Small Business, Big Lessons: How To Learn The Hard Way And Live To Earn Another Day

By July 24, 2012February 1st, 2018True Stories
Small Business, Big Lessons: How To Learn The Hard Way And Live To Earn Another Day

If you’ve been here before, you’re probably familiar with the Sabotaging Success series where I explore some of the Fail Monsters that can derail us and keep us from reaching our potential. If you wonder how I know, it’s because I’ve been there. I’ve made the mistakes. I still make the mistakes. And when I do, I drag out the towels and bleach, clean up the blood, dispose of the bodies, and move on.

What I learn, I hope to share with you so that maybe you can avoid your own bloody mess, or just feel better knowing you’re not alone.

So why am I revisiting this? Well, two reasons, actually. One is that my blogging posse over at The Word Carnival chose the topic for this month’s theme. (If you haven’t already, you should check them out. They’re some of the smartest bloggers and business people I know.)

Two, is that a funny thing happened as I read through the comments I received on the Sabotaging Success series. You see, I discovered that I’m not the only one making mistakes.

Everyone else is, too.

And I mean everyone. Not a single comment came from someone who said, “Wow, thanks for bringing that up so I can avoid failure and get on with my day!”

Turns out most of the “preventative” ideas I’d had about the series were kind of delusional. It’s sort of like yelling “Watch out!” when you notice someone stepping over an open manhole.

You mean well, but are you really going to prevent that person from falling? Or are you just going to give them an extra split second to think, “Oh shit, things are about to go very badly”?


So the fact is, we’re all going to step into open manholes and nothing can prevent it. In a way, I think we have to, because experience truly is the best teacher.

Imagining yourself conquering a bad thing, and actually conquering a bad thing are two completely different things.

Which brings us to this post. Since we’re inevitably going to do something bad, wrong, ill-informed or head-smackingly stupid, we need to be equipped to deal with those things when they happen.

If we let our failures get the best of us, we won’t learn and we won’t move our businesses forward. So don’t cave. Cope.

Big Lessons: The Hard Way

I’ll share a little story with you from my war chest. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in the 13 years I’ve been in this business. Worse than running out of Oreos on a really, really stressful Monday afternoon. Yeah, that serious.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to work with a client on an exciting – and huge – marketing project. There were meetings, there was paperwork, there were long planning and brainstorming sessions. I’ll tell you, there were a lot of Oreos consumed.

For the next five years my company became more and more engrossed in working with this client. We designed. We built. We wrote. We marketed. We essentially became their marketing department.

I was invested in this client mentally and emotionally and we had some nice lunches, some great brainstorming meetings and exchanged some pretty cool Christmas gifts.

Enter 2009.

You might remember this little thing we now like to call “The Great Recession”. My client, the one I’d invested five years and countless hours a day working with, cut their marketing budget. To zero.

That’s right,

But that wasn’t the worst part.

After five years, the designing and writing and building and marketing – and perhaps most relevant, the revenue – came to a screeching halt.

I hadn’t seen it coming. There were no warning signs; there was no hand-wringing meeting where my client lamented the dire situation. No slowdown and eventual leveling off. One day, like many companies struck by the plague of that nasty recession, they simply cut.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

The worst part was that for five years I hadn’t bothered to cultivate new relationships and opportunities. If one came my way I opened the door but I’d stopped worrying about where the next job would come from because for five years I knew exactly where it would come from.

Until I didn’t.

Classic eggs-in-one-basket syndrome. If you had asked me during those five years if I was concerned about putting all my business eggs in one client’s basket, I would’ve nodded soberly and agreed that it was a bad idea.

And there was my open manhole, staring me in the face, and someone had yelled, “Watch out!” but I walked into it anyway.

Hard Lessons, Hard Questions: What Does Success Mean To You?

I learned something then, and it wasn’t “always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident” or even “keep an extra box of Oreos stashed under the bed at all times”.

It was that sometimes really, really bad shit happens and you have two choices: cave or cope.

Which one would you choose?

If you’ve met your manhole moment already, I would sincerely like to hear your story so when you’re done reading, please share it with me in the comments.

If you haven’t, you will. And then you’ll have to look down deep and ask yourself what you’re willing to do.

How bad do you want it?

How important is your business?

How invested are you in its success?

If your business tanked tomorrow, how would it affect you personally?

What does success really mean to you and what’s driving you toward it?

These aren’t questions to ask lightly or dismiss with a simple, “I love my business and would do anything to make it succeed.” There are no feel-good answers here, just the truth of what you’re willing to do, what kind of emotional and mental energy you have to invest in your business and what you stand to lose (or achieve).

When bad things happen it gives you the opportunity to do some of the hard soul-searching that we often miss in our hurry to work, build and grow. There’s a lot of talk about “knowing your why”. But even if you think you know your “why”, you may just find it challenged in the face of hardship.

As for me, I had to really sit down and think about that “why”. I’d given up a rewarding career as a teacher to open my own business, so I had to figure out what the business meant to me and whether it was worth my time when I could go back to teaching – something I knew I could do that would come with a paycheck, benefits and retirement plan. Why was I doing what I was doing with my business?

Why are you?

What does success really mean?

Only you can define it for yourself but it’s a good exercise to revisit during good times and bad. It can mean different things at different times. It’s what will keep you going and what will help you climb up out of the manhole when you need to.

Learning To Get Up Is Better Than Learning Not To Fall

I know you’ve been on edge-of-you-seat suspense, but I did not quit and go back to teaching.

My husband and I took an extended vacation on the living room sofa during which the phones never rang and asked ourselves the hard questions. We wondered out loud whether we should throw in the towel. After all, we’d lost our biggest client in the heart of a recession – a whole different animal than if times had been good and we could have picked up a few new clients over coffee and a handshake.

We hadn’t just hit a slowdown – we were dead in the water. The conversation went a little something like this…

Me: What are we going to do?

Ralph: You could go back to teaching. I could get a full time job with a paycheck.

Me: As if anyone’s hiring.

Ralph: I don’t want a job anyway.




Ralph: Unless we get hired at the same company so you can still make me sandwiches and bring them to my desk for lunch.

So with a little inspiration from sandwiches, we got our heads back in the game. If you want to climb out of your manhole, you’ll have to do it, too, because sometimes really bad shit happens. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid it. Instead of stressing about what might go wrong or trying to plan every little detail into submission, just know that you can cope. It probably won’t be fun, but you can do it.

Don’t Cave, Cope: How To Get Out Of The Manhole

So it sucked around here for a while, but we both learned some important things about ourselves, about our business, about our customers and about how to survive. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you can share these, too.

Understand Your Priorities

Sandwiches are big for us. But so is independence. We opted to trade salaries and security for the freedom to work and do business as we choose.

We also decided that we’d rather sink together than “succeed” separately.

Six cars, a villa in the tropics with a pool, three weeks of paid vacation and retirement at 65… sounds awesome but those are not our priorities. They may be yours, and that’s up to you to determine. Don’t get me wrong, I still plan on getting to that villa – but I’ll do it my way.

It’s your job to figure out what’s really important to you. Money? Time? Freedom? Family? One or more or none or something else? It’s your life, they’re your priorities. Figure them out. They’re the things that will determine your path.

Recover Your Relationships

This was one of the lessons I had to learn the hard way. Having a great client was… well, great. But I know better now than to think I can ignore the relationships in my life and expect them to be there when I look up again.

None of us can get through life alone and none of us are as independent as we think. We are all in some way interconnected and contribute to the endless, intricate gears that keep the universe churning. When things go south, tap into the people you know and trust. Sometimes pride keeps us from doing that but try to differentiate between pride and just plain stubbornness.

Asking for help is not weakness.

Asking for help is sometimes the hardest thing we have to do! But none of us exist in a void. “Social” is more than just a platform. We’re social beings; we need each other to survive. Knowing that and using it are assets.

And if you’ve neglected those relationships, it’s time to breathe life into them again. Again, pride (or should I call it ego?) often gets in the way but a few mea culpas never killed anyone. If you’ve been a neglectful a$$#0l3 then admit as much. Offer help before you ask for help and I think you’ll find that most people are willing to forgive and extend a hand.

Be Willing To Live Through Some Unpleasant Crap

Even after we got our priorities in order and figured out what to do, things didn’t suddenly get all rainbow-y and profitable again. We had two crummy summers and a lot of really crummy stuff in between.

It was exhausting. We worked more hours than I thought were possible in a day. We missed parties. We ate a lot of takeout at our desks and wracked our brains for ideas. We networked like crazy.

You have to be willing to do your version of that. Even when you think you’re out of energy, you have to find some more. It won’t always suck, but it’ll definitely suck for a while. Maybe even a long while. Don’t complain. Or, complain, but do it anyway. Eye on the prize, baby.

Adapt To New Circumstances

They say the only permanent thing is change. The one thing that got us closest to seeing the light of day at the top of the hole again was the fact that we completely changed how we did business. We hadn’t planned to change anything. We weren’t particularly ready to change anything. But circumstances had changed and so we had to change, too.

Adapt or die, right?

When you find yourself facing long odds, you need to be willing to change the way you think and the way you work. Look long and hard at what’s in front of you and instead of trying to make the situation work for you, figure out how to work with the situation.

Don’t be afraid of or reluctant to change. Embrace it, go with it, use it. Change is the one thing you’re guaranteed to meet so make friends with it when you do! You get to complain about the sucky stuff but you don’t get to complain about change. Choose to love it.

Live Your Life

Yes, we missed parties. But we didn’t miss them all. When you’re recovering from a bad spell it’s easy to get caught up in work. You may be putting in long, grueling hours out of necessity but remember that work and business are not the only things in your life.

Oh, sometimes it feels like it, I know!

But there’s a fine line between dedication and destruction. If you expend all your energies on your business you’ll be doing it to the detriment of the rest of your life.

It may seem impossible or counterintuitive but you absolutely must must must take time off for yourself. Don’t take time off and use it for blogging or planning! Just take time off.

Engage in a hobby. Take up a new one. Do something physical. Watch a movie. Read, cook, bike, walk, garden, sit and watch the birds, take out your old Star Wars collection and play with it for a while. Whatever feeds your soul and revitalizes you, do it. It feels good to remember that there’s more to life.

If you’re dismissing me on this one, then take your cue from the numerous studies that have shown that we actually become less productive the more we work. There’s a point of diminishing return where you simply won’t be doing yourself or your business any good. You’ll be more creative, feel more energized and actually produce more if you work less.

Keep Your Eye On The Light At The Top Of The Hole

Whenever I have one of those “Oh my God I’m going to die at this desk” moments, I pull out my “why”, remember my priorities and take a deep breath. Remember, nothing is permanent, not even the crappy stuff!

This may sound corny but I find that it helps to have some token of “good things” to remind me that they’re really out there, no matter how I feel about my desk at the moment.

I keep a couple of things on my desk to do just that (and they’re in the photo at the top of this post so you know I’m not just making junk up). A seashell that I collected from the beach, a bead from one of my favorite childhood toys and a button that was once on a dress my mother wore. I don’t remember what the occasion was, I just remember how beautiful she looked to me and how the buttons on her dress sparkled. And I thought, “I want to grow up to be beautiful and go to fancy parties and wear sparkling dresses too.”

It’s true.

Maybe you have something that reminds you of your dreams. A little doodad, a photograph? It may be in the farthest corners of your attic but go dig it out and let it become your token of good things past, present and to come.

Sometimes bad things happen. And not if, but when they do, you can recover. Will things be “the same”? Probably not. Will you love and embrace every second of it? Doubt it. But none of that is bad or life-ending. It just is.

Know it, accept it, use it. Even if you think, “I can’t!” I bet you a whole box of Oreos that when the time comes, you will.

If you have a manhole story, I really do want to hear it. Tell me about your “good times” talisman. And while you’re at it, share your coping mechanisms, especially if they involve chocolate or cookies.

This post is part of the July 2012 Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here.