Construction, Real Estate, and Small Business & Startups

What I learned about progress from a tiny bathroom

April 30, 2019
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Around Thanksgiving last year, I finally put my money where my mouth is and launched a new business: RiverCity Homes, a house-flipping gig.

An adorable 1930s bungalow came on the foreclosure market and it had new siding, windows, kitchen cabinets and central air, vintage coved ceilings, a brick fireplace and hardwood floors. And it was clean-ish.

Thirty-or-so days after I saw this house, I had set up a new LLC and the house was mine. And my husband and I set off on the adventure of getting the utilities turned back on and dodging shingles that were flying off the roof like falling leaves.

Then we gutted the heinously dated (but tiny) bathroom.

While scraping wallpaper off the walls with my fingernails and almost breaking my back tearing out six layers of solid-surface flooring in that five-by-six-foot bathroom, I had an “aha moment.” This project was definitely not as easy as I thought it was going to be. And it was apparently going to take way more time than I estimated. Surprise, surprise. (Spoiler alert: every new business launch is harder and takes more time than you estimate.)

In that moment, I stood in the middle of a gross pile of wet wallpaper listening to classic rock on the radio and smiled at the winter sunshine streaming in the high window above the bathtub. I was actually enjoying myself! I wasn’t impatiently rushing to “just get it done” and I wasn’t even annoyed. None of the work was technically or physically challenging. It was just going to take time and elbow grease (a lot more than I bought for the job, though). The house was certainly worth it. She had great bones, a cute yard and was in a sweet neighborhood. She deserved the love and attention.

However, I’m from the generation that “wants what I want and wants it now,” so I was surprised in my change of attitude. Was I really enjoying the hard work and the mess around me? Was I really feeling good about the burn in my back and shoulders? Yes! I was finally getting it.

I realized then that I had quite possibly been feeling entitled to be “successful” in my previous businesses because I did well in school, had a doctorate degree, passed the Bar exam on the first try, opened my own law office five years later and, well, I had arrived. What I didn’t realize was how much elbow grease and time it really takes to achieve success.

I realized I wasn’t comfortable with three very important things we all encounter on our road to success. But we entrepreneurial types need to get really comfortable with a few things:

Dirt: At first, things are going to get really messy and a lot dirtier than we might be comfortable with before we see the shiny results of our hard work. So get comfortable with demolition, tearing down walls, breaking apart the old stuff, uncovering the dust, dirt, mold and mildew of the years of neglect and complacency. Literally and metaphorically, it’s going to be ugly for a while. And then your dog will walk through the paint tray and track paint all over your gorgeous hardwood floors. Get used to it.

Back Pain: I once read that the two most common signs of being an adult are wishing you hadn’t made plans and wondering how you hurt your back. Well, when you’re undertaking a new project, you’re going to use muscles you forgot you had. That elbow grease you put into things? It’s going to rub you raw in places you really won’t want to talk about. There may be blood. You’ll bandage yourself up with duct tape and get on with it, though, because it has to get done. The battle scars will make for good stories later on.

Uncertainty: If you’re an over-educated ambitious Type-A person like me, you’ll have this grand plan with fishbone diagrams and budgets and spreadsheets and projections and timelines. Then reality will blow them all to smithereens, making you feel like an idiot for not predicting all the foreseeable contingencies. But the only way to learn is to do. And you’ll never know it all up front. Just roll with the punches, throw one or two back, and try to find the funny stuff buried in all the chaos and find those people who can help you next time. Ultimately, just know that it’s going to take a lot more time and a lot more effort than you expected to invest in it.

It’s called progress and it’s dirty, painful and uncertain. Go for it anyway.