Small Business

Custom-Building a Life


Jeff Weinstein's burger joint has taken off, but he has struggled to balance life and the job. Then he hit on a work-in-progress solution

The Entrepreneur: Jeff Weinstein, 32

Background: Restaurateur

The Company: The Counter (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/24/06), an inexpensive build-your-own hamburger eatery Weinstein opened in 2003, quickly developed a loyal following. Three months after its launch, it turned a profit. In February, 2007, its burgers were mentioned on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and sales, which had steadily increased from $44,000 a month at the restaurant's start, went from $200,000 to $245,000 a month. Lou Gurnick, known as the grandfather of franchising, approached Weinstein and introduced him to Craig Albert. Albert, who also had a background in franchising, became Weinstein's partner—now Weinstein says over 125 restaurants are set to open in coming years.

Sales: The company earned $3.5 million in 2007 and estimates it will bring in $9 million in 2008.

His Journal: Yesterday I was sick as a dog. But my business partner was out of town, so I had to go in to work. I was supposed to have a nice steak dinner with my wife that night. All I really wanted to do was curl up by myself on the couch and watch the Redskins vs. the Eagles. Everything and everyone seemed like a priority. I needed time for my work. I needed time for my relationship. I needed time for myself.

When I first started The Counter, I was going to own a small neighborhood restaurant that served burgers. It was going to be a place where I could have dinner with my wife, earn a nice income, and please people with great food at a fair price. That was my plan.

It has been four years since that little restaurant opened. I did have dinners there with my wife on a regular basis. It did provide a nice income. And it does please people with great food at a fair price. I got everything that I wished for and then some. Everything did fit perfectly—then, within four months, the business took off like a rocket.

I now have seven of those little restaurants open, five more under construction, and over 125 committed to open in the coming years. It's funny how things happen. The growth of the restaurant has been like a precocious child (or so I imagine). It was born, it grew, it crawled, it walked, and now it is running all over the place.

A Middle Ground

I'm trying to balance the success of my business with other priorities. I have been married for four years. We have changed apartments or houses three times, and I would like to stop moving. Our families, both of whom live on the East Coast, are important to us, and we try to see them regularly. Hanging out with our friends is important, too, as is spending time alone together. We would like to have children in the near future.

I'm struggling with the question: Do I live to work or work to live? I think the answer is somewhere in between—the key is in the balance—without it, I will always feel like something is missing in my life. I hear people use the term "multitask," but I don't know that I really get it. Sure, I can handle a couple small tasks at once. But the priorities that I have laid out above require time, love, and focus.

To handle everything, I had a schedule set up just like everyone else. I tried to budget my time. I tried not to bring up work when I got home. I scratched, clawed, and created friction in both parts of my life in an effort to accomplish it all—but it was to no avail. Recently, I think I figured it out. Or at least figured out me. At the restaurant, we custom-build burgers. I realized that if we can do that successfully, I should be able to custom-build my life. There should be no boundaries or restrictions on when or how I get things done. I figured out that my work life doesn't just happen from 9 am to 5 pm, and my personal life doesn't happen in the remaining time. The reality is that they both happen 24 hours a day. Traditional work-life balance doesn't work for me. The trick is being fluid.

A Work-Life Merger

Before I came to this realization, I tried too hard to keep work thoughts out of my head when I got home and to keep my personal life out of work. Now, for example, my wife might mention something at dinner that I realize I could use to solve a problem at work. Now I might be more open to listen and act when someone in the office or one of the restaurants says something that makes me think it would be a good night to bring home flowers or remind my wife that I love her. I decided that I needed to be able to move seamlessly from one area of my life to the other.

I now share more about work with my wife so that she has an understanding of what is going on and therefore a greater appreciation of the fact that I may have to deal with work outside of traditional hours even though it interferes with our personal time. I also go to the gym in the morning before work, so that I have started out the day doing something for myself. This means I arrive at work a little later, but it puts me in a better mood throughout the day. This helps me treat my co-workers even better, which in turn makes them more productive and happier about where they are.

I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't decided to change the way I view work-life balance. Now, I don't want to get all preachy, because I have to work on this every day and I don't have it down perfectly. I have been getting better, though.

When I got home last night, I put on my sweatpants, took some medicine, sat down on the couch, and turned on Monday Night Football. My wife didn't want me touching the food because I was sick, though I did convince her to let me grill the steak. We ate in front of the television. I got an e-mail regarding work that my partner usually handles and responded to it and was able to avoid a problem. By the end of the day, I had completed all my tasks, regardless of what "time box" they were supposed to fit in. Everyone was happy, including me. And everyone felt as though they were No. 1 on the priority list. Besides the feeling of balance and accomplishment, I got an extra treat: The Redskins beat the Eagles.

More journals are available in our ongoing Entrepreneur's Journal series.


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