Saturday, 9 July 2016

Working communities - words and fruit loaves

Starting a small business is like writing: solitary, frustrating and daunting.

Just like writers, you do it because you're passionate about your idea. You have a product you care about and you want to share it with the world, and every small success feels amazing.

We're in the interesting world of more and more startups and independents; the non-9-5ers who might be out for coffee at 10am because they've been on their feet baking/packing/delivering since 4am or they were at their desk designing/researching/editing until 1am.

One of the interesting outcomes of this has been the growth in co-working spaces. Being around other like-minded people helps in many different ways: whether it's a chat at the kettle or asking for help, it's a way of feeling a part of something bigger than your venture, an opportunity to test your ideas and, most likely, it's going to lead to meeting someone who knows someone who can introduce you to someone that's going to be interested in your business.

Until recently I'd only known co-working spaces that provide a version of an office environment - hot desks for individuals, partitioned sections and meeting rooms for teams - but now I'm in a whole new shared space.

My partner closed his cafe in April and since then we've been baking in a shared commercial kitchen. We're in the business of making good-looking, delicious loaves that also happen to be healthy, nourishing, gluten-free and dairy-free.

When we parked at 'My Other Kitchen' on our first day I felt nervous. Not just about what we'd decided to do, but like I was going to be one of those nightmare guests you offer a few nights in the spare room who's still there two months later.

We had a car full of massive buckets of seeds and nuts, sacks of coconut and boxes of precious rice flour. Every time we carried more stuff in I was embarrassed - I wanted to take up less space with prettier ingredients and not be getting in the way of people who were already established there. It was Day 1 at the new school all over again.

But not for long.

That first day we made some disastrous batches of loaves as we got used to the different ovens, tried big mixers and tripped over each other in all that space. The bin was full of under-baked and over-baked waste and it felt like we were going to get a big 'F' for our efforts and go home feeling utterly, overwhelmingly defeated.

But we didn't.

Like any fine host, Michelle stepped in at times, to ask a question or make a suggestion, then retreated when we seemed like we were head down and getting somewhere. We stayed over time but we weren't in trouble for it. We'd given our business card to a caterer who'd come in to collect some things and liked the look of our loaves and we came away with what we needed to deliver to our cafes.

The next time we were there Jane welcomed us at the door. I was still hunched and apologetic but we weren't treated like the overstaying, rule-breaking, couch surfers I felt like. We had more of a system worked out and things ran more smoothly. There was less swearing and the bin was there for things like empty packets and banana peel.

Over the months we've met people making all sorts of food products whose businesses are at different stages. Being in the kitchen reminds me of the writing retreats that I host, where people are focused on their own different projects but always talk about some aspect of writing or reading when we stop for a coffee or lunch because we all have that in common.

Last Wednesday we stopped at the kitchen to pick up some loaves. We were heading out on a bayside business development day, looking for new cafes where our loaves might fit, and wanted to prepare some samples to take with us. We introduced ourselves to granola guru Sarah who was hand mixing one of her Ted & Mem's blends. Sometimes you find common ground with people very quickly - we'd talked previous careers, cafe owners, nut suppliers and sales spiels in the time it took us to wrap our loaves (and sample some of her delicious granola).

We left the kitchen feeling inspired. Like freelancers, tech entrepreneurs and product developers in shared spaces around Melbourne, for us just being around other people who are also passionate about making food, good food, gives the impetus to get out there with what we make.

Our bayside excursion was a great day out. We found lots of interesting businesses, and not just the cafes we'd like to serve our loaves. When we got home we had a beer on our balcony and toasted one of those "small wins" days, because they need to be celebrated.

I left my previous profession because I was made redundant. I wanted to turn that event into an opportunity to do something I care about, and even though my creative portfolio is not as prolific as I'd hoped, and I never imagined that I'd be juggling my freelance work with baking fruit loaves, I couldn't be happier.

But none of it would be possible without my communities.

For words it's The Wheeler Centre, its resident organisations and my WriteSpace Retreat guests that nourish and inspire me.

For food it's Jane, her aptly named 'My Other Kitchen' in Bentleigh and all of the other people taking chances and mixing meals that motivate and satiate me.

In many ways starting a small business feels like writing: it's always in the back of my mind and I have to be open to trying things even though they weren't in our plan.

Some days are nothing but hard slog and I wonder why I don't just go back to having a 'real job'.

Some days will go smoothly - I've done what I needed to, like what we've made and got everything organised for a smooth next day.

And every now and again I'll stop, check in with myself and realise that I feel great. I might be unpacking a 10kg bag of pumpkin seeds or printing out invoices, it's hard to predict when it happens but sometimes I realise that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't know where it's going and I want to be doing more of other things as well, but my days are spent in spaces I like being in with people that are interesting and inspiring.

I might not have spent this last hour writing a short story to submit to a magazine, but I have been writing. And Kevin's just rung to tell me that he has an order from another new cafe he really likes, Jane's emailed an introduction to someone that might be interested in our loaves and I've got to follow up with a writer about coming to next weekend's WriteSpace Retreat.

Starting a small business, like writing, doesn't have to be solitary, frustrating and daunting.


  1. OMG Jen, love your article! So much of what you wrote really resonates with my life and my food business. I'm also using My Other Kitchen and owe so much to Jane and her Team for being there with so much support. The support often comes in little things like a suggestion to try something different or a recommendation for a retailer who may be interested in our Organic Granola. Your comment about the overstaying, rule breaking couch surfing guest made me chuckle as I've had one or two days which haven't exactly gone to plan and ended up running well over! You've beautifully described the community feel of My Other Kitchen which can't be underestimated when you spend a lot of time working solo. Some days the community in the kitchen is exactly what we small business owners need - it's the equivalent of a great big warm hug! Cathy :-)

  2. Thanks for such a warm reply, Cathy. I'm always pleased to hear others acknowledging the amazing contribution Jane and Michelle make to our businesses - will make sure that they see your kind words. Jen