Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

Tom was an ambitious young entrepreneur. He started a successful tech company in the healthcare industry — an object of envy among his business peers.

Despite all the admiration, Tom was under a lot of pressures. Working from 6 am to 10 pm on a daily basis started to take its toll. He came home physically and mentally tired, but his brain could not stop working. Constant worry and stress gave him terrible insomnia. Tom realised his health was getting worse. He lost his appetite and survived mostly on black coffee and toast.

There were times when Tom had suicidal thoughts. His mind was clouded in darkness, and the air felt dirty; it was difficult to breathe in.

But his success mattered more than anything else.

He kept going in denial of his fractured sanity.


The Stigma

Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Founder Depression’?

Founder depression looks a lot like a typical depression. Sadness, loss of interest, lack of energy and constant fatigue.

Sounds familiar?

Look it up, it is real, and it is happening. Maybe you have experienced it yourself. Perhaps you have seen someone else going through it. What you might not expect is the following. Founder depression can happen regardless of whether the startup is a success or not. According to research, entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than their nonentrepreneurial counterparts.

Starting a business is stressful. It is the constant networking, cash flow pressure, lack of sleep, customer problem, product failure, staff issues, long hours and so on. Interestingly, despite the enormous stress a founder is under, none of them seems to talk about it much. Ask any founder about his or her business. I bet you; the answer will be along the line of: “I am killing it”.

It seems like there is a stigma attached to founder depression. No founder wants to look ‘weak’. And often they are willing to sacrifice their sanity for that. It is almost like a badge of honour, to be under enormous stress.

The Spiral

A startup is essentially a combination of people and process, driven by its founder. While it seems like the founder has the ultimate control of the startup, it is not always the case in reality. There is a web of responsibility and accountability among founders, investors, staffs, and customers. This intricately interconnected web often puts the founder in a difficult position.

Should the founder allocate resources for the wellbeing of the staffs? Should they pursue new product development? Should they start to penetrate the market now?

And so the initial drive leads to stress, which if not managed, then turns into depression.

“Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.” — Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder (Aaron tragically committed suicide in 2013)

But the stigma attached to founder depression often prevents founders from opening up and getting help. The inability to get help will lead to further depression, and the downward spiral continues.

Breaking down depression starts by breaking down the stigma.

Breaking down the stigma starts from within. It is the mastery of self that allows us to look weak and vulnerable without feeling insignificant.

The Safe Place

It requires enormous strength to open up about our weakness. We don’t just approach a stranger and start sharing our deepest fear. We need a safe place. We need a place to be us, to be humans that hurt and bleed like mere mortals. Only then we can crawl our way up. Slowly recovering and rebuilding our strength.

The safe place is difficult to find. Yet without it, founders are often reluctant to open up. Before they let their guard down, they need to be sure they won’t be taken advantage of. Opening up requires deep trust and in the world of dog-eat-dog where do you find trust?

The safe place is difficult to find indeed.

The good news is, the safe place does exist. The safe place can be a family member, a close friend, or even a mentor or coach. The bad news is, you need to look for it. The safe place is not hiding, but it is not actively looking for you either.

Once you find it, keep it, and care for it, for it is a rare find.

It is a place where you find the strength to be vulnerable and the inner peace for reflection and recharge.

The Courage

There is a limit to the founder’s ability to withstand constant stress and depression. He or she might have found a safe place to refuel. But still, once the limit breaks, a massive depression will set its foot in the founder’s heart.

It is a moment of courage. It is the time for a tough decision. Founders need to choose one of two things, keep going or admit defeat. Both require a tremendous amount of courage. It takes courage to keep going knowing your sanity is on the line. And it also takes a lot of courage to admit failure and defeat.

There is no right or wrong answer here. Only the founder knows the answer, for only he or she knows the sacrifice that comes with it. The founder has no choice but to endure the agony that comes with either of them.

Whatever it is, a choice must be made. And it is only within the founder’s heart that the ultimate choice can be truly decided.

Only you, the founder, knows if the startup is killing it, or killing you. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?


“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” Elon Musk


As published in The Startup: Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

The Baby, The Ladies and The Workshop

I stepped into the production room, and this giant cutting table immediately caught my sight. It had a heavily worn metal ruler fixed onto one of its edges – such a workhorse.

We acquired this company in 2010. My wife wanted to get into something creative. Curtain Witchery was a small scale curtain manufacturer. It employed nine ladies with almost a hundred years of curtain making experience between them.

The previous owner could not cope with the demands of running a small workshop. Hence, we bought it cheap. It was almost too good to be true. We fell in love with it, with a romantic idea of running a busy workshop, creating arts.

“I cannot believe it,” my wife said to me.
”It’s ours now,” I replied.
“Yup, it is.”
”Are you ready for the big opening tomorrow?”
”Not really.”

Our first few weeks there were slightly confusing with a steep learning curve. There were times that Eve would call headless-chicken days. I figured out that she was talking about herself. She was the chicken. The other ladies, they were fearless witches.

”How do you all manage?” Eve asked Marg, one of the ladies. “There are so many things to do.”
”We just keep working I guess,” Marg replied.
”Well, in that case, could we skip morning tea today?”
”No, sorry ma’am, no morning tea, no work.”

I am telling you, those ladies, they might have been old, but they were fierce.


”You’re pregnant?” I could not believe my ears. “But we only just bought the business! How are we going to cope?”
”Well, I don’t know,” Eve said. “We’ll figure it out along the way I suppose.”
“Oh, I am sorry dear, it didn’t come out right,” I said. “I love you, and the little baby in your tummy too.”

Luckily, things did get easier in the months following our little pregnancy discovery. We figured out a better system to run the workshop. We had indeed become one of the curtain witches.

”This is your second child, right?” Liz, one of the ladies, asked Eve.
”Yes, it is,” Eve replied.
”Busy days ahead, Eve.”
”I know, I know,” Eve smiled.
”Hubby can help I’m sure of it,” Liz smiled back.
”O yes he will,” Eve said confidently.

Well, nine months went quickly, and it was time for baby girl to be born.

”Tomorrow is the day, you will be induced,” I said.
”I know,” she replied.
“Nervous?”
”Yes.”
”Me too.”

We came early in the morning, the doctor was ready, and it was supposed to be an easy procedure. It would have been a lovely morning if that phone had not rung. Jane, one the ladies, had decided to ring at that exact moment.

”Hello, yes, Eveline is giving birth, yes, right at this moment!” I said on the phone. “What? You’re worried about not getting paid overtime?”
”She is giving birth now, can we talk about it later?” I growled.

I could not believe it. I knew I should not have picked up that phone. I did not know what had gotten into me. I mean who picks up a phone when his wife is giving birth?


”Have you slept?” I asked Eve as I saw her wide awake on the hospital bed.
”She looks like a Natasha,” she replied.
”Really? Natasha sounds mysterious.”
”No, she is Michaela,” Eve then decided.
”Michaela sounds more like her,” I said.

Eve and Michaela spent a few more days in the hospital, adjusting to the new routine. She did not sleep much which worried me.

”Your baby is so cute Eveline,” Linda our workshop supervisor said.
”Is she our new assistant?” Marg said.
”Yeah, she will be fine on the cutting desk,” Jane smiled.

Everyone seemed to enjoy having Michaela around despite our never-ending jobs.

”How are you coping with Michaela in the workshop?” I phoned Eve from my office.
”It is a challenge, but we’ll manage,” she said confidently.


”What? Linda had an accident?” Eve was panicking.

Linda, our supervisor, had an accident in the workshop. She fell over a roll of fabric and hurt her left arm. Her old age did not help either as the doctor said it would take at least three months for her to recover.

“She cannot work for three months?” I asked Eve. “Who is going to cut the fabrics? Who is going to supervise the ladies?”
”Well, I guess I have to fill in for the next three months then,” Eve said.
”Ohh, you will be very busy, and tired too.”
”It’s only three months, we’ll manage,” she said.

The following three months were some of the busiest time we ever had in our lives. Some days got worse when Michaela decided to cry at 3am. Why, o why, would you cry at 3am little girl?

”Sorry hunny, I have to go super early this morning,” Eve said to me on a Monday morning. “Can you help prepare Kiera for school? I’ll bring Michaela with me.”

Eve had been coming earlier to the workshop to get more things done. In the meantime, I tried to help by doing my bit to take care of Kiera, our eldest child.

”Hi, are you still there? Do you need help?” I called Eve as it was getting a bit late at night.
”Yup, still here, I need to stay a bit longer to finish a job,” she said.
”Ok, I’ll make dinner then, Kiera said she wanted fried eggs,” I replied.
”Are you sure you’re ok?” I asked again. “I can hear Michaela crying.”
”Yes, she cried because I took away the fabric she was chewing.”

Eve came home at 11 pm that night. Michaela was already asleep in the car. I carried our baby girl in and put her in her little cot. Eve went straight to the bedroom and slept.


”Hunnnyyyy! Linda is back!” Eve said with her smile wide open.
”Oooohhh … thank God,” I said.
”Yes, the storm is over,” she replied.
“Wow I cannot believe it, she’s back.”
“Believe it, she is.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Relieved,” she smiled.
“Hah .. same here” I smiled back.

Linda was finally back at the workshop. She recovered well. The doctor put some kind of metal connector to strengthen her bone. We called her the Iron Lady from that moment on.

Everything was back to normal and no more late night work, yay!

”It’s a good day today,” I said to Eve while holding Michaela in my arms.
”Yeah, look at her cute face,” she replied, trying hard not to smooch her.
”She cries a lot, but her face is so adorable.”
”Aha .. with that face she would get away with many things.
”It was a hard few months, it was not perfect, but we made it,” Eve said slowly.
”And we’ll do it again, and again, and again.”
”Yes, together,” she smiled as she was holding my arm.


“Juggling work and parental responsibilities is no easy task, but I’m trying my best, and just like everything else there are good days, and there are bad days.” — Ali Landry

Failure Is Not The End

“Haha, an extra $350 is not bad at all,” I was talking to myself. ”All I have to do is change the purchase date.”

I owned a Telco Agency franchise that represented some of the biggest Telco companies in our state in Perth, Australia. Our franchise group was so dominant that customers often received better deals to purchase the latest mobile phones from us than if they dealt directly with the Telco companies. We pretty much ruled the market.

We started with one franchise and moved on to add another two. Life was good. It was even better when I figured out how to get monthly bonuses simply by .. changing the purchase dates.

”Fred, how did you do that?” Anton, another franchise owner, was wondering. “You have been getting the bonus for 3 months in a row now.”

”Well, our sales staffs are very hard working,” I said to him.

”I need to steal a few of them from you,” he said jokingly.

”Yeah, you can try, they are loyal to one person only, me!”

”Haha, we’ll see about that,” he smiled.

Anton was not going to steal anyone from me. His sales staffs were twice as good as mine. He was one of the best franchise owners I knew. He knew the industry well and he was such a good leader. Sometimes I wished I worked for him.

Being a not-so-honest franchise owner, I tried to find other ways to maximise profits. So I learnt the system and every now and then I found loopholes. The latest one being a simple change of dates that would magically improve my monthly sales to ‘earn’ bonuses.

***

’Sorry, your account has been deactivated’ – a message suddenly appeared as I tried to login into the franchise network.

I didn’t immediately make the connection. I thought it was a system error. It was not. My account was disabled. They figured it out. My ‘creativity’ had been found out.

The weeks that followed were full of drama. I was fined and given a warning. They let me off easy because I had a good record as a franchise operator. I learnt my lessons though, no more changing dates for the bonus.

”Well, we got our agency back,” my wife said to me. “Please try not to cheat the system again.”

”Yes dear,” I said, feeling down.

I worked so hard after that incident. I needed to prove my ability to build the franchise without resorting to dirty tactics. I had to redeem myself, reclaim my self-respect and push away any self-doubt.

It was amazing how an embarrassing incident could turn things around so spectacularly. Maybe it was not so bad after all. I found my strength at the bottom of the valley.

***

”Did you hear?” my wife was panicking. “The Telco master franchise has lost all of the major Telco accounts.”

“What do you mean ‘lost’?” I started to panic myself.

”Lost as in the big Telco companies are not selling through us anymore,” she tried her best not to faint. ”We are left with small players.”

”It is barely enough to cover rent,” I said.

”I know!”

”So what are we going to do?”

”I don’t know!”

It did not take long before we started to feel the pressure. Small Telco companies typically tried to dominate certain corners of the market. All of their products were tailored to a very specific slice of the population. A great example is an unbreakable (but ugly) mobile phone designed specifically for the construction workers. It was hard to sell their products to the general public that visited our shop.

Making things worse, those big Telco companies started to open up their own shops competing directly with us. So tell me again how we were supposed to survive? It was impossible. Our sales dropped by more than 70% within a short period of 6 months.

I lost my ability to think clearly. I just wanted to stay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I was a zombie.

We were part of a small community group called ‘connect’. There were four to five families in each group. The idea was so that we could support each other. Honestly, I never thought much of it. In fact, I always hated going to this group. “Such a waste of time,” I always thought to myself.

“How are you coping, my friend?” Simon our group leader asked me.

”Not good Simon,” I said quietly.

”Come, let’s have a chat, I’ll make you tea,” he said. “We have a few minutes before the others arrive.”

I have to say, it was such a joy to be able to pour out my heart to someone else without being judged. Simon was such a great listener. He was so genuine. He didn’t say much, he just nodded, smiled, asked questions, and most importantly he was there for me.

That night after talking to Simon I went to bed with a lot in my mind. I knew I had to do something, I couldn’t just wait to be slaughtered by big telcos. I needed to find the strength to move on. You know how some people say it takes courage to start? Sometimes it takes a lot more courage to stop and let go.

I had been a franchise owner for more than ten years. It was a part of me, it was my identity, and I was about to let it all go. My mind could not get into gear. I could not comprehend the situation because I had never been in that situation before. How, what, why?

”We have to make a move,” I said to my wife in the morning.

”Yeah, I have been thinking about it too,” she replied.

”I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” I said.

”I’m not either,” she whispered. “But I feel like there is no other way.”

”I cannot do it,” I said to her.

”We’ll do it together.”

I felt like a failure, I felt defeated. The business that I was so proud of. The success that I built with sweat and tears for more than a decade. It was not fair. I did not have a fighting chance.

***

“Well, we’ve done it,” I said to my wife. I had a million things happening in my mind.

”Yup, no more Telco Agency” my wife replied. “Are you ok?”

”I’m .. I guess, yeah, I’m ok.”

”Are you excited?”

”In a way, I actually am.”

”It’s been a long 7 months,” she whispered.

”Yes, a very long 7 months,” I said quietly. “I thought we would never sell it.”

”But we did,” my wife smiled again.

”Yeah, we finally did.”

”Don’t think about it too much,” she said. “Let’s just leave it all behind.”

”I know, I just feel like an era is over.”

”Yeah, that is true.”

”Well, we can, however, start something new,” I suddenly felt much better.

“Yes we can,” she smiled again. “You can now do what you have been wanting to do in the last 3 years – life coaching.”

”I know …” I started to feel my smile creeping back.

”Come on, we have talked about it.”

”Yes we have, and now I really can, I really really can!”

“You can,” she said. “Remember what you told me 7 months ago?”

”What?”

”Failure is not the end,” she looked at me with her most beautiful eyes.

***

”Failure is not the real end, it can be the beginning of your success story.”

I just want to lie down…

Forget five-star travel and the hotel life; when it comes to holidays as a soloist, Fredy Namdin prefers the simple things in life.

 

Back in the days of my corporate years, me and a colleague of mine often talked about holidays. These discussions spanned from possible holiday dates and destinations, to all the different food and drink we would enjoy during the trip.

We strategised about the best possible ways to capitalise on these holidays.Should we take it before Christmas? After New Year? Or maybe mid-year?

We took into account costs, the best weather, airlines, any special events, and so much more. It was almost an obsession for us.

I started a company more than ten years ago. Well, we acquired it but in my defence the company was in a very risky position, one bad move and there would be nothing left. We did quite a turnaround to make it into a strong and healthy business. And boy it took time to do that. I never knew acquiring a business could take so much work.

As with other businesses, things were never smooth nor stable for long. We experienced highs and lows, joy, heart break, excitement, and many other indescribable feelings.

“I just want to lie down on the sofa, relaxing, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the most delicious Scotch Finger biscuit by my side.”

We worked so hard for the business (especially in the first few years). I remember those nights when the kids would sleep in the car because we had big orders to fulfil the following day. The worst was when the phone rang in the afternoon with an urgent request, and we knew we had no choice but to abide, because it was one of our major customers – another all nighter coming through. Who said owning a business means answering to no one? We quickly figured out that we were answering to more than 500 people (read: bosses). And these ‘bosses’ could be more demanding than our corporate bosses (not always).

Nevertheless we were happy. Things turned around and we made good money. We started to improve (increase) our spending. A new car, a new house, even a new coffee machine. Life was great.

“Hi Fred.” Eddie said to me. ”How have you been?”

“Hi Eddie, what a surprise. Well, I am doing good, man,” I said.

Eddie is a friend from my previous life. He is the one I discussed holidays with back in my corporate days.

“Where are you working now,” Eddie asked.

“I run my own company.” I replied to him. “We distribute industrial products.”

“Wow, I remember back in BankEast you always wanted to have your own business,” Eddie said.

“Yeah, it’s a dream come true.” I said, trying to remember what I really said to him back then.

“Congratulations man.”

“Thanks, what about you?”

“I work in South Bank Institute now.”

“Sounds like a good place.”

“Yes it is, and guess what, we are going to Bali again this year.”

“Again?”

“Yup, the third time this year.”

‘Third time?”

This guy is so lucky, I thought to myself. I haven’t got the time to do all these holidays this year.

“Ok Fred, I need to rush,” Eddie said. “It’s great bumping into you.”

Despite our best effort we could only take holidays during Christmas and New Year. That would be around 10 days per year. We compensate this by making it in such a way that we only work short hours during the year. Practically we structured the business around our kids. We want to spend time with them so we work short hours but somehow we end up with only 10 days break per year.

In all honesty, I never thought about it before meeting Eddie.

It’s not like we need multiple holidays anyway. Ten days break is long enough – or so I thought.

But I just couldn’t let it go. Eddie gets to take multiple trips to Bali and I am just stuck here in the warehouse? What a crappy lifestyle I have now. Surely there must be something I could do to make my life a bit better?

As I drove home I was reminiscing about the time when I too was able to take multiple trips per year. What a great life it was. I remembered the cubicle where I sat. Eddie was sitting just across my desk (hence we talked a lot to each other). The best part was in the morning when I would use the company’s coffee machine to make my delicious morning coffee. Lunch was not too bad as sometimes we had to rush things, especially when there was a big tender due.

Big tender, what a nightmare.

I must have made more than 1000 spreadsheets over the course of my career as an analyst. Oh yeah, and those headaches, splitting headaches. I was consuming pain killers like candy. I had a box or two on my desk and took two tablets per day. If I kept going the way I was maybe I could purchase them at wholesale price based on the volume I went through.

And my boss, OMG, she was the most discriminating, intimidating, back-stabbing $%&6%^.

You know what, maybe I don’t need those holidays.

Life is good as it is now.

We are happy, our business is growing, the wife is happy (very important), and I have my own coffee machine at home (also very important).

You know what, I have a great life.

It’s simple, not glamorous, albeit it’s the best for me.

I just want to lie down on the sofa, relaxing, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the most delicious Scotch Finger biscuit by my side.

That’s all I need.

I just want to lie down.

By

— as originally appeared on Quora and FlyingSolo

A Night To Remember

It was 2am, and our newborn daughter decided to wake her parents up. My reflex told me to elbow my lovely wife. Fortunately (or unfortunately) she was asleep, and my conscience said it was a big no. Do not disturb a mother in a deep sleep, or else.

What should I do? Maybe I could try to calm her down. I remember my wife always did this whispering thingy. I might try that. What if it doesn’t work?

Arrghh…the struggle is real.

In the meantime, the little baby got impatient and cranked up her cry. I swear I heard the neighbour’s dog got up and started barking.

“Shuuussshhhh….” I whispered to her. I held her tight and rocked her gently.

It seemed to work.

Half an hour was all I needed. My little girl was fast asleep then. Yes, success, well-done daddy.

“Hunny, was she crying?” my wife suddenly woke up.
“Umm yes, but she’s asleep now, all good,” I said.
“Ok, thank you for that.”
“Go back to sleep, everything is under control.”

It was February 2008 and we only just acquired a business. Coming from the corporate background, we had no idea how to run a small business. The only thing we knew was a job description and how to fake sick leave. We learnt quickly that these two didn’t seem to exist in small business.

Our first child was born just before we acquired the business. It was what we like to call: “Miracles Do Happen, Twice”.

It was a dream.

We were starting a family and somehow came across a great business. It felt good, so we bought it. It was like one of those Nike commercials. We would .. just do it.

We were unstoppable.

Our lack of experience in small business did not deter us from jumping into this new journey of self-employment. We realised later on that the very reason it did not, was because we had no idea what we got ourselves into. We got into business blind-folded.

And guess what, we got into parenthood blind-folded too.

The first time I realised this was when I dragged the cot from the office to the back room, with my daughter in it, crying. The reason, was only because I couldn’t talk on the phone.

And also because it finally got to me. The stress, lack of sleep, burnout, and a million other things we never thought possible.

There were times when we would stay back in the warehouse until dinner, had dinner, and went back to work. The little girl would sleep in the cot like a small angel. This was the time when living in the warehouse seemed like a good idea. I am glad we never did.

We tried to learn fast about everything business. The worst was never-ending-day-to-day administrative duties. Who knew something that seemed so simple and mundane like this could give us a headache? Never underestimate the requirement for small business regarding data entry, filing, stock taking, tracking order, monthly report, and so on, and so on.

Did we bite off more then we could chew?

***

“Hi Fred, I need ten boxes of milk, five tins of coffees, and ten packs of sugar,” my customer put an order.
“Yes, no problem at all,” I said.
“When can we get them?”
“Tomorrow,” I replied.

Another late night I thought to myself.

“O no, I forgot to prepare the bags for bread factory,” I just remembered. There were twenty bags to prepare. I needed few hours to do that.

“Are we ready to go?” my wife asked.
“No, we are not,” I said. “We have to go and get the supplies, and I need to prepare bags for the bread factory.”
“But that will take few hours at least.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied. “Look, why don’t we get the supplies, go home, and then I could come back to the warehouse to finish the twenty bags.”
“But you would be working until morning.”
“We have no choice, I don’t want her to sleep in the warehouse again, she is already on antibiotics.”

Our little angel was not feeling well that night. The doctor prescribed her with mild antibiotics, but she still needed a good rest.

We went home, had light dinner, and off I went back to the warehouse. It was 9pm then. I knew I would not get home until around 2am. O well, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Back in university days, we used to stay up until 4am and was fine for the 8am lecture. This was nothing.

But I guess knowing our child was sick put a little bit of pressure as well. I wanted to be home with her. Gosh, parenthood was stretching me thin. Things worked differently when we had a little baby at home.

It was dark when I got there. I looked around to make sure the street was safe before opening the gate.

It felt weird working alone at night. Sometimes I heard voices from behind the shelves. It must be all of those scary movies coming back to haunt me.

Well, the first few bags didn’t take long to finish. I felt my muscles tensing up a little bit, and suddenly my lower back screamed in agony. I must have pulled a muscle there.

I decided to rest for few minutes and turn off the machine. And somehow that voice came back from behind the shelves.

“Ok, mental note, do not watch scary movies anymore,” I was talking to myself.

I went back to work. My lower back was hurting but nothing I couldn’t handle. It was probably just the old disc-injury playing up. I only had to persevere, and it would be over soon.

The rest of the bags took a lot slower than I hoped for. The back pain worsen. I couldn’t stand straight this time. At least it was almost done now. Just two more bags to go. It was 1.30am. Suddenly, my phone rang (from behind the shelves).

“Hunny, are you still there?” my wife asked.
“Yup, only two more bags to go,” I said. “What’s up?”
“She’s burning up.”
“How bad is it?”
“Very, I think I need to go to the hospital.”
“What, are you sure?”
“Yes.”
“Can you wait for me? I just need to finish the last two.”
“No, I need to go now.”
“Ok, I am so sorry hunny.”
“It’s alright. It’s what we do.”

I couldn’t believe it. Could it be any worse? Excruciating back pain, working alone at night, and now my wife had to drive to the hospital alone.

I continued on to finish the last two bags. My mind was filled with all sort of scenarios. What if something happens? What if the doctor says? What ifs… The worst thing was, of course, there was nothing I could do except to keep working to get it done. And I finally finished all of the bags. It was one very long night.

I closed the gate and rushed to the hospital.

My wife was waiting in the hospital room. She smiled and gave me a hug.

“It’s ok, she’s fine,” she whispered.

***

Time went on, our little girl recovered from her illness, and we were back at work as usual. While still suffering from lack of sleep we were getting better at managing it.

But that night, that was a night to remember.

***

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.”

My Wife Knows Everything, and So Do I

“So how much does a bundle weigh?”, Peter asked.
“20kg,” I replied.
“That is too heavy!”, he said.
“Well, your boss said the maximum weight is 25kg, so we are still under.”

Peter was a driver for a courier company that we contracted to deliver all of our products around the city. He was pretty healthy for his age, around 60 at that time. Nevertheless, he did throw a complaint or two about the weight of our parcels.

Our warehouse staff was rather young, in his 20s, so he did most of the heavy lifting. He never complained though. We were lucky to have such a compliant worker. Although sometimes I caught him checking his Facebook account at work. He did put in the hard yard, so I turned a blind eye.

In the meantime, my wife couldn’t stop complaining.

She always found something, somewhere, to criticise on. Who cared if the floor was not swept yet? Or if the rubbish bins were not emptied? We were busy making money. We did not have time for all of those little things.

We had everything under control between me and our warehouse guy, Tom. So the last thing we needed was a headache from a clean-freak wife. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her deeply. But regarding my business, there were just three people: me, myself, and I. There was no one else. I did it all.

Business was picking up. Our customers couldn’t get enough of our products. Everything was flying off the door. The warehouse was as busy as Tokyo central train station. I was contemplating whether to get new staff or not.

Well, until such time when Tom rang at 8am that morning.

“Hi Fred, I am sorry, but I need to leave by 11am today,” Tom said.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“It’s a little bit awkward to explain,” he replied.
“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. “I am coming shortly anyway.”

I had butterflies in my stomach. Something was not right.

The following day Tom came to work. He worked hard as usual. Peter, the courier driver, threw some complaints again about the weight of the parcels.

“Hah, weak little old man,” I thought to myself. “I could lift those parcels easily.”

***

My coffee was too hot that morning. I was just holding my cup in the warehouse, waiting for Tom to arrive. He was unusually late that day.

“Tom, you are finally here,” I said to him as he came through the door.
“Ah, yes, I am here,” he seemed somewhat flustered.
“Ready for work?” I asked.
“Umm, before that.”
“Yes?”
“I have something for you,” Tom handed me an envelope. “This is my resignation letter.”

And that’s how I finally knew where Tom went a few weeks ago when he had to leave at 11am. He went to an interview at another company.

***

I didn’t have the time to get a new staff straight away. So for the following few weeks, I worked extra hours in the warehouse. It was like an exercise anyway, I said to myself, trying to justify it.

Peter still said the same thing about our parcels, that they were too heavy. Of course, I didn’t pay any attention to it. If he couldn’t lift them, I would do it for him. And so I did, loading all the parcels from our trolley to his truck.

My body started to feel the pain from lifting all of those heavy parcels. In particular my back. I guess I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be. There were times when my back froze in the morning. It stiffened up like a block of ice.

“Maybe Peter is right about the way we handle these parcels,” I thought to myself.

We did interview few people to replace Tom, but we didn’t feel right about any of them. It was not an easy job, what Tom was doing. I wanted to make sure we got the right person.

In the meantime, I kept plodding along.

The back pain got worse. It was a regular thing to get a stiff back in the morning. I couldn’t care less though, we had work to do.

“Hi Peter,” I said.
“Fred, you are here again,” Peter said.
“Yeah, we haven’t found a new warehouse guy.”
“O well, at least you’re still young.”
“Well, not really, but I can lift these up for you.”

And as soon as I picked up the last parcel, I felt a knife jabbed in my back.

I felt on my knees. I could still feel the knife. The sharp pain shot deeper into my middle back. By then I felt my back almost collapsed. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak.

Peter closed his truck door not realising what happened. He drove away, leaving me on the warehouse floor.

I waited for a few minutes before trying to stand up. I felt a sharp pain every time I tried to move. I finally pulled myself up. I walked towards my office holding on to everything I could find.

“Hunny, I think I hurt my back,” I called my wife.
“What do you mean you hurt your back?” my wife replied.
“I was lifting this parcel, and I felt severe pain in my back.”
“What? Are you ok?” she started to panic.
“Not really, I could hardly walk.”
“Ok, don’t move, I’m coming now.”

***

My wife took me to a Physiotherapy.

It was a disc-injury.

The gel in-between my spinal bones was pressed so hard that it was swollen and hurting the nerves around it.

The Physiotherapist said it would take at least a few weeks before I could start working again. And he specifically told me not to do any heavy-lifting. He said if it happened again the damage could be permanent.

I couldn’t believe it. I lost a good employee. Then I lost my back. I lost everything.

“I could help in the warehouse,” my wife suddenly said.
“You?”, I said in disbelief.
“Yeah, I can lift those parcels too.”
“They are too heavy.”
“I’ll figure out a way.”

My wife ended up helping around in the warehouse for the next few weeks. I was recovering slowly while she worked hard. And she did figure out a better way to lift the parcels. She used the forklift. I never knew why we did not think of it before. I felt stupid trying to handle all those parcels by hand.

A forklift, of course!

So basically, she packed the goods and then put them on a pallet. Sometimes she used two pallets when the day was busy. She would then used a forklift to raise the pallets so Peter could just push them onto his truck easily. What a great idea! I have to say, she was a better warehouse worker than the previous guy.

You know what, all her complaints about floor and bins. It meant nothing now. She was the one that held me up when I needed help the most. She was the one that came to the rescue when there was no one else. And she was the one that put up with me and my massive ego.

I never knew how weak I was. I never knew how much I needed someone to support me when I got myself in trouble.

I thought I could do it all.

I couldn’t.

I realised that in this business journey of mine, I don’t have to go it alone. In fact, I cannot go it alone.

I need support.

I needed it then, and I still do now.

***

“While good support is essential, during difficult times, it is non-negotiable.”

The Cavalry From Above

“So remember son, stick with your business for as long as possible. Because in business, boom and bust come in waves. This is not something you can control. If you stick around long enough, eventually, you will get your golden era. You just need to be ready when it hits you.”

That was what my dad said to me around 12 years ago. He had been in business for more than 30 years, so I thought it was great advice. Until of course I came to my senses and realised being an entrepreneur is all about being able to control my own destiny. I mean who has time to wait for this ‘golden era’? He was in business for decades, and we still lived in a modest 3 bedrooms house. Surely he would have come across his ‘golden era’ already?

***

Back in 2009, we were importing rags from a Canadian company. It was high-quality rags where the raw materials were collected from local charities around the country. They were not the cheapest, but we had been dealing with them for years, and they were always professional and reliable. Other suppliers tried to get our business, albeit we were never interested. We were one of the most prominent rags dealers in our state back then. We were small, but we were fierce.

There was a guy, Paul, who came few times to purchase our rags. He was an importer too, but he never said much about it to us. Mind due, his primary business was not in import. He told us about his plan though, going to Pakistan and India to search for new suppliers.

The Canadian company that we dealt with only worked in US dollars. Which meant being an Australian company we had to be careful with the currency exchange. Few percents off could mean few thousand dollars loss. I even established a foreign exchange account with a local financial institution to improve my overall exchange rate.

The strategy was to purchase US dollar when AUD dollar was stronger and put it into the forex account. At one time we accumulated more US dollar in the forex account than our own business account.

You can see how risky this currency exchange stuff was.

We managed the business pretty well. It started from one container every three months, then every two months, and in 2009 it was one container per month. We had a few of them on order at any one time. All because it took approximately two months from the time we put the order in until we received them in Perth.

I said to my wife that we were selling rags like peanuts. They just flew off the door. Looking at the way we were growing, we would reach our first ever $1 million sales that year, all from rags alone.

But of course, fantastic results did not come without its own risk.

You see, I never thought it would come to that. I prepared everything, trying to control every little area of my business. I had enough US dollar in our forex account to purchase two containers. Never did I know that AUD dollar would decide to plunge itself against US dollar and stayed at the bottom, for a long time.

But it happened. AUD dollar fell from a high 97c to a US dollar to a mere 61c in only a few short weeks.

We used up all of our US dollars to purchase two containers. And then things got worse because AUD dollar dropped even further to 50c. We did not have any choice but to pay the next order based on the weak AUD dollar. We tried to increase our price, but at that rate, unless we raised the price by 80-100%, we were still at a loss. An increase that much would only give our competitors an incredible window of opportunity to steal our customers.

The market would react, and the price would correct itself but not until another few months at least. We didn’t have the luxury of time. Our modest price increase was nothing compared to the profit we lost to the weak AUD dollar. We were running out of cash, very very quickly.

We lost at least twenty thousand dollars per container at that time. And we had a few of them on order. At the end of the day, we decided to cancel everything unless they were already on the sea. As a result, unless we started to purchase from our competitor, within one month, we would have nothing to sell. Our $1 million sales target were reduced to $0 within five months of AUD collapse.

***

I was sitting in my office trying to get my head around this dire situation. I could not believe only five months ago we were doing so well. Now we just had a little bit of stock left, maybe enough for few weeks.

I tried to think my way out of this, but my brain just couldn’t get into gear. I called everyone I knew to get advice from. Unfortunately, AUD dollar did not collapse against US dollar very often. In fact, it was one of the rare moments that it happened, and even more unusual because it stayed at the bottom for an extended period of time. It almost like AUD dollar found its happy place at the bottom.

One of the guys that I called said he never saw this happened before and this guy was a furniture importer for ten years before he became a pastor. I felt somewhat unlucky after that conversation.

My closest friend reckoned I should update my resume because the end was near. We didn’t talk much to one another after that.

And then I realised. This was beyond me.

This was out of my control.

OMG, my dad was right. Boom and bust came in waves. I was never in control. All these time I was just lucky.

The time finally came for me to face the worst in my journey as a businessman.

***

“Fred,” Paul suddenly appeared through my office door.
“Hi Paul,” I waved to him.
“How’re things mate?”
“Good,” I said, trying to hide my apparent stress.
“Remember I told you about sourcing rags from Pakistan?”
“Yes.”
“I did. I went there and had dinner with rags suppliers.”
“Wow, that was great.”
“Yes, one of them decided to make me their sole distributor for Perth.”
“Sounds like a great deal.”
“Which is why I am here now,” Paul sounded a bit nervous. “Well, are you interested in getting rags from me?”
“What sort of price are we talking about Paul?”
“Look, I know I am new with all these, but the quality is very high you wouldn’t believe it,” Paul replied.
“Yes, but at what price?” I was getting impatient.

And I swear to you if I could record the next five minutes conversation I would play it every day until such time that it was time for me to meet my creator.

“Fred, the price is excellent,” Paul smiled.

And it was. The price that Paul said was 20% less than the cost of rags we paid to the Canadian company when AUD dollar was strong. I couldn’t believe my luck. Paul appeared just at the right time with the right product, and the right price (better even).

There must be something or someone up there helping me out.

I was screaming in my head: “Look, if there is an intelligent higher being up there, thank you, thank you, thank you. Although next time, please don’t wait until the very last moment before sending the cavalry. A slightly faster help would be great.”

Our business was saved from disaster. Paul had been an excellent supplier. He was always ready to help. His company grew multiple times afterwards. I guess AUD dollar collapse meant he could sweep struggling rags dealers like me within a short few months. Now that I think about it again, it was a brilliant move by him. Well, I couldn’t complain. He did save my company.

And for us, we are back on track.

I am done trying to control everything. I know I have to be ready for incoming boom and bust. But deep inside my heart, I know someone is looking after me.

Somehow, I thought about you, dad.