I had wanted to share another post-fire update at work but there hadn’t been much to say in the past couple months. Seems like everything in the rebuilding process moves in slow motion. Or perhaps since I haven’t worked a 9-5 for someone else in over 25 years I have forgotten how things work in the real, non-entrepreneurial world.
Since the fire we’ve been reminded that many 9-5 folks mentally check out Thursday afternoon, completely clock out Friday at 5, physically clock back in Monday morning, but don’t actually get back in full swing until Tuesday. Endless meetings crowd the work week and slow progress so much I don’t know how anyone can take it!
Life is nothing like that for established entrepreneurs. We are rarely completely at work, able to handle personal things almost any time, and never completely off work, able to keep things moving with a quick text from two states away while on vacation. Our work weeks have flexibility so we don’t miss our kids’ events or family dinner but we work 24/7, even while we sleep, because we’re always on call. We keep an easy but never-ending pace. We stop when we finish the job, not when the whistle blows. I don’t know that it’s better or worse, harder or easier, but it’s certainly different because small business owners never clock out and always get paid last with whatever is left. Since we work on our own time every minute counts. Perhaps that explains why we are not very patient when others, especially those who get paid every week no matter what, don’t feel the same sense of urgency.
This past September, four months after the fire, I kinda lost it. I admit it. I even stopped blogging. All summer we saw no progress on the building for weeks at a time. One day of work, two weeks of nothing. Insurance investigators took six weeks to agree on cause but only actually worked three days. The other 39 days nothing happened. Nothing. The property owners never contacted us and it seemed as if nobody was doing anything to move forward. Our questions remained unanswered. We found ourselves not wanting to nag and basically just surrendering, going with the flow, losing the battle with developing a defeatist attitude. Then one day we had yet another meeting that accomplished nothing and I just flipped out.
Up until then I was holding it together surprisingly well, always very kind and understanding, so I feel sorry for those who were totally caught off guard with my make-this-happen-now-or-find-someone-who-can moment. Let me just say that I could never be a general contractor – ever. I could not be an insurance adjuster, an investigator, a city official, a government employee, and no way could I work a regular desk job. I thought managing employees and pleasing customers was challenging. Nah. Helping people is rewarding. But being at the mercy of others to make deadlines and get things done? Now that’s torture. I don’t know how people deal with it. The bureaucracy I have witnessed since the fire has assured me that it’s a good thing I’m self employed. I would not last a week on someone else’s clock. I’ve tried my best to stay kind and patient but we all have our breaking points.
My advice? Don’t ever confuse kindness with weakness, in yourself or others. And always remember the ones who write the checks make the rules.
So I was watching a part of the cleaning process one day called soda blasting and I had an epiphany. The soda blasting was fascinating, actually. It’s a non-destructive, environmentally friendly process in which sodium bicarbonate is applied against a surface using compressed air. Much like sand blasting, it’s actually more effective for fire and smoke damage cleanup as it removes the soot and deodorizes the surface, also destroying the mold that generally forms after fires are extinguished, while not harming the environment with unnatural chemicals. But it makes a terrible mess. I wondered what inspired the invention of this cleaning process since everything starts with a problem needing a solution. I was captivated by how it took such a huge, messy, excavation process to expose the simple core surface beneath. I remembered that story of the little boy watching an artist sculpt a woman and him asking, “How did you know she was in there?” Suddenly, I found myself transported back in time to how we got here in the first place.
It started with a dream – Tim’s dream to make a living, somehow, working with animals. He had all this intelligence, business savvy, passion, and animal knowledge but needed someone to handle the human and retail elements, so he asked me. After I fell in love with his mission – to foster an affinity for animals and nature in children – I realized my people and retail skills would help, but help him do what, exactly? The world didn’t need yet another ordinary pet shop. What did it need? I didn’t know so I asked the community and the community responded by loving or hating what we were doing which, in turn, guided our actions. The mission never changed but we realized that we’d need to find a way to fill a void in people’s lives, a need that can be satisfied by returning to nature. We recognized we had to listen to what customers wanted to figure out how to give it to them. The customers were financing this mission, after all, so basically they were in charge. After we embraced that concept everything began to fall in place.
During my blast to the past I remembered one of my former employers, Gladys Bachmann, who would always tell me to “kill ‘em with kindness” during tense situations. We called her Glady. I actually used red, silk gladiolas in my wedding to symbolize her teaching. “Be kind,” Glady would say, “no matter how someone else acts. Rise above and be kind.” She and her husband owned a jewelry store and even when customers were snobby she would remind us that without customers writing the checks there were no businesses. Another thing she used to ask was, “Who’s robbing this train?” to lighten the mood anytime things were not going smoothly at work. My coworkers and I would then realize we had lost sight of who was in charge, or failed to put anyone in charge, and that was why we were spinning our wheels.
During this uneventful meeting, I noticed some sand on the concrete, remembered all my previous reflection, and with Glady’s voice in my head I walked myself through the steps.
Who is robbing this train (who’s in charge)? Customers.
What do they need? Tim to reopen his store.
How can he do that? By having me handle the people.
Right now “the people” are the ones in charge of the rebuild but, wait, who writes the checks?
Several years ago a very rude, arrogant sales executive (who had never been self employed or worked retail) was in our store trying to tell my staff what to do. We were his company’s oldest and best independent account yet he felt the need to badger and boss my employees. When I shut him down, explaining that my employees knew their jobs better than he could ever understand, he asked, “Do you realize who I am? Do you know who I work for?” His business card said he was the executive director of marketing for the European division of a pet food manufacturer.
“Yeah, I know who you work for,” I said, kindly. “Me. You work for me.” Oh, the look on his face. “I sell your product to customers and use their money to buy more of your product. I cash their checks to write your company a check then they cash my check to pay you. So I work for our customers and you? You work for me.” And then I politely showed him and his Armani suit the door. That was an interesting day.
So I kicked a little sand with my shoe and prepared to unleash. With renewed clarity I kindly reminded all parties involved exactly who writes that five digit rent check every month, who has been a tenant for 27 years, what it’s costing us every day we’re not back in that building, how the loss of Pet World is affecting this community, what the lost traffic of 1000 people a day is costing the shopping center, and how many other properties were available for rent in Lawrence who would love to sign our next 10 year, million dollar lease. This fire rocked our community and nearly destroyed Tim. He is better with business than me but I’ve been watching him negotiate for more than half my life so I knew how he would handle it if he were at his best. He needed me to call up my inner banshee and, boy, was she ready to surface. We are entrepreneurs whose lives revolve around reciprocity. This one way street had reached its end. Since then we’ve had get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way kind of days. And whaddaya know? Things actually started moving forward without weeks of inactive gaps in progress. Now we’re finally getting somewhere and the end is in sight.
In my next fire update I’ll explain the timeline for the final stages and announce the official date when we will reopen in our old location. In the meantime, I’ve got to remind myself every day to never confuse kindness with weakness, identify who is robbing the train, and always remember the person writing the checks makes the rules. It might get messy, but I think sometimes you simply gotta blast your way back down to your core and reflect on the past in order to navigate the future.