Starting our Online Tea Shop and Documenting our Journey

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Wow – we are so excited to kick off this chapter in our lives. The chapter where we take on way too much responsibility and set lofty goals on top of trying to raise a family and maintain balance. We have talked for as long as we’ve known each other about starting our own businesses and dedicating our free time to something we love.

For years I’ve dreamed about opening up a brick and mortar tea shop with saltwater aquariums built into the walls. Nicole has come alongside my vision, and turned it into our vision, offering her own brilliant ideas. We’ll share greater detail of our dreams in future posts. For now, let’s stick to the present.

We determined this dream won’t materialize instantly due to the sheer cost and time consumption of raising two young children.  Recently however, we realized there was a third glaring reason this business couldn’t exist today – We have no business running a Tea Lounge. Shocker, I know. Despite a fair amount of experience between the two of us in the working world, starting and operating a physical retail and food/beverage service business is an entirely different animal.

Financial capability and the priorities of raising children will likely diminish or even completely vanish with the passing of time. This third reason, lack of experience, will never recede unless we actively do something about it.

Cue the beginning of our journey. We are going to start an online tea business! By starting an online tea shop from home, we can learn more about what it means to grow and operate a business together. Consequently, we also hope to learn much more about tea in the process, and maybe even build some capital.  We might still have no business running a tea lounge in a few years, but at least we will have laid the framework to be able to navigate challenges in business together.

If you’ve read this far, I’m sincerely grateful. We’ve got a lot of great ideas for documenting our journey and building our brand. If you follow along, we’d be thrilled to share them with you. This won’t be a quick, or always entertaining adventure, but it’s our lives, and we are excited for what they may hold!

Thanks for following,

Matthew and Nicole Underbrink

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Hunkering down for the damp season

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This summer has been an absolute whirlwind. We’ve been traveling, hiking, camping, and so much more on top of our regular schedule. We’ve grown fully accustomed to our now five month old daughter joining the family, and Nicole started colleges courses in pursuit of a meaningful career. The tea business has not completely fallen by the wayside. Work has continued on the side, updating a product listing, getting a logo drafted, and more. We placed the orders through our distributors for our first tea inventory and are preparing to launch sometime next week, after one last summer trip.

This journey to launch has been slower than we would’ve anticipated. However, we are not dismayed by our slow progress. Instead we acknowledge and appreciate that we only get a few months of Seattle summer, and that enjoying that time with our family is crucial to getting through the upcoming damp fall, winter, and spring seasons. There is also an anxious anticipation on my part, starting a retail business, online or otherwise, is making a commitment to your customers. An unspoken promise that you will be available to answer questions, fulfill orders, and operate the business faithfully and with integrity. The unknown of what that may bring is both daunting and exciting. I was hesitant to jump into more responsibility while in the midst of so many other changes.

Once our product arrives and the site is launched, we will be shifting our focus from startup activities to more practical operational tasks. Determining how to best fulfill orders, adjusting pricing and margins, and of course creating content through documenting our journey. I’m looking forward to an extremely busy nine months of focus and calibration. Hopefully by the time next summer rolls around, we will have the basics on autopilot, and can enjoy some next years sunshine as well.

More updates next week!

-M&N

Powerless – A not-so-friendly reminder as to why we build our businesses

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Last week I was informed that a previous manager of mine, someone I consider both a mentor and a friend, received their notice at work. From my perspective, there were effectively no warning signs that this was coming. No lack of performance or misalignment to company goals; just a change in strategic direction that required the shuffling of teams and their managers.

I was surprised by this news, despite this very manager repeatedly telling myself and others that it is never a matter of if, but only a matter of when we will receive notice. This attitude was not due to pessimism, or a lack of dedication to the current employer. Rather, this person possessed an innate understanding of how the world of technology ebbs and flows. When your product is virtual, lacking real materials to produce, the only true cost in running your business is the people you hire to do the work. If you wish to make adjustments to your business, the most effective moves you can make depend on hiring, firing, or repurposing individuals.

Want to save a million dollars on your bottom line? Fire ten employees.

Want to develop a new product to go to market? Move ten engineers to a new project or hire new talent.

These shifts are happening constantly, and while I personally believe you get more mileage from evolving responsibilities over replacing with new talent, it’s not always a realistic approach if the skill set you are building is drastically different from the existing position. And so, while this is all a relatively new experience to me and my relatively naive view of the world, it is completely understandable.

So where does that leave me. Do I still have a job? Yes. Do I want to continue doing my job well? Yes (out of both personal values and now with an added healthy dose of fear). So what changed? Nicole and I had a brief conversation about cutting back on some of our expenses and saving more, and what we would do if I did lose my job.  Most critically, we felt that this was yet another push for us to pursue alternative forms of income, and reaffirmed how we felt about starting our own business.

Having a near complete lack of control over whether or not you are employed is a terrible feeling.  Sure, we can stack the odds in our favor with improved job performance, and careers in “infaliable sectors” like healthcare; but no matter what we do, ultimately our continued employment, and our income, is at the discretion of others.   There really is no such thing as job security. What the average person calls job security, is really the privilege of not having to worry about where your paycheck comes from. You just get to show up to work, do your designated task, and like magic, a sum of money is deposited to your bank account in regular intervals.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently incorrect about this lifestyle, and many people value the underlying escapism that comes with being a W2 employee. For me, it’s not how I want to spend the next 30+ years of my life.

Enter the ten year plan.  I certainly don’t mind working a 9 to 5 for as long as an employer will have me, but I know for my own mental well-being there has to be a different end-game.  I want the uncertainty around my income and employment to be something that I can control. Currently, if I think I might be laid off, there is absolutely nothing I can go do to prevent someone in a back-room finance position from crossing my name off of list. On the other hand, if I own a business, and things are slow, I can always market, promote, sell, and do more to protect my own future. If all goes to hell in a hand basket, there will always be jobs out there that I can go back to.

We might start off powerless, but I’m certainly not going to end things that way.

-M

Child Bonding Time – My return from the fabled land of parental leave

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Today is my first day back to work full time after an extended paternity leave. I’m one of the few very lucky American fathers/partners who received the corporate benefit of child bonding time.  Not only am I blessed to have this benefit, the company that employs me recently increased the allotment of time-off from 2 weeks to 8 weeks paid time-off.  Like many in the tech industry, I am benefiting from the competition between startups and established companies for engineering talent. The result is benefit packages being improved for everyone. While not a tech company, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made the news when they introduced a 52 week paternity leave. You read that correctly – having a child while working at the Gates Foundation will garner you a full year off of work while maintaining compensation. I’m hopeful that this is a trend that will continue by more companies outside of the tech industry, and eventually trickled down to less desirable occupations.

Enough with that though – I really want to focus on what I did with eight weeks off of work; specifically how reality faced up to my expectations. At 29 years old, eight weeks is by far the longest period of time I’ve had off work since I was 18.  A far second was when our first child was born, close to Christmas, and I received three weeks off; two weeks parental leave and an additional week due to the company’s annual holiday closure.  During my first foray into parental leave, after doing all of the cooking, cleaning, and diaper changing, I was left with a lot of free time. I read a book, played through a video game that had been gathering dust in my steam account, and painted miniatures. I watched television with my wife (Nicole), cuddled with our new baby, and took a lot of naps. We lived in California by ourselves, far away from our extended relatives in Washington State, and so we were spared the nonstop visits from extended family that are feared by so many new parents. Returning to work was fantastic – I came back rested and eager to dive back into projects.

Two and a half years later, as we approached the birth of our second daughter, I was very much looking forward to an even longer break, and this time, with a certain level of expectation as to what I could accomplish in those 8 weeks. In addition to bonding with our new child, I knew I had one additional responsibility, taking care of our now two and a half year old, who is practically a full time job in her own right. Despite this, she still takes naps fairly regularly, and has quiet time where she plays independently.  I figured I would have plenty of time to care for and build relationships with my family, while also accomplishing the things I set out to do. My list included things like finish chopping up two felled trees in the backyard, playing Zelda Breath of the Wild, and of course, starting our new online tea business.

Within the first week, I found myself re-examining any plans I had. Our first few days back from the hospital were spent recovering from the general lack of sleep that comes with the 48 hours of activity just before and after you give birth to a child. Nicole needed multiple return trips to the hospital for complications(non-critical). Finally, the whole family (baby included) was stricken by an obnoxious cold. It didn’t phase the two kids much, but noticeably affected my wife and I’s abilities to do much more beyond feeding and clothing our children. So, it was with a dismal look at the end of day seven, with seven weeks to go, that I established new expectations.

I decided that I was going to put some of my mindfulness practice to work, and rather than maintaining an agenda, focus on whatever event, task, or excursion was directly in front of me. What followed was not the most relaxing, or accomplished seven weeks of my life – but definitely seven of the most enjoyable weeks. With no schedule, or concrete goals, we let our mood and the moment determine our day. Sleep, while interrupted, was buffered by late-morning walks to the coffee shop and blissful afternoon catnaps.  When our older daughter was bored, we drove to the mall, walked around, and let her play on the indoor play structure. As the weather got nicer, we spent more time outside, and took trips to the zoo. Now living in Washington State, we entertained visits from family members, and hosted a “sip-and-see” for the new baby. These types of activities when squeezed into a normal work week, or a fleeting weekend, tend to generate a lot of stress for me. I’m constantly torn between the responsibilities of a job, trying to spend time with my family, meeting my values, and everything else. On paternity leave however, it was like living my life was my job.

Those familiar with me know that I usually love working. It’s like a game with imaginary accomplishments, and the rewards are money! I’ve been playing this game since I was 14 years old, and while it’s not always rainbows and sunshine, this game has some serious replayability.  So imagine, when my job, my game, became my life. This concept is what motivates super high functioning new-age entrepreneurs and social media stars like Casey Neistat and Gary Vaynerchuk.  You only get one life in this game – make it count.  As someone who follows many  motivational influencers I’ve heard this mantra more times than I can count. However, this was the first time in my adult life I felt I had truly experienced what it was like to enjoy each day for exactly what it was, and nothing more.

I didn’t want to go back. This is what people talk about when they say they are “busier after retirement”.  I caught a glimpse.  And I loved what I saw. Throughout the break, Nicole routinely apologized for me not being able to spend enough time on my goal list. I in turn, told her it was more than fine, and that I had my whole life to finish everything on that list. The thing is, I wasn’t procrastinating the things I wanted to accomplish, I was just gradually fitting them in where they didn’t compromise my family time. I focused on patience, which was easy when I realized I have a long life ahead of me, and spending that life relaxed and in the moment, was far more important than finishing the next thing on my goal list two week earlier.

At the end of my leave: I had chopped up all of the wood in the backyard(it was hard!), played Zelda (three divine beasts down!), and worked a considerable amount on the Tea Business (it’s not ready yet but it’s really close). More importantly, I had used my paternity leave for it’s intended purpose: To care for my family, bond with my new little, and figure out how do life with a fourth person in mix.  Coming back to work today, I definitely was not as excited as I was returning from my first paternity leave. I was however, refocused, with my sights set on completing my day’s work efficiently, so that I could continue to devote time to my family and my goals outside of work. I don’t have it all figured out yet, and I’m sure these first few weeks(months?) back full time will present their own set of challenges, but I am extremely grateful for the time I have had. I will be actively considering ways to improve my work/life balance, and in a few years time, may even request additional time off every year in exchange for a pay reduction or in lieu of a raise.

My motivations for starting our own business, and doing something I love are clearer than ever.  While I hope that our business is extremely successful – I am realistic in my expectations that this phase of our lives may very well last a decade or more. I’m learning daily how to make the next decade count, and truly embrace my life for what it is.  If my own personal experience can be applied to others, imagine what an increase of companies providing increased leave benefits, and not just parental leave, could do for work cultures around the world. Our concepts of retirement age could change not just because our finances required it, but because our souls desired it. Working well into old age could become common-place because it was a part of life, and not just the thing you did for 50 years until you had a enough money to give it up.

Parental leave won’t solve all of the world’s employment problems. But it’s certainly a promising step in the right direction. The future is bright.

Thank you so much for your attention.

-M