As for many of you, this is not the first time I go through a major crisis that directly impacts a business I have started, worked very hard for, invested in, and nurtured for years. Yet I believe whether the business will survive the current crisis or not is beyond the point today, as so much is out of our hands.
There is little we control in this current crisis. And most of what is at stake in the next weeks and months is worse than economic loss. So much worse that personally I have decided to let go, observe, and wait until the dust settles down so we can see clearly again.
Stand still, conserve energy, save cash, and take care of my staff the best way I can. People are the real wealth. Money comes and goes. And above all: stay away from stress, anger, frustration and resentment (which also means stay away from the news!) – because any of these feelings will remain within us and hurt us deeply, grieving our energy, creativity and our ability as leaders, entrepreneurs, freelancers or employees to rebound when the time comes. And it will come. Soon.(1)
I wish I knew that in September 2001. I went from successful tech entrepreneur, a young “millionaire on paper”, to bust and in debt in less than 30 days – hitting an economic wall at full speed, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Not unlike what is happening today, on an economic front that is. The mini-economic crisis that hit New York in the fall of 2001, engulfed my then-successful business (and many others), a tech startup I had built from scratch for more than 5 years and drove from 0 to 50 employees. Starting in 1996 in a refurbished hotel storage room in Manhattan we ended up in 2000 in a cool loft office near Park Avenue. The company was called CarbonMedia and was one of the first digital marketing agencies back then. We were growing so fast we were awarded the “Deloitte & Touche NY Fast 50” award in 1999, 2000, and again in 2001, averaging 800%+ organic growth per year. And it is precisely that growth that killed us.
Flashback: In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, most businesses in the NY Region (and in the US) decided to sit on their cash for a few months, and the majority of our clients defaulted on our contracts. The web was not a priority for them back then. To this day I still cannot blame them. In addition, we lost a significant portion of our customers who were located in the downtown area near the WTC, who just went out of business because of the lock down, and/or simply disappeared. That Southern part of the City was locked down for weeks. And to add irony to injury, while the US Government bailed out a lot of NY businesses by writing big checks to make up for their losses, these companies had to be located South of 23rd street to be bailed out. We were located on 25th Street between Park and Lexington avenues, two blocks North of the “affected area” for Federal aid. Two blocks off. Tough luck.
So with such a high growth, no cash coming in, our customer base in limbo, and a steep payroll… we had to fold in a month. And to top it off, my business partner and I were personal guarantors on computer equipment and servers. So not only we lost all we had but we were also hanged personally on top of that.
Yet, I have to admit, this is nothing compared to the people who lost loved ones in those days – and with whom we mingled every day, as our office building door sat exactly across from the NY Armory building, which was turned into a relief center for families of victims, lining up daily and for weeks, with photos of their loved ones who had disappeared on 9/11. They used to pin the photos of their next of kin and friends on the walls of the Armory before leaving. A daily reminder that human loss always tops any economic downturn.
To this day I am still amazed at the courage of New Yorkers, the compassion of neighbors, people you had never met, who would make food at home to share it with strangers queuing in the street, stop by to give them a hug and exchange a few comforting words. We did too. My throat still tightens when I think back to these days. Not for the business we lost, I couldn’t care less today. But for the humanity I saw in people’s eyes and the strength and solidarity that New Yorkers demonstrated then. I am proud to have been one of them.
So what I learned then is that there is nothing like compassion, support and love for one another to help you weather the storm. That humanity is what is important. This is what feeds us, not money. And hard feelings like anger, despair and worries, especially directed at oneself, are the worst possible emotion to carry within. They are the business leader’s worst enemy, an entrepreneur’s little death. Because they break our ability to create, pivot and spring back up.
Eventually, a few months later, as I slowly got rid of these negative feelings and let go of self pity, I was able to rebound, started a new business from my living room in Brooklyn, paid off my debts in 6 months, and was able to thrive again by the end of 2002. Yet, I could have saved months, much grief, anger and energy by accepting then what was outside of my control, and ride the wave that life had sent my way with more acceptance and detachment than fear and frustration. Recognizing also that although hit hard economically I was fine physically and able to move forward.
This is what I am doing today, with a bit more experience. Trusting that it is going to be ok and preparing for the rebound that life has in store for us. And I suggest you do the same. In trust.
With compassion and strength.
(1) Now, I am not suggesting you sit still if you can do something that you think will help save your business, help your employees, make a difference. I am not suggesting to do nothing then. By all means go for it! With all your might.