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Lessons Learned on the Broken Road to “Success”

Thinking of starting a business? Two entrepreneurial Thrivers can tell you how to succeed and not have success steal your life.

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Image from: Unsplash

An article in this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal says that one of the many surprises coming out of this Year of COVID is that many people are choosing this moment in time to start their own businesses. Really? During a pandemic?

Frankly, we are not surprised at all to hear this news. Entrepreneurs are at their core, optimists. Hopefully these new self-conscripted recruits to the world of business ownership will not take the time to read the statistics in that same article that say that half of new employer businesses fail within five years and that small business revenue was down 21% as of mid-September. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if they did see these sobering numbers. Most of them would probably launch anyway and damn the torpedoes.

We know something about that. We are “torpedo damners” ourselves. We launched Half a Bubble Out, our marketing and business startup not really knowing what to expect. For a while it moved along and was manageable for the most part.

Then, the money started pouring in. It nearly killed us. 

Sure, there had been challenges in our first few years of running Half a Bubble Out, our marketing and business consulting startup, but they’d been relatively typical. Mostly, they centered around not having enough cash. There had been months where we didn’t know if we could make our mortgage payment. We experienced the embarrassment of telling our staff we needed a few more days before we could make payroll. Friends from our church anonymously dropped off groceries on our front doorstep. It was bad.

But it was about to get worse.

Thanks to a wildly successful marketing campaign over (of all things) a toenail fungus treatment, our business blew up. Suddenly, we were the go-to marketing agency for podiatrists across the country. We learned more about toenail fungus than we could ever hope to forget. We also grew 400 percent in a matter of months.

Almost overnight, we were an entrepreneurial “success” story, flush with cash, business, and clients. But we were wholly unprepared for this success. Our small operation was not prepared to meet the new staggering demands. We didn’t have enough staff, nor did we have adequate systems in place to keep up with our new capacity. We began to hire as fast as we could—which was a major mistake.

Out of desperation, we made two hires that were not a good fit. Our Myers-Briggs temperaments were all out of whack, and they didn’t mesh with our management style. These employees became unmotivated, packing up their bags at 4:50 p.m. and at the door, waiting to leave, at 4:55 p.m. Clearly, they weren’t excited about the work they were doing, and we had no idea how to motivate them. In addition to our inadequate systems, we started realizing that, apparently, we couldn’t hack it as leaders either.

We also secretly resented some of our clients. Assuming that all business was good and needed, we hadn’t been choosy about who we worked with. Unfortunately, the toenail fungus biz had led us to some colorful characters who did not care, for instance, that we were at Costco on a Saturday with our daughter. For some of our clients, that seemed like the perfect time to chew us out over the phone while our ten-year-old waited patiently in the car—and what’s worse, we let him! We began compromising our values because we felt we had to respond to our clients at any time of day or night. Work life spilled over into our personal lives and we started working insanely long hours.

What was happening?! “Success” was pouring into our bank accounts but we were ready to throw the whole thing away. Both of us said to each other at different points, “I hate going to work.” If this was success, it was miserable!

Then, it all changed. Right in the middle of the Great Recession, the niche we were in collapsed.

Many of our clients determined they no longer had room in their budgets for a marketing agency. It didn’t feel good to watch our client list shrink—yet we also experienced the most profound relief. Suddenly, we had a chance to regroup and re-think.

Image from: Unsplash

We started having conversations that helped us identify our Core Values: We needed to enjoy the people we worked with, and we needed to prioritize our family’s health over the bottom line of our business. We urgently sought out new training to tighten up our systems and improve our management. We learned that we needed to move faster to either fire or coach people who weren’t a good fit.

In two years, our business had grown by 200 percent. Granted, we managed that by growing 400 percent and then shrinking by 50 percent. It’s a lousy trajectory to achieve doubled growth, but we were thankful to get there either way. In the process, we’d been forced to get smart and think about what really matters.

What did we have at the end of those crazy years? A strong foundation, a good reputation, and quite a few battle scars.

We redoubled our efforts to serve our clients well and make sure everything we did honored our values. Our business developed a reputation for consistency and quality work. Although we’d always made a point to give back to the community, we redoubled our commitment to invest in our neighbors and further earn their respect. We were newly equipped with lessons we’d learned about hiring, sales, management, defining our processes, and building relationships with clients. We had codified our values. Best of all, we still had a solid marriage and a solid relationship with our daughter.

Both of us are teachers at the core, so along the way, we mused to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could pass on some of the lessons we learned through all this? You know, so that we could help other people avoid the extremes we reached?”

So, we’ve written a book and we are writing this column to share what we have learned and maybe help you avoid the pitfalls. We’ll encourage you to launch out into the deep, but to do it the right way so that you get to experience the deep and abiding joy of business ownership. You can make money doing something you love and you can be fulfilled while doing it.

Next time: A holistic model that works.

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