Flight to Chaos — Entrepreneurial Journey
This Covid-19 period is a really tough time for everyone. As a leader of an organization, it’s difficult to lead your organization through uncharted territory. What do you do when your business is struggling to make ends meet — how can you pay rent, payroll and keep employees motivated and customers happy? Well, I’ve been there before and thought I’d share my story.
My doctor recommended I take Ambien, a prescribed sleep medication, to help with the sleepless nights during one of my several “descent” stages; it was years before I decided to see a doctor. But, a breakout of the shingles, a stress-induced virus, on my face the day before a venture capital pitch forced the issue. I had to nail the pitch or my previous eight years of work was over.
My bank accounts were below zero, payroll was in two days, I was three million dollars in debt and the stress was mounting. Home life wasn’t in a good spot. I’d work 18 hour days and my wife was tolerant and supportive, but not happy. It was a proverbial “shit show.”
My life had taken the toll, too. I had gained a lot of weight and I had alienated myself with work; life was not what I wanted. It had been like this for years, and was no way to live.
For most people, this sounds like the cusp of a breakdown. For fellow entrepreneurs, we’d classify this as “part of the journey.”
I refused the Ambien, but agreed to try Advil. No surprise, it didn’t help. It was a Sunday and I was lying in bed in a cold sweat, tossing and turning, my mind flooded by fears. I had missed payroll once before and have had too many close calls. I had already had the painful experience of standing in front of the company to explain why payroll was delayed. I’d also endured the consequences of mass exits due to lost confidence and related concerns over the financial health of the business. Many of the same people were individuals who failed to achieve goals, mismanaged funds and staff. The hurt wasn’t private either, hate emails and social media shaming was commonplace. For someone who valued relationships, it was painful. Nonetheless, it was my responsibility and it was a lonely place to be.
Laying in bed with a thousand questions in my mind such as “How on earth could I scrounge up the cash to make payroll next week? How was I going to keep swatting away all those pending lawsuits? How did I allow myself to remain in the dark about our company’s dire financial state for months, or was it years? What was I going to do about all those failing business pieces that chained us down, sabotaging our efforts to build on what we do best?” I needed a bailout and fast. This just wasn’t tenable and bankruptcy was a certainty.
How did I get here?
I’m the first to admit that my story is far from finished. I haven’t reached my mission, yet. I know the script I want to follow, and I’m more optimistic and confident about the story we’re writing at Palmetto every day, but I don’t yet know how it will end. I can say that I have better tools to lead our way through it and that wouldn’t have been possible without a decade of startup life. I do know what I have learned and how I’m applying those lessons, and I’m more than willing to pass it on — right now, when the embers from the fire are still burning.
I now understand, first and foremost, that we are often a lot stronger than we think we are. One of my personal heroes, Ellen DeGeneres, once shared insight related to her courageous public journey, and it’s a lesson we can gain from all kinds of life challenges and tribulations. And to me, there’s nothing like the hard times that await anyone who dares to try to defy the long odds of making their own business succeed to teach us just how strong and resilient we are…or are not.
So how do we tap that reservoir of strength and resilience? What can we do to summon that inner wellspring of perseverance and grit? I have a theory about that, and after everything I’ve gone through it rings solid and true to me. I believe that our chances of reaching the business heights we envision will always be much greater when we enter into our entrepreneurial endeavors with a clear and solid sense of mission.
It’s that simple. If you’re truly driven by some deep-in-your-soul mission in building a business, leading an organization, or doing something else guided by a passionate cause, you will be propelled by the fuel to endure and outlast those inevitable hard times. The mission that motivates you to get started will provide the boost you need to keep fighting and clawing when all the forces around you seem to be conspiring against you and the fulfillment of that dream and purpose you hold so close to your heart.
Here’s what else I believe about the importance of having a mission. If you don’t feel a real sense of mission about that business you’re trying to launch and grow, then it won’t work. You will likely fall down and not care to get back up, again. You may find monetary success, but not fulfillment. It takes time to find your mission, but it’s a journey worth seeking.
Today, for some reason, I am often pitched business ideas. Friends who want to run an idea by me or someone is seeking investment, my first question back to them is, “So how much do you really care about this business you’re getting into? Is It really a mission to you?” If they tell me they’re going to launch a sandwich shop, for example, I say, “Okay, how much do you care about a sandwich shop?” I invite them to imagine a series of sleepless nights when they can’t pay their employees, their lights are being shut off, their checks are bouncing all over town, there’s no money in their business or personal accounts, and their spouse is threatening divorce. When that moment arrives, are they still going to bunker down and do everything in their power to keep that sandwich shop alive?
If the answer is no, I advise them to forget about it. Keep searching for their mission. Don’t go down the path of entrepreneurship for the long-shot opportunistic upside, the potential to make a buck and prove your business acumen. Find a mission, some cause, some powerful, life-affirming idea that you are willing to wrap your hands tightly around and vow to never, ever let go — no matter who or what gets in your way or knocks you down into the pit.
If you do decide to keep pressing forward, I have three main pieces of advice.
- First, change your roadmap, immediately. Whatever mattered yesterday, unless it generates revenue, kill it immediately. That could mean taking a one-time hit on investment loss, but in this exact moment, your objective is to sustain operations, not take over the world. It also means that your roadmap shifts should mirror the needs of your customer. Make sure that you’re offering a product and service that is needed in the new environment.
- Second, cut your operational expenditures to sustain a newly revised and much more conservative pro forma. This may mean difficult decisions — such as letting some staff go. Start with the non-performers first and let your company know what you’re doing. Also, kick the non-essential expenses like the plant watering services in the office. You may even need to get more aggressive. You may need to call the vendors that you owe money to and explain your plan to “make things right” but ask for forgiveness and their help (mercy!) before things get ugly.
- Third, shore up as much cash as you can. The thing about raising money is that it is much easier to obtain when you do not need it. However, when you need it, it’s very hard to come by. So, get in front of this issue immediately.
There is a lot more advice I could share with you, but at the same time, these are good starting points. In this category, as a once struggling founder, I know how painful and stressful this situation can be. One last thing to share — stay positive. The power of positivity is a very real thing. I do believe you make your own future. Hard work, focus and positivity can take you far in life.
Chris is an Environmentalist, Capitalist, Minimalist and the Founder and CEO of Palmetto. An avid hiker, fly fisherman as well as writer. Chris undertakes a series of projects — educational books, film production and charitable activities — to help educate all types of people, young and old, about the importance of climate change and the environment. He lives in San Francisco, CA and Charleston, SC. More can be found on christopherkemper.com