Like every business owner, I’ve navigated both good times and lean times. Covid has been a challenge, although we’re fortunate, coming through only mildly scathed, revenues intact.
But there was a time we weren’t so lucky.
For our first nine years, we grew steadily. The germ of an idea I had in 1999 had grown to a thriving operation of seven employees, something I hadn’t dreamed possible when I started.
One of my first hires was John, my office manager. He was a dream colleague, seeming almost to anticipate my needs before I even asked.
If I did ask for something, I knew it was done. The feeling of being able to offload things out of my brain and trust him to handle it — it’s a hard thing to hang a price tag on. For an entrepreneur, it’s like money in your pocket.
My business was growing, and everything ahead looked like smooth sailing.
But 2008 dawned, and with it, the specter of recession. Our business, like so many, took a knock.
Our client base mostly comprised business coaches. And when businesses’ belts get tightened, services like coaches are first to go.
When their businesses faltered, mine also faltered.
A ringing phone caused me dread; it was never good news. It was always someone calling to say their business was struggling, the money had run out, they would have to stop working with me, they were shuttering their entire operation.
The pit in my stomach never went away. The phone would ring, and I’d flinch before even answering.
In the eight months that followed, I laid off my employees at the rate of one a month, just trying to keep the business afloat.
I hate having to let people go, but it was especially gruelling when they’d done nothing wrong; the terrible external circumstances simply forced me into one terrible decision after another.
The last employee I hung onto was John. But eventually, I had to lay him off too. With no employees left, I barely managed to keep the business going alone.
They were dark days.
Eventually, a light appeared. Markets recovered; spending returned. My business grew back, tentatively at first, then stronger than ever.
I began hiring people back, and I never forgot about John. My intention was to rehire him, if he was willing.
But first, I had to find him.
I had lost the cell phone that housed all of my old contacts, so I no longer had his number, but I tried searching his name. Nothing came up.
I would resume the search for John every few months. This went on for years, me searching, frustrated, wondering what happened to him. He never surfaced.
It was like he’d vanished completely.
Eventually, recognizing defeat, I gave up.
These days, I mind it much less when the phone rings, since it’s more often good news than not. But between telemarketers and robocalls, there’s about a 50/50 likelihood whether I’ll pick up the phone when I get a call from a number I don’t recognize.
A couple of months ago, I was at my desk, concentrating intently, when I got a call from an unrecognized number. Distracted, I said hello.
A confused voice said, “Monica? Is that you?”
I recognized him right away.
“John? My god, I’ve been searching for you forever!”
A couple of years post-recession, John had gotten married, had a baby, and moved his family to Nova Scotia, which is why I’d never been able to find him: I’d only ever thought to search in Moncton.
It was the strangest thing. My number had been saved in his phone all that time. But he hadn’t actually been trying to call me that day. It was an accident, a slip of the thumb, as he tried to call his wife, Morgan, whose name appears next to mine in his contact list.
Thrilled as I was to catch up, after so long spent searching for him, I had the big question all teed up.
“John, my office manager just left,” I said. “I’d love for you to come back on board.”
It caught him off-guard. He had a job he liked. He’d been there a couple of years. He seemed unsure if I was serious. He said he’d think it through and talk it over with his wife. After a week and a half of not hearing back, I thought, “I’m not letting this go.” So I called him. (Trust me: I saved the number.)
I cut right to it: “I’m wondering where your head’s at about coming back to work here. Have you had a chance to think about it?”
“Monica,” he said. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it.”
He said he needed to give his notice at his current company. He did, and at the beginning of June, he started back on with us.
It’s like old times. When something needs to be done, I know John’s got a bead on it. And with the business growing so fast, there’s always more that needs to be done.
Lately, when there’s a pit in my stomach it’s more to do with Covid than ringing phones, of course. Starting a business is wonderful, but there is a massive responsibility in knowing others are depending on you.
It’s important for entrepreneurs to have other people they trust who know the business well, but it’s particularly crucial after the year we’ve all just lived through, which proved just how tenuous things are. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and in entrepreneurship as in life, change is the only constant. It’s a relief to know there are people in my business like John who know every aspect of what we do, and who could step in if an emergency dictated.
That peace of mind is worth a lot.
As is the awareness that sometimes, it really pays to pick up the phone.