“Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel,” I said. To this day, I’m not sure if it was the words that came back, or the instinctive speed with which they were said, but the response was quick and perfect.
I was sitting on the cold, hard steps behind our office, looking across the park to downtown Vancouver, the city I call home. Jeff was on the other end of the line talking me through the abyss—the dark, desperate chasm so many entrepreneurs seem to cross on their way to whatever success they later achieve. “Nope. Don’t do that,” he said. “You’ll get through this.” I wasn’t so sure.
As I shivered on that office stoop, computer servers somewhere were distributing my newly written ads: “Office closing. Great furnishings must go!” It was the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, and we had lost our biggest client. I’d had to let half our team go. Then we’d lost our second biggest client…. So there were just three of us left in the business. A fraction of the boisterous, energetic team we’d had just a year before. And then one of them gave me her notice….
Who knew rock bottom would feel like a frozen concrete stairway?
People pay too much attention to numbers.
The numbers didn’t lie: No sales. One or two small clients. Rent we couldn’t afford. And all the remaining assets were hard goods: Ikea desks. Computers. High end desk chairs we’d got in exchange for some work with a designer a couple of years before. An incredible sound system, our payment for rebranding a retailer. I had to turn those assets into cash to get by. To squeak by. And then it got worse.
I remember choking back tears when I laid off my last employee.
If only there’d been one more client at the right time. One project, even. How different would the next couple of years have been? Then again, would I be the same today—would our business be the same today—if we hadn’t weathered the horrible winter of 2008?
Soon, I was working from my dining room table. A giant Xerox printer I hadn’t been able to sell stood watch from the corner of the living room, a boxy reminder during every family movie night that my business was on its last legs. But something amazing soon became clear. On my own again, as I was, the work wasn’t about the projects—the commercial transactions. It was about the people, and their hopes and dreams.
Business isn’t about numbers. It’s about relationships.
Business is personal. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not.
Business is personal. Whenever business has gone awry for me, it’s been when I lost sight of that fact. A fact that is as much about who I am as what we do. Sometimes—many times—the numbers really do lie. They distract us from what’s real. How many times did I have predictably pedantic conversations with our bank: “Your balance sheet should have more equity.” Sure, but do you have a way to measure unstoppable determination? “Your sales are down significantly from a year ago.” Yes, but would you like to talk to my clients about how much they love our work? “We can’t extend you any credit.” Shocker. You’re a bank. It’s your industry that caused this mess in the first place! Yes, I know, “your hands are tied.”
I felt I had a right to be bitter, and I was. A right to be angry, and I was. And I would frequently lie awake, staring at the ceiling until the early hours of the morning… and keep staring until it was time to get up and do another lap of the business day.
I found solace in the relationships, in the juicy, generative conversations with the smart, dedicated people I sometimes called ‘clients,’ but soon preferred to call ‘friends.’
In university, as a student of philosophy, I had become fascinated with the age-old question of what it is to live ‘the good life.’ Course after course, I would ponder that, often lost turning it over in my mind. In the years since I sat on those frozen steps, I’ve learned to think less with my head, and more with my heart. To recognize when to make a decision based on numbers, and when to make it based on something else…. Something less tangible, less black and white, but, oh so much more compelling and important.
You see, there’s more to the life of a business, just as there’s more to the business of life, than numbers. Yes, you should be smart. Yes, you should pay attention to the right metrics. But you’ll build much more value, you’ll inspire far more confidence, you’ll win at business and at life, if you remember to lead with love. In the end, it’s the only metric that ever really mattered.
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. Call us if you’re interested to book him for a keynote presentation about his experience dancing with failure in 2008.