Good morning, friends and neighbors!
In sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but up on the wall behind my desk at home- the one I'm sitting at right now, in the shade of Miss Cleo's cat tree- is a sectioned pegboard.
I don't use it to organize my day- I have apps and reminders for that. Nor is it a "visionboard"- something where you tack up all the things you dream of one day making a reality. A neat idea, to be sure- but it feels a little hollow.
Instead, I have it sectioned in four. The first is called "Good Vibes." It's got memories of things that- duh- make me feel good. Mostly it's reminders of cool moments in my life- the menu from my first Chaine dinner, a thank-you note from one of my patients back when I was a nurse, letters from distant friends.
The second is "VICTORY!" This is my "trophy" wall, so to speak. It's got the menu where I was first called "Chef Matt Strenger" over the desserts I served. It's got my tags from runs I've done, and the program from my graduation from culinary school.
The third is "Inspiration." Mostly it's poems I like- especially "Invictus" by William E. Henley, and "Air and light and time and space" by Charles Bukowski (as much of an admonishment to me as anything- I think ALL creative-types should have that up in their workspace somewhere.) There's a couple things about Tony on there too, of course.
The last is called "Failures." Don't be surprised- Stephen King used to collect all of this rejection letters from publishers. Michael Faraday used to do same thing with failed experiments, a reminder of the lesson he learned and to stay humble. It could probably have more on it- the sad thing is that most of my rejections came in the form of "form" letters... so less-than-rife with feedback.
In fact, there's only one thing up on that board right now. I make sure it's completely visible at all times. It's a black-and-silver debit card- thoroughly magnetized and wiped, for a closed account, and with the thumbtack pounded right through the strip to be sure.
It reads "Black Hat Baker, LLC."
Here's a story about how to dream, fall short, f*** up, and work with what's left.
The 2nd Best Day of My Life
Even almost three years later, I still call it that. It was the day I was fired from a certain bakery here in Portland. No, I won't say which or who I was working for. I don't bear them any ill will- last I checked, their business was doing just fine and that's groovy. Please don't go all internet-sleuth and hunt them down.
Prior to being called into the office and then being asked to leave, I had been reading Chris Guillebeau's The $100 Start-up and I'd gotten some ideas. "Starting something on my own can't possibly be that hard. People have been telling me that I am a good teacher, and that I explain things really well. Maybe I can teach people to cook and bake!"
It needed a little bit of an angle though: "I've got it- it'll be part education, part entertainment. I'll show up to people's houses with recipes, equipment, ingredients, the lot. They can invite friends over, watch someone bake for them, and get involved too. It'll be like a private live cooking show!"
Those I explained the idea to said, "Holy hell, that sounds AWESOME, Matt! Go for it! You'll make a killing!"
So early in the morning, right after I got fired, I came home, put on casual clothes, and went out to start plotting how to make it happen for real. After all, it was BOUND to be a success, right?
Setting Up the Blocks
I paid to get registered as an LLC S-Corp through Legalzoom- so bang, paperwork done. Why an S-Corp? Well, it seemed like the best option- less taxation, protections of an LLC... perfect.
Then I went out to the bank and, Federal EIN in hand, I got myself a proper business bank account and all. After all, I was going to be the real deal! Gotta keep the finances separate, of course.
I got myself an account on Thumbtack to help find people looking for cooking instruction- so boom, market access!
Oh man, Legalzoom has a "compliance calendar" to make sure my tax stuff goes in on time- a little extra cash, but hey- "go big or go home," right?
The website I built looks totally awesome- and oh man, an automatic scheduling widget! Well, I'll have a crapton of customers, it'll pay for itself soon.
There we go... I've built the business! Now we wait...
The Shoe Drops
As you might have guessed, in my excitement, I made some VERY unwise decisions. Despite the lessons from $100 Startup- particularly that you DON'T have to spend that much to get something started- I was thrilled to pay out for service after service that I didn't necessarily need, but that I was SURE would pay for itself once I made it.
Then the car fiasco happened. Suddenly, one of my main assets- the vehicle that would get me to gigs- was in limbo.
"Um, ok, that sucks... but there's other answers, right? I'll just rent a car for my first gig- the situation will get solved soon."
Yes, the first gig- the fabled First Dollar- came in through Thumbtack- a mother wanted a fun activity for her two sons, ages 6 and 8. It was happening! It was REAL! Someone WANTED this!
I won't go into the details of the actual gig- I did rent a car for the night to make it happen. What I will say is the following two things:
Not super-motivating, but HEY! IT WAS A CUSTOMER! Things will pick up soon, right?
Good Money After Bad
They did not. I pitched my services every chance I got. The car wouldn't come back for the rest of the summer. I had to get a new job, and made "Black Hat Baker LLC" a side-hustle. We moved to a more-affordable part of town. I wheeled and pitched and changed as often as I could, trying to make it work.
Then the second shoe dropped. That lovely Compliance Calendar I was paying for told me my first quarter taxes were due soon.
I knew next to NOTHING about taxes.
But hey- I'd filed with TurboTax before, right? They have a business tax service too! Only a few more bucks a month...
"Wait... payroll? Shit, I'm supposed to be paying myself for this. How? I'm $600 in the hole at this point?"
"Oh shit... payroll taxes. How do I tax payroll without payroll?"
"Oh shit... IRS is gonna get suspicious. I can't lose more- my savings are dwindling, I've lost the car, I need to go to my day job. Oh god no.
In the end, TurboTax has a service where they will find you an accountant that lives in your area. I find someone who will come out and do a free consultation. We sit in the living room, and I show him everything I've got.
The accountant looks it over, asks a couple questions, and says the following:
" Ok... first, WHY are you an S-Corp? LLC and self-employment taxes were made to keep this stuff simple JUST for people like you. I have clients that do $100,000 a month in business and they are plain LLCs.
Second, you are not hiring me. You don't need me- you are so in the hole, it will actually cost you more to FILE taxes than you would be PAYING. The IRS would WASTE money digging through your books, IF they cared enough to be suspicious.
and third- shut down. Pay what you've got to, but dissolve. Send a letter to IRS to cancel your EIN, send a letter to the state. You'll have to file last years taxes and your final return, of course- and I'll tell you how. Just fill it with zeroes because, yeah, you made NO MONEY. They can't tax money you don't have, and writing off your losses wouldn't even be worth it
Just close up shop, think a little longer, study up a bit, try it again in a year or two.
With that, he leaves.
I write the letters, file all my returns, I cancel all the services that would "pay for themselves," and pay another $450 in minimum corporate tax (because I was an S-Corp) and for filing paperwork. I remember walking into the state office, writing out the checks, and handing over all the filing out of the battered briefcase I'd take when I was job-hunting. The sweet woman behind the desk was sympathetic. "Aw geez... well, you know at least you tried! Lots of people don't even bother with that- you'll figure something out!" It felt like a runner-up ribbon.
Black Hat Baker, LLC was done. My first legit business, straight into the ground. I had failed.
Digging Through the Rubble
Looking back on it, I can see just about everything that I did wrong. Everything I figured was off, but wouldn't let myself accept:
I was hemorrhaging money on "help" and "services" for things I could have figured out on my own.
I had NO IDEA how to market myself. Except for some word-of-mouth and Thumbtack, no one knew I existed.
The IDEA was great, but the market for people who would actually want it was not. Who would want someone to cook as entertainment for a party? The people who could afford such a service- and WOULD buy it- lived on the other side of town. Without a car, I had NO way to get to people that would have bought what I was selling.
And finally- I was spending all my time and money trying to be one of the Big Boys- fancy widgets, fancy S-Corp, real business bank account, with all the fees involved..
I had blown money buying a bazooka so I could defend a sandcastle- and the tide doesn't stop because you fire expensive missiles at it.
The last time I added it all up, I had burned through nearly $1000 of my own money on something that went nowhere.
For days I was inconsolable. I felt like a failure, and I felt ashamed that that failure was tempered with relief for the whole mess being over. I could go back to being boring again- a simple baker, just worrying about making the best bread possible on a given day, and being a good husband, and making sure my bills got paid.
I filed all the remaining papers, tucked them in a box, shoved them in the corner, and opened my laptop to shut down the site.
That's when I noticed something interesting.
My webhosting service, Weebly, lets me track the traffic of all my websites- how many hits they get, how many people are going to watch pages. Predictably, the official Black Hat Baker LLC site received little-to-no traffic.
Oh yes, pour some lemon juice on that cut, why don't you.
The blog on the other hand- the one from my old New Jersey business, where I had been posting stuff about once a week, THAT had picked up. People were interested in my stories about baking, and the life of a professional cook. They were getting inspired by some stuff I had written about weight loss and exercise.
Maybe I could make THAT work?
If you're reading this... it's still working.
That brings us back here- in front of my pegboard, under a cat tree, typing quickly because I've just looked at the clock and realized I need to be getting ready for work soon.
Technically, though, I AM working.
I'm writing a blog- something I always enjoyed doing anyway. I'm trying to make that into a paying gig. (By the way, seen those big orange Patreon buttons around the site? Maybe click on one, see what happens...)
When I'm not in the kitchen, I'm hunting for work as a freelance writer- something that'll let me work at my own schedule, wherever I want, using things I already own. No extra services or widgets needed.
And besides that, I have other projects in the works- a YouTube show. Maybe the VERY OCCASIONAL return to teaching folks to cook.
It's not perfect. It's stressful sometimes, and it's a lot to keep on top of, but it's working for myself at something I love. I might never have noticed it or thought too hard about it if I hadn't failed as spectacularly as I did.
You can get knocked down, but don't stay down there- and sometimes you need to see life FROM that angle to know where the answers can be found.
What about you? Any failures that seemed like the end of the world, but you're weirdly proud of now? What were they? How did you find your way back?
Oh look, another orange Patreon button!
Seriously, click on it and take a look! If you like what I'm doing and writing about on here, and want to see me do more of it, this is one of the best ways. -BHB
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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