5 things business failure taught me about myself

Winging it, burying your head in the sand and playing nice do not make for a business strategy. These lessons will show you how you can flourish under the hardships and surprises that the entrepreneurship journey throws at you.

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Ignoring isn't a strategy Odette Barry

The year 2019 started out with a bang. 

My team and I were bursting at the seams with hopes and dreams coated in rainbows and glitter. We had a steady workflow, a pretty healthy pipeline, a divine new workspace and a pool out the front. It was the stuff small business dreams are made of.

But like most dreams, the storyline shifted quickly, became blurry, and our new year bang burst. 

My first mistake? I buried my head in the sand, dug in deep and hoped for the best. I wasn’t ready to admit that my shiny new business was failing and certainly wasn’t open to breaking it to my crew. 

Now the year is coming to a close, there are five things I’m finally ready and willing to say out loud… five things that my business almost folding taught me about myself.

1. I was winging it.

Things I do know: Using good PR to connect good humans lights my fire. I’m a marketer, a storyteller and publicist and damn good at it.

Things I didn’t know: How to really, truly, run a PR agency. That part I’ll admit I have NFI about.

I started out strong. The killer media coverage rolled in, clients flocked, I took on staff and the future looked bright. 

Until it didn’t.

I’d hit the ground running, quickly adopted a rather reckless strategy I like to call ‘figuring it out as I go’ and optimistically repeated the mantra “it will all work out in the end”. 

I had an accountant, a business coach, and a local small business group to lean on. But I was so caught up in the complete capacity of ‘today’, absorbed by the business trajectory, that I had zero mental bandwidth to properly plan ahead.

Client flow, cash flow, staff flow – it was all-encompassing and I found myself fumbling through long days and even longer nights. 

The result? I missed those big old red flags of failure before it was too late.

It was painful. It was irresponsible. And I’ll never let it happen again.

2. I played it too nice.

My name’s Odette, and I’m a people pleaser… with a side of imposter syndrome to boot. Nice to meet you.

Running a small business comes with tough conversations – fact. 

Even when things were going well, I struggled to have clear and direct conversations with my team for fear of being too demanding. 

But the thing is, when you’re not direct with your staff things get foggy, fast, leaving everyone feeling uncertain and unfulfilled.

So no prizes for guessing how I reacted when I needed to let staff go. Head in the sand. 

It was one of my biggest and most heartbreaking challenges. There was a huge sense of failure that I couldn’t make it work, for them, for me, or for the business. 

I so dreaded having those difficult conversations that I avoided them at every opportunity. I wanted to hold people up, not shoot them down. I tip-toed around the big issues for so long I ended up hurting the bottom line, my business and my family.

I should have been more upfront and direct with my team, told it to them straight even though I knew it would sting.

3. I needed to lean out.

I don’t know about you, but when one part of my life starts to slip, the rest of my world soon follows. 

The near-empty bank account, the responsibility for others’ livelihoods and clients constantly failing to meet invoice deadlines weighed heavy on my shoulders.

So naturally, the enormity of other issues started closing in: wealth inequality, climate, politics, the dark side of tech. Heavy, right? Yep, I don’t do things by halves. 

But while tackling those topics remains important to me, I’ve learned to accept that I can’t solve everything at once. I can’t ‘lean in’ every second of the day – sorry Sheryl! 

Instead, I took a great big step out. 

I put my hand up and offered to volunteer in my friends’ businesses. I soaked up some manual labour instead of using my brain, I relied on my body and slowly found the time and space to unwind my mental state and let my mind wander. 

Then, slowly, my fire came back to life.

4. I should have spoken up sooner. 

I’ve always prided myself on being honest in business. 100% open – that’s how I roll. So the fact I buried my head in the sand this year surprised even me. 

I now know our fear and inability to talk can be risky. Those quiet moments of struggle are deeply personal and incredibly lonely.

When I was at my darkest, I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want people to know I was failing, to sully my reputation, be seen as weak and let people down. People were praising me for the business I’d created and without that identity, I didn’t know where I belonged anymore. My ego was in the way of me moving forward.

Then slowly, I started talking to my close friends, and it grew from there. When I started talking, I began to move through to the next chapter.

I realised that ducking and diving the business gauntlet without guidance was never going to work and I now know the only way out the other side is to speak up sooner. Because that’s when we’ll learn from each other, emerge from the fog and arm ourselves for round two. 

 5. I’m tougher than I thought. 

Seriously, I’m a fighter. And I have worth. 

It’s easy to get lost in a team and value everyone else’s specialist skills. But while I was in the thick of it I lost sight of what I bring to the table.

While I might not have been the savvy agency owner I would have liked to be, I’ve always had a gift with PR. I’ve dug deep to uncover the stories, chased headlines and secured incredible news coverage for my clients – no matter how my business looked financially.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to be fixed to ‘one model’ of PR. Instead, I can use that skill set to help other small business owners (like me) to thrive thanks to PR mentoring.

Now instead of the huge overheads and the beautiful team (oh how I miss them), I’m mentoring divine and driven small business folk to flourish and secure their own headlines.

It’s a move that has reignited my passion for communications, made my bank balance a whole lot healthier and my home life happier. I’ve shifted from agency to consultant, from retainers to one-one-ones and hand on heart, I’ve never been more proud of me.

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