Saturday, November 23, 2013

Real Jobs Series: Samantha from Sierra Water Gardens, The Wedge Ceramics Studio and Stremmel Auctions

*all photos courtesy of Sierra Water Gardens.

I am crazy excited to share Sam's story as the first in this series.  Sam owns my very favorite (FAVORITE) Reno shop, Sierra Water Gardens, as well as a ceramics studio across the street, AND she helps out with the family auctions business.  I met Sam a couple of years ago at Sierra Water Gardens after my mother tried for weeks to get me to go to "the pond shop" (sparking quietly worried conversations between my brother and me about what exactly our mother was pawning).  Finally, one of our mother-daughter days out found us at Sierra Water Gardens and I haven't been able to shut up about the place since.  They are a shop/nursery with a fantastic selection of beautiful and interesting water plantssucculents and air plants, but they are also a beautiful and welcome retreat right outside the heart of the city, with commerce gracefully and cleverly worked into the property.  Sam and Sutter live on the riverfront property and have gravel paths winding through numerous ponds, the whole things strung over with cafe lights.  They've balanced this soft tranquility with modern touches, including structural planters and a stunning greenhouse full of creatively arranged Tillandsia and an inspiring vertical gardening display.  It's pretty magical.  (Side note: Sam provided all of the beautiful air plants I used to make my wedding bouquet, sparking my verging-on-unhealthy devotion to her and her shop.)

I'm so grateful to Sam for launching this Real Job Series.  She has such a unique experience and her answers are clearly very personal and honest and a perfect representation of her.  Enjoy!

Age(ish): 26. 

Tell us a little about the iterations of your career aspirations:
I've never aspired to have a certain career....hence I graduated MSU with an English Literature degree. I knew I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to work at a desk. So I guess I knew what I did not want to do which helped eliminate things. I also knew I didn't care about money. If I liked what I did then I would be fine I figured. However, I graduated college and I found out making money was pretty important to functioning in society. 

What has been your work history to this point?
I grew up working on my family's vegetable farm. So we grew organic vegetables and sold them at Farmer's Markets in Kalispell, MT and Whitefish, MT. I liked it when I worked there in my 20's, but hated it growing up. Looking back I'm grateful. Then I worked at a local nursery called Hooper's Nursery owned by our neighbors. In college I was a nude model for the Montana State University Art Department for 2 years. In the summer's I worked for Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier. Then I worked in a coffee shop as a barista for 3 years. Now I work at Sierra Water Gardens, The Wedge Ceramics Studio and Stremmel Auctions. 

Current job title(s): Owner, manager, and everything else with my husband for our two businesses. I am the tech, web site manager, clerk and registrar for another business. 

How many hours are dedicated to your job each week?
I'm not entirely sure all the time. During the busy season 84 hours a week or more. I'm trying to cut that back and be more efficient with things. We don't have any employees. In the fall winter season 40 hours a week to 20 hours a week. 

Do you have flexibility in your schedule?
Yes and no. Yes in the winter. No in the summer; I am tied so tight to the job. We live where we work so I can be out at night watering and someone can yell over the fence and if I'm in sight I have to answer. Even just to say we're closed, or sometimes let people in to walk around or buy koi food. We can't afford for people to have bad experiences so when it comes to the customer, I can't be flexible with my time. This year we were better about it, but we are working on creating separation between work and our non-work life.

How did you get this job?
Bought one. It was in foreclosure with the property and home. Took a lot of work to get it going again in so many ways. Sutter and I built the other together. The third is Sutter's family's business. 

Is a job in this field something you specifically pursued?
Not really. I wanted to own my own business someday and that was about it. I would say we had opportunities and it is what we did with these opportunities that created our jobs.  

What factors played into you taking this job?
Timing. We had graduated college with English Literature degrees and didn't want to go to grad school and we didn't want to teach. So we were open to possibilities. We also wanted to own our own businesses. Maybe also being stubborn and not worrying about things we should have been worrying about.

Is the job what you expected?
Yes and no. In practical terms yes. The basics of running both businesses are what we expected. But the emotional toll has been tough. I've learned so much in 3 years and the most traumatic is the emotional roller coaster. The highs are so good, but when things get stressful, there is no going home and forgetting about it. I'm still learning about how to deal with certain situations and keeping my emotions out of things so I can deal with it. ALSO… saying No. I'm a people pleaser personality so I have had to learn to say No for my own emotional health. No is a complete sentence. Although I say No thank you. But with all the craziness and hard work and stress it fulfills me like I thought owning a business would. I've learned so much more than I ever thought I would about business and myself. And being about to run businesses with my husband has not been the nightmare everyone told me it would be. We have grown together and at the end of the day, if we talk about work we know exactly what the other person is talking about and our empathy for situations or joy for situations is shared. I love being able to share these experiences with my husband. We've had times where we've had to learn how to work together and respect each other. And we've had to keep any argument or personal frustration with each other out of our business. I know my job is not about my husband, but working with him is the biggest part of my job and a huge joy. We also thought we could do our own accounting and we were wrong. We hired an accountant because we were doing the accounting after a 12 hour day and that was not good for our books or our personal health. It is also hard because sometimes one of us has to make an executive decision without the other and then hopefully we agree. 

One business pays our bills and takes care of our needs. 'Wants' are a different story. We sometimes have a little extra to do fun things, but not often. If we have extra money in the business accounts, we save it to pay bills or improve our property. Our home is on our property where our business is so our business pays for our home. That is so nice and truly makes owning a small business possible for us. Our overhead is low; we are the only employees, we rarely advertise, don't have company vehicles and we don't commute.  The other business was built from what we made at our purchased business and now sustains itself. We make no money at our second business for ourselves. Every cent gets put back into the studio for supplies, bills etc. but Sutter has a studio to work in, and that was the idea and reason we created our second business. . It is feast or famine, and we have to budget so that what we make during the summer can pay the bills through the winter. So income is hard to track, but we talked about the value of our businesses and if we ever sold….. and our lifestyle and sense of purpose is priceless and worth more than any money.

Outline for us an average work day for you:
During our busy spring and summer season we are open 7 days a week. I wake up in the morning get lots of coffee brewed, check emails, Facebook, return phone calls. Maybe shower, get ready for the day. Then, about 7 or 8 a.m. we get outside to water, pick up dog poop, rake, clean up outside, fill the ponds if they are low on water, check the koi tanks. Back flush tanks. If I have time we can run a couple errands, make deposits or check on a couple ponds that are in our Sacred Koi Club. At some point one of us will run over to the studio to check on things. Then we open the shop at 10am and we are usually busy with customers until close at 5:30 helping pick out pond plants, explaining pond plants, trouble shooting algae problems, listening to koi pond stories from customers, watering plants, rearranging displays but we are usually interrupted by customers so the task might be left half finished for a while. Then we get a delivery and I have to open the box take inventory, price things, get them on the shelf. Again we often get interrupted, which is a good thing! But we have to get product out on the shelf quickly because we often have people coming to get it. Then we catch koi out of the tanks, put them in bags with oxygen. We do a lot of talking throughout the day with people answering questions, giving tours and hanging out with friends that stop by. Oh did we get something to eat? This last year I got better at preparing lunch meals the night before or in the morning. But it is so easy for our day to get started without us and then by 2pm we are both crashing. So this is something we have had to work on. And drinking lots of water, which seems easy, but is not always. Sometimes we have events going on at the Wedge so we end up running back and forth. We don't have totally average days, but the nice thing is we are rarely bored. I do get tired of explaining how UV lights work or what options are for combating algae. And things I take for granted as common knowledge about koi ponds and water plants are often things I need to explain over and over to different customers and I feel like a broken record. And then there is the circumstance where we work so hard and people come in and don't want to spend anything, taking up all of our time asking questions, and I mean hours of our time, and then they go buy everything online. That is hard, but then when we spend hours answering questions and the customer buys everything from us it really pays off. So we have to take our time with everyone and hope we've done a good enough job for people to want to spend their hard earned money with us. So our day is spent trying to make every customer happy and making our place a place where people can have a special experience. Because my husband and I are the only ones who take care of our customers, we have relationships with all of them. As our season slows down we spend more time making sure our place looks good, or over taking care of the studio more. And we take more time to have a beer in the afternoon and make sure we have a good lunch. Sutter or I can take time and go do things and leave the shop to one of us. We close for the season Oct. 15 and then we have a lot more flexibility and we take advantage of sometimes doing nothing or going fishing or traveling. We also spend time planning classes and events for next year  for both businesses and setting up and doing auctions. 

How much of your energy do you invest in your job? Do you feel it's a good trade for you?
I put in 100% of my energy. Sometimes I don't have much energy, but of what I have I give 100%. I love the trade. I have a lifestyle I enjoy and I know every year we are getting better about time, business, and personal management.With owning our own business we "eat what we kill", or, the harder and smarter we work, the more we make. What we get out is a result of what we put in. We also live and work on the Truckee River. We love being able to fly fish and enjoy our river front property. So if the business does not work out, at least we have a nice place we like to live or could sell. 

Is there room in your job for personal progress or promotion? Is that something that's important to you or that you seek out?
There is always room for personal progress or promotion. And it is very important to me. Everyday I want our business to be better and to look better. I want to learn more and know more. Be better to myself and to my customers. I want to grow personally and I want our business to grow. I like working and doing a good job, it is fulfilling for me. But i also like to be creative and spontaneous. So I have lots of room to work and play throughout the year. It feels good when people want to be at our business and be our customers. And I would love for our businesses, one or both to be featured in a magazine…. like Sunset….. and that would feel good to me. Not only would that help our business, but Reno as well. A rising tide lifts all ships.

What are some things you find fulfilling about your job?
Doing a good job. The challenge. Working with my husband and being about to hang out with our dogs and cats all day. Being creative. Learning new things. Having the freedom to do what I want with our businesses and not having to wait for a boss make a change. We also work our own land, which pays the mortgage on the land. We are the captains of our own ship. 

What are some things that you find challenging about your job?
Separating work and personal life. Defining our own personal space when we allow people into our backyard all day. Keeping the face of our business fresh, so customers see something new and different each time they walk in. Keeping our inventory alive. Keeping it clean, because it is displayed outdoors. Retail environments can also be difficult. Competing with the internet. Answering the same questions all the time and being nice about it. Working with my husband. Being inspired everyday. Some days I just don't feel inspired and I want to be and feel like I SHOULD be. 

Is this what you want to do? Aka is this the job?
For now. We got here by being open to opportunities and new paths. 

Do you feel like you have a relatively balanced life? If, so what do you think helps you feel that way? If not, what do you think would need to change for you to feel that way?
There is no real separation between home, work and social life. Our home is where we work and because we are rarely absent from the street where our businesses are and we have a close community with others on the street, our social life is here as well. We try to take occasional moments to enjoy the tranquility of our yard which we work so hard to keep for the enjoyment of others. We are working on a balanced life, but we are happy and like what we do. Maybe getting away on trips and getting off of our street is good for us. Also locking the gate and doors, but then I sometimes feel trapped.

Of the five markers of a quality life (positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, achievement), which does your job allow you to fulfill? Does your job allow you enough time/energy to fulfill the other ones in your free time?
All. I feel positive emotion everyday, I feel engaged everyday, and I have lots of relationships, I feel meaning in my life and with work for sure I feel achievement. That does not mean that there are not periods of time in a day where I feel like a failure or frustrated, when I wonder if this is all I am meant for. Believe me, I have those afternoons or evenings. If there is anything I'm lacking in fulfillment in my life, I can try to get fulfillment in the off season. My philosophy on my purpose of life is that I must gain knowledge in my life, be kind to everyone and love everyone. Gaining knowledge is easy enough. Being kind is much more difficult, but I strive. And then loving everyone is nearly impossible, but that means my purpose is never done. It may sound like a religious purpose which it is not for me. 

What are your general thoughts about work/this job/life?
I have used two pronouns for these questions. I and We. I think sometimes it is hard to separate the I and We of my job. I do a lot and so does Sutter, but we really feel like a team. I feel that I speak for Sutter and Sutter speaks for me, but we really have to talk to each other.  There is no USB link between us, no telepathy. Our goal and aim is the same, we can never assume we are on the same page. One thing gratifying about our job is that it works well for our marriage. It may not be for everyone, and it may not be for us forever, but for now it works great. 

Free style (anything else you feel compelled to explain/share):
I think an important component of our businesses and our business plan is that we don't have a typical business plan. We go with what feels right and if it works, we keep doing it and if it doesn't, we change. Sounds cavalier maybe or hazardous, but it has led to some good things. Also, we felt like taking big risks on business this young in life is a good idea. I would rather lose everything at age 26 and have time, health and energy to recover financially then take a risk much later in life with more burdens.


Friends, can you believe how beautiful their shop is?  It is clearly a labor of love.  I'm already counting the days till they open again in the spring.  Sam, thank you ever so much for sharing.


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