Ah, the joys of being a boss.
It isn’t all peaches and cream, you know. During the fall of 2001, right around the time of Sept 11 and the aftermath, I had to lay off half of my company’s staff. One by one. Week by week. As if world events weren’t bad enough, I had to bring additional bad news to people who depended on me for a paycheque. It hurt. Hurt bad.
Once, there was one…
Once upon a time, there was just one. Me. That’s it. Me, my rent, my food bill, my credit cards. And school. I forgot about school. I had to pay for school, of course – graduate degrees don’t just grow in trees, you know!
I was pretty much self employed after I arrived in Vancouver. Doing the occasional graphics design gig, but mainly typing up essays and resumes for students. It was okay money, nothing spectacular – I made maybe $150 a week just typing resumes, and maybe a $500-750 job once or twice a month doing more complex graphic design work (I was making about $1,700 a month in total).
Not a lot of money a month, but it paid the bills, and gave me a tiny amount of spending dough for going out and boozin’ with the guys, or going dutch on a date or two. If I lost a typing job, I lost $30. If I lost a couple of jobs, I would have to bike for the week instead of bus, and I’d have to eat wonder bread peanut butter sandwiches instead of UBC cafeteria food. But responsibilities? Other than doing my T.A. class, taking my own classes, and working maybe 4, 5 hours a day typing, it was pretty good. That was 1993 and 1994.
Then there was two…
In 1994, I moved in (shacked up, co-habitated) with my s/o, Jeanette. All of a sudden, there were more responsibilities. I couldn’t slag off on the bills. I couldn’t miss the electricity payment for a month. I had to have a steady income.
The problem was, I didn’t have one. I was still mainly self-employed, still doing resumes, essays, term papers (typing) and the very rare graphic design gig or menu design for a restaurant, and I also worked part time temp jobs while still attending UBC. But it was not enough. the dreaded sell-off occurred. I sold my cool mountain bike to pay bills. I sold my espresso machine (!!!!) to pay bills. I sold my Nikon camera to pay bills (!!!!!!). And when I ran out of things to sell during the “tough times”, I started to sink pretty low. Lower than low.
It’s a damned good thing Jeanette loves me.
She managed to pick up in the slack when I didn’t have any money. It even got so bad, she was “lending” me money… money neither of us kept track of at all… her through generosity, me through greed and self pity. And I started to develop this “face”. This persona. It was 1994, 1995. And then the Internet came along.
Then there were three…
For a short time, there was three: Me, Jeanette, and me (the internet version). I used the Internet in those early, pre Amazon, pre Yahoo, pre cnn.com days to escape. To escape my doldrums, to escape the despair my situation in life had. I disappeared in that early Internet. Fortunately, it didn’t last too long. Maybe a year.
It’s a damned good thing Jeanette loves me.
This was 1995.
Then there was two…
By the end of 1995, I won’t say I was recovering yet, but at least by that time period, I was back up (sort of) to being able to pay the minimum amount of bills. Jeanette still picked up much of the slack, and she went into some kinda debt doing it. During this period, my credit rating took a nosedive because I had to default on my student loan, and the Cdn government was after me for earnings I made while living in Britain (where, by the way, I paid a hefty income tax as well).
But I stopped used the Internet as an escape, and I started using it to supplement my income, just a tad. In 1996, I had my first paying web design gig. It was pretty cool, actually.
There was still two, but more stuff…
By 1997, I was actually starting to make about half of my income off of Internet work. It still wasn’t enough to pay many bills, and I still wasn’t making enough to buy a lot of the stuff I needed to do the job I wanted to do.
In steps Jeanette again, this time signing her name away not only for a new computer for me to use, but a notebook computer as well, so I could go to “meetings” with a little professionalism tossed in. I made most of the payments on both items, but I won’t kid you – in 1997, Jeanette helped out with at least two or three for each machine.
It’s a damned good thing Jeanette loves me.
Then there two, but a different two.
1998 was the first of two “milestone” years for me. After languishing for half the year doing $1500 jobs every couple of months (still not lot of money) and a bunch of $50, $100, $200 jobs here and there, I basically overextended myself and got really, really lucky during the summer. The opportunity came up to do a job for almost $7,000. More money for one job than I ever thought capable of. Problem was, it involved doing a) Flash work (of which I had no experience), and b) database work (oh man, was I sunk).
On a fluke, I found a guy who could do the database work, and would do so for $2000. I did a crash course in Flash, and we did the job. It took 3 months. But we got it done. With the other small jobs I had, in those three months, I made more money than I made in the rest of the year.
But the programmer left me for a better job. I had another guy recommended to me, and what a disaster he was – a complete drunkard who disappeared for an entire month! By the end of 1998, I had a semi-vision of where I wanted to go, and started building a proper business accumen, but I needed the right people.
Then there were three, four, five, six…
1999 was, a year that started off crappy. I had a job that required programming, but no reliable programmer. Then I found Wayne Venables. Still in university, way too young, but technically brilliant. He pulled my butt out of a fire with that first job (something I’m very appreciative of), and then went through hell with me for the next four months doing one extremely crappy job and another semi-crappy job that paid a total of about $12,000.
One good thing came out of that EXTREMELY crappy job – an idea for some new software. That idea developed into a slick package that is used to run this here website you’re viewing today. (ed.note – that was WIPS, our company’s custom content management software: super advanced for 1999).
We did a few other jobs, but mainly I was paying part time work to Wayne as I paid myself a full salary for the first time in many years. I signed a lot of high four figure contracts, which for me was pretty good. Things were looking up. I was finally able to do things for Jeanette, like completely spoil her at Christmas, pay for her dinners, buy all the groceries, and the like. Things were definitely improving.
2000 rolled around, and the Internet was still booming. About 85% of my income came from the Web, and while we had a slow spring, by summer, things really picked up.
In August, the second milestone event in my business life occurred. I signed my first five figure contract. And it didn’t start with a one, or a two. It had a 3 with a 5 right after it. And three zeros. I think I still have a picture of me smiling, and holding up the deposit cheque, somewhere around here.
And the best part is, it only took Wayne and I about a month to complete (though we spent 3 months prior, and unpaid, developing the software that would run that site).
This was flush dough. Flush enough that I hired two other guys for design, and one for part time flash work. They were all on sub contract status, but for the rest of the year, I was making enough as a business that I could pay them all (plus myself) a living wage.
I even put Jeanette on the payroll, because after all, she had been taking care of the paperwork for the company for a year or more without any compensation.
We even incorporated WebMotif as an entity in British Columbia.
And then there were three again…
2001 rolled in, and the Internet boom started busting. But we were generally okay. By studying business and markets, I knew what kind of clients to go after, and what kind of markets to avoid. We were mainly B2B specialists with a lot of database work, so for the spring, things were great. I had as many as six people on the payroll, everything was official, with a payroll service. I had a big fat juicy line of credit with the bank. I was looking for primo office space in Vancouver’s west end. I bought $5000 worth of furniture, and was paying cash for computers and equipment.
By the end of the summer, things were still looking good. The company was wrapping up two jobs, and we had three solid prospects for the fall, some $125,000 worth of work. If things continued the way they were going, we were going to break $200,000 for the year. Amazing that in only 3 years, I went from making $15,000 a year to $200,000 (or at least bringing that dough in).
Then September 11 happened.
I have to be careful here. Sept 11 impacted me in a personal way like many of you – I was dismayed, I was horrified, I was shocked beyond belief. I couldn’t even work for a week, I was just glued to the TV.
But the impact to my business was bad too. In fact, it almost killed the business, and left me with a massive debt load. I still have the debt load, and it’s only through exhausting my funds, line of credit, savings, and everything else that I managed to keep the company going.
Oh yeah. I also had to lay off everyone except for Wayne.
It wasn’t a fun job.
I kept Wayne on because I have a certain loyalty to him. Remember he pulled my ass out of the fire back in 1998? He also has a kid, has massive school debts of his own to repay, and is just starting his life with a new woman. And while he can be a serious pain in the ass employee who is often argumentative and defensive about his work, his work is brilliant.
So after the layoffs, I continued to pay his bi-weekly salary, even though we had no work between late August and December. I even stopped paying myself and Jeanette during this time.
Finally in December, we got our first paying gig. Then we got another one. And one more. And now we have three jobs on the books (as I write this), and two more confirmed for the next few months. We aren’t out of the hole yet – I kept the other guys on too long and exhausted our financial reserves doing so. Why? Because they are good guys, they know their stuff, and they too count on a paycheque. It crushed me having to lay them off, and I probably hesitated extra weeks (at as much as $3000 a week in salaries) before doing the deed.
As we come out of this really bleak period, which wasn’t caused by the Internet bust, but was caused by bastard scumbag terrorist bastich fleahose sub humans, I reevaluate my business accumen. I have to, as the boss.
What I learned…
One of the most crucial things I learned during this down time is that I can have a good sense of marketing, a good sense of design, and even a fairly good sense of how to work as a boss, but I still didn’t have some of the most important tools needed to run a company – good management skills, a good sense of ‘timing”, and most importantly a plan to run through the rough times.
After a half decade of crappy living, I let the last two solid years of good fortune make me think it was always going to be this way. I’ve learned it is not. My plans, including a bigger central office, full benefits for all my employees, staff functions, more employees, and me moving to a purely management and marketing role. These plans went down the drain.
But I have learned. I have learned that just as things go up, they go down. I learn the value of a good employee, and I learn the value of a valuable employee who can be temperamental :). And while we dig ourselves out of the massive debt both the company and I personally incurred over the past 5 months, we have some things to be proud of. Our CMS software, fully refined during this downtime, looks great and works like nothing else out there. We managed to launch a community website that, in its first month of operation, moved some 15 gigs of traffic, signed up 1050 members, and had over 150,000 page views. And I feel we’re doing real quality work, work that provides our clients value for their money. I take a lot of pride in the work we do, something I didn’t necessarily have 3, 4, 5 years ago.
This whole boss thing. It’s still new to me in so many ways, but like everything else in my life, I continue to learn.