What divorce taught me about business

Paper + Oats | What divorce taught me about business

In the same calendar year, I discovered the industry that would grow my business beyond what I could have imagined, and also experienced the greatest loss of my life with the ending of my marriage. It was a rocky season of change for me, but from it I was able to draw some specific parallels between these two events. I’ve learned more about myself in the last couple years than I have in my entire life, both personally and professionally.

I want to share with you 3 things that my divorce taught me about building and running a creative business.

1.  A roadblock doesn’t mean a failure.

I recently listened to Amy Poehler's fabulously hilarious and inspiring book Yes, Please, (I highly recommend the audio version as Amy reads it herself!), and though she only briefly mentions her divorce, she made one statement that has stuck with me: "I don't think a 10-year marriage constitutes failure.” Wow. That blew my mind. She goes on to quote Louis C.K. saying, "'Divorce is always good news because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce.’” She could not be more right. Many people consider the definition of divorce to be a failed marriage. Please don’t buy in to this! Just because my marriage hit a pretty major roadblock that led to divorce, it doesn't mean it failed.

The same goes for business. Just because you hit a roadblock or have to start over, it doesn’t mean your business is a failure. Let me give you an example of a roadblock I hit recently in my own journey of entrepreneurship. 

In February, I finally took the leap and left my day job to pursue creative entrepreneurship full-time. I was fired up, and ready to take my business to the next level. That month, I launched a brand new printable kit that had been on my mind for a long time, my Kid’s Keepsake Journal. I designed it based on a similar notebook I had growing up that I wrote in each year, so I was really excited to release it. It received great feedback when I would share about it on social media, but unfortunately I hardly sold any. To date, I’ve only sold 9. That’s not good, and some might even call it a flop. And I’ll admit, I was super bummed. Shortly after that, I came down with the flu and missed an entire week of work. Talk about discouragement! I was confused about why my product wasn’t selling and frustrated that my official first week of self-employment was spent sick as a dog getting zero work done.

But I don’t consider that month a failure. My sick week served as a nice buffer between my old life and my new life. And I know there are at least 9 kids out there who have started recording their childhood memories, and I think that’s pretty cool. When you hit these roadblocks, it’s important to find the silver lining and don’t let it go down in your book as a failure. Just because a relationship ends, doesn’t mean it was a failure. Just because my new kit wasn’t a hit, doesn’t mean my next one will flop out too.

But it goes both ways. Just because your latest idea is super successful, doesn’t mean you’ll always have winning a concept. Business fluctuates as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Relationships fluctuate as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Nothing is guaranteed. You will have dry seasons. You guys might breakup. Your new product might flop. These are not failures, they’re learning experiences that help you grow and evolve. This all sounds a little dreary, I know. But the good news? Your raging success could be right around the corner, you just have to push through this roadblock.


2. Don’t be afraid to explore other options.

Of course I never set out on my wedding day to be divorced a few years later. But when my husband sat me down that day and said he wanted out, divorce suddenly became an option. I mentioned in my very first post that when the option of divorce was finally out in the open, I felt instant, unexpected relief. I realized in that moment that I was okay with the option of divorce. Did I know any 20-something divorcees? Nope. Did I think any of my married friends would truly understand what I was about to go through? Nope. Was I, myself, prepared for the toll this transition was going to take on me mentally, emotionally, and even physically? Nope.

But after countless prayers saying God, let it be clear, I began to have an overwhelming sense of peace that this option of divorce was the right one for me. Why would I fight to stay married to a man that so clearly didn’t want to be married to me? I hate it when people say divorce isn’t an option. It can most definitely be an option. Yes, I had seen divorces turn nasty and leave both parties bitter. But I had also seen marriages end peacefully with both parties being respectful and moving on to better, more fulfilling lives, even with kids in the picture.

The same goes with your business, and I’ve even noticed it in the last couple years for my own business. When I first started Paper + Oats, I sold a random assortment of art and gift items. I had original paintings on canvas, collage-style greeting cards, handmade magnets, pre-made Etsy shop graphics, leftover printmaking work from college that I was just trying to get rid of, and even a brief stint with granola (hence the name) – I was all over the place! And guess how my sales were? Non-existent.

I tried a wide variety of products for a couple years, but nothing was sticking. I would always say, “I want to grow my Etsy shop, but I'm not sure what that will look like yet."

Then one day while I was making my grocery list and price matching with store ads, I had a thought. I wonder if there’s some kind of paper product that could help me organize my price matching scribbles? (This was long before Wal-Mart’s Savings Catcher!) On a whim, I typed it into an Etsy search and was flooded with results for meal planning printables. I literally had never even heard of a printable until that moment. I was floored. I didn’t even know this market existed!

Out of curiosity, I dug a little deeper and looked at the sales of a few of the most popular printables shops. On Etsy, anyone can see what products have sold and when for any shop. (I use this a lot when I’m exploring new product ideas, just to see if certain types or styles sell well.) I added up all the sales for one printable shop from the last month, and it was over $1,000. Bingo. I was hooked. That was late afternoon, and needless to say I didn’t make it to the grocery store that day :) I spent the whole evening looking at hundreds of listings and learning everything I could about selling digital products like printables on Etsy. The next day, I called in sick to work (sorry guys, if you're reading this!), and kept researching. I had a gut feeling that I was on to something.

I’ve had a long-time love affair with designing forms and charts (I know, I’m a weirdo), and everything in those search results was screamed at me to be designed in a new and unique style. I saw way too many rainbows, hearts, clip art, and bad fonts. This also happened to be just a few weeks after Etsy rolled out it’s new instant download feature, which made this entire market look that much sweeter. That night, I took down everything from my shop and headed in a new direction. I designed a kit of meal planning printables based on my own meal planning / grocery shopping process using a cleaner, more gender-neutral design – including a price matching sheet, which I was never able to find anywhere else on Etsy. Am I the only one that price matched back in the day?! I created a quick mockup of the pages, wrote a description, added some tags and keywords, and clicked publish. The next day, it sold. So I designed a kit with calendars and to do lists. And it sold. And then one for cleaning checklists. And it sold. I kept creating, and they kept selling.

I listed that first printable kit for sale in June 2013. By the end of that year, I had sold nearly $11,000 worth of printables. That’s ridiculous right?! I’m still in shock sometimes. Was this the type of product I set out to sell when I first opened my Etsy shop years before? Definitely not. I didn’t even know it existed! But it has become the foundation of my business. Even to this day, my business is constantly evolving as I explore new avenues and ideas, some are huge successes and some are total flops. But I learn from all of them, and I never quit exploring my options.

You know what else happened by the end of 2013 that I wasn’t expecting? My marriage ended and I was pregnant. Let’s just say, 2013 was a rollercoaster year! While new options were emerging for my business, the new option of single motherhood was dropped in my lap, and it was completely unexpected. But I hope after reading this post and others, you’re beginning to see that it was the best option for me and has blossomed into some truly incredible opportunities. Divorce turned out to be the best option for me. And re-direction turned out to be the best option for my business. If you’re a discouraged business owner who is struggling to find your “thing,” maybe you don’t even know that “thing” is a “thing” yet? With any journey you take, big or small, personal or professional, you always have more than one option. Rarely are you forced into one direction, but rather there can be multiple directions, maybe even one you haven’t explored yet.


3. You are stronger than you think you are.

This little nugget of wisdom came directly from my mother on the night my husband left me and I learned I was pregnant. It got me through my pregnancy, and some days with my little Poppy girl, it gets me through to bedtime. 

Maybe you feel weak in your personal life. This season is may be trying and leave you with piles of confusion and sorrow, but please don’t lose heart. You are stronger than you think you are. When I sat with my mom and cried over my marriage and the thought of my child never knowing her parents together, she reminded me, you are stronger than you think you are. When I would leave meetings with my ex-husband during my pregnancy where we discussed baby names, visitation schedules, and financial responsibilities, and I questioned if I could do this for the next 18 years, I tried to remember, you are stronger than you think you are. When I was laying in my delivery room after 3 hours of pushing, and my doctor was giving me once last chance to deliver naturally before c-section, I held my hand to my chest for my last push, knowing my daughter would be placed there any minute now, and I whispered to myself, you are stronger than you think you are. When I sat in my attorney’s office officially filing for divorce, with a 3-week old baby asleep in the car seat next to me, I said through gritted teeth, you are stronger than you think you are.

Or maybe you feel weak in your business life. This season is challenging, and you feel discouraged and unsure, especially if you’re playing the comparison game, but please don’t give up on your dream. You are stronger than you think you. When I release a new product that doesn’t sell and I question whether the plans I have for my business are the right ones, I have to remind myself, you are stronger than you think you are. When I have days of guilt and frustration, and wonder if quitting my day job was a huge mistake, I have to remember, you are stronger than you think you are. When I get a shot at a new opportunity or client that could be huge for my business, but I feel unqualified or too young, I tell myself, you are stronger than you think you are.

So if you need to hear this, and I’m sure a lot of you do, let me have the honor of passing it on from my mama: You are stronger than you think you are. Do not doubt your true skills, strengths, and abilities. You may feel unsure at the starting line, but at the finish line you’ll look back and see how far you ran and the hurtles you jumped to get there. 


So to wrap this all up, my divorce taught me an immense amount about life and relationships in general, but I was surprised at how many principles could be applied to my business as well. The mark of a flourishing person is one who can see lessons in one area of life and learn to apply them to others. It’s a characteristic that I try to employ daily, finding connections between my professional life and my personal life. 


What are some parallels you’ve noticed between your personal and professional lives? Have you faced an obstacle in one that became an encouragement to the other? Did you used to hate price matchers like me holding up the line at Wal-Mart? :) 


I wrote a book about becoming a single mother.

Signup below and I'll send you the full Introduction from Strong Girl, Brave Girl, plus I'll keep you in the loop with the latest book news and how to order your own copy. (Or you can just do that now.)


Kelsey Baldwin

Graphic designer + blogger providing design resources to help creative entrepreneurs navigate the world of design + branding for digital products so they can share what they know.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin