What Almost Losing My Business Taught Me About Leadership
In 2008, 1–800-GOT-JUNK? seemed like an invincible growth machine. We’d opened 312 successful franchises across North America in ten years, and business showed no signs of slowing down — or so we thought.
Then we turned the corner into 2009. Like many others, the recession hit us hard and fast. By the end of the year, we were forced to close over 100 franchises, and our annual revenues dropped by more than a quarter. It took mere months to undo a decade of hard work.
There were many factors that contributed to our downturn, and our company would have been affected by the recession no matter what. But we didn’t acknowledge the signs that it was coming or have a plan for dealing with disaster. It quickly became clear that there was no simple fix; if we’d been smarter and more careful (and a lot less arrogant), we could have softened the blow.
It’s been almost a decade since the downturn took our company by surprise. Here’s a look back at four problems we had to overcome to get our business back on track — and how we did it.
Problem #1: We Broke The Trust Between Leadership and Our Team
When your business tanks in the wake of a recession, it’s easy to displace accountability; after all, you can’t control the economy. But when our franchises started shutting their doors, I felt personally responsible. These people had trusted our leadership to support their success. Instead, I lacked the foresight to predict how the economy (and our industry) was changing.
Solution: We Lead With Vulnerability and Transparency
I swallowed my pride and went directly to our franchise partners to apologize for what had happened. In a series of town hall meetings, we asked them to anonymously write down questions for our leadership team. When we read them out, I felt like I was in front of a firing squad. But during this process, I realized that vulnerability doesn’t make you weak; it makes you a stronger, more authentic, and more trustworthy leader. It shows your people that you’re all in it together.
Fortunately, they responded as positively as they could, given the circumstances. We all knew we couldn’t rebuild overnight, but being vulnerable and transparent created a starting point.
Problem #2: We Hired the Wrong Leaders
Unsurprisingly, most people wanted to know what our plan for recovery was. The most painful question, though, was if I was the right person to lead us back to prosperity. To be honest, I didn’t feel that I was at the time and was starting to think we needed to find someone else.
I started to reflect on my leadership capabilities and examine where things had fallen apart. I realized that we’d been trying to keep up with growth — and in the process, relaxed our hiring processes. As a result, we brought people into our leadership team who didn’t align with our values. I knew we couldn’t keep these people in the company, but I also knew I couldn’t run the business alone.
Solution: We Found the Right Partner To Complement the Business
There are two types of entrepreneurs: visionaries and integrators. Visionaries see the big picture first and struggle with the details for how to get there (that’s me). Integrators excel at strategy and implementation — something I’ve never been good at.
It suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t need to step down; I needed a partner who could complement my strengths, and turn my vision into reality. We took our time to recruit the yin to my yang, and discovered our current COO Erik Church. Without him, I’m not sure if we ever could’ve recovered, nor could we be growing again as quickly.
Problem #3: We Overspent in the Wrong Places
At the height of our growth, we thought we were untouchable. Under the guidance of our misaligned leadership, we made poor planning choices, and we believed we could coast our way through the recession and into financial stability. We invested too much in the wrong places, instead of pulling back and focusing on the strongest areas of the business. We refused to accept that we needed to slow down. It’s no surprise that together, we almost devastated the company beyond repair.
Solution: We Tightened Up on Budgets and Expenditures
After the crash, our industry (like most) wasn’t as profitable as it once was. Junk removal isn’t an essential service; when times are tight, people do it themselves instead of hiring a private company. As our customers spent less, we had to do the same.
Pre-recession, we were used to ever-increasing revenue, so we would set a goal and spend based on that number. I’m an eternal optimist who likes to shoot for the moon — but our cockiness eventually backfired. We were forced to get realistic in our projections, and now we’re much more conservative. Instead of spending towards a revenue goal, we spend towards a carefully planned budget.
Ten years after our epic crash, I’m glad to say we’re back in black. But when I think about that time, I realize we were blinded by success — and that’s a mistake I will never make again. I don’t know when the next recession will hit but I do believe there will be another. This time, we will be prepared to acknowledge it and react sooner.
The hardest situations are when we learn what we’re really made of. And it brings you closer to the people who are going through it with you. Even though the recession was the most difficult time we’ve gone through as a business, it absolutely made us stronger.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.