Podcast: Tonya Dalton on building a family business

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

Anyone who’s listened to Best of Both Worlds knows that Sarah and I are both into planning. Sarah in particular is a big fan of fancy planning products. That made Tonya Dalton a great guest for us. Dalton, a mother of two, is the owner of inkWELL Press, which produces lovely planners and planning systems. She runs productivity training programs, and hosts the podcast The Productivity Paradox (where I have been a guest!)

Dalton is very much running a family business. Her husband runs a lot of the operations. Her kids (now 15 and 11) have pitched in too!

Dalton’s entrepreneurial journey turns out to be an intriguing one. Years ago, she started a jewelry wholesale business as something to do on the side while her husband was traveling internationally for work. She was running this small venture when she and her husband had a rather pivotal conversation. He told her he was feeling sad about missing time with their kids during his corporate travels. So Dalton vowed to make her business big enough that he could work for her and earn the same salary he was.

It is a testament to her skill and ambition that within a year she was able to pull this off. Dalton’s husband came to work for her business.

Sarah mentions in the episode how much she loves this story — because it is entirely different from the usual ones. You know how these go. Man decides he needs to earn enough to allow his wife to stay home. Or perhaps Mom announces that she really wants to stay home and Dad needs to go find a different job that allows that. In Dalton’s case, Dad wants to have more time with his kids, so Mom builds a business that is big enough to provide for that.

But Dalton’s story doesn’t end there (because, you may wonder…where is that jewelry business?) A few years ago, Dalton decided that jewelry wholesale was great for putting food on the table, but wasn’t really the stuff of her dreams. So she spent a year figuring out what she wanted to do. She journaled. She asked herself questions to see what she felt strongly about. She then asked follow-up questions to find out for sure. She realized that she loved planning and she loved teaching, and she wanted to figure out a way to tap these interests.

So they shut down the jewelry business and launched inkWELL Press. Because she’s been so drawn to planning and the planning process, she has a lot of energy for building the business, and it has grown accordingly.

Anyway, it’s a fun episode, and I hope you’ll give it a listen! As a bonus, the Q&A is fascinating too. We got a letter from a listener who works on the technical side (coding and such) in a manufacturing plant. She is very good at what she does, and because of that has been nudged to move into management. There are reasons to do so — technical salaries don’t rise quickly, for instance — but also reasons not to. Namely, she loves doing the technical work. She does not love meetings.

We talk about the issues to consider when moving from the technical side to the management side, and whether there are ways to combine them, or develop more of a career ladder on the technical side. I would love to hear thoughts from people who’ve made this move (in any field — teachers becoming principals, doctors becoming administrators, etc.) or people who have decided not to as well.

In other news: Goodreads is running a give-away of Off the Clock! There are 75 copies available, so if you know someone who would like to enter, please send them over. Also, if you are a Goodreads member, please consider leaving a review or rating, or marking that you’d like to read the book. Thanks!


9 thoughts on “Podcast: Tonya Dalton on building a family business

  1. I am an engineer, and I moved into management. And then I moved back into a technical role! The biggest reason I switched back was for flexibility and remote work opportunity, but I also think it was a good choice for my career enjoyment. As a manager, I enjoyed helping to provide direction and shape projects, but I missed having the in-depth technical challenges and developing those skills.

    I would recommend listening to the podcast “Radical Candor” which is hosted by management experts. I realized while listening (especially to episode #19!) that I wasn’t all that passionate about management functions like developing teams and giving feedback. I preferred scenarios where I was contributing individually.

    The management track is usually seen as more “prestigious” in a lot of organizations. As a technical employee, you really have to look out for opportunities to distinguish yourself with your work and exhibit leadership on projects without direct reports. It’s a little harder to stand out and push for promotions/raises, but if it’s what you love then it’s probably worth it!

    On the flip side, I think if there’s a chance you would enjoy management, then give it a try. I’m sure your technical experience will still be very much valued, and you may be able to find a way to retain some of your projects.

    1. @Jeanna – excellent advice! I think our listener’s company sounded (from the letter) like the technical track was just really not as attractive in terms of payment, prestige, etc. But there’s really no reason this has to be the case and smart organizations can think through their ladders to keep everyone motivated.

  2. Another great episode! Can you tell me the pens Tonya likes? I pressed the 15 seconds back and still couldn’t understand what you guys were saying ha ha!

  3. On the listener Q&A this week: I 100% Agree with Laura that good companies that want to keep good technical people provide those technical people with the chance to grow into technical leadership roles, rather than people leadership roles, where they are responsible for technical excellence and mentoring others and deep diving on challenging projects, but not managing people and overall portfolios of projects. These companies do exist and if the person asking the question does not feel like their company wants to grow in that direction, then maybe taking a look around for other opportunities at other companies would make sense.

    1. @Emily – thanks for weighing in. Yes, this seems like a no-brainer in terms of employee retention but it is always interesting in life how many no-brainer things don’t actually happen in practice. Hopefully our listener can advocate for her employer to create a more satisfying technical track.

  4. I’m listening out of order, so apologies for the late comment. I have deliberately chosen a technical track vs. a management track for my career and I’ve likely traded promotion velocity and prestige for it, which I am ok with. I have NOT traded pay, though – I have been able to advance financially through different iterations of my same job in different capacities – full time employee, part-time employee, full-time freelance consultant, and now part-time consultant. I do feel like my success being able to switch roles like this and go for flexibility as a consultant has relied on my ability to stay (and grow) technically. Generally the company I work for DOES NOT hire managers for contract work, but they will happily hire someone who’s great technically and keep them working consistently. So that might be another consideration – do you think you’ll want to go into consulting/freelance work later?

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