Creating a Business

For those of you who couldn’t attend either of The Creative Connection Events in Minneapolis/St. Paul, below is my keynote speech from 2010. Amy Butler was also a keynote speaker that first year. And Ree Drummond was on stage during lunch for a question/answer session. This year’s keynote was Christina Ferrare, chef on Oprah’s OWN.

Thank you Jo, for asking me to be your keynote speaker tonight to talk about heady things like how to create the creative life of your dreams.

Can it be done? For more than a dozen years, apprentices have shown up on my doorstep, enrolled in my Pay Dirt Farm School. Some of them lived with me year-round, some just for the summer, some shadowed me for a couple of weeks. The ONE question they were seeking an answer to was universal: “How do I live the life of my dreams?” Hand-in-hand with that was, “How do I pay for it?” All of us, myself included, look for answers to these questions from people who appear to have found the answers. We want to borrow from the experiences of others. Nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t have a way to speak tonight if I hadn’t started borrowing words at a young age. Tonight, I’m going to share with you as many details as I can in a short time. Some of my tips are straight-up—keep your books in order, create a buddy system—but I have a couple of quirky ones I’m most anxious to share because they continue to bring magic into my life.

When my daughter and I were in Chicago for a book signing, a woman stood in line with her husband, who looked like he was about to bolt. But she was keeping a firm grip on his upper arm. When it was her turn to step up she said, “I hope you can settle a family argument.” (I’ll try!) “Are you a trust baby?” (No.) “Does your husband pay your way?” (I wish! Actually, it was I who invented how it is we make a living.) “Did you inherit ANY money at all?” (When I left home, my parents gave me a dozen eggs, a case of home-canned peaches, and a sewing machine.) By then, I had a pretty good idea what the family argument was about, so I said to her husband, “Rest assured, I’m completely self-made.” She turned to him, “See, if she can do it, I can do it.”

I think the urge to be your own boss tops everyone’s list of why they want to start a business. But for women, there’s more to it than that. It’s about giving back and doing SOMETHING about what we think is missing in the world—creating a better bar of soap, non-toxic toys, healthier food, art with heart, AND most important, having an outlet for our creativity.

History has proven this to be a woman’s need, right up there with air and water. Native Nez Perce women gathered tiny strands of bear grass and the silk from cornhusks to weave ceremonial hats. Zulu women picked grains of sand from clay, the resulting ochre used to give color to clothing. Before RIT dye, butterfly wings were gathered and pulverized. It’s the very reason we’re here today. It’s an urge we HAVE to satisfy.

In order to get to where you want to be, first you have to establish where you are—in a VERY real, honest way. The best test I’ve come up with to determine where I’m really at is to ask myself: “Is the life I’m living right now the one I would want for my children?” When I’ve tried my question out on others, they spontaneously have an answer that almost always includes specifics: “I don’t want my child to get stuck in an inside 9 to 5 like me,” or “I don’t want my child to worry all the time about money, or “I hope my children don’t have to wait until they retire to do what they really want to do.” Even if you don’t have children, this surmise, this question, works.

If any part of your answer, your run-down, is “No, I want something better,” then there it is—you’ve just spelled out your starting place for what you need to change in your life. But how?

It’s 1988 and I’m a single mother—two children ages 9 and 5. I have a spare room in my uninsulated, heated-with-wood-only, turn-of-the century ramshackle farmhouse without indoor plumbing and I think, “What can I do here, at home, that would allow me to work at home, and consequently, BE AT HOME?” Babysit my neighbor’s children? Create an alternative school with emphasis on the outdoors? Before having children, I’d worked for years as a wilderness ranger and fire lookout for the Forest Service. Upholstery? Prior to buying my five-acre farm, I’d had a successful upholstery business on the main street of a small town, but my business shingle wasn’t being viewed by as many people anymore (one of the disadvantages of living at the end of a dirt road) and 1988 was pre-Internet. Besides, even though I loved upholstery, especially rebuilding vintage pieces, I was even more passionate about food.

Something food. I wanted to do something noble … ORGANIC food! Remember, this was 22 years ago, before the proliferation of farmers’ markets. Fortunately for me, my parents had raised me on organic food that we grew ourselves. I was already well-trained.

Today, I sell more than a million dollars worth of organic food every year from a day basement in my expanded “farmhouse.” I’m home. I’m my own boss. I employ family (my husband, my children, and their spouses), friends, and neighbors. And in, say, another 10 or 12 years, maybe my grandchildren???? (Fingers crossed.)

How’d I do it? How did I get from grinding garbanzo beans by hand and selling the mix as falafel to a handful of local stores to where I am today: the author of three Random House books, editor of a women’s self-titled magazine, owner of two retail stores, designer of fabrics and MaryJane’s Home organic sheets and towels and bed sets sold in 300 plus department stores?

A good starting place is to check in on your attitude. Change your attitude, change your life, right? It’s as simple and as HARD as that. Take a reading. Where are you, really?

In the ’80s, I took on the label of environmentalist (with an anti-nuclear emphasis) and started an organization in my hometown that still exists today with close to a dozen employees. I started it by passing a hat in a bar that came back with ten bucks. The label “environmentalist” isn’t such a hot button anymore. Back then it was, especially for me, because I was a fairly RIGHTEOUS environmentalist. Meaning I had BIG OLE OPINIONS. And even if I didn’t point fingers publicly (and often I did), my very THOUGHTS were all about my BIG OLE OPINIONS.

Here’s my notion of a fix I use on myself—in other words “set myself up for success.” I’m convinced you cannot have long-term, easy success if you judge. It’s a huge energy drain.

I have a woman in my hometown to thank for my first lesson on “judgment abandonment.” In 1996, I’d already sold the first few shares of stock in my corporation, created my first mail-order catalog (black and white newsprint), took it to the post office, and mailed 2,500 copies. That night, my house burned down.

JoAnn was a local politically active woman who I had a BIG OLE OPINION about because her politics were so different from mine. She also worked for the phone company. I needed to relocate quickly and get set up to take phone calls from the catalog I’d just mailed. (This was the pre-cell phone era when crews still uncoiled miles of wire.) She had every reason not to be overly helpful; I was pretty full of myself. But she was not only helpful, she was a woman with an amazingly open heart. She sent her crews out, she laughed and cried with me, AND eventually she invited me to join the DREADED Chamber of Commerce. (I used to say things like, “She or he has that Chamber of Commerce mentality, jobs at any cost to the environment.”)

About that time, I was starting to see the light, so while on a car trip with my teenage children, I tried something from a book I’d read, How to Win Any Argument. The author, a well-known lawyer, claims emphatically that EVERYONE has prejudices and you need to move past them. He made a convincing case for getting out a piece of paper and making a list and then turning that into a TO DO list. The exercise was fascinating. My list included bankers, golfers, and more.

So make your list and then invite a banker into your life, a golfer, a Monsanto employee, a …. (you fill in the blanks). In other words, move past an attitude that poisons you daily. The Internet has become a stage for some sort of strange concoction of jealousy, personal anger, and criticism. I try to recognize it for what it is. Better yet, override it by sending that person a positive letter or by saying something publicly that is positive. “Dear Martha …”

I swear by a tape recorder. (Also handy for creative brilliance while driving, bathing, gardening, cleaning …) The one I use has powerful reach and can sit turned on for hours on the seat of my car or nearby when I’m outside working. Start with getting over your BIG OLE OPINIONS. Record what you say out loud, and then move inward, to your thoughts … I just picked up Oprah’s magazine, and thought, “She sure has become materialistic.” Say something into your recorder that cancels it: “Oprah has changed, for the better, the lives of countless human beings.”

“I can’t believe my sister bought an expensive pair of Sarah Palin glasses,” (said with attitude). “How fun for my sister to try on a different look.”

Ask yourself this: Would you rather be RIGHT or would you rather be SUCCESSFUL?

Okay, here’s a test. Make note of what you think when I say two words: Paris Hilton. Were you neutral? Better yet, did you say “A young woman certainly more comfortable in front of a camera than I am?”

Then, try seven days without CAN’T. Get rid of the word CAN’T. How do you talk to yourself? How many times do you say CAN’T? Put it ALL on your tape recorder and play it back. You’ll be amazed. “I can’t afford it.” “I can’t buy that, I don’t have the money.” “I can’t write a book, I don’t have time.” Work that tape recorder.

Okay, you’ve left CAN’T out in the field for good and you’ve given up on your BIG OLE OPINIONS about people.

Do you use the words, HARD and EASY? We need to quit beating up on ourselves with the juxtaposition of HARD and EASY. Life just is.

One of my favorite poets, Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, said this:

This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows who
violently sweep your house empty of its
furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably.
She may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice—
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond …

He also wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Now, you’re ready. Sooooooooo, what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Make time.

I know, you have a mortgage payment, you have a job, you need to make money. Forget time. Probably right about now, you’re thinking, “Great, she’s out of touch with reality.” Do you watch the news? TV? Do you Twitter, crawl the mall, over-clean your house? Do the math. How many hours per week can you allocate towards your creativity if you were to toss out your TV? Do you really want your epitaph to say, “Here lies Donna, she Twittered 5 hours a week, Facebooked another 10, answered e-mails for five years TOTAL when the final tally came in.” If that’s your goal, your place for success, the more the better, but don’t let it be a diversion from what you’d rather accomplish. Web busyness is addictive. What could you do with two extra hours every day?

Do what you do best and farm out the rest.

I have not only farmed out taxes, but also bookkeeping and computer sharp-shooting from day one. Although some part of me enjoys bookkeeping, I tend to put it off for more creative pursuits and then I end up with a cardboard box full of receipts. Not good. The key to successful bookkeeping is to do it routinely. My very first bookkeeper gave me this handy tip: handle a piece of paper only once. Think about that. You open your mail, it goes someplace, not to a pile to be sorted later. 

Treat money with respect.

And then there’s the money part of being in business. Think of the exchange of money between two people as a sacred act, a tool we’ve been given to gauge the level of honesty in our dealings. Make sure you keep up your end of every deal you enter into and be prepared to accept that sometimes that’s all you can do. Be an example. Set the standard HIGH. As you find other business people on the same page, hang onto them for dear life. They are precious gems. Those who fumble with money (resentment, anger, dishonesty, etc.) have work to do. Don’t let their missteps engage you.

Make lists. 

Almost everyone I know goes to the grocery store with a list. Who here runs errands without a list? It’s nearly impossible. The first thing I do every morning is make a list for my day’s business activities. It’s been a pleasure to teach that habit to employees and apprentices and see it change their lives. How often do you say, “Oh dang, I forgot …” It’s inefficient. You have a lot you want to accomplish. Make lists. Create systems.

I was in Seattle a few months ago and left my Blackberry on the seat of a shuttle van. It contained all the contact info for my upcoming appointments. Now I have a system, it lives in my purse. If I pull it out, even at home, it goes back in my purse. When it needs to recharge, it rests on top of my purse. That way, I’m not looking for it in a pair of jeans or one of my coat pockets, the seat of a van, the barn, the wood shop. Why waste time searching for things like car keys.

What’s for sale and who wants to buy it? 

After you’ve figured out what you want to sell, and if your answer to who wants to buy it is EVERYONE, think of your business as a person walking into the room. What does she/he look like? Playful, serious, chatty, humorous??? What age? Have a pretend conversation. Have several pretend conversations. Who are you most comfortable talking to? I made a decision early on to market to women. (Although for my hugely successful backpacking line, I target men, ages 22–42.) But when I write, I’m talking to women. I’m in my element there. Make sure you pick a customer you’re comfortable and familiar with.

Get intimate with your business.

When I first invented my line of organic backpacking food, my labels were black and white, my assortment humble. Well into my second year, a large company in the outdoor industry decided to sell backpacking food to compliment their outdoor gear—camp stoves and tents. They were on the verge of a deal with someone else, when one of their team said, “Here’s the food I eat,” and he tossed one of my packages on the table. They called. We cut a private-label deal and they shipped a pallet of colorful labels to me bearing their brand name. I amped up my production and stood for four days two different times in their booth at the outdoor show cooking/serving little rounds of my garlic fry bread. When dignitaries passed by me, they largely … passed by me. “Oh, and that’s our food server, MaryJane.” Two years into that relationship, their (my) food won the industry’s most prestigious award, but they made a decision not to tell me.

In other words, your business is going to have a personality called a brand. That experience caused me to change my business name from Paradise Farm Organics to MaryJanesFarm. I wanted to put a face to that food. I wanted to talk to the people eating it. All kinds of magic started to happen once I branded myself. Once I knew my business intimately, I was more comfortable asking people for money: bankers (remember I’m a friend to bankers now—no bad vibes), friends, family, and acquaintances. I believe in myself. But just stopping people on the street doesn’t work all that well. This is where reading comes in. READ BUSINESS BOOKS. Read them as if your life depends on it, because your business life certainly does. Read books like The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, The Tipping Point (it’s been on the NY Times best-seller list longer than any other book in decades, and even though it wasn’t written as a business book, I recommend it because it analyzes how our culture works); The Profit Zone (that book helped me pick out my business model and move from a sole proprietorship to a C corporation); and The Boss of You written by two women (fantastic list of resources in the back).

I was most impacted by a book called Direct Public Offerings by Drew Field. And because I’d kept my books in order from day one, when I got the notion to take on shareholders or apply for an SBA or Rural Rehabilitation loan, I had all my financial records in order. Most states have either a Department of Finance or a Securities Commission you can contact. In Idaho, I was able to wade through most of the requirements myself once they sent me their how-to-brochure. And not to be intimidated, I actually registered successfully in several different states, including the state of New York. In Idaho, the requirements were very straightforward, and the man I spoke with repeatedly to get all my ducks in a row was named Bill Blessing. I’d hang up and say, “I got Bill’s Blessing again today.” I didn’t have an expensive law firm on retainer. (Remember I still didn’t have an indoor toilet.) My home state of Idaho has intentionally kept it simple in order to HELP small businesses raise money through the sale of stock. I still have the brochure they sent me in 1993. It reads: “Successful businesses require capital, particularly small businesses. Whether a company wants to expand its production capacity, introduce new products, or offer new services, the number one question is how to finance it. No doubt you have already invested substantial cash and pledged assets as collateral against monies borrowed from the local bank. Your company, however, is still short of needed funds.”

Eat good food.

How you fuel yourself matters. But you know that. My nudges are loving.

Trust the creative process. 

This is a biggy. The universe wants us to get it right, but we’re not always good listeners. We’re afraid. My best example is when I’m antiquing (“shopping for photo props”). Every time my hand reaches for something and I talk myself out of it (it’s too expensive, I don’t have a specific purpose in mind), a week later, a month later, I need exactly that thing.

Learn to love alone.

Wanting to be with people is much better than having to be with people. I’ve built plenty of alone time into my master plan. What’s your image of a writer? ALONE at their keyboard, right? Any artistic pursuit requires that. And don’t forget ALONE with your mistakes. I wouldn’t be where I am today if my husband made comments on how I spend money, if he questioned my decisions. You’ll make mistakes. I prefer to make mine in private. Besides, mistakes are the soul’s unfolding. You’ve heard the saying, The key to success just might be failure.

Have you ever noticed the tension you feel when you’re having a phone conversation and someone else is in the room with you? When you’re alone, you’re more relaxed. Your attention is focused. That’s because you have the person in the room with you on your mind as you talk. If every time my hand reached out for an antique and I had to think, “What will my partner say,” that’s a distraction. At one point in my life, I used credit cards to keep my business afloat, but my husband never said a word. I know he was tempted to say, “Do you know what you’re doing?” But he didn’t want to make my job any harder.

So, I’m staying the course, books in order, no more can’ts or BIG OLE OPINIONS, plenty of time for creativity, love ALONE, eat well, remember who I’m talking to (my customers), stay intimate with myself, and continue to READ business books.

I put a stainless steel water bottle with a BPA-free lid (and a feminine shape) in each of your totes, drink well!

  1. Mary Jane.. You have inspired me to go forward with my dream.. I want to start a business. I have a few ideas and a little business back ground from years ago when I owned a small shop. I closed it due to lack of funds and going through a divorce. Thank you for printing your keynote speech.. I am rolling up my sleeves and ready to plow forward with my dream…

    • MaryJane says:

      Oh Cheryl, I just soooo want to see you in business. I know you will do well. I sense ALL KINDS of creative energy waiting to burst forth from you. Keep me in the loop as things unfold. I’ll keep your little “business” card right here on my desk so that I’ll envision you often!

  2. Amber Conger says:

    Thanks for sharing 🙂 As I read through your words early this morning (with my strong cuppa coffee) I was inspired by your story… Looking forward to another busy day/week/year: & feeling even more charged & ready to to get to work on my own little journey in the direction of my goals…



  3. Debra Davis says:

    Mary Jane,
    Reading this has an effect on me too. In fact, I’m going to print it and keep it where I can refer to it again.
    As a solo midlife woman, my dreams are clamoring to come into existence. Some days I’m discouraged. Your thoughts have given me a kick in the pants. I’ll keep on. Today I linked an online store to my blog. It’s a start.

    I’m a forest ranger farmgirl who keeps a few of your backpacking meals on hand for quick camp suppers…

    Thanks for all your good work and for shining your light so brightly,


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