What To Do When Your Business Becomes a Burden?

Until recently, I haven’t spoken very openly about the past 18 months. This period has been, without a doubt, the most tumultuous of my career (to date). It began at a crossroads: I wasn’t happy in my business and was stuck in a hamster wheel of maintaining status quo to ensure that teammates who depended on me for a salary were being taken care of. All of my energy was focused on keeping them employed.

As a business, we had lost our mojo. We weren’t focused, we weren’t attracting the right type of work — and were grabbing at any opportunity available to keep the lights on. I was consistently working 80 hours per week, yet I hadn’t taken a steady salary in 6 years. Some years, I’d bring home $20,000; others, maybe $35,000. I was feeling lost. We were feeling lost. Something had to change and I wasn’t sure whether to close; let things ride out until we went bust; or something else. I was caught in my own complacency and we were in trouble.

One year ago, I made the toughest decision of my career — one that had a huge affect on people I deeply cared about. I downsized my company. In a matter of weeks, our team was cut nearly in half and I had laid off great people (and good friends who I have lost as a result) who had given an awful lot of energy to the business. My heart was broken. My team’s heart was broken. The decision was unpopular and left the remaining team members feeling very uneasy about their own future. However, this change was for the betterment and the survival of both the business and the jobs of those still working at it.

Yikes! This was a big change. For the first time in many years, it gave us the flexibility to stop everything we were doing to assess the landscape. I could breathe again, have conversations with teammates to understand what was working and what wasn’t, and better envision a path forward.

The changes weren’t done yet.

Within a month, the team made another game-changing decision. We were going to stop chasing business. We had been conservatively spending $20,000 per month responding to RFPs. We were consistently finishing in the top 5 amongst 20–30 competitors. Yet we were never quite winning. Throughout our debriefing sessions, we consistently heard the same messages of encouragement. We were so close but a bit too inexperienced versus the selected agency. “Keep at it! We’ll work with you on another project for sure.”

$240,000 per year spent writing proposals. How many did we win over the previous 7 years? Four. We won four out of roughly one hundred and forty attempts (just under 3% success rate, for those counting). This is quite disturbing, though was important to recognize. We couldn’t keep doing this, so we chose not to.

Okay. So how to get business, then?

Instead of networking to create top of mind awareness and responding to any and all public RFP that could remotely be a fit, we took a more strategic approach. We decided to leverage methods to get out in front of decision makers when they are searching for services. Rather than finding customers, we re-positioned the business so that customers found us. Within weeks, the leads were pouring in. Not all were the right fit, however we were now in a position to better assess an opportunity to determine if it makes sense.

I won’t belabor the process — maybe I’ll save that for another post. The crux is that we’re having our best year (by a long shot!) and consistently attracting the caliber of clients that we want to work with. Every project we have on the go right now is a project that everyone on the team is excited to be working on. That says something.

The Big, Bad Decisions

As a small to medium-sized business owner, you need to allow yourself to step back to reflect. Have the confidence to go with your gut on the tough decisions required to move your business forward. Many will be unpopular; but if your intuition and heart are behind it, your team will stick with you. In the short term, it sucks (it’s horrible, in fact). In the long term, these big decisions are what allow you to get to the next level. It’s your responsibility to ensure that you’re always looking to take your team to bigger and better things — this is why you took on a leadership position in the first place!

The past 18 months have been a rollercoaster. At times, I didn’t think my business would survive. At times, I didn’t think my teammates would stay. We did and they did. We’ve found our mojo again and are thriving as a result. We’re working with some amazing people and businesses who I’d never thought we would have a chance to work with. Most importantly, we are only taking on projects that make sense. Things are good.


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