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 name is Dave, I used to work for Fred

I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. I was hungry, and the auditorium was freezing. Someone was dozing off in front of me. This preacher was as dull as a blank A4 paper. At least we could fold origami with paper.

My wife dragged me there. She reckoned it was good for me to hear some encouraging words that morning. The topic was interesting: “Among The Wolves We Work”. I have to admit it could be a very interesting sermon if not because of that old-traditional-slow-to-speak preacher.

Anyhow, as my mind drifted to another time, I heard a voice in my head (not God’s voice). It was the voice of my customer. I remember distinctly how he said something along the line of: “Sorry we still have enough stocks.” Yeah, he somehow had enough stocks for months. I realised eventually that they purchased their stocks from someone else. What I didn’t realise was who this “someone else” was.

It was “Dave”, our ex-staff. He founded his own company after he left us. And apparently proceeded to steal our customers. He had burnt the bridge.

Dave did a brief stint with me for 6 months. He was our sales rep. A very ambitious young man. Before that Dave had his own lawnmowing business. He was somewhat lazy but cunning as a snake. Hey, that was one of the creatures the preacher was talking about: snake.

A prominent voice suddenly thundered from the stage: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves.”

Ok, take it easy. Who are these wolves you are talking about? And are you calling us snakes?

As expected my mind decided to take another trip to the past. This time it was our kitchen board meeting. My wife and I were discussing how to retaliate against this attack from our ex-sales rep. We figured he did not have the buying power and logistic means. So as long as we could drop our price and reduce minimum quantity, it was basically check-mate for Dave.

And that was precisely what we did.

We dropped our price significantly, and we reduced the minimum quantity from five boxes to just one. It worked like a charm. Our customers realised their grief mistakes and returned gracefully to our care.

Take that Mr Steal-Customers-From-Previous-Boss!

My wife elbowed me.

“Did you doze off again?” she whispered.
“No,” I said, not-so-convincingly.
“This is the good part, pay attention.”
“I am.”

She was right, I kind of figured out what the sermon was all about after that. Basically, this world is full of wolves, and we need to be shrewd like snakes. The part I didn’t get yet was the dove. Why do we need to be harmless as doves? Well, at least I learnt something that morning. Watch out world, the snake within me is coming out to bite all of you wolves.

I did meet with Dave after our little price war saga. I tried to have a civilised conversation about it. Interestingly, he told me it was ok because it was just business. I was not sure if he was drunk or on drugs.

Wasn’t I the one who supposed to say that?

He stole from me, and he said it was ok?

Anyway, I didn’t want to pursue it. We said our goodbyes.

The words on the street were Dave couldn’t cope on his own and struggling to make ends meet.

Everyone in the auditorium suddenly stood up. Oh, time to sing the final hymn.

***

“Fred, how are you doing?” Tim, our old preacher, came to say hi.
“Good, everything is good,” I said.
“I heard you had few issues with your ex-staff?”
“O yeah, did my wife fill you in on that?”
“Yes she did, she also sent me here to talk to you,” Tim smiled.
“Actually Tim, I do have a question,” I said.
“Yes, fire away.”
“You know how you talk about Wolves, Snake, Doves, and Sheep?”
“Yes.”
“I understand the part about wolves and snakes,” I said. “But what’s the thing about being harmless as a dove?”
“Well, it is straightforward really,” Tim said.
“Tell me,” I said impatiently.
“Being harmless is for your own good.”
“So people won’t retaliate?”
“That’s one, but there’s another,” Tim said. “How do you think you will end up inside if you keep causing harms to other people?”
“Oh I see, I will become a bitter, back-stabbing, revenge-seeking person, with no friends.”
“That’s it.”

***

I did meet with Dave one more time after that. His business deteriorated to the point that he didn’t have a warehouse or any kind of storage places for his stocks. Everything from pick up to delivery was run from his car. I did wonder if he also slept in there, judging from the number of pizza boxes I spotted on the rear seat.

Anyway, we had a chat.

He lost few more customers and apparently decided to burn a couple more bridges with some suppliers. The way he was going, he would have nothing to sell in no time. He had to stop acting like a big bad wolf and causing issues left, right and front.

Anyway, I didn’t offer help considering how bad he burned me last time. So I wished him the best and waved bye-bye.

You know what, maybe that old preacher was right.

We are in the dog-eat-dog world. It is crucial to be shrewd like snakes.

But I realised now it doesn’t matter how shrewd we are, no one achieves success on his own. And who would want to work with someone who would stab you in the back?

Who would cause harm to your business?

Ironically, in the dog-eat-dog world of business, we are to be harmless too. And only then we could build our reliable and secure network of support.

I am glad my wife dragged me to the church that morning.

***

“Be careful the bridges you’re willing to burn when trying to get ahead. You never know when you’ll need a friend again.”

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.”