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Standing Paddle Co's Abi McIntosh leads a paddleboard yoga class on Lake Decatur in this 2018 file photo.

“I love that you’re doing this,” they say as they walk by Standing Paddle Co. Four very slow weekends for our walk-up paddleboard and kayak rental business on Lake Decatur, and I start to almost resent the comment. 

And then I think, "I love what Decatur Wellness Collective is doing, and I have yet to take a class or float. I love that Giggles has a new location, and yet I’ve only been in once. I used to buy bikes at Walmart or Target and had no idea the superior products and customer service were available at Decatur Bicycle Shoppe or Spin City. I bought my last romper at Target instead of Penelope Boutique. Sometimes I get a salad at Panera instead of Simple Roots. I think The Art Farm is amazing, but I haven’t been there in months. Novel Ideas has great birthday gifts, but I haven’t been in since Christmas. I sure have ordered a lot on Amazon since then."

For most small business owners in Decatur, when I say "self-employed," I don't necessarily mean: "I retired and have a pension coming in so I started a side-gig,” "my spouse makes great money that pays the bills, so if my endeavor fails, we can still eat,” "I had great investors that were willing to take a risk,” or "if we have a bad year we can always get a government subsidy."

Not that all of these examples can't still be hard-working self-starters, but there is just a slight nuance there, in my opinion. When I refer to being self-employed, I mean using the work of your hands to pay your way to live.

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I know so many that are entrepreneurs in this town. I know them by name, and call many of them personal friends. You know who pays for their retirement, (AKA the van they plan to live in when they're old), their insurance (SO much insurance, like crazy amounts of money in insurance), their repairs, their vacation time, sick time, etc.?

They do.

There is no passive residual income. And allow me to debunk the myth that the self-employed set their own schedule and sleep in whenever they want. Sure, there is a little more freedom of movement sometimes, but do you know what most business owners are doing at 2 a.m.? They are thinking about their business, the work truck that needs a $2,000 repair, the weather, if they should take extra work out of town, if the five jobs they bid last month will actually come through or are those hours estimating just lost, should they go into debt for additional purchasing, etc.

Self-employed people aren't generally lazing about wondering what to do next. They are constantly marketing and innovating ways to be creative, competitive, or provide better customer service. They don’t expect customers to show up simply because they exist. Every fiber of their being wants to provide something that enhances the quality of life in our town, even if it is in a small way.

My rambling point is this: Small businesses struggle. My self-employed friends and I put a ton of time and heart into what we do, and it may well be appreciated from afar, but without customers, we can’t keep going. Our margins are thin and our work is consuming. Be careful how much time you ask your local business owners to donate and be sure you are supporting them in return when you do.

We can all do better to shop local in Decatur, and we can have a superior experience by doing so.

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Abi McIntosh is the co-owner of New Era Signs, Inc. & Standing Paddle Co., a yoga instructor at The Studio Yoga Decatur and a teacher's assistant for Decatur Public Schools. 

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