Natalie Chanin: Life Demands an Ice Skating Fee

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

Two Fridays ago, we asked for reader questions for this week’s column.  I am grateful for all the thoughtful questions that were submitted.  We had lots of emails and phone calls; even long-time friends posed questions that surprised me. As I began to answer each one, I realized that some of the questions were really BIG queries.  They are the searching, life-changing kinds of questions that take time to understand and a great deal of thought to answer.

Many of the questions that came our way have to do with what a day in my life looks like and how I balance home and work with motherhood. So, for this week I will start here, since it is a question that I also ask myself more and more: “What do I WANT a day in my life to look like?”

I think that as humans, we have the tendency to feel like the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that there is so much that we just don’t have the time to get done. I forget so much (thank you cards and phone calls I should have made) and, right now, my To-Do List still contains things that I should have done last year. So, it feels funny when I am asked how I “do it all.”

I will confess that all the women in my family tend to stand more than sit.  We have two speeds: on and off. Keeping this in mind, I pay attention to the list below as I set my priorities each day:

1. Time is Everything
When I first started my business here in Alabama, my father watched me running myself ragged, working 18-20 hour days, never catching up, never sleeping. He said to me over and over again, “Be careful with your time.  It is the only thing you really own.”  I would roll my eyes each time he repeated it and it is only ten years (and a five year old daughter) later, that I really understand what he was trying to tell me: “Be careful with the commitments you make.”

As an individual, there are a thousand opportunities that come your way each year; as an entrepreneur you have these options each day. The number of choices you will face grows exponentially as the internet, smart phones, and other technologies move into our businesses, lives, and homes. Each opportunity requires a commitment of time – be it small or large.  My job in managing my company and life is to choose those commitments wisely. Consequently, I have come to say “no” much more often than I used to. It is hard at first, but lifesaving after you get the hang of it.

2. Have a Vision
My dear friend Cathy – owner and creative director of HEATH Ceramics – visited recently and we spoke at length about creating a vision for your company (insert life, work).  She and her husband, Robin, attended a seminar at Zingerman’s which they found extremely helpful in setting a vision for what they wanted HEATH to be as a company. I was fascinated by their process and was prompted to ponder my own vision. I realized that while I may not have been good at setting a long-term vision these last years, I have been very good about setting short-term goals: for my company, for my daughter, for my everyday life. Martha Beck’s Steering by Starlight explains it, Growing a Business by Paul Hawkins suggests it, Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain walks you through the process: slow down, concentrate, visualize, and move forward deliberately. My lawyer said it to me this way, “Make a plan and work your plan.”

While I have certainly not completed my To-Do List, I have made some plans and executed them. I make time for clothing and textiles, I make time for my daughter, I make time for writing, and I have started making time for an old love, photography. Don’t get me wrong, there is still SO MUCH that falls through the cracks.  But when I start to get overwhelmed by what I am not getting done, I try to focus on what I am doing in THIS MOMENT.

3. Start Small, Grow Slowly
Start out by doing what you can and work towards doing what you want to do.  It has taken me a decade to build the sort of company I truly want to have.  Read books like Small is the New Big by Seth Godin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  Research shows that it takes approximately 10 years to do anything well. Don’t be hard on yourself and just do what you can each day. (Again, focusing on the moment.) You might be surprised to learn that my small business today makes much more actual profit – what we really want to have – than my larger company did a decade ago because we have chosen to set and achieve smaller goals on the road to larger aspirations.

4. Produce Locally
I came back home to Alabama a decade ago to start what I thought was going to be a little “project.”  That little project has grown into a decade of work that I would never have dreamed possible.  By producing locally, I have been able to work “close to the bone.” By reducing the time required for manufacturing, reducing overheads (in comparison to a big city studio), and enlisting the help of my community, I unknowingly built a system and structure that has allowed me to do much, much more in a shorter period of time.

5. Expect Bumps in the Road
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever exactly as you envision it – ever.  Sometimes it is better.

6. Build a Great Team
Invest in people; you will not regret it. This is one of the most important points to remember in the process of “getting it done.”  Were it not for our fantastic team of employees, friends, and artisans working locally, I would not have the company that I have today. Period.

7. Have an Ice Skating Fee
Several years back, when I had just started doing lectures and public speaking, I agreed to participate in a multi-day event for a very small fee. One of the afternoons, I was standing outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and I received a photograph on my phone from my daughter and my partner. It was my daughter’s first time ice skating, with daddy close behind. In that moment, I wanted to transport myself directly to them and I felt tears welling in my eyes. I sat down and started thinking about how many hours I had invested in this – very worthy – conference and realized that I was making about $2.00 per hour. So, for $2.00 an hour I was missing my daughter’s first time ice skating. I resolved that from that moment forward, I would always calculate an “ice skating fee.”

I would only agree to do jobs and projects where I could make enough money to put away something for my daughter’s future, otherwise I would be at home ice skating with her.  My life changed that day.  I can’t say that it works 100% of the time.  But it is good to have a measure to help you make decisions: “Will this _____ (fill in the blank) bring value to my life and/or my family’s life?” The decision making process becomes much easier. Everybody needs an ice skating fee.

Which leads us to another most often asked question:
“Your daughter seems a priority in your life, and yet you do such amazing work. How?”
You know, sometimes in life we are our own worst enemy.  Here’s an example: before my daughter started Pre-Kindergarten, I had a full-time nanny.  Most days I left our home early and didn’t get home from work until time for dinner. I was frustrated as I saw my daughter growing up without me. And although she was very young, she was also frustrated with me. I felt that I was losing control of my own life. So, I sat down and envisioned what my day would look like if I could do all of the things that I felt I needed to do – for me and for my daughter. My vision at that moment was to take my daughter to school each morning, work a full and creative day and leave the office in time to pick her up each afternoon from school at 3pm.

It felt scary.  My inner dragon screamed “HOW WILL YOU GET ALL THIS WORK DONE? THE COMPANY WILL CLOSE.  YOU WILL FAIL.” And, honestly, I was unsure how I was going to get all of the work done. But I made my plan and followed through, starting with her first day of school.
What happened was this: my daughter and I LOVED this time together; I became more prudent with my time and what I would agree to do (an ice skating fee works in this situation too). I followed our schedule and it seemed that I actually got more done in less time. Our overall profit as a company increased – however small, but an increase – and we were both happier people.

I wrote in the last post that fears often prove groundless – case in point.
This year, I am working on balance and realizing that I can ask for help with my daughter, home and business. A couple of afternoons a week, I have scheduled time for myself. My daughter and I still have the majority of our time together and I am creatively visualizing two mile walks in the woods, dreaming and building more long-term entrepreneurial goals, a visit with a girlfriend, or a simple solo trip to the farmer’s market where I can stop and smell the produce.
Yes, that’s me, making a plan – or vision – for the long-term.


Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).