We've all heard of roads described as arteries. Never more is that true than when the road brings essential customers to a new business. And when that artery gets blocked? What does the new business owner do then?
Indeed, what do you do when your customers are just not paying you on time? How do you react when your largest customer goes bust? What is your plan when you have mouths to feed and all your contacts dry up? What happens when recession bites? These are realities. For the thousands of self-employed people, freelancers and small-business owners all over this country and beyond, life is lived on a cliff-edge at times. All these scenarios and more have been played out just among business people I know. They are certainly different from the challenges faced by employed people.
Helen Brown, a loyal reader of this blog, followed her dream and opened her floristry business, Budz by Helen Jane, in 2011. She had grown up with flowers and eventually followed her late mum into the floristry business with her husband, Andy. Then, just as their business was finally finding its feet, the main road near their shop was closed for several months. Many of their customers stayed loyal but what do you do when it's raining and you want to pick up a big bouquet of flowers? Do you park a few streets away and carry them in the rain? A rhetorical question I know.
This isn't a fairy-tale. Andy and Helen struggled and they only just managed to keep their heads above water. Did they feel angry? Did they feel down? Well, wouldn't you. We're all human, aren't we?
“It was so frustrating to have built up a customer base to see it decimated overnight. We did feel angry and it took a big effort to re-focus ourselves away from our grievance and towards what we were going to do ensure the business survived. But we managed, just about,” said Helen, reflecting on those difficult times.
Paul McGee, The Sumo Guy, in his great presentations and memorable book, talks about Hippo Time, when it's okay to wallow and feel our emotions. It acknowledges that we are human and that we will feel emotional in response to life's misfortunes. Crucially though, he says, when we've finished that tub of ice cream, had the cuddle or surfaced from under the duvet, it's time to move on. The shorter we can limit the time that we feel angry or upset, the better it will be for us.
When I feel that the negative thoughts have partied too long in my head, I've developed a habit of lightly slapping the back of my hand into the palm of the other. It just gives me a signal that the bad feelings have had their time and now I can give some quality time to helpful, constructive thoughts.
The question is though, when wallowing is over, what do you do next?
James Caan, of Dragons' Den fame, related in his autobiography how, when his recruitment agency faced its first recession in 1992, he sought desperate solutions in order to stay afloat. He started spending time away from the business and explored all kinds of other business opportunities, some of them very fashionable at the time, but none of them seemed right. It was only after a piece of advice from his father that he realised his response to the disaster of the recession wasn't helping. He'd stopped doing what he was good at and the business had lost its focus. So he chose to go back to good habits which had helped him build the business. The next day, for the first time in many months he went to work with a smile on his face.
“I had accepted the situation I was in. I wasn't going to fight it or torture everyone with 'Why did it have to happen to me?' sob stories. I was going to lay the groundwork for future success.” And that is just what he did.
To put food on the table, Helen and Andy had to utilise other skills. Helen took some work as a consultant in her former profession of H.R. and Andy diversified into gardening, at the same time ensuring they “didn't take their eye off the ball”, as Helen put it. They carried on the good habits they had built up in their floristry business, including playing an active role within their local community. More significantly they also chose another route: they leant on their friends, their support network and each other.
“Andy and I have very little family, so we rely on our friends a great deal. A strong network of friends with varying experiences and skills are our first port of call, then perhaps those who we have networked with and then latterly other professionals. We've learnt who we can really rely on to help us, mentor us, support us, just be there...
'Andy and I are business partners as well as life partners. We rely on each other too so when one is down, the other needs to be up. When we're both up, life is great but when we're both down it sometimes takes some serious talking to each other to get back up!”
I love the (probably apocryphal) story from Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson where a small book shop, sandwiched between two much larger ones, responded to banners on both other shops announcing fantastic offers with a banner of their own above their front door. “Entrance Here” it read.
As Stephen Covey wrote, “between stimulus and response is a gap”. In that gap is where we choose our response.
And that's it in a nutshell. Whatever “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” may befall you in your business or working life, you choose your response to them. Whether you blame, complain, bitch, cry, feel sorry for yourself, get angry or feel a victim, you have chosen that response.
Just as you have chosen an unhelpful response, the good news is you can choose a helpful one. Market yourself creatively, focus on your skills, build your community or rely on your support network. These are all choices too.
What are you going to choose next time?
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