There have only been two events in my company’s 15-year history that really scared me and shook my confidence as a leader. Both times, a ninja disguised as an accountant jolted me back to reality – and back to business.
In 2004 I survived what I refer to as my one and only (I hope) divorce. It was with my business partner, not my husband. It was still plenty traumatic. My business partner was responsible for managing the company’s books from New Jersey while I focused on sales and team management in California. After seven years together, it became clear my partner and I were no longer aligned in our goals for the company. The result was a tortuous and expensive 18-month battle, concluding with a 20-hour mediation. In the end, I bought her share of the company. Terrified, I took the reins alone. And that’s when I discovered my partner left me with a financial nightmare.
I couldn’t share the fear and frustration with my team or clients. It was time to be a swan: grace and serenity above the water, and beneath, paddling like crazy. I thought about walking away and starting over when a friend recommended an accountant at a large local firm. I thought a big firm was overkill for my small business, but I immediately bonded with the accountant. Tammy was young, smart and confident. She told me with absolute certainty the broken parts of my business were fixable and I darn well had to do this because I had created something special.
Then she quickly set up the accounting so I had clear insight into our finances. She created checks and balances to maintain security and accountability. Then she kicked my shell-shocked butt back to doing what I did best: reaching out to clients and keeping our team focused. Within one year we had recouped the cost of the partner buyout. We were back.
Four years later, in 2009, the U.S. economy took a dive and the tech sector, which makes up most of our clientele, was hit particularly hard. Forty percent of our clients lost their jobs. Every marketing budget was frozen. Our revenues dropped 50 percent that year. Again, I was terrified. I refused to lay people off, so we slashed expenses everywhere, turning over every proverbial sofa cushion for the tiniest savings. We survived the year with a temporary 10 percent across-the-board salary reduction. In 2010, we slowly regained momentum.
Last year, with things looking up again, Tammy asked my vice president and I this question: “So, what do you want for yourself and the company now?”
I didn’t know. Just grateful to still be here, I thought. Salaries were restored and I was taking a small draw again. My vice-president and I were both unable to answer the question with any conviction.
Tammy went off on us. “Well, if you don’t want more for yourself and the company, I have serious concerns about this management team!” she said. I’d never seen her like this. I tried to explain how happy I was the glass was no longer empty, but it was no use. We all left frustrated and emotional.
The next day my vice president and I met early in the morning over coffee and scones. “Oh, hell yes,” we both blurted out, emphatically. Yes, we did want much more for the business, our team and ourselves. And boy, were we ready to show Tammy.
This year, my company grew 73 percent over 2010 and 193 percent over 2009—with the same number of employees. Tammy does not tell me what to do, but she knows exactly which buttons to push to fire me up and achieve our true potential.
Every business owner needs a swift kick in the pants once in a while.