|by Elicia Edijanto|
The Whole BMK Story
I haven’t published anything in a long time, despite the growing pile of false starts in my drafts folder. It's not that I haven't had anything to say, it’s that I wouldn’t allow myself to share. The past three and a half years has been incredibly hard on us. Cracking his customary wry grin, Adam often said, "Aren't you glad we work this hard to be this poor?” That’s my guy, telling the hard truth, to the last. Starting an unfunded small business was at once exciting, public, and inspiring, but the reality of running one (and surviving the first 4 years) was painful, private, and depressing. Your first customers are often friends, and anyone with business experience knows it's vital to put your best foot forward, even if that’s not consistent with reality. What they don’t tell you in business class is that the first years are mostly fake-it-till-you-make-it. You have no idea what you're doing, how to do it, or how to pay for it, but you'll get it done with a smile and tell everyone how easy it was and how much you love it in hopes that they'll buy your widgets because behind the façade you're in massive debt, afraid you won't make it, and have no clue how to pay your rent should you fail. The road we traveled and the journey we shared publicly are very different. This put me at a crossroads, since I always felt that experience was enriched and validated in its honest sharing – particularly of challenging situations. That's why we're a culture of underdog lovers. They inspire us, make us feel that we too could elevate ourselves with enough grit and hard work; but the underdog story, sans customary happily-ever-after ending can be one of woe.
If you haven't followed our story, here's the abridged version: After spending over a decade securely tucked into my faux-finished desk-and-drawers working for someone else, I grew weary of the yoke, thinking, “Surely I didn't need their paycheck, or their rules!” After a company-looting boss laid Adam off from his small firm, we started our fledgling meal delivery service, Bite Me Kitchen in August of 2012. We jointly realized (always knew, really) that neither of us was cut from the same cloth as the folks climbing corporate ladders in the 9 to 5 world.
Q3 2012 – Beginnings
Our first foray into business ownership was super exciting. I was excited, Adam was excited, our friends were excited, everybody was excited. Everyone wanted to know what was happening along the way! I left my stable and well-paid career and fully committed to our business about six months in. We were so naive. It was hard, but we stayed positive. We pushed through endlessly long workdays and quickly consumed our extremely limited cash flow on equipment purchases, fronting personal cash and credit as we went to keep the business chugging. And then, week after week, it was like slowly being buried alive. We worked 12, 14, 16-hour days back-to-back on tired legs. We skipped meals and splurged on ramen and beer. We slept for a few hours here and there in between work. We woke up shaky, on edge, nerves raw from interrupted sleep and stress. We sold things to pay our bills. We upped our credit card limit. We fought, we laughed, we made up, we worked and worked and worked and worked and worked. We put on weight, and swore we'd establish a training plan. We were injured from constant labor and took time off training. We began to see our lives slip from us. Everyone asked how the business was and commented on how inspired they were. I didn't have the heart to say that I felt more alone than I ever, ever had - and I'm an introvert that prefers solitude. I found true isolation raw, alienating, and defeating.
Q2 2013 – Cutting the Umbilical
I thought the grass really would be greener on this side. I knew we'd have to dig up the land and sow seeds, and water and weed, but it'd be our grass, right? We lived below the poverty line for years, getting increasingly unhealthy, growing tired, alone, and unhappy. We had to miss family events and feel the crushing guilt of, "We're sorry, we can't make the [birthday|wedding|etc.]. We have to work (or we'll be evicted)." We were unable to see loved ones before they left this world, or even go to their funerals because it would mean losing 1/4 of the month's income and not making ends meet. There's nothing worse than not being able to attend a funeral, or having to tell your family that you have to miss yet another birthday or holiday celebration, because you chose a path that offered no vacation days, no savings, no retirement fund, no weekends, no holidays, and no sick days.
Q1 2014 – Troubles Within
I clearly remember one night in bed, crying. Adam asked what was wrong, but I was mired in an inexplicable sadness. I hadn't slept much in weeks, and decided to try taking Ambien to sleep. After a few weeks I found that it was great at helping me sleep, but it had the nasty side effect of plunging me head-first into depression. I remember feeling like an untethered astronaut, drifting in space. Waiting to die. Unattached. Unfeeling. Uncaring. Alone. Cold. I had switched off my feelings to cope with the constant onslaught of work, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion. I didn't care about anything. Add to that the crushing reality of there not being any grass on this side and I was left with some pretty grim thoughts. Why exist at all? If this doesn't work and that didn't work, maybe I’m the problem. What is the point of all this work? Why work at all? Why struggle? I was at once defeated, disconnected, isolated. On the outside I had to smile all day long, keep work-work-working and show the world my happy face. Keep buying our widgets! They’ll make you happy and healthy! YAY!
Q3 2014 – Troubles Without
Later that year, someone unjustly threatened to sue us. Then she tried to extort money from us by threatening to commit libel on the social media channels that were our marketing lifeblood. Legally, we couldn't talk to anyone about it, and we couldn't defend ourselves publicly. Our attorney advised to remain silent in case she filed a lawsuit, which never happened, because it’s inadvisable to sue people unless you have an actual case. So, in the middle of yet another 14 hour workday, we had to call all of our business contacts and send them insurance documentation and legalese, explain the story multiple times, then get back to work and smile and smile and smile like nothing was wrong. When someone tries to steal the meager fruit of your tremendous sacrifice, it's so, so wrong.
Over time, the stuffing of all that down, that almost broke me. I internalize my stress physically and it really messed me up. I’ll spare you the unpleasant details, but I couldn’t sleep or eat normally, and was in terrible pain for weeks. I thought, “This couldn’t possibly be worth it.” Whatever we're working towards, this can't be it. And still, we toiled on. We couldn't believe we could sacrifice so much for so little, only for someone to try to take it away.
While we were shocked and traumatized, we were also overwhelmed with support from our tight-knit community of entrepreneurs, business owners, and customers who rallied behind us. Their ongoing encouragement to keep pushing forward despite the scary situation was exactly what we needed. We got hit square on the nose that day, and while the pain was tangible, we were amazed at the encouragement we received. Each person we spoke to lifted us up with their own survival story, giving us a needed boost to stay the course. The best thing we heard that day was, "You know you’re on the road to making it when people start coming after you for money!" Thanks for that, [you know who you are].
Q1 2015 – Light in the Tunnel
2015 looked like it would be our breakout year. Our reputation helped us line up a large and lucrative project, and we knew if we could play it right, we’d make it to the next level. All our labor would pay off: we'd be able to pay our staff what they're worth, and Adam & I might be able to make over $3.50/hour. We might even be able to take more than 2 days off to go camping! We were so close. That's the American Dream, right? If you keep focused and work hard enough for long enough, you'll make it. It's like leaping from stone to stone across a wide and raging river. You keep leaping and pray that you'll eventually get to the opposite bank. We took a huge leap in spring, leaving our home at The Hood Kitchen in anticipation of this massive project. To help pay the rent at the new place, we picked up our first wholesale client, designing and producing goods for another meal service. We kept leaping, expanding our wholesale client base, until one day we realized that no matter how hard we worked, our original Bite Me Kitchen concept could never work without a major overhaul. It would require a shot of capital, and alienating most of our existing clients.
Q3 2015 – Realizations
Let's touch on that. Our customers knew that we made delicious, high-quality food, but most had no real idea what really went into each and every dish. Why our vegan mozzarella didn't taste like processed Daiya vegan cheese – we made it from our own yogurt, made in turn from our own organic soy milk. Why our breads didn't make their stomachs hurt: we made them completely from scratch from high-quality whole grains. Why our sauces and dressings were so delicious and calorie-friendly: we used every trick in the whole-food book to cut the fat and crank up the protein. The time it took was absolutely staggering. Hand-rolling piecrusts for 100 vegan potpies would take hours - and forget about my sanity once the temperature climbed above 75 degrees! We pushed the envelope of culinary creativity until we were making stuff up as we went - beautifully, deliciously, passionately. In the end we discovered that isn’t necessarily something you can teach. With a weekly-changing menu chosen from a repertoire of literally hundreds of handcrafted meals, it dawned on us that there we would never be able to take a vacation. EVER. That sunk in. No vacation. Ever. Working eternally. We'd have double our prices to afford enough staff to handle the load and still make enough money to survive.
Unless you've run your own business, I don't know if I can impress how absolutely crushing that realization was. We could never take a week off; never go away for more than a ‘weekend’. Every single time we managed to pull ourselves together long enough to hike or run or ride or snowboard - the lingering fear that we absolutely could not get hurt haunted us. Can't get sick. Can't sprain an ankle. Can't take a risk. Combined with making no money, endless weeks of 12+ hour days, physical damage from overuse injuries - we realized that the very beautiful thing we'd created would eventually kill us. It was like realizing you'd birthed a monster.
At the same time, this golden opportunity was coalescing into reality. We had a potentially huge break! This project was everything that BMK wasn’t: scalable, repeatable, and teachable. We knew it was a gamble, and people in the know cautioned us it might be messy. We took our shot, leapt for the brass ring – and fell, hitting every rung on the way down. We were so focused on ensuring our operation was tight that were blindsided. We swam head-down and non-stop to meet our ship of opportunity, and we made it to the dock! Only the ship was beached.
There are holes in this story of our years. To fill them in would mean detailing countless sleepless nights, mornings when the first step out of bed feels like stepping on broken glass because your feet are so sore from the previous day. The anxiety of not knowing whether you’ll make payroll – and understanding that not only our rent, but our staff's rent, car payments, kids, and livelihoods depend on those checks. Ask anyone who’s worked in a kitchen what the camaraderie is like. The laughter, the sacking up to an immense workload, the endless inside jokes, high fives, and the excessive consumption of bananas, peanut butter, ramen, and cheap beer – it's the absolute strength of each person that makes for a strong ship. The tear-welling gratitude when your staff tells you to get the fuck out of the kitchen, of someone leaving you a 6-pack in the fridge, of watching them help each other and take responsibility, and trust each other and work together like we're the only tribe we have. Despite a mountain of difficulty, we experienced so many kind acts demanding of sheer gratitude.
As time passed, we’ve had past BMK customers contact us, frustrated that we've gone out of business. They want to return their bags for deposit fees and are mad that we're no longer operating the meal delivery service. It feels so raw and personal to us. We know this business cost us our precious fitness, threatened our physical and mental health and our marriage, pushed us into a mountain of debt, and forever changed the way we see the world. How do you relate all that without getting too personal? "I'm sorry I can't make your lunch, but it made me want to kill myself a few times in the past few years, and we're in so much debt I can't sleep, but here's your $25.00 deposit back." Some customers we've known for a long time have heard the whole story, and one wonderful customer (looking at you JS!) said we should share that story, since many customers felt like a part of the business but had no idea what we were going through. Another someone stepped in and said, "Never show weakness, it's none of their business," and while that didn't sit well with me, I had to consider it. When you show weakness, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it's raw, naked, frightening, and real.
Q4 2015 – Adaptation
We adapted to survive. BMK currently operates in a wholesale business-to-business capacity where we co-pack or private label products for other companies. We produce, they sell. It's a nice reprieve from doing everything from concept and marketing, to sales and procurement; production to distribution, accounting and customer service all of the time. By unpinning ourselves from a destination, we learned it's not where you're going that matters. As you grow and learn, your understanding of your goal changes – what works changes, what you want changes. We weren’t so hung up on our model that we lost the ability to quickly adapt. We've only survived by polymorphism – being willing to drop our original dream in search of something different, opening doors for new opportunities. It's human nature to cling to a failing dream so tightly that you and everything you worked for go down with it. Instead, swing in the jungle like Tarzan – let go of each vine at the opportune moment, and grab the next.
If you're not happy / not healthy / not living the life you want – change! Everyone told us we couldn't keep working and living the way we were, but we were so tied to an ideal – tied to a dream of providing people with whole, real food at an unrealistic price, that we were starving for it. Along the way, we learned that many people were perfectly ok to watch us starve if it meant they got a discount - and that really sucks. It sucks for us, for humanity, and it sucks for the world.
For entrepreneurs, focus on the lifestyle you want, everything else is secondary. What kind of day do you want? Do you want to not work? Make tons of money? Live a simple life? Increase the good in the world? Who do you want to work with? What you’re making may not matter as much as you think. We thought when we missed our ‘golden opportunity’ that we were done for and would close up shop by year’s end, but in the interim, our staff stepped up, and that meant we could take some much-needed time off. That was truly priceless, and altered our perspective. Working less meant everything to us. Build a clear picture of what you want in your day, and find a way to make it reality.
Define success for yourself. Is it a big house, a 6-figure salary, and Bali vacations? The absence of debt-related anxiety? Spending time with those you love and being able to truly enjoy yourself without worrying or working? For us it was buying new socks. Finally being above the poverty line. Knowing we can make payroll. Being able to tell our staff they can take paid time off around the holidays. Having a little time to actually pick up our house and stop living like college kids/animals. Redefining success allowed us to enjoy true richness instead of perpetually seeking something just beyond the next horizon. Anything above paying the bills and affording health insurance is a bonus!
Written by Rose Cameron
Edited by Adam Zalewski
|by Elicia Edijanto|
Edited by Adam Zalewski