How I’ve found some equilibrium in a tiny boat at sea…
Dear friends, clients and collaborators:
Hopefully you’ve been receiving our “Weekly Seven” e-newsletter, in which Meghan and I have been attempting to strike a balance between sharing both useful and light-hearted resources/ links. We’ve been encouraged by each kind word we’ve received from you in response and we don’t expect to stop sending out the Weekly Seven anytime soon!
I’m writing with some personal reflections on recent events and to share an insider’s view on how our business has navigated things so far.
Over the more than 16 years I’ve been a business owner, I’ve ridden out a spectrum of climate patterns—from smooth sailing to a short hail shower to a full-on hurricane. As a result, I’ve become pretty resilient and far more comfortable with the daily discomfort of business ownership. The need to constantly navigate changes in direction and hold fast over bumpy seas if I want to stay on course has been a valuable, but often painful, tool for accelerated personal and professional growth. 😉
Just as we’re living in an unprecedented era in our economy and history, I could never have predicted the current set of circumstances (“perfect storm,” anyone?)
While I had gotten more accustomed to sailing without a compass or a reliable forecast, the complex set of variables that make up our current weather system doesn’t have any meteorological context.
We’re out at sea in brand new weather patterns and it certainly feels that way.
Despite — or more likely because of — all of the challenges I’ve faced, I’ve found myself becoming generally more optimistic over the years. This doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring reality or sticking my head in the sand. On the contrary, the optimism resulted from facing really painful realities (“ there’s a hole in the bottom of the boat and we’re taking on water, fast” comes to mind), finding a way to keep riding the waves and seeing that the water typically evens out again, if I just keep bailing the boat, patching the hole and doing things differently the next time.
So in addition to feeling ALL of the feels of the moment — helloooo evening crying jags, angry outbursts, and staring mindlessly out at the tv so that I can reset and start again with clarity and focus the next morning — I’m also watching with some curiosity and even a little positive expectation for what will be understood differently and gained during this time.
I know first-hand that forced behavior change can drive innovative solutions to particularly stuck problems. We have the opportunity to replace the systems and priorities that no longer serve us with ones that do. We can replace what has been obsolete for a long time with something more powerful and productive. This is the good news, and I’m using it to fuel me in the small, physically-isolated upstairs bedroom that is now my office.
It’s easy to acknowledge that this particular storm, with no foreseeable end in sight, is utterly EXHAUSTING.
This latest and biggest requirement to pivot—after nearly four years of constant tacking back and forth in shifting winds—has felt like a rogue wave appearing out of nowhere, threatening to completely capsize The Rachel Greenhouse Agency, my big heart for my work and my own well-being too.
If I let it. Which—as I have learned over the years—I won’t.
I typically find it easy to absorb a lot of information, sifting through reams of websites and documents fairly quickly to identify the best options to meet top needs, prioritizing the action I need to take in response to an evolving situation.
Short-term action plus long-term planning…this is a tension business owners hold on a regular basis, as you well know.
However, over the last month I have nearly reached my breaking point several times: Navigating the sheer volume of potentially critical and very urgent information as it relates to my business and those of my clients has become a more than full-time occupation. Between all of the changes coming at us from our clients, happening within our own business, and in our personal situations–not to mention the dangling carrots that have offered prospects for financial relief, been nearly impossible to reach, then taken away completely–we have found ourselves without the capacity to do as much as our hearts want to.
Pre COVID-19, like most businesses, RGA was already tackling some financial, operational and revenue generation challenges. We felt confident that we were making solid progress in the right direction but it was already a lot to juggle on a daily basis.
Since then, things have changed rapidly: We lost significant revenue immediately and currently we are bringing in approx. 10% of what we need to meet our expenses. Potential projects were put indefinitely on hold and new client leads stopped. We cancelled all in-person events and space rentals and we moved out of our offices while continuing to be responsible for all of our expenses. We were also at the very last stage of hiring a new graphic designer and felt that we had to postpone that decision. This was especially difficult because we had invested so much planning, time and energy into finding the right fit/person for that position and we needed that consistent capacity.
The vast majority of our clients are small to medium-size business owners and this means that they are (understandably) less likely to be in a position to hire us, right now, even if they could really use our help.
A couple of weeks ago I decided that I had to ask for grace with client projects and other deadlines. I needed to clear my desk, my schedule and my mind so that I could get a handle on what I could and couldn’t do to help our business survive in this new world. And I also needed to relieve some of my responsibilities so that I could focus on filling myself back up whenever and however I could. This was a hard decision for me to make, but it was exactly what I (and my business) needed.
Our goal was to get our own oxygen masks on as quickly as possible—or to borrow the boating/weather metaphor, we’ve been trying to get our life jackets on and move out of the heaviest part of the storm–so that we could confidently reach out to offer support to those who could benefit from what we can share.
Unfortunately–significant investment of focus, resources and time, plus several years’ experience as a Grant Writer notwithstanding–I haven’t been able to secure any relief financing for our business to date. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying, but it is discouraging and overwhelming. And it tells me that many other valuable businesses are in a similarly stressful–if not even more so–storm.
We’re going to be in bumpy seas for a while yet, our compass is going to keep fogging up at inopportune moments, and we don’t have any idea how long it will take us to get safely to shore, nor what kind of damage will have been done to our mighty little vessel on the way. (Our sails are already a little torn and we’re short a crew member!) BUT we’ve created some navigation tools and we’ve started to row in a particular direction. Most importantly, Meghan and I are committed to staying in the same boat as long as possible, despite working from different locations at the moment.
I originally wrote this letter a week ago, and I’ve been on an even wilder ride since, as the PPP funding ran out, my pending application is undergoing another review, and the EIDL fund (which I was going to use for rent) appears to have completely disappeared into some kind of Bermuda triangle. I wanted to re-read this letter in light of the latest and ensure that it still communicates what I mean to say. It does, but now there’s even more:
I still believe that it’s going to be essential for business owners to build courage by facing our individual and shared realities together, without apology, without shame and without subterfuge. As a small business community, we have the capacity and expertise to generate really strategic and creative solutions for unique problems and unexpected circumstances. Through generous listening, we can revisit together why our work and well-being MATTER to the larger world, no matter how small our sphere of influence may seem to ourselves and to others.
Beyond what we can offer each other within our community however, I believe that the time has come for us to make our voices heard in the wider marketplace.
This time represents an opportunity for us to show the world what it is actually like to own a small business on the inside, to share without apology what is necessary to make the tapestry of our community as rich as everyone expects it to be. It is not a failure to need support and scaffolding in the form of access to expertise, volunteerism, emotional support, generosity through outright grants and attainable financing terms. It is hard, hard work to be a small business owner and it’s not something anyone should be expected to do singlehandedly –“bootstrapped” as we like to call it — without ever needing outside help.
It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for this truth to be told, but apparently it does.
Returning to the boat and ocean metaphor, I’ll share one more story:
One of the few times my husband Jeremy and I spent sailing overnight in our 31-foot boat, we voyaged from the Bahamas back to the USA. It was a relatively calm evening and we were making good time. It’s a very disorienting feeling to be out in a relatively tiny vessel in what looks like an endless expanse of water, no matter how friendly the weather appears to be. But we were following our navigation with confidence and hope that it would lead us where we intended to go, rather than further out to sea.
At around 2 a.m., I was at the helm while Jeremy was having a short nap inside. It was incredibly dark and I was watching alertly for lights and sounds of any kind, which would have told me there was another boat nearby or an important navigational warning to heed. I saw and heard nothing.
Suddenly I became aware of something very large, nearly silent and invisible, snake-like in its liquidity, passing by within feet of us. It was a huge tanker (I have no idea how big, but believe me, it was BIG.)
They had made no attempt to communicate with us–protocol dictated they should have–nor given any warning at all of their presence. They were confident and unconcerned for obvious reasons: They were far bigger than us. They could see us and knew that they could pass by without incident. They knew we represented no threat to them. For me, it was a startling and frightening moment. With no advance warning of their approach, we would have had no opportunity to move out of their way, had their judgment been off. If they had wanted to board us, we would have had no defense. If they had kicked up a big wake, we would have had no option to get out of it.
If a rogue wave or sudden storm had appeared, which of us would have been most likely to survive? Which of us would have first been discovered if we had been submerged?
Which of us would have been more likely to receive help from a corporation or government if we had experienced losses? Perhaps one could say that a little private boat with two young sailors on it doesn’t matter when compared to a commercial tanker transporting goods between countries.
But do we–does our society–really want an ocean full of only big, generic, commercial boats? Don’t we as humans need and want the independent stories that make our lives rich with meaning?
The stories our small businesses tell bring essential color and variety to our lives.
• Courageous decisions made by everyday people
• One-of-a-kind products found and shared by diverse entrepreneurs
• Memories made through unique voyages to far off lands
• Thoughtful, hands-on care that soothes aching bodies and uplifts hearts
• Creative messages that cut through the same-old, same-old of big-budget advertising
• Food and drink made with local farmer’s market finds… and much more
It would be less vulnerable for me to simply hide behind the mask of “we’re going to be ok” right now; instead, I’ll bluntly admit that I simply don’t know.
Even if we are able to stay in business through this time, it may not be mathematically possible for my business model to work its way out of existing debt and obligations quickly enough to survive. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we, and others, can’t find a different way to do meaningful work in the future. But there may necessarily be a pause in time to say goodbye to what was and decide what’s next. For some of us, keeping going as healthy humans might mean choosing to stop business, at least for a time.
This isn’t a failure, but it is sad.
Goodbyes merit grieving, even if they aren’t permanent goodbyes.
“Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”
– Brené Brown
Over the last few weeks of uncertainty we’ve identified some things that help us to stay more balanced:
• Caring for our bodies, emotions, and souls
• Acknowledging our humanity and our need for other humans
• Recognizing and accepting what is
• Making thoughtful, self-directed decisions
• Taking intentional, powerful action in ways we can, no matter how small
• Celebrating our capacity to lead, even now, through a commitment to showing up for ourselves and others
For more on this, read Tara McMullin’s beautiful post, excerpted below with her permission
If you believe more support from us would be valuable as you create your own plan for getting your little ship through this storm, check out the options we’ve created on this new page of our website.
And/or, if you have stories, needs, recommendations and ideas you simply need to share with someone who cares, please reach out.
Here’s to all of us finding more equilibrium in our little boats at sea.
Excerpt from Tara McMullin’s* most recent e-mail:
I break because I lead.
I break because I serve, hold space, and thoughtfully challenge the people I care about.
And that’s why the business owners I’ve been talking to have been breaking one by one, too. They are leaders, servants, space holders, challengers, encouragers.
And if you find yourself breaking, too, I bet that’s why.
Sure, being a business owner means figuring out your offers, creating a marketing strategy, honing your operations, making sales…
…but it also means leading.
Or, at the least, it’s an opportunity to lead.
Leaders can (and do) break–even when they have excellent self-care, strong boundaries, and impeccable support.
I’ll leave you with this:
Please don’t mistake this message as a glorification of working yourself to the bone, the pain of hustling, or ignoring your boundaries.
This message is a recognition of our shared humanity.
We’re leaders–and we’re people who feel things deeply. We’re servants–and we long to be served. We hold space–and we long for our own space to breathe in.
We break, we rest, and then we get back to the work–whatever that might be in this time.
* Founder, The What Works Network