I’m tired on every level. In fact, I’m so exhausted that I’ve been struggling to write this post for days and days. But I want to write it, because well, it’s something I write every year—which pretty much sums up every task I’ve dragged myself through this holiday season. Writing my business year in review post is something that helps me keep time. It invites the community (that’s y’all) into what we’ve been doing all year. It gives me a record of my year in entrepreneurship. But this year the act of moving my brain and fingers to write it feels nearly insurmountable. But yet, I showed up anyway.
And that’s about where I am right now. My body is tired from being crammed into an uncomfortable chair in the corner of my living room since March. My soul is tired from dealing with my children’s mental health, which has been various shades of horrible since May. And as a business owner there are days where I feel like I don’t have it in my to keep pushing the boulder up the hill alone, without government aid or a safety net. But I keep doing it anyway, because I love my job and my team, and I want to survive this. But let’s not get it twisted: being a small business owner in 2020 has been its own special kind of hell.
Here is the thing about owning a business. Unlike folks that are employed by others, you’re not just responsible for yourself and your clients. Your job doesn’t stop at “do a good job, and pray you don’t get laid off.” You are responsible for the livelihood and health insurance of everyone that works for you. And in a pandemic and an economic collapse, that becomes extra important. And that means that in dark days (which there were so many of this year) you walk around with the weight not just of supporting your family, but also with the weight of supporting all of your employees families. And y’all? It is a lot.
And when you run a small business, that takes on even more emotional weight. Because you know the people you employ, and you care about them. You have a sense of what it would do to their families for them to be laid off and their health insurance taken away in the middle of a pandemic. And for me, preventing that meant doing the most even when I felt like doing the least.
It’s time for a holiday
The year opened so hopefully. On the first day of the work year, we walked into the new office space down the hall. We were supposed to move into it in September of 2019, but there had been delay after delay. Since we signed the contract in June of 2019, we had poked our heads into that hallway every week, watching the space go from framed out, to walls in, to floors in, piece by piece by piece. And the first week of January, in what feels like a different world, we walked in and our office was done. New floors were laid, everything. It felt like such a hopeful new chapter for the business.
And then, well, 2020 started stretching it’s tentacles into our lives. There were more delays. The city took forever to do final permitting. Our move got pushed out and pushed out. Then finally we got the start date for the two year lease: March 1, 2020.
The last week of February we moved all of our stuff in. Then I left for Alt Summit in Palm Springs, and the whole world changed.
Some prophet of doom
Unlike most of America, I had a sense of what was coming. I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. I didn’t know enough not to sign a two year commercial lease. But I was worried. I spend my evenings curled up reading political Twitter. I’ve spent a lot of time curating a list of journalists and other smart folx, so I can see reporting before it hits the news. And in early January, I started really focusing on what was happening in Wuhan. I went down rabbit holes, trying to figure out what on earth was going on in a very censored country on the other side of the world. I found videos deep in the depths of the internet. I kept showing them to David telling him I thought this was really bad. And he kept telling me, “This is America, it’s different here.” (He was right, but for all the wrong reasons.) I talked about it to anyone that would listen. I played the role of Cassandra, because it turns out, nobody wanted to listen.
And I braced. I figured that we had an advantage, running a business online. I spent nights in early March in a pool in Palm Springs talking to other entrepreneur friends about possible strategies and pivots. During those last days before everything changed, I attended crowded parties at Alt Summit, and had deep talks at The Huddle, that ended up giving me strength for the months ahead.
And then I got home.
Right this way, Your table’s waiting
For those of you tracking, it was the second week of March, and I had my first proper work day in our brand new office. To be more specific, I had THREE work days. By the end of that week, Chelsea and I decided that maybe it was better to stay home. That our building with shared office space was starting to make us nervous. And I had some final lunches at Sequoia Diner, our very favorite haunt. I brought hand sanitizer and wiped down everything (little did I know that what I really needed was a mask). The vibe was something like Cabaret, in Weimar Germany. There was a sense of reckless abandon. Teetering on the edge. We could tell that something awful was coming, but for those last few moments things felt illicit and fun.
And then on March 16, the San Francisco Bay Area was the first in the nation to go into Shelter In Place, and it all came tumbling down. It was faster than I ever imagined possible.
wipe every smile away
As it turns out, the advertising dollars of the wedding industry depend on a few things: live events, wedding parties, and honeymoons. And on March 16th, it became clear overnight that all of these things were about to be gone, for who knows how long.
APW makes a good amount of its money on display ad revenue. And that depends on search traffic. IE, people who are planning weddings, searching for answers to wedding planning questions. And many of those questions became moot overnight. Suddenly you couldn’t pack your dance floor, or plan your huge guest list, or plan your bridal party outfits. Put those two things together, and literally overnight, our display ad revenue dropped to 1/6th of its regular rate.
Our amazing wedding vendors (seriously, you should book them), were not only no longer getting inquiries, but were instead being flooded by requests to refund their deposits. They were struggling to buy food and pay rent—forget paying for advertising. And then, there were our startup and corporate clients. Most of the larger ones froze their advertising budgets immediately, till they could figure out what on earth was going on. One of our major annual clients would go out of business by year end, owing us five figures that we will likely never collect. We were lucky to have some long term clients that continued to support us: both large corporate clients, and dedicated small business clients.
In fact, I’d like to take a moment to be profoundly grateful for our ongoing partnership with Squarespace, and their amazing team, along with our longest term small business advertiser Kelly Prizel Photography (who’s been with APW for more than a decade)… who didn’t just keep advertising, she also gave me the personal encouragement that helped me keep going on some really dark days.
Suffice to say, our multiple revenue stream decade long healthy cash flow, was slashed to a fraction of what it had been, within 24 hours. One day, we were on track for an exceptionally strong year. The next day the majority our income was frozen, with no way of predicting when it would come back.
I didn’t sleep much. My body started displaying signs of extreme stress that I’d never seen before. I spent hours pouring over my budget, and hours applying for every possible grant and loan that I could find. And I spent every remaining waking hour giving emergency wedding advice on on Instagram stories, editing crisis wedding articles, talking about how people planning weddings could best respond to the crisis. Our team lead tons of free workshops for our wedding vendors, and sent out every scrap of information and best practices we could put together. We worked overtime to help them save their businesses (and sanity) as the industry collapsed. We did our very best to show up and serve, while behind the scenes, I was trying to figure out how on earth to survive.
First, I had to cut freelancer jobs, which was a uniquely terrible experience. Having to cut jobs of people who have been with you for years and are doing great work, for no other reason than that the industry suddenly came to a dead stop is terrible. And those conversations didn’t all go well, making me feel even worse about myself. But as always, there were moments of real humanity within the shit storm. Some of the people I had to lay off were so amazing and kind that they will, without a doubt, be the first people I try to hire back if given a chance.
And then I stopped paying myself. It was the only way I could keep the team together, and the APW team represented the core value of the company I’d spent 13 years building. It was the thing I wanted to protect at all costs. I knew that since my partner was still employed, we had savings, and we were able to defer our mortgage for a few months, I could make do on nothing. So I paid my team—several of whom took voluntary walk backs of their raises, to keep everyone employed. Then I cut my pay to $0. (And I just remembered in this moment, that decision on my part was covered by the Wall Street Journal. It’s been a weird year.) It was the first time in the history of my marriage that I wasn’t bringing in the majority of our cash… let alone not bringing in any money. But logically, preserving the company was worth it. And on all the spiritual, ethical, and emotional levels it also felt worth it.
And then PPP came through. The program was, and is, badly run, and has been a nightmare for so many small businesses (including those who are now getting told that not all of their loan will be forgiven). But for us it was cut and dry. We took the money and spent it on payroll (I was able to take a paycheck again for 2.5 months) and rent on our empty office. And when we applied for loan forgiveness in the fall, it went through without a hitch. And beyond that, I was able to get a Hebrew Free Loan (part of a long history of the Jewish community paying it forward to each other through interest free funds), and I qualified for a low interest 30 year EIDL emergency loan, which took the pressure of cash flow off the table.
In short, I made every decision this year to keep the business afloat moment by moment. I didn’t always sleep at night, and woke up during the spring with pounding headaches from grinding my teeth, and put on 20 pounds from stress/ terrible nutrition/ a suddenly sedentary lifestyle. But when it came to making decisions for the business, I operated with the faith that if I just took the next right step, everything would work out.
I don’t know where I got that faith. It’s a bit unlike me, and still feels a bit otherworldly. But it’s what has guided me through this mess day by day, and still does.
What good is sitting alone In your room?
Meanwhile, a whole other thing was being born. In March, I served at The Huddle in Palm Springs as a small business mentor. And after years of teaching on small business topics at places like Alt Summit (which I did again, for two hours in a huge ballroom, to a packed group of 200 people), I realized that teaching and coaching womxn in business was something I wanted to be doing. So I decided in a warm night time pool chat, that launching online classes was going to be part of my future, as the pandemic closed in.
As everything was crumbling in April, I was spending time working on my personal website, and figuring out what the hell I wanted to offer the world. And in the crisis of May, I launched what I called a “Pivot Group,” where I lead a small group of women I really admired through check ins and deep dives every two weeks. It was humbling and amazing. I showed up, made mistakes, learnesd, and got to help facilitate womxn making huge business decisions, and building a network of support while they did it.
And then summer came. And there was some magic combination of things. The shock started to wear off. We were able to spend time outside, and see people a tiny bit. I’d spent tons of hours in the spring thinking about pivoting, and my personal brand, and what I wanted to do next. And in early Summer we decided to stop overthinking things and launch Practical Business School and our first course offering: Summer Session.
I’m so grateful that we jumped before we felt quite ready, for so many reasons. It was a great launch, and that helped balance our books for the year. It was an amazing program, and put me in contact with so many womxn that I’m so excited to keep working with in 2021. And, what I didn’t know is that when Fall came, everything would get harder again, and I would be too tired and overwhelmed to launch the Fall Session we had planned. So I’m glad I jumped in before I was ready in the Summer, since I won’t get to do it again till the new year.
Summer Session was amazing. Our clients were the literal best, and rolled with our team learning as we went. I wrote a 150 page workbook in two weeks (that I’m really proud of, and will eventually sell). I got to do a bunch of 1:1 coaching with amazing womxn.
It isn’t that long a stay
But all year I had been managing my son’s deepening mental health crisis. And when fall came around, I hit full overwhelm. At the last minute I realized that I wasn’t up to launching Fall Session. Instead I dove into deep planning for what I wanted to build for Practical Business School for next year. And then my son’s health got worse, he was hospitalized, and my life became just trying to keep my head above water and survive. And somehow, as I managed all of that, I continued to struggle with the feeling that I wasn’t DOING enough. That with no Federal Government help coming, I needed to launch a new huge program every week… even if I was doing it from the hospital.
It wasn’t realistic, it wasn’t sustainable… and I’m grateful that I had both the financial resources, the wise team, and the emotional wherewithal to pause new projects, when putting my child’s care and my mental health first, was what really needed to happen.
But even as the year crashed around me, and the COVID winter got darker and darker, all those seeds we’d worked so hard to plant in the Spring and Summer started to sprout. We got significant annual contracts for next year. Our team has been working out problems, being super generous with each other, and generally functioning like a well oiled machine. We have found ways to best reach engaged folks right now (email has been key), and seem to be helping people plan amazing weddings during difficult times.
And I try to have faith that all the work and planning I’ve put into Practical Business School will come to fruition early next year, once I’ve taken some serious time off to sleep. But I’ve also grown enough to realize that the ONLY way I’ll be able to sustainably grow new projects, is if I put myself first.
And I love a Cabaret
But here is the wildest thing. When I look back at where the company was a year or two ago, I realize that somehow through all this, I’m happier with the state of play in the business. Yes, we’re earning (way) less, right in this moment. Yes, we’re hoping a second round of PPP comes through to help us bridge the gap next year. Yes, we’re all stressed and exhausted and burned out.
But it turns out that when the pandemic destroyed nearly every part of the business, it allowed me the freedom to rebuild the way I wanted to… and had needed to for a long time. We cut expenses. We streamlined our processes, so we could produce work more quickly. We knit our team together in a more effective and productive (and emotionally healthier for everyone) way. We let go of things that hadn’t worked for a long time… but had made just enough money that we couldn’t stop doing them. We used the time and space to get to some important projects that we’d been putting off for years. As we start to put together a game plan for 2021, I know that all of those changes will help us continue to reconfigure the business in ways that match the moment we’re in right NOW, instead of sticking to systems that worked in the past.
Every single day requires and enormous amount of faith. Because no, I don’t really know exactly how we’re going to balance the budget next year. And right this second, I’m too tired to execute on the dreams and plans I have for Practical Business School. But it’s a damn miracle that we’ve survived this far, and after all this, I’m not going to let 2021 be the thing that breaks us.
For now I’m signing off for two weeks. I’m planning to sleep, exercise, spend time with my family, and try to process this crazy year. I’m going to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, but also try to be realistic about how long and dark the remainder of the tunnel might be, and store as much strength as I can, so I can get through it.
I am so grateful for each and every one of you. If you made it this far in my 3,300 word I-was-too-tired-to-write-but-I-when-I-started-I-couldn’t-stop essay on running a business in 2020… I’m grateful to have shared this with you. I grateful for every reader that has joined our Patreon, and helped us provide healthcare for our team. (And we’d love it if you joined too). I’m grateful for every community Patreon member ($20/month and up) who I’ve gotten to know on our monthly community calls. I’m grateful to every team member, contributor, and cheerleader who helped us get through this year.
I’m grateful and tired, and signing off for a long winter’s nap. Wishing you everything calm, everything bright… even in this moment of profound darkness. May 2021 bring us all hope.