Two roads diverged in a wood...

How many times in our lives do we stand at a fork in the road, undecided? It’s an experience universal enough that one of the best-known poems in the English language describes it. You’ve heard the ending of “The Road Not Taken,” in which Robert Frost writes:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

He’s imagining a future here, imagining a destination he can trace to a single moment: choosing the grassy, branch-strewn, tangled path. But people often skip the beginning of the poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth


Here, he stands for a long time, looking at the roads. There’s nothing to say one is the right choice, or that one will take him where he wants to go. There’s nothing to say he even knows where he wants to go. And so there he is: standing, alone, at a choice that no one else can make.

It’s a lonely place. It’s a scary place. I’ve been there more times than I can count.

--

Running a small business is all about choosing which path to take. You make dozens of choices about which trade show to attend, which client to pursue, how to balance the hustle with the time you need for yourself and your family. There’s no compass to show you north, and no road map to guide you to your goal. When I started out, I worked with franchisors and small business owners who not only needed a cheerleader and supporter, but also a navigator. I realized as I was working with these businesses that I needed to walk their path, too - maybe even do a little bushwhacking and report back. I founded Salt City Emporium, a children’s clothing boutique, as a “proof of concept” business: a place where I could experiment and find my way.

In running Salt City Emporium, I found myself at diverging roads all the time, often without a good sense of where each one would lead. It could be paralyzing, or tempting to try a little of one road, then double back and try a little of the other. Sometimes the road I chose led nowhere, or to someplace I didn’t want to be.  Early on, we tried working with clients on pieces of their puzzle - graphic design, logo creation, website development - and each time, it led down the wrong path. Without a driving dream, focus, and inspiration, we were just wandering in the woods. After a while, as I determined more about who we were as an organization, I realized that we weren’t in it to provide services. We were coaches, friends, providers of tough love - partners in finding the right direction. Over time, as I took road after road, I started to notice the patterns.

Did you know that birds will warn you about the weather? Groups of birds perch on power lines facing the prevailing winds. Go out and watch a flock in your neighborhood a few times a day, and you’ll notice them facing the same direction. One day, they’ll turn against a different wind. A change in the weather is coming.

There are flocks of birds everywhere, but you won’t see them if you don’t go outside. Salt City Emporium made me spend time outside, trying things, in order to bring that knowledge back to other small business owners. I explored social marketing and lifestyle branding, asking of myself what I would ask of my clients. It wasn’t enough to have an idea of where to go; I had to walk the walk. With time, that walk became more and more familiar, my wayfinding more and more confident.

Of course, getting comfortable is usually my first sign that the winds are about to change, and I soon found myself at a crossroads. We’d hit the million-dollar mark in sales at Salt City, a major milestone, and I finally felt that my team and I had the strength and experience to reformulate the Kinship into its own entity. It wasn’t an easy call, and there wasn’t a sign to show the way. I think I chose the right direction, though - having spent those years in business, I'm getting better (but let’s be honest, not always!) at facing forks with a sense of which one to take.

There are still plenty of roads to walk. Now, the best part of my day is no longer having to walk them alone. My clients and I stand at a fork in the road. We look for the signs of the birds, and the sun, and the moss, and the flattened grass. And, always a little sorry we cannot travel both, we take one. Together.

--

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost (listen here)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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