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Confessions of an Entrepreneur - Living With Fear and Change in Life and Small Business
Chapter 2: Always on My Toes
With each new venture, the necessities for financial stability and management standards reminded me that I still had a lot to learn. This was work. Whether physically entrenched in the operations of the business or providing the leadership for others to get the job done, I frequently had to do a self-assessment to know if I was up for it. I had to rely on my resiliency to keep scratching at the bite until I could relieve its itch with a resolve that would carry me through. The solution often wasn’t readily apparent. Sometimes I mistook what I thought was the problem to be something else entirely. I was taught to learn from past mistakes, but unfortunately, that usually meant I had to first survive them.
“I wish I hadn’t cried so much!” said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out.
“I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by drowning in my own tears.
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
In the first two years of Annie’s Honor Snacks, our inventory was always lean because of our extremely tight budget. There were two disasters that nearly wiped us out. An unusual abundance of winter snow storms, rain, and early spring thaw, caused an unusual amount of flooding throughout the state and severely damaged inventory stored in our basement. We had lived in that home for four years and never experienced any unwanted moisture or water.
This major set-back caused us to rethink our existing operating system, how we preserved and recycled inventory, and our process for packing boxes. Our homeowner’s insurance deductible was set high to keep our monthly premium cost down and wouldn’t be enough to help us with the replacement cost. Upon further inquiries, it was questionable whether we could even have a claim since it was a business loss. We had never considered the need to adjust our insurance policy coverage.
Our solution was to convert our garage into a warehouse, parking in the driveway or alongside the house. We had to consider that on-street parking was banned in Vermont during the winter months to allow snow plows to get through. Moving to the garage seemed like a great solution. We gained a waterproof staging and storage area. It was a minimal expense to cover the cost of shelving, insulation and a kerosene heater. Unloading and loading the snack boxes into the vans was more easily accomplished. Certainly, it saved some wear and tear on our house.
Three days before Christmas 1982, disaster struck again. The kerosene heater in the garage malfunctioned during the night and started a fire. Fortunately, it was self-contained. We saved the building (and our home) but smoke and water damage completely wiped out most of our inventory and nearly closed us down. The temperatures were in the single digits and our juices had frozen. Broken glass, black and greasy soot covered everything. All snack boxes had to be soaked in hot water, scrubbed and disinfected—a huge undertaking.
It was 4 am in the morning. I remember my three-month-old daughter crying to be nursed. We were exhausted. My husband sat on the couch with his head in his hands, saying: “This is it. We are done. There’s no way we can come back from this disaster.”
I called my employee, and an hour later she was at our door. I fed my baby, gave her a kiss and tucked her into her crib as she began to doze. I looked at my husband and said, “Get up. This is not over yet. We must find a way because this business is not just about us. Other people are depending on us. Besides, there is no other option but to keep going.”
We all went to work.
I know that how I treated these lows and highs in my life defined me. Those events are forever etched in my memories. But it was the little things, the day-to-day activities, that time I invested in routines that made the difference in my successes. They often seemed mundane and insignificant yet when executed with purpose, they kept me from merely being a victim to chance or circumstance. They provided me the room to make choices not only when the time was right but also when the unexpected occurred. Michael Gerber, small business consultant and author of The E-Myth, talks about how having a process in place for developing a business becomes a way of going to work on our lives and not just our way of doing things.1
I realize that most entrepreneurs will not reach the monetary heights of the Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg or Cher Wang of this world, and that includes me. But each time I overcome the obstacles that get in my way, I move closer to achieving what matters the most in my life: a desire to be better and do better in business and in relationships. When I give myself fully to something, I am injecting my energy and spirit into it until I can rightfully own it. That is why I believe business and life should serve each other rather than exist on opposing sides, straining for attention.
A professional colleague, Marty Pomerantz, came up with an acronym for the word A.W.A.R.E.™: Acknowledge What Activities Result in Excellence. I believe it belongs right up there with the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Know your destination, set your headings carefully and always use your compass to stay on track. Then unfurl the sails, untangle those lines, and let her go!
Alice’s journey in Through the Looking Glass followed the moves of a chess game. Anyone who has ever participated or observed a serious game of chess, knows that successful players are always alert and in full control of their anticipated moves. But Alice entered Wonderland through a looking glass, so everything was in reverse—getting where she wanted to go meant walking in the opposite direction or she’d continuously find herself back at the beginning. She kept trying until she finally could move forward.
In the story, even the country-side is based on a game of chess with its grassy fields and valleys patterned into squares. Most main characters are represented by a chess piece or an animal, with Alice herself being a pawn. She is promised by the Queen that when she reaches the eighth square, she will become a queen. That is Alice’s objective. Typical of Wonderland, Alice’s journey is a mishmash of confusion, detours and wishful thinking.
The pawn is the chess piece of lowest value. It moves one square at a time and is manipulated to further the player’s win. I have allowed myself to be a pawn when I didn’t stay alert to all the variables that could impact me. Other times I chose this role because I elected to only move forward one small step at a time while I carefully kept my eye on the goal. But sometimes, with the unpredictability of life, my business presented situations I did not perceive. The more risks I took, the more likely the odds that I would experience failure.
Failure need not be an end but an integral part of the growth process. Where my good experiences and joyful occasions have become cherished memories, it is the difficulties, hardships and misfortunes—call them what you will—that evolve into lessons learned. I can’t control the world, but I can impact it for the better if I am determined to be a productive and attentive occupant.
I’ve always had two basic ways of dealing with life: either I took ownership of my thoughts, feelings and opinions and turned them into actions or I caved-in and became a victim. It always has come down to these two choices. When I have chosen the first way, the entrepreneurial mindset, I reinvented myself. I expanded my outward thinking with a compassion, vision and courage to move in a forward direction. When I allowed myself to be the victim, I shrunk within myself and became isolated from others and crippled.
A good day for me is when I begin it with anticipation of what I pre-planned for the day to unfold. I adjust the demands of my business to better reflect my goals and chosen lifestyle. I rarely have two days the same with a fluctuating work schedule and I love that. What I accomplish each day should fit within the operational parameters of my business. It depends on following standardized systematic processes that kept me on track and at task.
My goal is to ensure that my personal and professional life reside in comfortable proximity to each other. Whether it is managing my family routines, supervising employees, project development work or facilitating a seminar for a group of professionals, a systematic approach grounds me and gives me the stability and continuity needed to function effectively. The most logical way to achieve this consistently is to develop written systems so these tasks can be repeated and refreshed as needed. I call this my Operations Manual. This is when the manager in me must come to the forefront and take charge.
Annie’s Honor Snacks had lots of systems for its operations. Despite our planning, I often had to change them or replace them altogether. Initially, most of these processes were reactive to an immediate need. As I gained experience, I learned to be proactive by anticipating the needs and developing systems that would manage them. Here are some examples we used:
•Customized Snack Menu: Our product lines were constantly changing as vendors adjusted their product lines and customers’ tastes varied. I produced a new updated menu seasonally, allowing me to publicize product...