This week’s Crain’s Chicago Business focuses on enterprising women (and yes, I’m featured). But I’m not blogging about it to toot my own horn. I think there is more to the story than Crain’s was allowed to tell and I want to share some of the things I’ve learned.
2008 was the recession year for Arment Dietrich
The communication business, historically, is a key leading indicator for the economy. Having a company not quite three years old when 2007 ended, I didn’t understand this. I was scared to death, listening to all of the economists speak, but I thought I had some time. I thought the recession would hit us in 2009 so I spent last year building staff and preparing for the downturn. Boy was I WRONG!
Key learning: Pay attention to economists, to politics, to policy, to new laws and regulations, to community leaders, to business bloggers and reporters. Even though it’s not your core expertise, and it may not affect you directly, it’s important to understand how the world affects your business’s profitability.
Starting a business does not mean you get to do your craft every day
I have a sign on my wall that I wrote two years ago. It says, “I am no longer a kick @ss communication professional. I am a company grower.” My Vistage Chair actually added “kick @ss” between “a” and “company”, which is kind of funny and drives me a little batty at the same time. I’m a bit OCD and he ruined my pretty sign. But I leave it to remind myself that, even though growing a company is not my craft, I am getting better at it every day.
Key learning: If you start a business, and you decide you want to build something, be prepared to do less of your craft every day. I like to think of it as changing my career so that I feel like I’m really doing my job when I grow the business and less like I’m doing my job when I allow myself to go back into the day-to-day activities of communication.
Have a basic understanding of everything outside your core expertise
Last October, the bank called. Said I was out of covenant on my line of credit and that, because of the economy, they weren’t going to be lending money to professional services firms for the time being. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know what a covenant was or how we could be outside of one. I didn’t know what a borrowing base was, but they said I had to complete one immediately. I took it personally. I cried and cried and cried. I fought with my banker. It was a bad day. In fact, it was a bad few weeks.
Key learning: Be as educated as you can be about things outside of your expertise. Even if you have experts (in this case a controller or CFO), understand what your personal guarantee means, understand what you have to do to stay within covenant, understand how to complete the basic financial documents the bank needs monthly, and treat your banker as if he/she is your partner. Turns out, after I decided I’d rather pick myself up than close the business, the bank was very willing to work with us and we’re back in covenant and I understand everything they need to keep our line open.
It’s okay to fail
It should come as no surprise that I’m a perfectionist. I’ve never really failed at anything. So when I do something that is not perfect, I make a big mistake, or I do something I think people will perceive as failure, I’m REALLY hard on myself. I make mistakes every day. Sometimes they’re little. Sometimes they’re huge. And I beat myself up every time.
After the bank situation, and after we had two clients send us “Dear John, the economy sucks” letters right before the holidays last year, I went into a pretty deep depression. I beat myself up. Why didn’t I pay attention to the signs? How did I not know our industry is a key leading indicator? Why did I do some things my gut told me not to do? What were people going to think that I had a good three year run, but I couldn’t grow a business beyond that? How was I going to tell my staff we had to close? How was I going to tell our clients? How was I going to pay our outstanding vendor bills? Why had I built a business only to have nothing to show for it?
And then I happened across a Confucius quote that shook me and brought me out of my self-doubt. “It’s not in that we fail, but in how we pick ourselves up when we do.”
Key learning: It’s okay to fail. It’s how human beings learn. I went back to the office on January 5, 2009, ready to kick butt and take names! We ventured on a new path and shook up our business model. We had to do some lay-offs in January. We had to reorganize the business. I had to make some very hard, personal decisions. But the business is back in the black, every single team member is a rock star, we’re doing the work we love to do, and our culture now embodies everything I’ve envisioned for the past four years. I wouldn’t have done this had I not made some pretty big mistakes last year and everything were status quo.
So yes, Crain’s, this fledgling firm is growing and Global Domination is back on our minds!
What are some of the mistakes and key learnings you can share?