By A.J. MacQuarrie
How one founder turned personal tragedy into entrepreneurial triumph.
Building your own business is never easy, but at no time is it more challenging than when personal tragedy strikes. All of a sudden, focusing on your business seems impossible. Things you may long have taken for granted are gone. You’re shattered, cut adrift, trying to figure out what’s next.
Even worse, your business still needs your time, attention and energy when it’s the last thing on your mind. The business can suffer collateral damage if you, the driving force of your company, just can’t function for weeks or months.
Such challenges have been in the news recently, thanks to Option B, the latest book from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg writes about her devastation after her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, died while they were on vacation in Mexico two years ago. He was 46.
I can’t speak for Sandberg, but I can offer some lessons learned from my own painful journey through loss, and from friends who persevered through their own difficult times and still kept their businesses on track. These are the hardest steps in any entrepreneurial journey. They can determine a lot about where you and your business end up.
I suddenly lost my life partner just as KarmaBox Vending was becoming a thriving business. I’d hired people, signed partnerships and ordered equipment, and every crazy week was busier than the last. My customers were depending on me. So, I needed to find a way through.
Looking back to spring 2014, my life seemed full of promise. I quit my full-time job and committed to building a boutique brand of vending machines to sell healthy food, drinks and personal care products. The business grew fast. We even prepared to move to Florida from Boston.
Scott unexpectedly died the following January at the age of 27.
Deep in grief, I couldn’t focus on anything. Thankfully, my sister kept the business moving forward. I was adrift until one day a friend sat down to talk to me and said these beautiful words: “You should have seen how proud Scott was of you and your business.”
It was a pivotal moment. I realized I couldn’t give up, that I must go on and build the business. I owed it to my customers, I owed it to Scott, I owed it to myself. Yes, I was grieving and hurting, but having this huge loss and this huge void instead became a source of energy. I was honoring Scott and his pride in what I was trying to create by making the business a thriving reality.
My next big step was to deliver my promise to visit all my KarmaBox operators in their home cities. One of the first visits I made was to San Diego. I saw everything the city offers — California remains the land of new starts — and quickly decided to relocate myself and the company. Within months of moving, KarmaBox made its first $1 million in sales.
I could have been the entrepreneur who let his dreams die. People would have understood and been sympathetic. Or I could have sought comfort in the wrong things, like drugs or alcohol, but I didn’t.
The business itself was my savior, giving me the purpose and focus that seemed obliterated in the tragedy. Scott’s death eventually became the biggest and strongest “why” in building my business. My loss grew into unstoppable, driving motivation.
Using a painful setback as fuel for the engine of success
Here are the five steps of grief for your business:
Find support: While you grieve, friends and family can provide perspective and focus. They’ll help you reconnect to the life you knew and build a new one amid your changed circumstances.
Rely on your people: Turn to the great team you’ve already built to keep things on track. And turn to the network around you for strength, inspiration and purpose.
“Don’t think you should do anything alone,” said Sally Aderton, a writer and marketing consultant. She faced three huge challenges in 1998: A brain tumor required 14 hours of surgery and left her deaf in one ear and without muscle function on the right side of her face; her fiancé broke up via email; and a publisher canceled her first book contract.
“I’m still recovering every day,” she said..
“An entrepreneur is only as good as the team they build around them as partners, mentors, collaborators and marketing-referral sources …. You make that happen,” she said.
Change your environment: Sometimes a change of scenery, for even a short time, can help you adjust. The San Diego work trip changed my life and propelled the business to a next level, but it didn’t start as that.
Turn your tragedy into inspiration: People are counting on you. Don’t let tragedy throw you. Ann Landstrom had “no money, no home and no career” when she took her 6-year-old son and split from an abusive relationship. She loved photography and turned her tragedy into a drive to build her studio business. Today, it thrives.
“Start with valuing yourself, form alliances with like-minded people in your industry for support and attend networking events to get your business name out in the community,” Landstrom said.
Get moving: Remember, we have few guarantees in life. So, do the thing you care about now. Don’t wait for later, expecting everything will continue to be the same. It won’t. Move forward, even a little. A few steps can turn into miles down the road to a successful business.