I had just closed the biggest deal of my career. It almost put me out of business. Read chapter 13 of “The Girl in Your Wallet”.
“When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
— Will Rogers
I was spinning, literally, emotionally, mentally. I walked mindlessly at the office from one desk to the next with no purpose or destination in mind. My behavior did not incite faith in my leadership with the employees. I wasn’t in any danger of them turning on me; however, none of them wanted to be in my shoes. None of them would step up to be an armchair quarterback that day.
We bit off more than we could chew. If we hadn’t heard the phrase “It looked good on paper” already, we would have coined it ourselves. The launch had failed, and the repercussions were compounding quickly.
We had developed a fantastic cookie that met the definition of high protein, clean-label, non-GMO, and the timing was right in our Seattle market. This cookie was excellent, and I’d had no problem selling it to a warehouse store in large clamshell packaging.
Therein lay the problem. Approved in multiple locations throughout the Pacific Northwest, this was a high-volume account. While the plan looked good on paper, we didn’t build enough downtime for the glitches that come with work and life. We didn’t build-in enough grace. When we shipped the first order, we were already behind. But we were also sampling in the locations, and members were buying far more than we anticipated. Low inventory/high demand. Disaster.
In our bakery, the term “in stock” did not apply. Almost everything was made fresh, except for orders for foodservice customers that ordered frozen cases on pallets. By the time we as managers met to discuss the problem, tomorrow’s order was incomplete, and the shortage would roll forward and grow day by day. The stress of the situation reached the production floor, and in the chaos, the baker was distracted and overbaked multiple racks, each containing more than fifty-six dozen cookies. We couldn’t sell them. The pressure was crushing me.
I dialed the phone to call Bob (my former boss), presumably to get his advice as the previous owner. We had stayed in touch, and he consulted for me, but less often as I had settled into my new position as owner. As I dialed the phone, it felt a little more like asking for fatherly advice.
I laid out the problem, and Bob asked several relevant questions, but of course, he wouldn’t tell me what to do. It was no longer his company. I had all the information. He suggested I make the best decision I could, cut back on expenses to survive the financial impact, lay-off non-essentials, accept the outcome, and rebuild. “Teresa, you know what to do; you just don’t like it. Make the decisions you will be proud of yourself for when you look back at this later.”
Our conversation shifted at that point. I apologized. I apologized for all the times I had sat in on “boss bashing” conversations with my fellow employees. I was suddenly aware of my suggesting it wasn’t that hard, implying Bob was either selfish or just lazy. I knew he was uncomfortable, and it was pretty quiet on his end. He finally said he didn’t think an apology was necessary since he wasn’t aware it had happened. “I know it happened. The apology is to make things right with myself.”
Owning your own business is a lonely endeavor. It wasn’t as big a problem until we decided to grow. The more we did and added more moving parts and people, the smaller my world got. There are many perks when things are going well, but you can quickly lose them. This was one of the times of loss. Did I mention this was early 2008? It was about to get a lot worse.
As I was stumbling around the office mindlessly, I saw a prepared bank deposit on my office manager’s desk. I grabbed it, found my keys, and hopped in the car. Change of scenery, fresh air, couldn’t hurt.
From the bank parking lot, I called Barb, my second AA sponsor. A rapid-fire release of partial sentences accompanied by hyperventilating followed. But something else was happening, too, and I was spitting out things that didn’t have anything to do with the specific cookie issue. As I told her what my problem was, I was adding items and making them an emergency. “I don’t have time for an oil change. Restaurant X still has an open invoice. The dogs needed to go to the groomer.” Wait? What? Whoa….
God bless the woman. In her calm voice, she showed concern and asked for clarification. I must have viewed her questions as suggestions in my frenzy because I was smacking them down like a game of whack-a-mole. She gave me an assignment, which I was to complete right there in the bank parking lot, and when finished, I was to call her back.
“Teresa, do you have a pen and paper? Okay, I want you to write down all the things swimming around in your head. Bullet points. Don’t worry about spelling or penmanship. Topics. Not sentences. I expect you to do this very quickly since they are all at the forefront of your mind. It doesn’t matter if you write the same thing more than once. Write. Write until you have slowed down and run out of topics. Then take a deep breath and call me back. Can you do that?”
It didn’t take long. Deep breath, slow exhale. Dial the phone. “Now, I want you to go back and cross off all the ones that are a normal part of life and can wait. Which ones are not urgent? When you have finished, take a deep breath and call me back.”
My heart rate was slowing. She was giving me a tangible exercise that was tapping into my visual learning style. I could see myself releasing anxiety on those torn notebook pages with a frantic scribble. A doctor could have written them, but I could read them, and it allowed me to see inside my soul. When I called her back the second time, she asked which items were left, which ones needed confronting. The most unpleasant ones, of course.
I still didn’t know what to do when I returned to work, but the answer came as I turned the corner and faced my office door. I had missed calls from the broker and the warehouse store buyer. On each, the office staff had created a tally of how many times they had called. It was time to admit defeat.
I found a larger, better-equipped bakery to make the product for the customer and shipped them the thousands of dollars of ingredients, packaging supplies, and labels, and gave them my recipe. They were to pay for the items when they satisfied the customer, which never happened. The customer didn’t like their version and canceled all future orders—a complete loss for us.
Because we had sold bread to the warehouse store for more than two decades, that business continued. They would not purchase cookies from us again. The relationship with the broker was irreparably damaged. He wanted assurance we could meet the quality and quantity of future orders. I could assure him of neither.
Those steps took care of what was happening outside of our building. There was an internal fall-out as well. One manager felt I gave up too quickly; he never forgave me, and there was nothing I could do about that. I no longer had unrest about my course of action. It just sucked.
I still had to meet payroll for the product that never sold. My paycheck slashed, I called the bank and told them I could not make the payments on my home and listed it as a short sale. I delivered my car back to the lot I had purchased it from and made payments on the money I owed. We were driving huge bags of burnt product to the garbage dump. We were incredibly humbled, but we would survive.
What did I learn from this? Count the cost.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?”
— Luke 14:28
It looked good on paper and would have put us on the map, but I had not fully considered the endeavor, nor did I trust the uneasy feeling in my gut. Again. Our team was so excited, and everyone had loved the finished product. I had got caught up in the excitement and wanted to make them happy. I probably had some ego involved. We were a small company with a big opportunity.
I am responsible for my own decisions and will live with their consequences—so will you. When this project went wrong, I was alone. No one was knocking on my door, offering to help shoulder the financial loss, nor should they have been. I need to consider the source of advice when making significant decisions. I should have been calling my fellow business owners and asking for their input. Be mindful of where you are turning for advice. Perhaps reach out to people who have survived a similar experience. Ask them what they did right and wrong, both of which are equally valuable.
It’s all fun and games until somebody has to pay for it. I was financially responsible, and there is no line between personal and financial repercussions for an owner. I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment benefits. It was a big lesson that almost put me out of business.
My sponsor gave me a tool I could repeatedly use in many areas of my life to address anxiety and decision-making difficulties. Making a list using these steps and format has been very helpful—brain dump first, then sort and prioritize. It calmed the frenzy. Have you ever been under so much stress that you decide it’s a good time to move or remodel the house? Me too. I have come to believe it is a scramble to control something, at least one thing, when everything else is out of control. It’s also a very bad idea.
I may have added the minor issues to the list next to my colossal problem in an attempt to dilute it. Or shift my focus. Perhaps a survival mechanism kicked in, I don’t know, but I have noticed my tendency to do the same thing in other situations. I have to remind myself to keep the main thing as the main thing.
I appreciate that in the phone call with my former boss, I recalled myself as an employee criticizing him for his decisions when I knew nothing about what he dealt with daily. It was very arrogant of me, and I am grateful for this humbling experience. Finally, if you have someone to thank or apologize to, do it.
Many years later, as I moved business records into a storage unit, I found a box of Bob’s accounting files. In it, I saw two sets of loan documents. One set was for the third mortgage he had taken on his home and one for the loan he made to the company with the money. I had been in his employ when the transaction had taken place, but I’d had no idea we were in financial trouble. He was taking care of business. I am pleased I apologized that day.
If you feel the tug to apologize, consider doing it with haste. Coming back to it at a later time often requires filling in all the backstory and can make things more awkward. The opportunity to speak these words to my former boss came suddenly, and I took it. I am glad I did.
Recall a time when your efforts failed and left you spinning emotionally. What were the circumstances?
If you called someone for counsel, how much thought did you give to which person you called? Did you choose wisely?
Is there a disturbing reality you are avoiding at this moment because you wish it weren’t true? If so, what is avoiding the situation costing you? What is the cost of your inaction? (Example: daily turmoil, short-tempered with others, etc.)
Can you think of a time when you’ve misjudged someone’s actions or motives to find yourself in their position later? Were your initial assumptions correct, or do you now have more empathy? Explain.