTube/social media interacting with people who own their own small (largely creative product) businesses and I notice the ones who seem to be able to last are the ones who give themselves permission to take a few weeks (sometimes even a whole month) off every year. I honestly wish they’d be a little less apologetic about it when they announce it — people need breaks, even from work they truly love, and *especially* if they are the main/sole producer of the product they’re selling.

      1. JSPA*

        Speaking of YouTube given the apparently insatiable appetite that people have for watching anything from art restoration to woodworking to pouring resins to wheel throwing to restoring old tools to restoring shoes to cooking historically-accurate food to cosplay costuming to cartooning… and their willingness to back that up with patreon pledges… have you done anything along those lines? If you’re assuming, “nobody will watch macramé / basketweaving / forging horseshoe nails,” it’s worth seeing who else is doing similar, how much they are making as a result, and whether there is a “you” shaped niche that’s not filled.

        That presumes that if you had 70% of your current workload for 100% of your current income, plus video editing tasks, your mind and body might find the change to be as good as a break, which may or may not be so.

        Contrariwise … small businesses are allowed to go out of business. Your employees are as able to find other employment that meets their current skill set, as people employed by corporations. You owe them a thoughtful reference and as much advance notice and flexibility as you can reasonably manage.

        If your product is something that potentially requires maintenance you may want to plan for reaching out to anyone who has had sales in the last few years, explaining that you will remain open for maintenance and repairs and sale of existing stock, only, for some specified period of time. But as a crucial point you do not owe this to anybody. Businesses shutter overnight; it happens!

        1. Carol the happy elf*

          Oh, yes. We have a compounding pharmacy and had a person waiting for specialized meds- I went quietly to the patient to explain the wait, and he was watching his tablet, on youtube, there was someone POPPING PIMPLES. As I tried to keep from launching my lunch, he explained that there were several channels, but this was his favorite….
          So I guarantee that whatever you do, it will eventually find its market.

          1. Eat My Squirrel*

            Not gonna lie, there is something disgustingly fascinating and satisfying about Dr. Pimple Popper. And the guy who trims cow hooves. I don’t subscribe but I went through a phase of watching those until the fascination had been satisfied and the grossness took over.

            1. Anonny NonErson*

              Not to derail entirely, but: rug washing videos.

              For some reason they calm my anxiety and actually help me fall asleep.

              What a time to be alive!

            2. Petty Patty*

              Dr. Pimple Popper is the best. Though my current obsession is a dog groomer in Eastern Europe who rescues dogs off the street and shaves them down.

  5. Shannon*

    Could you sell it? Gives you a nest egg and maybe a job for a while, but removes the overhead of stress.

    1. Carpe Manana*

      How long would it take for a buyer to learn what the OP does? If the OP was willing to stay on and provide this service while the new owners take on more executive functions, what would OP reasonably want to be paid? How would this affect Seller’s Discretionary Earnings? Would there be enough cash flow to cover the Buyer’s debt service and provide them with a reasonable income?

  6. idwtpaun*

    LW, I think when you have your own business, there’s always pressure to grow it as long as there’s room for growth, but do you actually have to?

    Let’s say what you have is a fancy bagel bakery and you started out with 5 trays of bagels a day, but now it’s so popular, you make 12 trays and are still selling out. But do you actually need to make the 12 trays, or can you set a hard limit of 9 trays and once you sell out, you sell out, the doors close. Sorry, customers, come back tomorrow.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Yup! There’s a donut place in Northern Minnesota that locally famous. They make a finite number of donuts. Don’t show up in time? No donuts for you. Still get lines going out the door.

      1. High Score!*

        There’s a donut place by me that operates like that too. Just a block away from a large chain. People check for donuts at the small place first, if there’s no more, they sadly go to the chain.

        1. Alex*

          I don’t think there’s anything sad about people who literally cannot get donuts from the local business insteead getting them from a chain store. The mere presence of the alternative donuts obtainable within a short distance from the store is likely to be how the small shop is able to retain demand that is greater than or even equal to what it wishes to supply. If there wasn’t alternative donuts available locally people who are after donuts would simply choose to visit a different neighborhood where the availability of donuts was more constant, even if the donuts themselves were of significantly inferior quality (as any donut is better than no donut), rather than risking visiting a shop that has a reputation for selling out midday and not getting a donut at all.

          1. metadata minion*

            I read the “sadly” as describing how the customers are acting. I, too, would be sad if the awesome local donuts sold out and I had to get chain donuts!

          2. NotMy(Fancy)RealName*

            I think the previous poster meant that the customers were sad not getting the good donuts.

          3. J!*

            I think High Score! meant that the individual customers shuffle sadly to get the next best option even though they really wanted the good local donuts, not that it’s sad that the whole operation works like that.

          4. Overeducated*

            Haha, I have done this twice in my neighborhood! Taking my kid for a pre-work or school treat, finding the sign on the door saying the “good” (homemade, vegan) donut shop doesn’t open until 9 AM, and then walking 3/4 of a mile to Dunkin. I’ll skip the donut in that case, it’s fancy donuts or none for me, but my kid is not so picky and will be thrilled regardless.

      2. PostalMixup*

        That’s how a lot of BBQ places work, too. They make X amount of brisket, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

    2. J*

      Seconding this and the raising of prices. I worked with a lot of artisans and many were shocked to discover limiting their availability and increasing their prices often covered the entire gap of lower volume and then some. A few actually switched to custom orders only and noticed a higher profit. Most recently I’ve experienced this with stained glass artists, dog groomers, nail artists, and sushi/pizza makers so there’s a huge range of services where this has worked.

      1. JSPA*

        I’ve seen 2 artisans make comparable product (in terms of skill and detail and scale and esthetics). One has a hard time selling for $50, and is quick to offer $40. The other, $250, take it or leave it. Neither one particularly “known.” The guy selling at $250 gets treated like an artist; the guy selling at $50 (=$40) gets treated like maybe it’s some sort of scam, because…how would you really sell something that detailed and perfect, hand made, for 40 bucks?

      2. Pennyworth*

        I have a friend who is an artist who works on commission – each work takes hundreds of hours. For a long time she wasn’t making enough money for the effort she put in, until she consulted a financial adviser who pointed out that her hourly return was far too low, that she had a backlog of commissions, and she needed to double her prices. She still does the work she loves and is making a good income, and the commissions keep coming.

    3. Shiba Dad*

      I knew of a pizza place that did that. They only made a certain number of pizzas a day.

    4. QA Peon*

      Our local bakery is like this. The product is awesome enough that if I really want it, I get there when doors open at 7am, or I call ahead the day before. Some days I just stop by at 11 am and all they’ve got left is coffee. AND, they’re closed Monday and Tuesday so that they get time off together since they’re a husband/wife team.

    5. Hannah Lee*

      That’s a great point!

      I recently saw a provide on Weekends With Yankee or some other tv show, about a man who makes fishing rods. It started as a hobby and eventually he left his full time job and just makes fishing rods. They are really nice fishing rods and lots of people want one.

      But you know what he did? He figured out how many he can reasonably make in a year, and that’s how many he makes. He’s got a decade or so of backorders, and he was joking about how at some point, some of those are going to wind up being permanent backorders, because he’s human and can’t make them forever. But the idea is that just because people want more, that doesn’t mean he has to MAKE more.

      That approach might work for LW.

      And, not to get all philosophical, but personally, I think that so much of what’s negative in the course of human events has to do with the drive to do more more more, to have more more more, prioritizing growth over sustainability. It’s obvious in heavily capitalist societies like the US. How many businesses have expanded to the point that they eat their own tails, or are unsustainable and collapse? How many cities, towns have allowed, encouraged more building, more roads, more more until quality of life tanked, water, housing, etc were in short supply for all the people clamoring to be there (and don’t get me started on the ever embiggening sports stadiums, automobiles, houses, etc)

    6. Not So NewReader*

      So my friend had a bagel bakery- just for simplicity’s sake- there’s more to it IRL.

      My friend was charging $1 per bagel so that everyone could have a bagel. Meanwhile, all the other bagel places were charging $3 per bagel. My friend when home tired and cranky every night. But it was super important to him that everyone who wanted a bagel could have a bagel. Sometimes people showed up who could not afford a bagel so he just gave it to them. They brought their friends and my friend started giving away more bagels.
      And he got more tired and more cranky.

      In odd turn around meeting his goal of bagels for all, gutted him, there was nothing left of him at the end of the day.

      I suggest that he start charging $1.50 each for bagels. This was so very radical for my friend that he and I actually had words. We argued. Loudly. He raised his price finally and business did not slow down. People stopped asking for free bagels. I could see him change- less tired, less beaten down. After a bit I suggested it was time to move to $2 per bagel. We did not argue so hard that time and it took less time to get him to understand that others were getting $5 per bagel and he was still offering a deal. Years ticked by and he started making incremental increases in what he charged. Yep you guessed it, he’s up to $4 per bagel now where everyone else is getting $8. (smh)

      He’s happy. He feels that his work is meaningful to people. He gets enough money to cover his needs comfortably. (He lives simply.) Annnd he started picking the projects he wanted, he learned not to say yes to everything. He does not like making onion bagels so he no longer does. He takes days off when he wants. He works partial days sometimes. He’s a whole lot less cranky.

      OP, you are at that fork in the road. If you will not add people then you must decide how much work is necessary and how much work is above and beyond. You have met your limit and if adding people is not an option then you just have to accept that you are human and you have limits.

    7. OP*

      Yes, this is a really good point. I kind of do that now, but I think I could definitely cut back even further.

  7. Madeleine Matilda*

    OP – Would it be possible for you to extend the time frame within which you create and deliver products to give you a more reasonable workload? You could let customers know that while they can place an order now due to many factors it would not be available until X date in the future. Also are there any administrative tasks that you could outsource that you haven’t yet?

  8. Hills to Die on*

    Raise your prices to take fewer customers so that the workload is more manageable. Alternatively, would it be an option to have the existing staff take some of the things you are doing now? You could switch out some accounting task for making the teapot spouts (or whatever is causing you the most trouble).

    1. Maggie*

      This. My husband is a craftsman. The demand and work load was killing him. He doubled his prices. Some people scoffed and walked and he automatically scaled back to the best customers only. Some of the scoffers came back when they realized they couldn’t find someone else who does what he does. It was a great decision for him.

      1. Carrots*

        Yes. There has got to be a sweet spot to raising prices where you intentionally lose customers but keep enough customers to make about the same amount of $ you did before.

        1. Anna Badger*

          For sure – my dad’s rule when he was consulting that you should be too expensive for at least 50% of your potential customers, which I think is not a bad rule of thumb.

        2. Cedrus Libani*

          There’s a sweet spot on the demand curve, and there’s also a sweet spot on the personal curve. Maybe you could sell 1000 widgets for $5 each, but you only want to make 100 widgets; they won’t move at $50 each, but they’ll sell out at $20. That might be preferable to you.

          Also, the people willing to pay the higher price are the people who respect what you do. The entitled customers who think you should be jumping at the chance to give them the widget of their dreams for less than the cost of materials will go elsewhere.

        3. Small Business Owner*

          Yup, raise your prices. I’m in consulting, so it’s a service versus a product, but I’m in a very similar boat. And this is the advice I keep hearing and know that it’s true. I’m here to say: Even though I know it’s right, but it’s been a really HARD mental hurdle to get over, especially when it comes to repeat clients. But increasingly I’m realizing it’s necessary.

    2. NervousNellie*

      Came here to say this. Everyone I know who is buckling under the demand needed to raise prices yesterday, at least for new customers. The whole point of having a small business is that it gives you a ton of flexibility and control over how you serve your community. One of the key benefits of that which I feel small business owners forget is that they can make sweetheart deals for long-term, well-loved customers.

    3. All Hail Queen Sally*

      Yes. This. I read in a managing your own business book once that if you have more business than you can handle, your prices are not high enough.

      1. QuickerBooks*

        Correct. Ditto if you win every bid you go for or if every potential customer says “yes”. In my industry, you should be hitting about a 70% “yes” rate. If it’s much higher than that, prices are too low. OP can translate to whatever numbers are appropriate for their industry.

      2. My Cabbages!*

        Yup. I have a friend who’s a massage therapist, and she always says she knows it’s time to raise her rates when she’s booked out for the next three months.

  9. Chairman of the Bored*

    Can LW sell the business and then work there as an employee/contractor doing only the specific creative thing that is their specialty? Let somebody else worry about the “running a business” side of things. That gives them some cash and a well-deserved break, while still keeping the customers happy and their employees employed.

    If something like this isn’t workable I’d be inclined to cash out and shut it down if they can afford it. Unless you’re literally saving lives or similar, no job is worth permanently compromising your health if you have other options.

    It may be worth looking around for some similar job where LW can focus do the thing they like and are good at, and not worry about the rest of it. Operating a business is a pain, it can be nice to just show up and do your job without also having to run the show.

    I much prefer to be a pet expert in somebody else’s operation.

  10. Just another queer reader*

    It kind of sounds like you’re looking for permission to move on and do something else.

    Something doesn’t have to last forever for it to be successful. You’ve had a great run!

    I imagine there are other things out there that you’d enjoy and be good at. Maybe take a look around.

    Good luck.

    1. MarsJenkar*

      Part of the problem seems to be, according to the OP, that they feel they don’t have anything to move on to, which would require addressing. It seems to be a major reason why they haven’t moved on, and I can see why it’s a stumbling block.

      1. Hen in a Windstorm*

        But they don’t have time to think about what else they might want to do because they’re destroying their own health doing what they do now. If they took a break, they might be able to think again and *imagine* other things. Maybe they won’t end up selling, or maybe they will. But they have to be able to think first.

  11. EPLawyer*

    If you have too many orders to handle yourself, then you have room for another person. Try really looking at the cost of someone even part time. See if you could make it work. Especially if you increased the availability for orders back up.

    If that is really not feasiable then yes, see if having an admin of some type handle that side of things so you JUST have to create helps.

    If you STILL can’t make it work, then it is time to realistically think about selling the business and moving on. No shame in realizing that running a business is not for you.

  12. Ainsley Hayes*

    If you are US -based, there are a bunch of (free or low cost) resources available for you. I suggest reaching out to your local Small Business Development Center (https://www.sba.gov/local-assistance/resource-partners/small-business-development-centers-sbdc) and asking them for help. The folks in those offices are terrific, and often untapped resources. (I sit on the advisory board of my local center and they jump through hoops to help clients solve problems like yours!) Good luck!

    1. Bird Lady*

      I’ll second this suggestion, and add another:
      Depending on where you live, there may be state or federal funds or tax credits for hiring positions. There are also apprenticeship programs for craftspeople in my community – and maybe in others!

  13. Mek*

    You may need to raise your prices. That’ll either get you the revenue to hire more help, or it’ll reduce your customers to a more manageable level.

    1. Aleksandra*

      Ha, just had the exact same suggestion below. Not sure if it’s feasible in the area they’re in but I agree—it seems like it would help!

    2. NewJobNewGal*

      Or if there is enough demand for custom work, then it may be possible to raise prices and drop the brick and mortar location. The OP would move from a “manufacturer” to an “artist” or “consultant” that doesn’t need a physical location.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        And raise prices even more!! Arts and crafts (should) pay more than manufactured goods.

        1. goducks*

          Maybe, but only to the point the market will bear. If the perceived value of her product indicates prices are maxed out now because that’s all people are willing to pay, or that only a small subset of people are willing to pay-not enough to generate enough revenue to cover costs- then this isn’t a viable path.

          And speaking from experience, if she relies on repeat customers, she has to be careful, because often anything other than a small price increase means customers walk away. Yes, potentially new customers take their place, but new customer acquisition is expensive and it takes time to build a new customer base, something she might not have the cash reserves to withstand.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            There are all kinds of ways to approach that. Raise existing customer’s prices slightly … sounds like LW already has more business than they can reasonably handle, so even if they lose a few, that should be okay.

            And then have a quote book for new projects that set at a higher rate. They won’t get as many takers, but that’s okay, because, again, they already have more business than they can handle.

            It also would be worth it for LW to do an good ol’ 80/20 analysis on their customers and products.

            – Are there things that are a hassle to make (in time, effort, difficulty, cost of materials) that ultimately aren’t bringing in much income? Maybe you drop those, or only continue making them for existing customers. Or maybe make them once a year as a special edition and raise the price.

            – Are there a small number of customers who are driving a lot of work, rework, require effort and attention but providing little revenue? (I can guarantee there are, every company has them) Look long and hard at that list, maybe keep a few for sentimental reasons, and let the others go (higher prices, long lead time, less customization etc are all ways to get them gone … or you can just let them know you’re focusing on other accounts and can’t accept any new business from them)

  14. Another small business owner*

    I really feel for you, as I’m in a very similar situation – I own my own business and create all the products myself as well as deal with the many aspects of running a business. I, too, was feeling terribly stressed, overworked, and burned out as the volume of my workload got higher and higher while my personal / family situation demanded that I cut back on my work hours.

    The only thing that helped me was to hire a really fantastic employee – a real superstar – who is taking on a lot of the management tasks. The employees I had in that position in the past just weren’t good enough to take a good part of hte burden off my shoulders. Her salary is basically double what I paid the previous person in the position – that’s a gamble I took (the pandemic seriously affected my business, too) in order to grow my business in the long run.

    Your situation is a bit different than mine in that you want someone to help you create the actual product, but can’t afford to hire anyone. Are you sure, though, that by hiring someone you won’t be able to grow the business enough to pay back at least some of the costs of their salary? Because you DO need to take care of yourself if you want to keep the business going and thriving in the long run.

    Other than that, I really don’t have any advice, can just commiserate and empathize …

    1. Old13oy*

      This was essentially what I came here to say – even if it doesn’t look feasible at the outset, I think you should strongly consider hiring another person. My friend is a small business owner who was pinched by the pandemic, he took a gamble and hired someone on to do sales work while he focused on business internals – and lo and behold, they’ve exceeded him as a salesperson and they bring in enough revenue to cover their salary AND increase overall profits!

      When you’re the person who does everything, I think it’s hard to conceive of anyone else being able to exceed your own potential as the owner/producer – but you’re split in so many different directions, having someone who can take on even a small piece of the work and reduce the load on you can make a huge difference.

  15. Aleksandra*

    You’ve probably already thought of this, but… have you considered raising your prices? I don’t know the area that you’re in, but upping the prices might give you a) lower demand while maintaining revenue (less work), or b) same demand with more revenue (potential to hire another person).

    1. The teapots are on fire*

      This–One of my friends ran a custom sewing business for many years, and said the best advice she got was to use pricing to control her workload, since she didn’t want to hire employees. It helped her run her business the way she wanted and she found the customers who didn’t like the higher prices tended to be higher-maintenance, high-complaint people she didn’t enjoy as customers anyway.

      She started telling people, “I’m very expensive, and I’m very slow, but either I’m very good, or I have a lot of people fooled.”

      1. Not embarrassed to charge what I am worth.*

        Exactly this. I sewed a high quality product and did not want to waste my time and energy on folks who wanted things half-ass or cheap. One project I thought I was charging out the wazoo but the buyer threw more money at me to cover the time I spent sourcing specific materials, others have followed suit just not to the extent that person did.

      2. Hannah Lee*

        “… the customers who didn’t like the higher prices tended to be higher-maintenance, high-complaint people she didn’t enjoy as customers anyway.”

        This has almost always been the case in every business I’ve ever worked at.
        The other factor that goes hand in hand, when you look at sales by customer, is that those customers are never your highest revenue drivers. It sometimes feels like they are your “biggest” customers because you’re always dealing with them, they’ve always got some churning “order” activity going on, but top line they almost never are, and bottom line, when you add in the cost of servicing those customers, they NEVER are.

  16. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Can you subcontract out part of the work? This sounds like a physical, craft business – can you get your suppliers to provide semi-finished raw goods, or subcontract out parts that aren’t critical to the quality or your branding?

    I think regardless of what you do, this is a time -vs- money issue. You need to decide how much $$ to give up in exchange for the reduction in your workload.

    1. Sloanicota*

      This also sounds like a business plan issue – I think the term in the field is “scaling.” In our community there are some small business advisers who might be able to weigh on in this. There has to be a plan for growth because otherwise, as you’ve seen, your success gets pinched off when you can’t address the rising capacity. Sorry to be quoting the Michael Scott Paper Company haha.

      1. J*

        I was scrolling because despite my gut instinct to say diversify the product line and raise prices/lower volume, it really is a business plan issue that comes first. Working with a local Women’s Business Center (not just for women!) or SCORE to help plan either a scalable or sustainable business is so important. A lot of people don’t realize the techniques needed to launch a business aren’t the same as grow/maintain/scale. The SCORE folks have such creative ideas for outsourcing and have a great eye for burnout. If LW decides to close their business, they are one of the rare groups that can advise on that (many groups receiving SBA funding can’t talk about the steps to close a business) so consider a mentorship there.

        1. NerdyLibraryClerk*

          Some public libraries also have business librarians who might be able to direct the letter writer to resources they weren’t aware of in the community, or just small business help in general.

  17. BusyBee*

    Is it possible to scale back the number of orders you accept? So many businesses make a set number of products (X per week or month) and once they sell out they sell out. Being able to limit yourself to a number of orders that gives you a more predictable schedule and a 40-hour work week would lighten your load. Being your boss means you’re allowed to make choices that may reduce profit for your wellbeing, and you aren’t beholden to anyone else.

    Also, if there are times of year that are especially busy (Christmas? Summer?) you could consider a temporary assistant or contractor who you wouldn’t pay all year round but could help out when the burden is at its highest.

  18. Lab Boss*

    One of my close friends was in a similar position, running a specialty retail store for around 7 years. He really took stock of his situation and realized that he was never going to make enough with the store to take proper vacations, save for emergencies, or retire. He spent close to a year trying to find a buyer (that wasn’t a year of wishful thinking, there were some promising leads that just didn’t pan out). In the end he decided to close the doors. He took a mediocre job in an area he had some past experience in and drove hard, climbing the ranks there and focusing on specialty training to get an organizer-type position in the company.

    He was good at the job. He loved the store. He agonized over the decision, wrestling with the feeling that he was a failure, or a sellout, or giving up on his dreams. And you know what? A few years down the road and he’s happier than I’ve ever seen him. He loves his memories of ownership and has a lot of nostalgia, but also says that he’d never go back now that he’s made a go of doing something else. OP, I can’t tell you what’s the right decision, but I want to reassure you that a 7-year run of business ownership is not failure. If you shut your doors right now and never owned a business again you’d have a 7 year period of success to look back on as you move on to what’s next, and I bet if that’s the way you go you’ll look back and realize stress was making you feel more trapped than you had to be.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      This does sounds like the best solution – assuming that the business ISN’T saleable. Many small businesses are not.

      Mine, for example – I couldn’t sell my business, because I’M the business (consulting). I can’t sell the relationships I have or the skills I possess. I can’t increase my prices outside of market norms (although I have been increasing them due to inflation and as I get more experienced/recognized in my field). I can’t hire staff without having much higher revenues and I don’t want to take on the hassle of managing people – in part because it is a hassle, in part because clients pay for ME to do the work.

      My (imperfect) solutions are:
      – increase my prices where possible for established clients and charge high prices to new clients
      – turn down work I don’t want or can’t deliver – there are only so many hours in the day
      – work like crazy during good times, knowing that a recession / pandemic will mean I have no work for months on end
      – find ways to be more efficient at the work I do – eg. using software tools, establishing processes, etc. etc. I’ve increased my capacity for work by about 30% simply by using certain tools.
      – keep an eye on what the conditions are that I would decide to stop having my own business and go in-house again. (That said, times when I might want to go in house may be times when companies don’t want permanent staff.)

      1. QuickerBooks*

        I don’t know what industry you consult for or your exact situation, so I will say the following with the utmost humility, but there is possibly another option: productizing your services.

        Systems can often be regularized and/or automated far beyond what may be obvious at first. With consulting, some options might be: (a) having a “basic” set of services that’s the same or substantially the same for all customers that can then have custom elements added to it, (b) creating do-it-yourself kits for customers to basically consult for themselves at a lower price, (c) creating modular consulting systems with different components that plug and play with each other.

        Each of these options might give you the opportunity to hire others who can be trained on the more basic, rote parts of the job, leaving you to provide expertise strategically when needed (e.g., “Jane, this customer needs a Unit B and 2 Unit Ds. Let me know how that goes and we’ll decide whether they get Unit G or Unit H after that.”)

        Best of luck to you!

  19. AnonInCanada*

    I’m not sure if you’re financially able to do this, or if your customers will not be angered (though some will be, that’s a given,) but have you considered just closing for a few weeks to de-stress? Let your customers know in advance “We’re taking a well-deserved break from [x date] to [y date] and will be happy to serve you then.” And during this time, your voice-mail is set to announce only, and all emails go straight to the bin. In other words, allow this time to be your time.

    I know there’ll be some risks involved (i.e. some not-so-loyal customers will go to your competitors) but if you’ve built a good rapport with your most loyal customer base, I’m sure they’d understand.

    1. not a doctor*

      This was going to be my suggestion! I know it’s hardly an easy thing to do, but it sounds like you DESPERATELY need a breather, and a couple of weeks of downtime might also give you the mental room to think of solutions that haven’t yet occurred to your dead tired brain.

    2. Sloanicota*

      There’s several restaurants by me that close for part of the summer and I used to live in a community where it was COMMON to close for the winter (because the tourists left so it wasn’t really profitable to stay open). Customers accepted it. It may be hard on staff or maybe that fits with their needs. Maybe for future you can look at your least-profitable time of year and consider it.

      1. Starbuck*

        Yes, in my tourist town this has always been a thing. In the winter, there’s closures and far more limited open hours – maybe Thurs-Sun instead of Wed-Sun during the busy season.

      2. AnonInCanada*

        There was a French restaurant in the ritzy Yorkville part of Toronto that closed from early June to about mid-August every year and nothing ill happened there. The proprietor happily retired just before the Plague of 2020 if I recall correctly.

    3. High Score!*

      People are more accepting of this. Since the pandemic, many businesses close over the weekends or on a couple weekdays or some have closed for a week or two with a note on the door with when they’ll return. As a customer it’s disappointing but I go back when they open.

    4. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I’m so accustomed to this practice now from small local and online shops that it barely registers anymore. I used to be surprised that the whole entire business would be closed while the owner went on vacation, but it’s become so common now. The shops I patronize notify the customers in advance (we’ll be closed from x date to y date, so get your orders in by n date if you want something before then). Even the small brick and mortar shops do the same, and they put out an announcement on facebook, etc that they’ll be taking vacation and when they’ll be back.

    5. calonkat*

      I have friends who are armorers/leatherworkers who do this sometimes. One problem they’ve had is that if they are contracted with a renaissance fair, they may have to work a lot of the year to create product for the big sales event.

      And we’re all getting older (and all the risks that come with that).

      There are a lot of good suggestions in this thread, one that you might really consider (we have so few details that it’s hard to know what your work/workflow is) is the youtube angle. Think of it as advertising/educating/funding all rolled into one. There may be someone you know who could help with discussing it and deciding if it’s something you want to pursue. But doing some trial videos is a low cost thing to try!

  20. ahhh*

    Is it possible to move your business online? You would not have to worry about a store front. You could manage your hours according to your needs (are you an early bird who likes the afternoon off?). You could even take vacations just posting online.

    1. NewJobNewGal*

      I was also thinking this. It’s hard to extrapolate without knowing the product the OP makes, but I imaging that there are fairs or conferences where the OP can drive their product without having the expense of a storefront.
      Renting a studio + the expense of professional website + advertising < a pricey storefront (and insurance and taxes and all the other headaches of a storefront).
      And with a good spin, the OP can make themselves more desirable by taking less clients. The product can become more bespoke and exclusive.
      I'd suggest the OP focus on their experience and talent and less on volume.

    2. Sloanicota*

      OP says they’ve considered it and it won’t work for them, but I did think of a store-front share option – if someone else is also running their shop out of the brick-and-mortar location that may free OP up a bit more / give them a chance to trade covering for time off / add capacity. In my area there are some coffee shops – by – day, differently-managed-bars by night, or like a soap store and a plant store in the same storefront.

    3. ahhh*

      While OP said online is not possible, I am hoping that it’s more because of lack of manpower/ hours in the day as opposed to a reason it can’t be done

      1. goducks*

        Shipping costs eat margin! And thanks to Amazon, consumers don’t typically want to pay for shipping at all, or for what it actually costs so sellers feel pressure to just eat some or all of the cost. Especially if the items to be shipped are large, heavy or require special concerns like ice packs/heat packs. Shipping is so expensive, and a very real reason why a retail shop can’t pivot to online.

        1. ahhh*

          I totally agree with you. I was under the impression this was a larger item that OP does not ship, If they ran the business online, customers could still come to pick the item up. Who knows in the future they could add shipping to expand.

  21. Pocket Mouse*

    Can your two existing staff take some tasks or responsibilities off your plate? Can you raise prices a bit (to either raise enough money for a third team member or shave off some of the demand)? It’s not clear whether you have an order-based business, or stock a set range of items with a prior possibility of custom orders— if the former, is it possible to push estimated delivery dates further into the future to give yourself some breathing room on creating the product, or even block off times when you’re not taking orders at all? Can you hire someone who has the skills to produce the product on a temporary basis?

    Good luck, this sounds tough.

  22. Dan*

    As someone who runs his own business, I highly advise you to take a vacation. It’ll help you clear your head.

    1. 3DogNight*

      THIS! I was looking for this. Can your family take the financial hit of you taking a sabbatical? Even a couple of weeks will help. You don’t need to go anywhere, you can just…be. And, if this is helpful, then plan to do it once a year. Maybe you could even have the store open half days, so your employees can work, but you don’t go in, and you don’t take orders during that time.
      It really sounds like you’re burned out. You have to give yourself the same grace you give to others. Take some time off.

  23. Alex*

    This sounds like a business that is spending more in secondary areas that is compatible with the amount of resource that is available in the primary area. By having 2 employees focussing solely on sales and customer service you are probably in a position where the level of resource available to attract and retain customers (and the costs associated with such activities) is significantly greater than the level at which the business can sustainably operate given the level of manufacturing resources available to it.

  24. An SBDC Consultant*

    If you are in the US, please contact your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for free consulting – americassbdc.org There are consultants available in every county, in every state, ready to help.

    1. blue canary*

      Came here to say this. My husband and my sister both own their own businesses and have found the help at their local SBDCs to be so valuable. Also check to see if there is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) near you. These are non-profit banks and many also offer small business support services. The Opportunity Finance Network (OFN.org) has a CDFI locator on their website.

    2. All Hail Queen Sally*

      And don’t forget to contact SCORE, Service Corp of Retired Executives, who volunteer to help small business owners.

  25. Nynaeve*

    Can you scale back your offerings? It sounds like you’re in a crafting type business. My mom used to own a Quilt Shop. After, quite literally, doing it all for man years, she slowly scaled back the business by reducing the square footage of the shop, she stopped selling machines, then stopped offering classes, etc. Until, now, she has a large shed on her property where she has her workshop setup and all she does is finishes for people. She doesn’t do projects start to finish any more. She finishes quilts, and works on her own projects that are either gifts, or she sells at the local Farmer’s Market on the weekend. Usually, she has enough items produced over the winter to make it through the Market season without having to do both the production and the booth management at the same time of year. It was a transition, but she is much more relaxed now. Is something like that possible for your product?

  26. not a doctor*

    OP, are there any remaining tasks that you can farm out to another person, like admin stuff? If so, you don’t necessarily need to hire another employee; you could look into freelancers or contractors who provide virtual assistant services, bookkeeping, etc. on a more limited-hours basis.

    Alternatively (or simultaneously), are there lower-level aspects of product creation you could train one of your existing staff on? i.e. if you make clay teapots, could someone else put the knob on the lid, or run the kiln?

    As I said in an above thread, I also second the idea of taking some kind of break for a few weeks, even if it means closing your doors during that time, if you can even remotely afford it. You desperately need to rest, recharge, and reset if you’re going to keep going with this.

  27. Antilla the Hon*

    I’m so sorry you are feeling burned out and overwhelmed. That’s not a good place to be physically or mentally. I am an artisan and you were echoing the cons Ive mulled over in my head about starting my own business! Sounds like you might be a maker/artisan, which can be very difficult to share the load with someone else (especially if you have exacting artistic standards— I’m speaking from experience on that one). You may not be able to have someone else do the production, but do you have sufficient back office support? This could possibly help lighten your burden. Another comment her mentioned an intern, which I think is a great idea.

    I hope you are able to find some ideas in the comments to give you some respite.

    1. Self Employed Employee*

      I kept trying to hire a part time assistant and found it to be really challenging, as I had to train, and teach, and watch over them. Then it dawned on my to hire a person to to all my personal errands instead. It freed up my time immensely, and took a surprising weight off my weeks.

  28. Forty Years in the Hole*

    TL:/DR: what about uploading videos for subscription, or joining an artisans’ cooperative or maker space?
    To tag onto NaoNao’s suggestion of videos- could you do that, post on line and get folks to subscribe? I know nothing of how that works but when I watch “how-to” vids or artisans doing their thing, there’s often a “subscribe to my channel” component which drops a few $$ into your account? That way you can create/produce/market at your own pace. I have a relative who does on line writing for a particular audience, is paid very well, but was very overwhelmed with client requests so she switched, in part, to a Patreon-based platform. This lets her set her customer input/output, and allows her the time to create a more robust product- and get paid quite well. Not sure if/how that would work other than for more custom – but better-paced – work.

    Also – is there a cooperative or “maker’s space” you could join, to reduce the space/costs/stress of management etc? Sometimes these places have an “admin” type manager who looks after rent, customer interaction, orders – whatever. You can concentrate on creating/producing.

    1. Loredena*

      If you have a strong customer base, some social media, and can do things like video of your process or regular updates patreon may also be an option

    2. Sloanicota*

      I like the maker’s space idea – it might allow OP to still have in-person pickup if shipping is an issue (such as for large custom furniture) but not have to staff a desk all day themselves or maintain a full storefront alone. This might allow OP to do more things like take vacations or sabbaticals. Perhaps you can transition exiting store staff to administration staff so that you can focus mostly on production. What I tell my boss all the time is that we need her to focus mostly on the things *only she* can do.

  29. Living That Teacher Life*

    My dad is a woodworker. He retired from teaching and now sells his handmade products strictly on a hobby basis. He knows many talented artisans in that field, but he says it is very hard to work enough to make a living when you are the only one producing the high-quality product. I have a friend who runs and art-oriented business part time when she is not at her day job. If you decide to look for a different type of job, that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your first love completely—but maybe find a way you can enjoy it without the stress. Best wishes!

  30. SomebodyElse*

    For the sake of ease I’m going to pretend the OP runs a pottery store.

    1. When you decided to stop doing custom pots did you sit down and do a real evaluation on the margin of stock pots and your custom commissions? I think it’s good that you chose to focus, but did you focus on the right thing?
    2. Do you have measurable KPIs that you have tied to an exit and expansion plan?
    – $X profit by Y date -Not met start the plan to exit
    -$X+$Z by Y date -Start plan to expand
    3. What other support do you have? Are you doing your own books/payroll/etc? Is outsourcing a possibility?
    4. What does success look like to you? It should be a combo of profit/income + Personal factors. If you haven’t already done so, sit down and map this out. What’s realistic?
    5. If you aren’t ready to shut the doors, have you considered a partner? It sounds like you have an opportunity to divide front of house and back of house. A partner could also bring in $ to hire additional help
    6. Different business model –
    -online only
    -partnership to sell to other retail stores
    – art market (yes this works with my pottery theme but may not be applicable for other business types), farmers market
    -Combination of any of the above
    -Something else relevant to your store
    7. What is your exit plan. Your exit plan should cover two things the business and your personal situation

    Sorry for all the questions- there are few answers in there. But these are things that I would focus on in your shoes. The answers to these will help you plan your next steps. Good luck, you do sound very tired and beat up in your letter. May I suggest a short break away (even if it means closing the store for a few days and cheap getaway to neutral ground) to really reflect on what your next step is.

    1. Sloanicota*

      -partnership to sell to other retail stores

      This was what I was thinking, because then OP could have fewer but higher-value customers and maybe get out of some of the customer service stuff that gives you those 80/20 headaches (the public is a pain). My friend had a business that could not compete on shipping, because clients would compare it to Amazon or other major retailers and be put out by the extra $$ for it – but he ended up getting a contract with a retailer to direct-sell his products and that freed him up. Now he basically has one client, the retailer, who buys in bulk. To get this kind of deal might take good networking with the business community to find out how others are doing it.

  31. benny*

    If the work is physically exhausting, maybe consider investing in more capital equipment?
    Hoists, carts (possibly motorized), pumps/handling equipment…
    Heck, maybe even do a material flow analysis. If you can reduce the amount of walking back and forth carrying stuff you do, or slap a few stools in places you occupy a lot (eg in front of a bench); all that could add up.

    Max out the industrial equipment you use, so you can manufacture as quickly and as low-labor as possible. It sounds like you want to keep the business going, but reduce the burden down to a more sustainable level.

  32. You Time*

    While you explore all the other excellent suggestions, can you find small ways to care for yourself in the meantime? Is there one morning a week where you can go into work late and spend just a couple hours for yourself having a slower, more leisurely morning (or same concept but for leaving early)? It sounds like work has consumed you. Can you find some deliberate ways to start changing that on a sustainable, on-going basis?

  33. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    And raise prices even more!! Arts and crafts (should) pay more than manufactured goods.

  34. Tio*

    Raise your prices.

    My mother owned her own business. She was stressing about the amount of work and the workload. A friend then asked her, “If you raised your prices by 50%, would you lose half your clients?”

    She said she didn’t know, but maybe. It was certainly possible.

    They then said “So you’d be doing half the work for the same amount of money?”

    It changed the way she thought about the whole thing. She raised her prices by 25%. She did not lose 25% of her customers. (She did lose a few, but oh well.)

    Do not be afraid to raise prices. You will drive away some customer, maybe, but you will probably only end up doing less work for the same/more money.

    1. calonkat*

      This is brilliant and should be sent to everyone who wants to start a business making things by hand.

      1. Tio*

        I feel like with a lot of small business owners there begins to become a fear of “losing customers”. It’s somewhat understandable, because they pay your bills, so you need them, right? But not all customers are created equal. If you have a customer willing to pay twice as much and a customer who won’t pay a penny more, one of those is more valuable than the other. Of course its hard to tell who will and won’t pay more at the time, but you’ve just gotta experiment sometimes.

  35. BatManDan*

    1. I know people that buy businesses and keep the owner on as manager, for those that love the work but not the ownership hassles; that’s on option.
    2. Raise your rates / focus on the most profitable types of customers.
    3. Read The E-Myth Revisted by Michael Gerber. Great perspective. (audiobook, ebook, etc – most available from the library)

    Any of these, or combination of these, will go a long way towards relieving the stress.

  36. Been There*

    If I said this:

    You can’t afford not to hire that extra employee.

    Would you argue with numbers or emotions? Numbers I understand, emotions can be overcome.

    If you love the job, you need the help. If you can’t afford the help, you can’t grow. You have reached your limitation.

    You have to let go of the need to control, it’s at the core of what is troubling you

  37. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    So many boutique-type stores I’ve seen just don’t try to compete on a chain store, mass production level. Their posted open hours are 9ish to 4ish…they close up for the day when they want to; they’re open 4 days a week …taking into account what days they are traditionally busiest or slowest…maybe you are closed Mon-Wed; they close up for vacations or a season entirely…again keeping in mind their busy season. I know that might not be what your current employees want, but maybe you’ll find you only need 1 or 2 seasonal people instead of 2 full-time employees and that frees you to make product in the off season. If you are locked in a lease for your shop and can’t afford to close for a season, rent out space to another business or sell other’s product on consignment.

  38. QA Peon*

    It’s hard to make suggestions without knowing the general field, but another thing local businesses do (we’re a small town) is share their space. For example, our local bakery rented time from the local caterers; bakery was open 7a-11a, caterers did counter orders for dinner pick up from 3p-8p. One of our florists shares with a coin/stamp shop. The place that does custom long arm quilting also sells coffee. The lady that sells dip and soup kits shares with the winery. It’s partly because we’re low on commercial space, but it also helps everyone share rent and utility costs.

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      I love those type of shops and I’ve seen them in larger cities too! Bowling alley and shoe store; donut shop in the morning and then pizza shop in the afternoon; hair salon and hardware store…

  39. Janet*

    Sometimes when you are stressed and exhausted, it can be hard to really assess your options realistically. I’ve never been in your shoes, but I have certainly known many highly stressed people who rule out every possible option for addressing issues in their businesses/careers because they can’t step out of their exhaustion and really assess the situation. Is there a way to find a trusted advisor? Someone from the business world you respect? And have them help you go back through various options to discuss them? That might help you surface new ideas or rethink ones you’ve already rejected. If you still decide to sell, close or otherwise exit, at least you will have the comfort of knowing you made the decision with clear eyes and not in a fog of anxiety.

  40. phira*

    I think there are some great suggestions here, but that if none of them work (or would work), you might need to walk away. The reasons you give for not wanting to stop are that you like the flexibility of working for yourself, you like the actual work, and you don’t want to disappoint your customers, but truly, none of that sounds like it’s worth it if it’s killing you to keep your business afloat.

    A dear friend of mine is quitting teaching this year, something she absolutely loves, because of burnout and the awful way that teachers are treated. It’s breaking her heart to leave–like you, she LOVES what she does, and disappointing students/parents was a reason why she stuck it out as long as she did. But it’s just not worth your life. Really not worth it.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Frankly the “not wanting to disappoint our customers, many of whom would be very sad to see us close” reads like someone afraid to leave thier job because company will fall apart, coworkers and boss will be disappointed. The advice for that is always that you need to do what’s best for you and you’re not responsible to stay at a job forever.

      Same thing here. Some customers will be disappointed, but they will get over it and move on to something else. They may keep the product for years and even wistfully say I wish LW hadn’t gone out of business, but that’s no reason for the LW to burn out or have no work-life balance or work themselves to death.

  41. Leilah*

    Perhaps it will be different in this economy, but as a female in a male-dominated field I really, really, really struggled to get hired after I gave up on the business I had founded. At best I could get interviews. I could not get anyone to see my experience as an entrepreneur as valuable. It took me almost seven months to land a job, and even then the pay was terrible, it was manual labor, and it required not even a college degree or any experience. It took me several years of working there to work myself back up to the *exact* job I had right out of college – and I’m still stuck in that position two years later and getting told that I don’t have enough management experience to even be a supervisor. I have over 12 years experience, two of which was as a manager at a related company and five of which is founding and running my own business which had employees.

    Very often when you are not a white guy, doing something amazing like being an entrepreneur scares people away from you instead of having them value your experience. It is really disheartening, but I just wanted to prepare you for the possibility that your job search if you choose to return to the workforce could be rougher than expected — rougher than it would be for even an entry-level candidate.

  42. Former Horse Girl*

    I’m an avid reader of this site, but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment. I felt this down to my soul.

    While I don’t have great advice, I do want to share my story. My entire life, starting at the age of three, I’ve ridden horses. Having my own farm and training horses/teaching lessons was my dream. I competed all over the country at a high level, worked my way up under top class barns and trainers, and in 2005 had the opportunity to fulfill my dream. My husband and I opened our own training facility.

    By 2015 I was suicidal and very nearly followed through. Despite being “successful” with a full barn of clients, we were constantly broke, and I lived under crushing pressure to deliver for my clients, and my body was breaking down. I had crippling pain nearly daily, panic attacks, insomnia, and thanks to all the rainy winters spent outdoors pneumonia nearly every winter that has left permanent scarring on my lungs.. Every minor issue (and, I say lovingly, horses are a constant, unending source of minor issues) felt like the impending weight of doom. My clients were demanding, self-centered, and utterly exhausting. (Think 3 am, seven panel long texts, and then five more texts asking why I didn’t answer). I was in therapy for two years before the therapist said, “Have you ever thought that this might not be the right job for you?”

    I was angry, I was enraged, how dare someone say that! That was my dream. My clients depended on me! I’d changed my entire life to make this happen.

    Then two days later, a clients horse injured itself in turnout doing the dumb thing that horses do, and as I prepared to call the client, I was overcome with rage at the horse. I found myself thinking, “I hate horses.” And that stopped me cold in my tracks. Because I don’t hate horses. I love them. I’d fought my whole life to have them. And yet, in ten years, I’d gone from joy to dread, love to loathing, and I knew that it was my sign that it was time to get out. Because the only things left for me what to either end my life or to come to despise the thing I once loved.

    Thankfully, I had gone to college and had a degree and some work experience to fall back on though it was 15 years old, and I can now say 7 years later I’ve worked my way up to a great job in my major, and couldnt’ be happier. My husband still runs the horse business, but we downsized properties about 18 months ago and run it on a smaller and more focused scale, and because of my good job, he has the luxury of “firing” problem clients. I’m slowly starting to ride again and find my joy with horses, though its truly a recreation now. I may never compete again. My mind and body are scarred and damaged, but they are slowly healing. I’ll never be what I once was, but I’m happy in a way I never thought possible before.

    Seven years ago I would never have been able to see this outcome. Everything seemed black and hopeless and I felt like a failure for a very long time. But, I’ve learned that sometimes what we love isn’t what we should do. I don’t know what’s right for you, but I do want to say, as someone who has been there, you don’t have to destroy yourself for love. If you are like me, it probably feels impossible to find a way out. But it’s there. Maybe it’s stepping back to part time, maybe it’s getting out completely, maybe it’s scaling down over time while you job hunt. But there is a solution.

    Truly best wishes on whatever path you choose.

    1. Purple Cat*

      Thank you for this.

      I’ve learned that sometimes what we love isn’t what we should do.

      And your story is sometimes the unintended consequence of encouraging people to only consider doing “what you love”. When you’re so emotionally invested in the business, it’s no longer “just a job” and so incredibly difficult to unwind yourself from it.

    2. OP*

      Wow, thank you for sharing this story. I’m glad you were able to find a way out of such a stressful situation. I agree that we don’t always have to do what we love, but I also think the part we love isn’t usually the problem – it’s the other 90% of the stuff that comes along with it (like problem clients). Your story gives me hope!

  43. Lenora Rose*

    I am agreeing with doing all 3 of these at once:
    – Take time off. A vacation is a valid use of your time. And don’t pressure yourself to produce faster when you come back to “make up the time” – though I wouldn’t be surprised if you do in fact do a bit better when not as burnt out.
    – Raise your prices. Not necessarily by much, but the number of craftspeople I know who undervalue their work is very close to 100% of the craftspeople I know, especially if they compare what they charge to the cost of supplies, and the time to make (with a valid skilled-worker per-hour rate, not minimum wage), AND the time to run the business. Fewer orders but better ones may work in your favour.
    – Produce a side product like the tutorial videos or pattern books (or recipes, or whatever is relevant) that, while they take a lot of time to make (and may cost some money up front to get professionally done), will produce passive side income that once finished, won’t require any new work. Delegate every part of the prep work you can to one of your existing staff.

  44. Bob-White of the Glen*

    I was in this boat a decade ago. Stress, burnout, and lack of support made me an unhappy person and I went back to my original profession, and a jobs with benefits and other good stuff. I literally reopened my business June 1st, but it will part time after my full-time job. I get all the security and companionship I need from my job, and the business will allow me to fulfill my love of it. Plus, I don’t have to work with the jerks as I can survive now without that income and I can pick the clients I want to work with.

    Is there any chance you can do something like this? Work elsewhere, but continue to create the products but maybe in an online store? I am certain your loyal customers would follow you there. And if you have to lay off people now would be a good time for them (and for you job hunting.) That may not be true in a few months if the economy goes where I think it is going.

    I think there’s some good advice above, and I agree taking a little time off to destress might be very beneficial.

  45. not neurotypical*

    If you can’t find the funds to hire another full-time person, can you perhaps hire a part-timer to handle the more physically demanding aspects of production? Perhaps a high-school student who isn’t planning to go to college, needs a part-time job, and would appreciate becoming a sort of apprentice, learning to do what you do by assisting you, with the idea that the role could become full-time as the extra labor enables you to increase production?

  46. bunniferous*

    How about a business partner, or an investor? Also you say you can’t afford to bring anyone on-would having that extra person bring extra profit down the road? I am all about staying out of debt but something has to give here.

    Take that break, do some brainstorming. You can do this!!!!

  47. Chris too*

    My first thought was, oh, you’re a jewellery maker. Then I thought if it can’t be moved online, it must be something big. Now I’m picturing you making wrought iron fences or something.

    I have experience as a market gardener and I love growing things, but I think I understand how you’re feeling. I know for me a lot of the problem was feeling lonely, without really realizing it. Nobody understood what I was doing, the constraints and challenges I had, while doing heavy labour to boot. I think the problem was more mental than physical but there’s definitely a physical component. When you’re feeling kind of stressed I think your muscles tighten up just a bit and make everything harder.

    I was next to another mixed grower, who also mainly worked alone, at a farmers market and we started chatting during our slow period, became close friends, and that made a huge difference. We’d text each other at the beginning of our work days, with lots of pictures, and several times during the day – this is what I’m doing today, wish me luck, any ideas about this, how can I make this easier? We’d only be texting maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day so it didn’t really cut into our work time. Sometimes we’d take a day and spend some hours working together at her place and some hours at mine.

    You can’t force friendship but if there’s some kind of group of people doing roughly the same thing as you are, you might find associating with them in some way helps. Having people to bounce ideas off of, and offer suggestions, particularly when there’s a strong physical component, and there may be ways to make things easier, is huge.

  48. Olivia*

    What about niching down and creating fewer different items? That may make it easier to batch tasks for different parts of the process, and could allow you to produce a similar quantity while taking less time. It might be that you really enjoy the whole variety of things you are making, to whatever extent there is a variety, but right now it doesn’t sound sustainable, so it may be that you have to give up one piece of the puzzle that you really like in order to be able to keep going and not burn out.

  49. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP I feel your pain! I’m self-employed too and can sometimes get overwhelmed with work. Since I have been burned out before, I take special care not to let such situations last. And I’m lucky to have a partner who’s very comfortable financially, so if my business were to dwindle I would not suffer financial hardship. It would only be my pride that got wounded, and my need for independence.

    As others have said, it’s time to give yourself a break of a few weeks. Use the time to mull over whichever comments resonate with you.

    My analysis is that I see you cut back by stopping the custom orders, and at first I thought, good, but then later I realised it was maybe the one thing you should be preserving.
    I get the impression you make pretty good teapots, and while it might be easier to earn a fair bit when you make several teapots all the same, I also feel that in crafts, custom is the way to go. If you decided that it was too much work, it’s probably because you were not charging nearly enough! This is all too often the case with crafts.
    A friend of mine makes fish, out of wood. They are truly beautiful works of art. A while back he was wondering whether to hire staff to keep up with demand. He had an apprentice he really liked, who he contemplated leaving the business to, who was all for branching out and making other animals and going online and all, and it probably could have worked, but he was nearing retirement and didn’t feel up to it.
    So instead he raised his prices and stopped making the simpler fish. He now works less and earns the same. It’d be neat if you could do the same.

  50. Keener*

    OP you sound very stuck and that is a tough place to be. In your letter you’ve ruled out many options. How deeply have you really considered and explored these options? Is there a version/scenario where some might be a possibility?

    Have you considered hiring a life/leadership/executive coach? Coaches usually have an amazing ability to ask powerful questions to help you really explore and understand the underlying issues you’re grappling with, generate options and then empower you to move forward.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      This is a great idea. Before you take all of the good advice that other commenters have suggested, take a step back and evaluate your priorities. Being able to weigh choices based on an overarching goal/priority/mission helps you ground yourself more, instead of making panic decisions based on shiny-ness or expedience.

    2. InterestedFromLondon*

      Came here to second getting some coaching, either specifically business coaching because some of the options you’ve ruled out might actually be possible with a different perspective/support/approach, or a more general coach to help you feel less stuck and to identify what you’d like to do next

  51. Lobsterman*

    Congrats on starting a successful business! It’s time to charge more and concentrate on the good clients, since expansion is out.

  52. Lorelai*

    Could you take on a partner? Or sell the business but stay on as an employee/profit participant?

  53. Nobby Nobbs*

    The community on this site astounds me sometimes. When I finished the letter I could’ve sworn the LW had either tried or ruled out every feasible solution, but y’all have filled the comment section with reams of good advice. And suggestions on who to ask for even more help! Fantastic work, seriously.

    1. Purple Cat*

      I’m always impressed with how many people have experience that is specifically relevant for the OP and are open about sharing their experiences.

  54. QuickerBooks*

    I’ve seen a few posters hint at this, but let me spell it out: you may also want to limit your product offering to just a few best-selling items. It’s hard to say what that would look like without knowing your exact industry, but in most businesses, a few items account for the majority of sales. Limiting the number of offerings allows you to tap into all sorts of efficiencies.

    My business offers a number of related services. One of my main clients used to hire us for Service A, Service B, and Service C. Services A and B paid horribly, but I figured I needed to take those to please the client to get work in Service C. That turned out to be nonsense. Once I realized that the cost to provide A and B was essentially wiping out the profits from C, I let them know we were no longer offering Service A or B. We would be happy to do C if they wished. I made this ultimatum knowing that if they stopped hiring us altogether it would make almost no difference since we were not realizing much profit from them anyway.

    They ended up keeping us for Service C and only Service C, and we’ve been profitable with them ever since.

  55. FalsePositive*

    Not knowing your product, this might not fit, but is there a version or form related to your product that you could produce for low cost and a seemingly high market. People who can’t or don’t want to buy a large version of your product may very much enjoy a small or simple or related version.

    The easiest example is smaller prints or cards of art pieces.

    I know an artist who does print making. Carves lovely designs, prints them herself and often adds watercolor accents or does offset/multi inks. She says she makes the “most” money off of her 1 stamp, 1 color greeting cards. It doesn’t bring her a ton of joy making her 1 animal/color print cards, but it’s like printing money for her (give or take) to keep making cards out of a handful of older, fairly stamps (they are delightful).

    On the youtube, etc, front, I know people don’t want to give away their secrets, but in some ways seeing all the steps involved, tools, etc, can gain you an appreciative audience more willing to buy. I occasionally see people skip a bit in a demo for “This is my secret step guys!” but most of everything is there. And adding general education, like you can do this the “cheap” way, but here are the drawbacks. Or “You might see these at WalMart and here’s the major differences buying it there than from someone like me.”

    1. FalsePositive*

      high market==high markup (I mean, low cost/high profit is always the goal, but I’m think of some that you might otherwise price for $2 just “doing the math” but you should just price it for $5 because it’s handmade).

  56. More dopamine, please*

    Hi OP, it sounds like you really love your work and would hate to lose your business. Your letter frames this situation as a black/white “should I shut down or keep working in these terrible conditions” choice, which is very concerning. It sounds like you might be under so much pressure that you are using reductive thinking instead of additive thinking. (For example, you are coming up with a reason why every individual idea won’t work, instead of realizing that if you tried a combination of different things, and kept making adjustments, you could likely solve your problem over time instead of looking for a single fix.)

    Other commenters have had good suggestions for you to start by taking a break. After you’ve had a break, start writing down ideas for ways to change your business, but don’t allow yourself to rule any of the ideas out. This is about generating ideas, not killing them. Just generate a lot of ideas, then sit with them for a while and let them percolate.

    Some ideas to get you started: You don’t have to seek growth. Steady work is a valid business model. Scarcity is also a powerful business model. For example, many craftspeople use a “drop” model, where they focus on making work for a few months. Then, they have a planned sale where all of that work becomes available. Once it sells out, there is no more to buy until the next drop. That allows the craftsperson to have breaks in between their intense making cycles, and to have dedicated times to focus on other parts of their business. When you embrace scarcity in your product, it also helps you raise your prices.

    Finally, can you truly support two employees to manage clients if that leaves you with no help with the making of your product? It might be easier to outsource that aspect of your business, but it sounds like it’s not sustainable since the work is such a burden for you. Consider laying off your support employees and training assistants or interns to help you with the labor. Once you have that running, you can decide whether you want to handle client services yourself, or increase your product output to pay for the additional client support that you need.

    Very best of luck in designing a business that is healthy and sustainable for you!

  57. Academic Project Coordinator*

    I was here. I wound up selling my business and moving into an entirely different industry with a standard salary and 8-4:30 hours (and no emergencies or extra hours). It has given me a new lease on life and the ability to explore other hobbies and things I love, buy a home, and start a family. It was very hard to let go of the business and figure out an exit that left me satisfied and feeling like my legacy and the work I had spent 11 years on was intact, but once I figured it out, I know for sure it was the right decision for me. There are aspects I truly miss, including a community of suppliers and customers who were wonderful, but the freedom of not constantly worrying about money, work, the business, etc. cannot be overstated. Good luck.

  58. Chirpy*

    First: take a break! Staycation, or vacation, or whatever, just take some time for yourself. What you need to do after that may become more clear.

    One thing I haven’t seen a lot of people here suggest is limiting your sales hours. Several artists/small businesses I’ve seen use the following:

    1. Shop only takes orders (online) for the first two weeks of the month, then closes ordering and focuses on production for the rest of the month, to cut down on wait times for the made to order items. This helped them avoid the long delays that plagued a similar company that ultimately ended up closing due to bad customer experiences with product being delivered years late, if *at all.* They are upfront with the policy on their website and while you can still shop their products, it will give you a pop-up saying when ordering will reopen. Customers like it because despite the annoyance if you miss an ordering window, you know you’ll get a good product in a timely manner.

    2. Artist (well known for being the best at making a single product) was getting burnt out and had an upcoming surgery, plus had a massive amount of backorders. She does not want to hire help as it’s her art. She closed her shop temporarily but indefinitely but communicated this on social media and her website (and closed her Etsy in favor of moving all sales back to her own website.) This allowed her to complete the outstanding orders (or offered to refund for those who didn’t want to wait). She then had time to recover from surgery and do some updates she’d long been wanting to do for her product, as well as calculate a price change. When she was ready to start taking orders again, she announced what time her shop was reopening. I ordered within the first hour and was far enough back in the list to have a 4 month wait on the new list (after the 6+ month closure), which was completely worth it. Her customers were (and are) perfectly willing to wait because she communicated the whole time and her product is fantastic.

    3. Local ice cream shop is only open from March to October (no inside seating in the building and I think the owners are snowbirds) . People literally camp out in the snow for opening day. It’s just that well liked, there is another good place that’s open year round not too far away but it just doesn’t have that following.

    1. QA Peon*

      Your ice cream shop reminds me of one I worked for as a teenager; the owner worked as a plumber in the winter, ran the shop in the summer. As a plumber he didn’t have to deal with employees, it was just him, and while driving between jobs he day dreamed about what new flavors and products he wanted to offer come summer.

      During the summer he enjoyed being the cook and having all the young folk around, and day dreamed about the quiet winter lol. His wife was an accountant and did the books and payroll, and appreciated only having to deal with staff for half the year.

  59. raincoaster*

    Maybe this has already been suggested, but since you’re working in a market for a physical product, is it possible for you to increase your prices enough that demand decreases but you can still make a living? This would work if your product were, say, handmade pottery or other art or craft. It wouldn’t work if your product is available everywhere at the same price, I guess.

    A friend of mine who’s a very savvy investor used to say, every time we met, “Triple your rate!” and he was right.

  60. PayRaven*

    An angle to “raise your prices” that I haven’t seen explicitly called out yet: have you assessed how your COSTS have changed in the last couple of years? The world’s very different from what it was in 2015, and if your work uses any kind of raw materials (ESPECIALLY lumber or many crafting supplies), then the costs of those have definitely gone up. Maybe a little at a time. Maybe each time it was reasonable to eat the cost without raising your prices to compensate. But is it reasonable in aggregate?

    I feel so deeply for you. I know what it’s like to look at a bunch of hard alternatives and truly believe that none of them are viable. But neither Alison nor the commentariat can give you a way to put more hours in your day or increase your output beyond its max. Give yourself the gift of beleiving that you are already doing the best you can, so something else MUST change.

  61. Exit Stage Left*

    Hi Former-Business-Owner here,

    Was in a similar “profitable but exhausted” all the time position a couple of years ago and hit a similar wall. I had settled on a plan to staff up to take the load off and then use my time to find growth to be able to pay everyone… but that got derailed by the pandemic which pretty much destroyed growth opportunities in my industry (but still left me with more work than I could do at my current company size).

    In the end my solution was to reach out to a larger company that was sort of a competitor – but mostly did work in slightly different parts of the same industry, and with clients of a slightly different size) and we had a discussion about if they’d like to buy me out. After a couple of conversations it seemed like there was a great fit, where having them acquire my business could give them new clients, and provide new services – and I even could join them running my department, and focus more on the parts of the job I liked and jettison the ones I didn’t.

    I’m not saying there’s a perfect match for everyone out there (and I think our partnership worked out so well because I *was* willing to just put the keys on the table and walk away if it wasn’t obviously an ideal fit, and would have been fine with that knowing I made a few bucks and my clients would be looked after).

    Moving back to being an employee after being a sole owner for years is a bit of an adjustment, and the pandemic has complicated the timelines on being able to step back more – but I don’t regret the move at all, and am on a clear path to being able to take regular, actually disconnected, time off – which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

  62. thanks for all the fish*

    This was me in 2012. It was my dream business that I fought to get off the ground and ticked every box of success (for 7 years, funny enough) as long as you weren’t the one trying to cover the trading hours and live off the income.

    I couldn’t sell for a price that would leave me with anything to float on as it was, quite clearly, based on Me. If you’re selling a business that has been built around You (skill in production; customer service approach; USP and general vibe), then anyone with the money to buy is going to *know* that there will be a dip after takeover, and won’t want to pay the top end as a result.

    And, of course, when external (financial) factors prevent you from hiring more staff to ease the burden, you’re likely in a debt scenario that *needs* the top end to allow an exit.

    Staying on as a member of staff would have taken away a big reason to make an effort (self-employment), and like you, I couldn’t take it online (firmly bricks and mortar). I also couldn’t look for alternative work while the business was still running (staff wage responsibilities and, frankly, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t string a sentence together unless it was a rote response to questions about the business). As I wasn’t a startup or poised for global expansion, I also couldn’t get funding to help me grow/survive without adding even more hours to my day or further negative impact on my health. And once your day-to-day income has a fixed process, you can’t flip it to something else without additional funding. Which, if you had access to it, would negate the whole need for a change. It’s a bugger, right?

    I had two periods during the year that gave me a break: a week during the summer (based on footfall) and Christmas Eve to the first Monday after New Year (sheer desperation). Theoretically, I got a break, but it didn’t help quiet the mental calculations of viability.

    Ultimately, I hung on too long in the hopes I’d find a doable resolution and eventually just had to close my doors and take the (incredibly painful) financial hit. In retrospect, I should have treated it like an asset sale and stripped the place before moving on. But! It does linger on in local memory – which for me, makes the memories bittersweet. I *know* that what I created was *good*, even if it didn’t end as I wanted.

    My advice would be to keep control of what happens by having A Plan. Once I set a date to shutter down, I could dictate what each stage of closure looked like and make sure I could handle it on my own terms without being pushed. It also got the bank off my back – I gave them my schedule, and they (pretty much) left me alone until the final hour.

    I don’t know your personal circumstances (my family helped where they could and my partner at the time kept a roof over our heads, but that took a toll on both relationships – one survived; one did not), but I have *never* regretted a thing. It’s not the whole ‘high school was my greatest hour’, but it will always be ‘here’s something I did that I will always be very proud of and remember with great affection.’

    In terms of the aftermath, for full disclosure, I spent a year on the couch, unable to find work, depressed as hell, chipping bags of mystery meat off the back of the freezer to keep us fed (when I could be bothered to eat). I eventually found a job (a whole series of letters there about bullying culture and incredibly toxic work environments that frustrated me beyond belief as that wasn’t the way *I* ran things), but I stuck it out for a year to get something – anything – on my CV that wouldn’t put prospective employers off as I’d been my own boss for so long. Then I moved to another company that had similar issues, just with less of a commute.

    But after those jobs, things turned around, and the work I do now is essentially freelance as that ticks all my boxes, but as a ‘permanent’ contractor, it gives me a reliable wage. And every little thing I needed to know in Before Times is valued (not least because it saves them a fortune in HR, delinquent account chasing, project management, marketing, people/team management etc.) and I have the freedom to suggest what I know works, but with no direct impact on my income if they choose to ignore me. As an aside, my current position has bugger all to do with the industry my business was in. In fact, my working arrangement didn’t exist until my CurrentJob met me, and I persuaded them that trialling a ‘new’ way of working would benefit the company.

    And what many would consider a failure gives me the confidence to talk about all sorts of things that might be considered above my paygrade in other circumstances. With experience comes a lack of fear and knowledge that things could be worse. Particularly if you’re not paying for the fuckups…

    What you’re dealing with is shit, and it feels like the weight of expectation is pushing you down, but once you make a decision to draw a line under your current situation, it will be better. Give it 3 years (and I only say this because I would have *loved* a timescale to set my expectations against), and your world will look totally different.

    I can assure you, I still Have Plans. One day, I might decide to start anew, using everything I learned the hard way to make sure it doesn’t happen to me again. My business model was excellent, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. But a business model doesn’t accommodate crappy landlords, global pandemics, and (very specific, I know) a broken mains sewage pipe that served the whole street but smell-wise, was fragrantly localised under my shop floor. Insurance wasn’t helpful, and the local authority responsible for rectifying the situation was… less than motivated.

    Yet whatever my future holds, I did good. As did you, OP. I promise, you did *really* good. And if you need permission to simply pull the pin, I’m giving it to you right now. You don’t have to extend your suffering to prove your worth. You got this far; that’s proof enough.

  63. OP*

    OP here. Just wanted to say thank you for all the kind and thoughtful comments. I can’t respond to them all, but there are many very, very good suggestions here that have given me a lot to think about. The general consensus has been to raise prices, take a vacation, and maybe rethink some of the options I had dismissed (like hiring another person). When you’re self employed, it can be hard to charge what you’re really worth, take the yime you really need, and tune out those who balk. Thanks for the encouragement!

    1. GhostGirl*

      When I read this letter, I instantly thought of Katie Carson, a Youtuber who runs her own business, Royalty Soaps. She had a lovely and I felt thought-provoking video about burnout (search “Royalty Soaps burnout” on Youtube and it will be the #1 hit). Her comments about how she paused to reassess and the thought process behind it might hit home for you.

      Best of luck! My sister-in-law, a doctor, has written numerous papers about physician burnout (and made herself basically an expert in the field) so I am soooooo conscious of burnout as a thing – and it hits all ages, all stages, all careers. I have faith that you will figure it out.

  64. Allison K*

    Raise every single price by 10% at least. Anyone who cares enough to get to a brick and mortar store to purchase an item isn’t primarily buying on price. Wishing you well!

  65. Ollie*

    I run a small business, just me. I did it part time for many years until I retired from my day job and decided to go full force. I burnt out very quickly. I create and build my own product and do not have a brick and mortar so my selling is on the road. The first thing I looked at was – how much money do I need? If you are sustaining a pleasant lifestyle you don’t need to grow, especially if more growth means you have less time to enjoy what it provides. The second thing I did was raise my prices significantly. My biggest seller sold for $325. I raised it to $425 overnight. It still is my biggest seller and there was absolutely no pushback from my buyers. It is simple economics of supply and demand. If you can’t keep up with the demand, raise the price. In fact, if you are unable to keep up with demand You are probably already not charging enough. I am still making the same amount of money but I am not working nearly as hard.

  66. Zee*

    Can you train one or both of your existing employees to take on more responsibility? You’d need to give them a raise – but that’d be cheaper than hiring an entire extra person.

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