My business didn’t just “crash and burn,” in the figurative sense. In 2019, my business was destroyed by fire. My wife and I arrived on the scene as 20 fire trucks were mopping up the last of the devastation.
It was a business-ending fire. At the time, it felt like the end for me, too: I was in a dark, depressing place, where everything I’d worked so hard to build had turned to ash around me. My thoughts were consumed with survival: What would happen next in my life?
Though I didn’t see it at the time, the fire was actually an opportunity. It gave me a blank slate to move forward and start a process of exploration that ultimately led to the business I run today. Here are a few lessons I took away from the darkest moment of my career.
1. Agility is the key to survival
After losing my business, I had to grant myself permission to do things I hadn’t done in a very long time. Going back to the work I’d pored over for the last few years just wasn’t an option — my only choice was to try something new. In the process of allowing myself to be open, spiritual and questioning, I realized that I couldn’t rely on muscle memory any longer. I had to clear my head and think outside the box I was comfortable in.
Ultimately, agility is what allowed me to survive as an entrepreneur and outlive my destroyed business. Coming to terms with the loss of one idea or project is hard, but it’s necessary. Making alternative plans — while exploring new avenues of thought — is the reason I’m successful today. I had to re-invent what I was.
2. Fear is fuel
My first reaction after the fire, much like when someone dies, was denial. For a few weeks I was in full denial of what I’d lost; I needed to grieve and have a funeral for my friend — the business. After that came acceptance, and right along with it, fear.
I was vulnerable and fearful in the wake of the fire: I had anxiety about both my financial situation and my self-worth. I was hanging by my ankles over the edge of a cliff, staring into the deep abyss. I had to accomplish something new to change my future — that was the terrifying truth. But with fear comes motivation. When you can look past the fear, you can begin creating again.
3. Outside perspectives are critical
I remember sitting in my car in the dark, watching my business burn down with my wife beside me. She said, “James, perhaps this is showing us a different future.” At first, I was angry at her for saying that: I didn’t want a different future, I’d built this business for a reason. After some time had passed and I properly grieved, I realized she was absolutely correct.
When you invest so much of yourself into your work, the work becomes incredibly dear to you. You’re so close to it that when it gets taken from you, it’s hard to see straight. In the wake of such a loss, it’s crucial to rely on the people around you: listen to them, maybe more than you listen to yourself. They have perspective that you might not have. Trust the people who know and love you as you take time to grieve and begin to move forward.
4. Failure is just another piece of the puzzle
Over the course of a business’s life, there will be failures. Always. That’s just part of it, and if the business is a success, those failures will rarely be acknowledged publicly.
Failures are tools to learn from. If you aren’t afraid to try new things, which is a requirement to be a successful entrepreneur, then one of those things you try will fail. When that happens, know that it’s all right. Take a step back and consider alternatives to your usual course of action. Then take one of those courses and keep moving forward.
Recovering from a major business setback can feel like changing the wheels on the train while it’s hurtling down the tracks. There are so many moving pieces — mentally and logistically — that make the process overwhelming. But if you keep at it, continue to question what comes next, eventually you’ll have that light bulb moment. You’ll never get it if you don’t keep showing up.