Baker Michael James on the sacrifice of running a small business and the benefits of stepping away.
My wife Pippa and I opened Tivoli Road Bakery in South Yarra in August 2013. After almost six years, we decided to sell. Ours was a successful business and it was a difficult decision, with multiple factors contributing.
Any small business owner will tell you that day-to-day operations can be hard, both mentally and physically. Being a husband-and-wife team with no other partners meant the associated pressures inevitably impacted all aspects of our lives.
When you have a small business, you feel like you’re responsible for everything. Perhaps a staff member has to take an extended leave of absence at short notice due to family illness or a baker forgets their keys and smashes a window to get in, and then makes no attempt to assist to fix it or repay you. The delivery driver is on holiday when your child is admitted to hospital overnight and there’s no one else to deliver bread in the morning. The oven breaks down at 5am on a public holiday. Again.
Over time, these stresses accumulate. The bakery was going really well, selling out every day with big queues on the weekends. The release of our book The Tivoli Road Baker in November 2017 made it more popular than ever. We were grateful to be in such a fortunate position — plenty of people have the stresses we had, with the additional financial pressure of a struggling business. We never lost sight of how lucky we were in that regard. But incremental stress can also make it hard to deal with situations that arise outside of the business.
Our daughter was born the year after we started the bakery and we felt like we were missing important time with her. When my Grandad died in the UK, we were able to travel to attend his funeral, but hit the ground running again as soon as we got home. When we had our second stillborn baby within four years, we had no space or time to process what was happening.
We had seemingly endless discussions about how to tweak the business to make it more manageable — cut wholesale? Close one day a week? Scale back production? Employ more senior staff? But we were perhaps too emotionally invested, and all of those options felt like a compromise we weren’t prepared to make.
We were getting to breaking point, both exhausted, in need of rest and wanting to spend quality family time together. Selling a business can take a long time, and for me, the process of selling was very stressful. Telling staff, suppliers and our loyal customers that we were leaving was hard, but we had a great community who were very understanding, so we went out on a big high.
I don’t regret selling, and I certainly don’t miss the early starts or the constant interruptions when you are off. It has been great to take a step back and enjoy life, get fit and keep learning, which I think is so important. We’ve travelled to the USA and met so many inspiring bakers. I was able to do the Modern Bread Theory class at the San Francisco Baking Institute and work on a book in the UK. We were also able to help run our local grain event GrAiNZ, which was a huge success last year.
I’m really glad we had the bakery — it was hugely rewarding and a massive learning experience. But to be honest, I don’t think owning a business is the be all and end all. It’s very hard and can be lonely at times, costs are high, staff costs are very high and people don’t always appreciate the value of what you’re offering. If you have a good, well-paid job and you can help the boss with ideas and leadership, that can be just as rewarding.
I have not been back to the bakery since we sold; I feel that chapter is in the past now. At some stage, we will be back. It’s time to look forward, making sure any future projects are in good spaces that are well set up, and that the business is designed around the life we want to live.