Up until the end of 2010, my business life as an entrepreneur had been quite enjoyable. Yes, there was endless pressure and worries but sales were growing and I felt confident to steer the ship. I was the founder and managing director of Billie Goat Soap, an Australian skin care brand. The range had started in my kitchen in 2004, and by 2011 my products were sold in almost 2000 stores around the country. Quite a feat for something that started as a personal project to help soothe my son's eczema.
There had been a lot of media interest in the company, and as we grew, our story was shared on various television shows around the country. As a small business with a limited marketing budget, we were always very grateful for any attention the brand and story may bring. In some ways though, that came at a price because with consumer awareness comes a degree of pressure to perform -- to maintain the entrepreneur stereotype of being invincible, resilient and successful.
In 2011 we had been well and truly bitten by the GFC. Retailing slowed, especially in the department store sector. It didn't matter that in 2010 we were the Myer (Macy's equivalent) Supplier of the Year in general cosmetics, if the customers weren't shopping then our brand didn't move off the shelves. I felt constantly confounded trying to maintain our sales targets. It seemed that every lever I pulled had no effect on sales and I was rapidly running out of ideas.
Tough trading took its toll.
Despite reminding myself that I was a smart, invincible, solutions-driven entrepreneur I could feel that failure was headed my way. Sales had dropped significantly and profits dried up. I found myself crying every day in the car on the way to work. It would take me an additional ten minutes outside in the car park each day to re-apply my makeup before heading inside to greet my staff. I would leave meetings unexpectedly -- especially if they involved the financials or sales targets. I'd simply get up from the table, grab my bag and leave the office. Most times I wouldn't return and my team would be left wondering what happened. I cancelled any invitations to speak to business groups or do media interviews. Worst of all, I started to obsess about the business 24/7 and at home I was always pre-occupied with work and sadly I missed the joys my beautiful family provided.
By March 2011 I was no longer able to bring myself to go to work. In fact, I was lucky if I could even get off the couch. I felt incapable of doing anything. My days were filled with tears and self-loathing, and all I could think about was how I had failed myself, failed my family, failed my employees and failed everyone associated with the business.
I was shocked to realize I was not the invincible, smart, resilient entrepreneur I thought I was. I had been thrown out of the club.
It's still difficult to type the word "breakdown" when I share my story because there's so much stigma (incorrectly) attached to it. It took me three years to label my experience as a breakdown, but my behavior was typical of one. I was no longer capable of performing my usual daily routine. I was diagnosed with situational depression and, at the urging of my wonderful supportive husband, I sought help. I spent many hours in counseling to explore my issues. Over time my anxiety and depression waned and I began to see glimpses of my old self.
Today, in 2014 I am a different person and incredibly grateful to have had a breakdown. It taught me a lot about myself but most importantly, I learned some very valuable business lessons that I apply every day in my new business ventures (Billie Goat Soap was sold in 2012).
The top four lessons learned:
• You are not the business. All businesses have good times and bad times. The entrepreneur remains the same throughout. Just because the business is having a tough time it doesn't mean you are a bad person. Likewise, good times are, in fact, transient -- so don't put too much weight on them either.
• Failure is survivable. Often when a business fails it may mean the loss of material things like money or property. So what! The world turns and life goes on and if you can simply hang on during the really tough times better days will follow, guaranteed. Just hang on...
• Media stereotypes of entrepreneurs are not the reality. The Donald Trumps and Richard Bransons of the business world are the exception, not the norm. Just as we all can't have Miranda Kerr's body, we also won't likely have the profile of Donald Trump. Most entrepreneurs have to work hard on a day-to-day basis to keep the business wheels turning and we all stress over the same things -- money, sales, profits and growth. You are not alone, we simply don't talk about these things enough and the stereotype of an entrepreneur is unrealistic.
• Self-love is an important business skill. Everyone struggles at times. Everyone feels shame or guilt at some stage -- it's a universal emotion. Learning to identify your feelings and forgive yourself unconditionally is an important entrepreneurial skill. Part of this is maintaining a connection to others because it normalizes feelings and reminds us that we're not alone. I'm not talking about attending networking functions. I mean investing in a level of authenticity that keeps you open to those around you.
Today I bring my whole heart to the business board room. It's never easy to share stories of failure, but the more the tale is told, the less power it has over me. Importantly, it reveals a truth -- we likely have more in common with one another than we ever realize.