For the past year, weekends have been strange.
During the prior seven years, my wife and two boys and I got up at 5 am on Saturdays and baked 100+ loaves of bread for a growing group of customers in our side business named Noonday Bread. The decision to shut the business down a year ago provides a useful case study to anyone trying to create joy in their work.
Our baking journey started from a long-time passion for the challenging and delicious process of crafting fantastic loaves, the kind that exposes supermarket bread for the plastic-wrapped lie that it is. My business goal for starting Noonday Bread was to use the venture as a way to test a novel business model while creating a shared experience for our family.
The Glutenous Maximus Trail led to many places we wouldn’t have dreamed. We ended up in a third-grade classroom where we used our quirky business as a way to help students see that everything they learn in school can be used to make their dreams come true. We met hundreds of people from our community who became customers, aka Bread Fans. We contributed from our modest profits to microloans for food entrepreneurs in the developing world. And bread led me to a TEDx platform where I tried to help university students rethink the Good Life.
We learned a ton about the business model just like I had hoped. We made subtle tweaks and a few major changes in response to real-time feedback from Bread Fans and our crew.
Most of all, we discovered that the passion behind the business was about sharing joy. We knew we wouldn’t make bags of money from this phase of the enterprise. I’m not sure we knew how much we’d love building a great team that shaped Bundles of Joy for Bread Fans far and wide. Those became the moments we lived for each week. The mission of creating joy at work became an explicit goal that migrated over to my consulting practice.
When I shared the story of this venture with senior teams in my client organizations, I got a consistent reaction. They started out stumped by the thought of a consultant running a side bakery. “Why would you do that?” you could almost hear them saying to themselves. “Maybe this guy isn’t so smart…”
Eventually many were slightly mesmerized by the idea of pursuing a personal passion. Maybe some of them secretly nurse dreams they’ve had to put on hold as they’ve climbed the corporate ladder.
Ironically, after years of quizzical looks for why we even did this business, the primary response when we announced we were ending it was, “Wait. What? Why?!?” I sensed sadness and a lingering question of whether the business had failed in some way.
While sad, we didn’t see our decision as a result of failure. We knew this phase of the Noonday Bread was about learning vs. earning. As much as it was a bread venture, it was also a business model innovation and entrepreneurship venture. We had never heard of anyone trying a cross between a Community Supported Agriculture co-op and a mass customization operation. Judging from the puzzled looks and emails we got from new customers when I explained our model, we’re more confident than ever that we had created something different.
Our decision to wind down Noonday Bread flowed from a simple principle. As a strategy facilitator, I encourage clients to think carefully about timing and lifecycles. Turning dreams into reality often rests on catching the wave of timing, knowing when to invest and when to pull back. Our experience at Noonday Bread followed this familiar pattern:
- Launching: In the early days, everything was new and exciting. I created a website in a weekend. We shared our idea with friends and family. We worked out the kinks of where to bake dozens of loaves in a few hours each week, how to make ordering work, where to store ingredients.
- Booming: Our original goal was to sell about 50 loaves of bread each week. Through word of mouth and a Yelp miracle, about three years into the adventure we were baking over 100 loaves of bread every Saturday. Extra loaves sold almost instantly. Our team was humming as we added both experienced adults and enthusiastic teenagers to our joy-filled crew. Life was so good.
- Decelerating: In the last year, we noticed a few signals that things were changing. First, we saw that the life circumstances of our crew were changing dramatically. One was hoping to move to a different state. Another had increasing professional commitments. Our two sons were in the process of going to college. We had also hit our peak capacity. Without breaking the model, we were unable to increase production. We had maxed out our operating model.
- Tanking: Thankfully we never hit this point. But if we had soldiered on, it’s likely my wife and I would have been running a low-profit, low-learning business. A guy married to a marriage therapist may have found himself in marriage therapy because of his refusal to face reality. #NormalButNotSmart
Simply put, we shut down Noonday Bread because we had accomplished exactly what we had set out to do. In a phase explicitly designed to learn vs. earn, we had learned as much as we could. As a bonus, we had forged new friendships and shared much joy with people who had gone from strangers to friends. How could we view that as anything but a smashing success?
Maybe for reasons unfathomable to me, you’re not into bread. But I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t want more joy for themselves and others, both on the job and at home. If so, it’s worth grappling with the Life Cycle about all of your major efforts. There’s nothing more joy-killing than investing your best energies into efforts well past their prime while new ventures are starved for attention. Here’s how to manage your Life Cycle investments to maximize joy.
- Launching: Invest heavily and pay attention to learning what works. Expect trial and error, aka experimentation. Be patient about results but impatient about learning.
- Booming: Invest heavily and look for ways to extend the time the effort will thrive. By this point, you have figured out what works. Replicate those patterns of success as broadly as possible.
- Decelerating: It’s tempting to ignore the signs that your familiar patterns of success are starting to lose steam or that the environment is shifting. Do so at your peril. Once you sense deceleration, start to ask yourself if you can prolong your success while pulling back on investment. Or can you make a few changes to your patterns of success to create a new era of Booming? Or should you start to plan for the inevitable end of this effort? Whatever you do, don’t double down your investment in a decelerating effort as if it’s still booming.
- Tanking: We all experience these situations whether by design or as a surprise. Invest in harvesting learnings and transferable resources. Celebrate the successes of the past. Close this chapter well and move to the next.
As you look at the efforts that most shape your life and work, where do they fall in the Life Cycle? What sort of investment does each require in the coming year? You can’t control where you are in the Life Cycle, but you can control where and how you invest your precious resources. That’s one way bright leaders and bright teams create bright organizations.