Creating Boundaries For Your Business with Becca Mai
Becca Mai owns Wed2You consulting. Today we talked about owning a business as someone with a chronic illness, the wedding industry during a pandemic, setting healthy boundaries, and the tenacity it takes to keep going.
Hey Becca! I am so excited to have you on the show today. Introduce yourself!
Hi everyone! I'm Becca Mai. I own Wed2You consulting, which is a business and client management consulting firm for small businesses in the wedding and hospitality industries, to be able to organize and enrich their businesses.
Awesome! I want to start by asking what your job looked like before you owned your own business.
Yeah, I'll give you a little bit of background about me. I've been in the wedding and hospitality industry for over twelve years, eight of those years dedicated to the wedding industry, working with local planners and restaurant groups in the DMV area, as well as a wedding venue in DC. Throughout my career I've done over 250+ weddings. It's been a crazy journey.
Prior to owning my own business, I was the Director of Event Operations at a prestige wedding venue in DC and had been there since they first opened. I started from the ground up with them, going through the trials and tribulations of opening and doing the first wedding there. Then of course the pandemic happened, and things had to adjust quite a bit. That's where I decided to open my own business.
So I wanted to have you on today because I was interested to talk to creatives and those in the wedding business who have chronic illnesses. It's something we don't talk enough about and especially for those of us who have invisible illnesses, I don't think that people realize the different ways we need to adapt in our business. Especially as a business owner yourself, I would love to hear about your story in getting diagnosed and bringing that into your business.
I agree with you. It's the hardest thing with an invisible illness, that people can't see you're in pain or hurting, or they think that you're making things up. It's not even just the industry. It's worldwide that it needs to not be a taboo conversation anymore. Or, entrepreneurs or creatives shouldn't be afraid to talk about it anymore. I think that's been the biggest concern - "Oh no, if I talk about it, how will it affect my business?"
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis back in July of 2019. The onset symptoms started pretty aggressively in April. I was actually working a wedding, and the next day I went to a winery with friends. I just didn't feel right. My legs felt weak, and my back was really hurting, which wasn't a surprise to me because I've had back problems for awhile. I always attributed it to being on my feet too much. In the industry, we're on our feet anywhere from 12-18 hours at a day when it comes to weddings. So I was like, maybe I just need to take it easy. But then it progressively got worse throughout the week. I ended up not being able to utilize my right leg at all. I scheduled an appointment with a doctor, but the earliest they could get me in wasn't for another week. It spiraled from there.
But the great thing was that when I went to my physician, there was actually a med student there who was specializing in neurology. I think I was severely lucky in that, unlike most others who don't get diagnosed for years and years. She immediately knew I should be referred to a neurologist. But they wanted to mitigate everything, do a full blood work up. They also thought it would be a good idea to see a rheumatologist, too.
Over the course of the next few months, I had seen a good ten different doctors. The "great" thing about insurance is that don't automatically take you up to an MRI unless it's an emergency. So I had to go through the full roundabout. I was denied an MRI four different times, it was insane. That's why my diagnosis extended out further than it needed to be, but again I was lucky to have an amazing neurologist behind me, constantly pushing to get this done and what the resolve is, and just never giving up, which is very unlike a lot of other MS patient stories and autoimmune stories I've heard.
Eventually I was diagnosed after doing a lumbar puncture to confirm. I ended up, after my MRIs, having three lesions on my spine right exactly in my pain points that I'd been having trouble. I also ended up having three lesions in my brain as well. It went from 0 to 60 in no time at all, and I ended up having to use a cane to get around.
It was a little challenging, especially with the career I had and industry I was in. I had to constantly tell my couples, "Hey, if you see me with a cane don't freak out." And they'd say. "Well you look okay now, is there something wrong?" And then I'd have to divulge... which, it's not that I had to, it's because I wanted to.
Everyone deals with a lifelong disease differently, but I decided in the very beginning that I was not going to let this disease control my life. I have a disease, but it doesn't have me. That's been my mentality throughout this whole process. I'm still going to do what I love to do, I just may need to modify things or get creative, and I'm never going to let it hold me back.
I love that so much. What an incredible mindset to have. It takes a lot of us a long time to even get there, so for you to be able to start strong that way is awesome. I think people outside of the wedding industry may not realize how physically demanding it is. There are several different roles obviously, but several of them require you to be on your feet for a long time and some of them require you to be carrying heavy stuff all day. I can't imagine how that changes things in the beginning when all the sudden things need to look different.
Would you explain a little bit about what MS is and what it does to your body?
Yeah, of course. So Multiple Sclerosis is an auto-immune disease. It attacks your central nervous system. Your body starts attacking your nerves and the myelin sheath that protects your nerves like they're a foreign entity. So then what happens after that is because your body has always protected these nerves, your body goes into freakout mode to protect it and creates a faux myelin sheath, but it's never going to be as it originally was. That's where the lesions come into play. Because it's attacking your myelin sheath and your nerves are a part of your whole nervous system, it can be different for everyone. There are tell-tale signs for MS, but not every MS story is the same.
There are four stages of MS. There is CIS, which is sort of a one-off instance. Then there's relapsed and remitting, which goes through intermediate times where you have flare-ups, but progressively over time the disability does get higher. It's kind of like a grid with time and disability on the axis. Then around 90% of MS patients move into secondary progressive, which means you're just kind of stagnantly running up to the disability line with intermittent flare-ups. Then primary progressive is just straight shot. You'll always have the symptoms, and the disability is highest.
I'm borderline relapsed remitting and secondary progressive, which again is very surprising for a lot of relapsed and remitting patients because they're like, you shouldn't be at this stage this quick. I think I had MS for a long time and didn't think about the flare-ups because I was so concentrated on my work and my career. I always mitigated pain or certain things to working too hard.
MS affects everybody differently. It's not necessarily about the number of lesions you have, but also about the placement. So I joke around and say it's quality over quantity. One person could have three lesions in severe spots like the optic nerve and make them blind. Whereas another person could also have three lesions in totally different spots and it barely affects them at all. It really varies. When I was explaining this to my family - I think that was the hardest thing I ever had to do - it was a challenge because I feel like nobody really gets it unless they have it, or an auto-immune disease or a lifelong disease.
The main symptoms of my MS are extreme fatigue, sensitivities to heat and cold, and then also having cognitive issues, balance issues, and things like that. Only about 10% of MS patients feel pain, and I'm just one of those lucky ones. You do have to modify things, and I was extremely lucky again to be working with the team that I had. They were all honest about it through the whole journey, very supportive. But they also know I'm a do-er, which I think most creatives and wedding industry folks are. I do it all. That took a little bit more time for me to balance out. When I was going to wedding days I couldn't lift things anymore. I couldn't constantly run up and down the stairs. Leaning on my team and having a support system at work was so crucial. To me, it didn't feel like enough. I needed to modify my life a little bit more, and it wasn't until the pandemic hit that I made those modifications.
I definitely want to touch on some modifications, but before we get there I wanted to back track. On last week's episode I talked about the same thing you mentioned, about not really knowing what it feels like until you're in it. I would try to explain to people when I first diagnosed with hypothyroidism the fatigue I felt and people would say, "Yeah, some days are like that!" It's so difficult to describe to somebody, I physically cannot get out of bed. It's such a strange thing because people think that they get it in its various stages.
You also mentioned that there were signs of MS before you were diagnosed, but we are do-ers. It makes me wonder... like you said, in the creative industry and the wedding industry, we want to work hard and we have people counting on us, but I wonder how much of that is being a woman in a rather difficult industry, or a busy industry, being told we need to keep going or we're over-reacting, or we don't know our own bodies.
Yeah, I think that has something to do with it, the pressures of society that have been put into our heads. To be honest, I've literally had to crawl and grab and fight for things in stages throughout my career, and I've had to be aggressive, and I've had to be a go-getter. Looking from a female to a male perspective, especially being in the restaurant industry, females are becoming more predominant, they're becoming Director of Operations and GMs and Executive Chefs, but that wasn't how it was when I was in the restaurant industry. I managed restaurants for years, and it was always a struggle for me to be there. I think it's from all of those years of struggling and pushing that I did let things go as far as physical symptoms. I was like, "Oh no, I can do this. I can keep pushing. I've done worse."
The restaurant industry sees it as a badge of honor if you work 80-100 hours per week. And now in the wedding industry it's seen as a badge of honor of how many events you have in a weekend to push through. But what we don't talk about is the effect it has on your body. On your body, on your mental capacity, emotionally, the whole gambit. Once you actually stop, which I think a lot of wedding and hospitality folks have realized once the pandemic hit, for the first time all of us were able to breathe for a second. It's not the most calm breathing because we're like, "Oh no! We're in the middle of a pandemic!" But it was, "Oh, I don't have a 100 hour work week. This is what it actually looks like to spend time with my family. This is what my MS actually looks like."
For me, it was life-changing. When I was working constantly, even though I was the director of an event operation, I still wanted to be there to support my team. I didn't want to put all the pressure on them. I went in and made sure everything was running smoothly. I made sure the team felt like they were successful. So even then I was more overhead, but I was there almost every single day. And if I wasn't there, I was there by phone or text. I didn't realize how much stress that put on my body. Because I was diagnosed getting into the height of the season, going into fall weddings and then the holiday season, I just thought, "This is what MS looks like for me." But the craziest thing is that when it all stopped in March and I was furloughed, I actually became free. Which is crazy. Before I wouldn't be able to walk a block without pain or without stumbling. Now I'm up to two miles a day! I'm able to take my dogs for a walk, which I would regret doing before because it was a chore.
Like you were saying, it's a struggle to get out of bed some days. And some days I won't get out of bed because I know it's better for my body if I don't.
I love that you know your own limits. It's so cool to hear how those limitations have changed since you've been able to take a step back. I think it's a very American thing to be so focused on work. Like you said, these 100 hour work weeks are a "badge of honor" when in reality so much is suffering because we're putting everything we have into work. Until recently, I never realized how ableist that is, also. Just in bragging about how much we get done rather than the quality of the work we're getting done.
I also think that in the wedding industry, in particular for photo/video/planners who are a one person team, it's so easy to make your business your entire life. That is something I am super guilty of. My brand is me, my business is me. My business is my hobby, it's my work, it's what I've got. I'm not ashamed to say, I went through a little bit of an identity crisis in March, and I think many people did. The event industry completely tanked, and we were like... "Who am I? What am I doing? I can't do weddings. Who knows when they'll come back? Who knows when things will look normal again? Now what do I do?" I think that is absolutely worth noting.
I think every single person in the world went through that identity crisis. Especially the biggest hitters being the wedding and hospitality industries. We had to close down shop. It wasn't like the government or other offices where they're like, "We'll just work from home and everything will be fine." For us, it was like, our life is cancelled.
Like hard stop. It's now shut down.
Exactly. I think all of us went through that identity crisis. I did. I got married in June because of everything, but it's insane. It's insane how you feel, that nobody talks about it, everyone is just hunkered down and nobody talks to one another anymore. I remember the days of endless networking events where you could pick and choose which ones you go to. Now it's nothing. Everyone is almost scared to be honest about their business, and be honest that this sucks. Everybody took a hit. That's why I think we need to band together, and that was one of the reasons why I decided to open up my business.
One of my industry friends owns a bakery and she reached out to me on the verge of a breakdown. I was like, "Okay, well let's just breathe and talk about this." I said, "I'm not doing anything right now. Let me help you." That's how my business got started. I went in to help her with a few Covid responses and help clean out her inbox so she could make treats and desserts to sell to people to keep her business going. But again she's a one lady show. She can't pump out these treats to sell to people while still being able to manage all of her couples who are currently in freakout mode. That was how I stepped in and responded. I was also like, there are ways you could make your life easier. And she was like, "What do you mean?"
That's when I went into her CRM and built that out. I went in and created email templates for her. I went in and set up her client process to make her life easier, but still feel like her and her brand. That is one of the reasons I went into this business. Like, this is your business and I don't want to tell you how to run your business. I want to help you so that we can create a solid foundation and five years from now you're able to grow. She told me I could do this for other people, but I thought, "Who's going to want me?"
Ah, the age old question.
Again, I think it's an industry fear. Who's gonna want to book me? Who's gonna hire me? It's always in our heads. But I was super lucky and I've been able to get clients even through the pandemic. It's a double edged sword. I wouldn't have been able to start my business without the pandemic, but I know that my business could thrive so much more if we weren't in a pandemic. It's taking those small things and adding the feeling of, "You can do this." It's having a support system.
I opened my business too because I knew that's what I needed for my body. I am super honest with all of my clients. I let them know at the get-go, and I let them know this is why I started my business, because I can't be on the ground running weddings anymore. I would give anything to be able to do that again. Anything. But, I can't. So I have to find a happy medium, and I'm grateful that I'm still able to stay in the industry I love and I'm passionate about, and I want to express that to others who have an invisible illness. To not give up, and not be scared about it either.
And if being honest about it to your clients isn't your M.O., that's totally fine, but don't be scared to share it with your support system. Don't be scared to share it with those around you, or with the community that you work within day in and day out. I have found that when I express my MS so openly, so many others have been able to come out and express theirs. To me, that's amazing, and then we become a part of each other's support system.
It always surprises me how much honesty reaches people. That's something I've tried to do in my business relentlessly. Even talking about the pandemic and how much it sucked in the beginning. I was very vocal on Instagram. I was like, "This is the worst. This is so hard. You're allowed to be feeling like this is so hard. You don't have to pivot March 20th. Let's just sit in it, and grieve it, and feel it, and then let's figure it out."
There's a lot of talk now about how people are pivoting, how they did it in the last few months, how they did it now, how they're doing it in the future. A lot of people have taken that leap to start a business or go full time with their business, and that's awesome. Like you said, maybe they don't have the exact clientele they'd have in a "normal" year, but it's nice to see people have been able to take the leap.
In taking the leap for yourself, and in starting your business, what were some things you had to think about starting out business-wise and in the way you wanted to help? And also what were some of those modifications we alluded to earlier?
Yeah. When I first decided to start my business, I knew that I had to start it on the right foot. I did massive amounts of research - researching platforms, hosts for websites, not just picking and grabbing to realize later I had messed up. That was critical to me, starting on the right foot. How can I not set myself up for success while trying to help others to set themselves up for success? Then also setting manageable goals for myself, not setting crazy goals where I'll get my heart broken, and reaching out to my circle that I had started.
I think everybody, as soon as they start something, needs to have modifications along the way. When I first started out, I thought I'd get paid hourly. And then thinking about it, that's a nightmare. So I did it by rate. Again now, I'm realizing that I may need to modify my business just a little bit, but I don't want to modify it just yet because I want to see what takes. Right now I have a decent amount of services that I offer, but I know that I'm finding my niches. But right now I don't have the luxury to not take what I can get. Maybe down the road I can pare down and create my niche.
I've also realized modifications for my body. I made it critical not to have virtual meetings or in-person meetings prior to noon. Some people think that's crazy, they're like, "Don't you get things done better in the morning?" And I'm like, "No! Not with this body." I actually do better when I get the right amount of sleep that I need rather than waking up super early feeling brain fog throughout the day and not feeling successful. Whereas if I start meetings at noon - of course I do phone calls earlier - I notice how much more productive I am.
I'm the same way. For a while I felt weird about setting that boundary for myself. When scheduling phone calls and things, people would always ask. "How about 8 or 9am?" And I would say, "How about 11 or 12..." I was always a little bit wary that people would think that was... unprofessional somehow? Which it's not. It's not unprofessional to realize what you're capable of and to set boundaries for yourself. I love that you recognized that.
And that is also something I offer within my business, creating a work/life balance. You're never going to have a work/life balance, but there are ways to get a little bit more of that balance. Right now is crazy since kids aren't in school, and it's difficult to create that balance right now.
But also as we're mentioning setting boundaries for ourselves, it's extremely hard. It goes back to the mentality of us being women who are do-ers. We feel guilty to set those boundaries because we feel like we need to be on call 24/7, but you don't. That's not healthy for you, that's not productive for you, and that's not right for your clients to email them at 3AM with mistakes or typos rather than just sending them an email saying, "I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
The wedding industry in particular is very... it's sort of like this unspoken rule that you have to respond, in particular to inquiries, immediately. Especially over weekends and late nights, when people are sitting down to do their wedding planning. There's the idea that if you're the first one to write them back, then you've got a better shot, or you're more professional, or you're X Y Z. That's one thing that's been difficult for me personally to let go of, but now I'm at a place where I try to convert inquiries to phone calls as quickly as I can.
At this particular moment in my life I've had a lot of busy weeks and have had a lot going on personally, and even though I'm receiving inquiries I'm able to say, "Hey, why don't we look at the week after next because I'm not going to be able to give you my full attention?" Even though part of me is like, "Ugh, they could get so much done in that week we aren't talking," I know if they want to book me then they're willing to wait, and if they wait they're going to get the best me on the phone.
For sure. A lot times people feel the need to constantly respond right away as you mentioned because the market is so saturated. It's one of those things that we feel needs to happen right away. But there are ways to automate your business a little more, still allowing it to feel personal, setting it up for success at the forefront.
I always feel like in hospitality it's all about expectations. You can set that expectation at the forefront when their inquiry comes in saying, "Thank you so much. I'll be able to respond in 24-72 hours. If you need an immediate response, please call me at XXX," if you're willing to divulge that. Then being able to follow up with a more automated system. Having a CRM is critical in the wedding industry to be able to speed track everything. Having that automated to where you can just click and put them in the right workflow allows you to take two minutes instead of thirty minutes.
I also want to go back to when we were talking about scheduling time. Even scheduling this interview, we are both busy ladies! I found it very helpful to have a calendar to be able to send that sets that barrier for me. Rather than feeling guilty about saying all the times I can't do, it felt easier for people to just click on the calendar. If they don't have a time they want, they can always email me and I can make adjustments. I find that very, very helpful. So if anyone is struggling to find those barriers, set up a Calendly or some CRMs have schedulers in them. Set up a scheduler to be able to help set those boundaries.
I hate to say this, but it's actually conforming your clients to you than conforming yourself to your clients. Yes, we want to be hospitable and be there for them, however it comes to a point where you have to draw the line somewhere. They can't call you at midnight to tell you they need to adjust their seating chart when their wedding is a month away. Setting boundaries is something really critical.
And setting boundaries makes you a better business person.
I think people think the opposite.
Again, it's about expectations. If you open those floodgates, they'll expect those floodgates to always be open.
I would love to peek behind the curtain for a second and ask, when people come to you for help, what are some of the top things that you're seeing people need help with?
I think the biggest thing is that they have created or utilized some kind of CRM, but they haven't utilized it to the fullest capability, so they're actually making their life harder instead of easier. A lot of times they'll come to me and say, "I'm using all these platforms," and all of the sudden they have a dozen platforms. And I'm like, "Whoa. You can consolidate this!"
Really organizing businesses have been a huge key element. Emails and calendar organization, organizing and enhancing the platforms they're using, and then also just giving them mentorship and coaching. A lot of time they say, "I don't want to try X because what if I get Y?" You don't know until you try! The worst thing that's gonna happen is, "No." That's the thing. The worst thing that's gonna happen is, "No." Actually taking that "no" and saying, "How can I make that better? How can I turn that into a yes?" That's been another component. And then because some of the foundations that they've created have cracks in them, and the pandemic has brought that to their attention more, they see they do need help and assistance.
It's really hard, too, being in the consulting area of the industry because it's not like architecture or real estate or things that have concrete aspects. With the way that I'm operating, these are things that people can do but they don't have time to do. It's hard for them to wrap their heads around the fact that they could do this themself if they had the bandwidth and time. So that's another thing, the clients that have come to me are like, "I've realized I just don't have the time. I've put it off and told myself I could do it myself for years. So now is the time."
That's another thing I'm explaining to the wedding industry: Do it now! Do it now so that when those floodgates open you're ready. We're in this weird time in the pandemic where half of the people are okay going out and half the people aren't, some are being safe and some aren't. We've seen how fast you can get hit. It feels like it came out of nowhere. That floodgate is going to open even more when we see an end to this. Do it now so you don't feel this anxiousness later.
Yeah, I think this year has given a lot of us of time to figure out what those areas are that need our attention that finally can be put off no longer, and really sit down and work on them. Someone like you is such an asset to a business owner to really narrow down what is important, what they need to be spending time and energy on. I think it's such a worthwhile investment.
That's one of the things also that I really strive to do. I always create the Now and the Future. It's kind of like the Future is like your wish list. If you could have everything... here is what it looks like. But here are the Nows that you have to focus on, and if you don't focus on you're going to crumble years down the road. You may be doing fine now, but down the road you'll realize, "Oh crap."
I want to wrap up with two questions. What would your number one piece of advice be to business owners as a consultant who sees and addresses people's needs? And then what would your advice be to the wedding industry when it comes to invisible illness?
Sure. For the first one, for anybody out there in the industry right now, just breathe. Just breathe. It's going to be okay. When a door closes, a window opens. It's okay to be in your feelings, as you mentioned Abigail, it's okay to feel that way. But just know that that feeling isn't going to be forever. Take a minute. Take ten minutes! Take as long as you need to realize what you want to do - if you need to pivot, or if you don't need to pivot, or if you just need to enrich what you've created. And also know there's support out there. Everyone is feeling this way, it's not just you.
And then, to me, I have an easier time with being open about my invisible illness, but I would just say set those boundaries for yourself. You are your best asset. If you want to be honest with your clients, that's amazing. If you don't, that's amazing too. It's you. You shouldn't ever feel like you're being judged for who you are. You have a disease. It's not who you are, it doesn't have a hold of you, it's just a part of you. If you need to take a break, take a break. Don't feel guilty about it. If you need help, get help. If you're a photographer or a planner or a videographer, whatever it may be, bring someone with you. You will thank yourself the next day, or maybe the whole week, for having that assistant rather than working yourself to the bone and not being able to get out of bed. Lean on your support system, be who you are, never feel guilty about setting boundaries, and also never feel like you're alone in this. Never feel like you're not enough just because of your illness.
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