Arguably small business owners and those who work in the service industry have been dealt a tougher blow than most during this pandemic. I think this is why I often see pitying looks from friends and family, or anyone who asks what I do for a living. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this pity is difficult to process. I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, actually. I think most entrepreneurs share a sense of optimism. I don’t know if everyone who starts a business is an optimist, but I suspect everyone whose business survives more than a year is. We get hit with so many unexpected curveballs as we build our businesses, that we wouldn’t survive without knowing things work out. The pity we encounter these days though, implies things might not work out. We’re pretty good at deflecting that notion for a while, but eventually it sinks in, and the we can do this or let’s figure out the plan vision can start to blur.

Thank you on the other hand, is an expression of appreciation.  It’s energizing. I can’t believe I’m about to write this (I’ve thought it for a while), but I find it a bit disheartening that while there is widespread appreciation for the many amazing people performing essential work through this pandemic, there seems to be none for those who are sacrificing their livelihood. The reality is that many small business owners are losing their homes and their life savings as their contribution to ending this pandemic, but to date I’ve seen no messages of thanks or appreciation; just pitying looks. It would be cool to get a little hey thanks. When I saw an Ottawa Public Health tweet yesterday saying they want to acknowledge a group that has been overlooked, I thought, okay, finally. But it turns out they were acknowledging trades people.

I’m not sure how many people realize how tightly business and personal finances are tied together for small business owners. I know this based on how often someone suggests I just break my lease and move my business online. Most small business owners have to sign 5 or 10 year leases that have no just give two months notice clauses, and we are almost always required to put our house up as collateral. If I were to just break my lease, I would be legally liable to pay the building owner more than $500,000. If I refused to pay, the courts would award him my house.

Beyond that, most small businesses have debt payments to worry about. Business expansion and renovations are typically paid for with debt that is paid down over several years. Entrepreneurs weigh the risk against the opportunity before making the decision to proceed. It is often both a necessary and manageable risk. In my case, I was forced to move out of my previous location less than a year before the pandemic hit. I managed to limit the moving and renovation cost to about $20,000, but the move also involved increasing my monthly rent by 40%. If I could have had the foresight to include government forces me to close for 32 weeks in my risk assessment, I might not have gone ahead, but then again, my only other option was to shut down my business. These are the decisions we often have to make. Like commercial leases, commercial debt for small businesses almost always requires personal guarantees.

What this all means is that if a small business owner isn’t able to keep their business afloat through these closures, they will probably lose their house and life savings.

That’s the personal financial side. There are other personal sides. Consider that most small businesses employ people. What would you do if your business revenue had just been cut by 50%, leaving you to either go into debt to keep paying your team or to lay them off?

The latter decision was the most bitter lemon I had to bite into this round. For the first three lockdowns, I kept paying all my staff. Due to an administrative issue, my business is ineligible for the government wage subsidy program, so I had been paying my team with a combination of revenue from online training, a government business loan (of which a portion is a grant), deferring existing business debt, and taking on additional debt.

I managed that for three rounds, but I just can’t do that a fourth time. I can’t afford any more debt. So I made the decision last week to stop paying two of my part-time trainers, and to cut the hours for the other two trainers who work with me. Thankfully, they were all very understanding, which is testament to the quality of people I get to work with. Their response did make this decision easier, but it certainly didn’t make it easy. In addition to optimism, another common trait among entrepreneurs is a desire to help and support others. It fuels us. And it makes having to tell someone you can’t pay them very difficult.

I’ll be honest and also point out there’s a pride element to this. Having to tell my team (and now announcing it publicly) that I can’t afford to pay some of them and can only partially pay the others is an admission of failure. I know some of you reading this are thinking that’s a ridiculous conclusion, and that it’s it’s circumstance and not failure. I also know that every entrepreneur reading this is nodding in agreement. I’m not sure if this is pride or optimism, or both, but it’s real, and it’s what allows us to keep finding ways to make things work. It’s also what drives us to reach dangerous levels of stress and emotional exhaustion.

This was the beginning of the transition from bitter lemons to lemonade for me. I knew my stress level had been high for months, but it wasn’t until the few days ahead of the 4th closure that it became clear to me that I wasn’t controlling the stress anymore. It was as though I suddenly saw how frustrated and angry and overlooked I had been feeling for such a long time. I had finally realized that everything wasn’t okay, and that I needed help. I reached out to a friend for a referral to a therapist that night, and also booked a week off. I’ve only had one session with the therapist so far, but it’s already been tremendously helpful.

If you’re wondering where the lemonade is, here it is: The lemonade is that I learned that I need help, and that that is okay. I realize everyone keeps sharing that message on social media, and I already knew that was true. But I didn’t know it for myself until very recently. The bonus lemonade is that I figure, while I’m at it, I may as well jump in and deal with some of my other emotional baggage. Ha – let’s see how that goes!

There’s actually more lemonade. This recent closure forced me to accept that I can’t keep the business together without making cuts, and that in order to make appropriate cuts, I need to separate myself from the business. If you didn’t follow that logic, I have an analogy for you: You know how it’s easy to advocate for someone else, but it’s hard to do so for yourself? As long as I am the business; I find it hard to advocate for it. In fact my inability to advocate for my business (aka me) is what led me to take on more debt during the first three lockdowns than I should have. Separating myself from the business doesn’t mean I’m going to let the business become ruthless. I’m still the one defining the vision and values for the business, and those values will have plenty of ruths. What it does is set me up to make and implement more objective decisions using more logic and data than emotion.

As I keep writing, I realize the lemonade keeps flowing. It turns out there is an upside to losing 50% of your business: With fewer clients to coach, I have more time to spend defining and communicating the aforementioned vision and values, as well as our systems. Heck, I may even have time to work on the book about training around injuries I started more than five years ago. While all this lemonade is great, I remain nervous about the possibility that this closure will be a long one, which means I’ll the business may have to make more tough decisions. Here’s hoping not, but even if it does, I know that these lessons will ensure that within a few months of re-re-re-re-opening, Custom Strength will be better than ever.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks Elsbeth,

    This is such a good article. Heartfelt. And I know it resonates with so many business owners. And clients of business owners. I will share this, if that’s ok. You are absolutely right that we haven’t had enough thanks given to the business owners who add value to our lives, make our communities vibrant and alive, and have actually saved many of us from mental and physical decline during the pandemic. The values that you bring to your business and your clients rang through this article, I know that makes it even harder for you. And of course, you are a brilliant writer – which makes your story even more compelling. It is a pleasure and privilege to be your client.

  2. Thank you for writing this Elsbeth. If I have been remiss in expressing my thanks to you – and all other small-business owners – I am saying thank you now. As well, I apologize if concern for you and your business’s well-being (NOT the same thing, I have learned!) has ever come across as pity. Some of what I may have been emitting is guilt at having a secure job, and not facing any sort of financial uncertainty because of the pandemic and I cannot image what that must be like. I must say that I also cannot imagine anyone who knows you ever pitying you! Thank you for everything you and your team have done to get us through this last year – would never have made it this far without you all.

  3. Thanks, Anne. And all good. I know everything has been out of concern. That’s part of what made writing this tricky. But I figured if I’m feeling this, other business owners and service industry workers are too. And I also look forward to seeing you and Jack back in the gym whenever we can do so safely and legally.

  4. Elspeth! I apologize for any pity vibes that you have received from me. They were actually concern and worry as you and your business are an important part of my community and my health plan. Jack’s too. BTW he has two injuries he needs to train around. I can’t wait to be back in your gym and improving with every session. See you soon.

  5. Very thoughtful article Elsbeth. We need to confront the unequal impact of this pandemic, thanks for contributing to this awareness raising. Bravo to you for getting the help you need and very best of luck with that. And thank you.

  6. Elsbeth. I could not have said it so well! I am going to share if you don’t mind and credit you of course unless you don’t approve. I want people to know and understand. They take it for granted that we are fine as we cover it up. It is tough being a small business owner. Thank you for writing this!

  7. Great article Els and very easy to relate to in each paragraph! This has been a tough ride for Entrepreneurs but those that can find the lemonade will survive and flourish! Well done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *