Boilers are the masters of timing — they know the exact moment to inflict maximum disruption. Mine decided to call time on Monday 23 March 2020 a day that saw the biggest highs and lows of my entrepreneurial life.
That evening was the Business Book Awards. My book, How to Have A Happy Hustle was shortlisted in the ‘startup inspiration’ category. As a first time author, this was more than I had ever dreamed of. The gala dinner and glittering awards ceremony had been cancelled, and I was at home watching live on Facebook, my red carpet gown swapped for a pair of comfy cords and a cardigan, herbal tea in place of champagne.
My book won, though my moment of glory was rather buried by another announcement that night.
The drama to come
As you know, foreshadowing provides hints to oncoming drama. That day my life was being plotted by a hack author, heavy-handed with dramatic irony. While I was being honoured for my entrepreneurial advice, I was watching my own business disappear.
In 2017 I quit my job in publishing to work full time on Prolifiko. The business was originally a tech product, but over the last three years broadened to include training and coaching for writers. Our clients included universities who support academics to write and publish, to individual writers who needed help to overcome blocks, find the time and routines to finish their projects.
Back to the boiler and its warnings of worse to come.
That day when plumbers refused to step inside a house in fear of infection, when local plumbing merchants had followed government advice and closed was also the day when the last of my in-house workshops got cancelled — months, in some cases years, of business development had gone. Coaching clients tightened their belts. Speaking gigs, a valuable income stream as an author, dried up. Then came the notification of a payment owed to HMRC that wiped out our reserves.
The coming weeks offered little hope as my partner and I failed to qualify for every single government support scheme. Small businesses run by non-salaried company directors, that don’t have premises, that work with freelancers rather than employees, slipped through the cracks — again and again.
When we started Prolifiko I knew that if it didn’t work out I could always go and get a job. I now faced the reality that there might not be jobs any more. There appeared to be no Plan B.
Learning from lockdown
Everything takes longer than you think — whether it’s writing a book or setting up a business, you need to give it time. So I held my nerve and waited. Looking back over the past few months, here’s a few things I learned.
1. Get your finances in order
It’s businesses studies 101 to keep an eye on your money — do your accounts, keep to budget, forecast ahead, re-budget, and have savings. It might be painful to confront, but without knowing what the situation is you’ll won’t be able to deal with it.
2. Ask for help
There’s advice out there for all businesses sectors — for us, that includes the Arts Council and the Society of Authors. It’s time consuming and often heart breaking, but do the research, fill out the forms, make the calls (by all means weep while listening to hold music). If you don’t ask, you’ll never receive.
Whether you’re a slashie, a multi-hyphen, or have a side hustle, you’ve got skills and experiences that can help when your main gig has gone. Having multiple streams of income mitigates risk, so, lean into old skills and new ideas. Being able to pivot our offer, switch from in-person to online, and having a range of services saved us.
4. Look after yourself
If you’re not OK, nothing else will be. We all have our definition of self-care, whether it’s zoom drinks with friends, yoga, or singing to your sourdough starter. Build routines and communities that support you.
5. Imagine the worst
This is a millennia-old trick from the Stoics that has been backed up by science and psychology. Most often used by sports professionals, imaging worst case scenarios and training for them can help you build the skills and resilience to cope. (Listen to this edition of The Happiness Lab to find out how multi-Olympian Michael Phelps uses this technique.)
6. Celebrate the good things
Take time to notice what has gone well. Sometimes it might just be that the sun shone, you got up, you got a nice message. Each day I write down three good things — it helps me seek out the positive in a world designed to overwhelm me with bad news.
As lockdown eases I look back over the last few difficult months. Time passed. I held my nerve. Our business survived, clients old and new are getting in contact, commissions are coming through — everyone was fighting their own battles and needed time to adjust and stabilise. I am allowing myself to be hopeful.
However, I continue to keep a close eye on the boiler for my next warning.