Taking a Chance on Me: How I Closed My Company and Unlocked My Inner Voice.

Back in April of 2015, when I finally closed the door on my previous company, OpenVoice Studios, a contemporary singing and performance lessons studio in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, I had absolutely zero idea of what I would do with myself going forward. What would my life look like? Would I return to the east coast? Would I get a ‘regular’ job?

I was willing to give myself time to figure out the larger picture of my life, but in the meantime I needed to earn a living. As a short term solution for generating income, I rented a teeny little room in the basement of an apartment building in Nob Hill, and continued to teach a handful of students privately. For advertising and personal sanity/morale purposes, I needed a new company name.

I started my first vocal coaching company in late 2008, in Saratoga Springs, NY. It was called Sam Whitehouse Music, LLC. That company quickly grew, and within 6 months or so, I was hiring additional teachers and an administrative staffer. Fast forward to June 2011, when I moved with my then-husband to San Francisco, CA, where we opened a second location of Sam Whitehouse Music, LLC. That location also grew quickly and we were soon hiring our first local teachers and administrative support.

All these new teachers and staff brought with them a diverse array of educational and professional backgrounds, and experiences with singing, performing, and teaching. Because of the diversity of the coaching pool, it no longer longer felt comfortable that the name of the company should only reference me. Additionally, I wanted to separate my personal music brand from the coaching company brand, so I could explore as an artist without the risk of the business being affected.

Ergo, in October of 2011, the coaching company was spun out on its own and branded to OpenVoice Studios, and Sam Whitehouse Music became my musician brand. My then-husband and I sat side-by-side at our dining room table for four days, building out the new website. He also designed the perfect logo for this lovely new project. It was an homage to the picture on my Sam Whitehouse Music business card, of two little birds sitting in a tree.

Old Business Card
New Logo for Website
Logo for Business Cards, Flyers, Signage

The name OpenVoice Studios was chosen for its feeling of inclusion and acceptance. We wanted to open our arms to anyone who needed help opening their voice, no matter their level of experience, their contemporary musical tastes, or where their future journey might take them. To study at OpenVoice, you did not have to have a particular set of goals or reasons for wanting to sing. We welcomed any and all into our loving community of people who very simply and straightforwardly wanted to help other people grow and to feel like they were a part of something.

OpenVoice Studios was a beautiful community of people. Together we produced endless teacher and student performances, karaoke and open mic nights, workshops, parties, and deep lasting friendship bonds, that all grew out of the healing act of singing.

The San Francisco studio very quickly began to grow in leaps and bounds. In September 2012 we moved out of our little studio in the Mission and into a big new building in Noe Valley, while at the same time we were continuing to hire more teachers and administrative staff. At our peak we saw 90 private students and consultations in one week. It was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the studio in Upstate New York from so far away, and so after much careful consideration, many tears, and a lot of conversations over a lot of glasses of wine, I decided to close the New York studio in order to focus all my efforts in San Francisco.

In mid-2013, while in the midst of all this rapid change and expansion, my marriage unexpectedly ended. Anyone who owns and operates a small business will tell you that when you choose the entrepreneurial path your work is your life, and your life is your work. For the first several years at least, there is very little separation. So, when my husband decided to move on, it was really hard. I lost my business partner, my main cheerleader and emotional support, as well as his high-tech salary, which at the time was still the the main source of funding for OpenVoice Studios. Expansion is expensive and the company was not yet able to cover its own costs. To my ex-husband’s credit, he offered to continue contributing financially to the company until we got things churning on their own steam, and to my credit, I said no. I needed to learn how to run this company on my own.

I had never been in charge of the financial health of the company before, so I immediately hired a financial advisor/bookkeeper who explained to me the state of things. She provided data-driven hope that I could do this on my own, and helped me make some tough decisions in order to keep the company going, myself and my staff employed, and to keep music and the arts thriving in San Francisco. This last part was important because San Francisco was, and continues to be, overtaken one neighborhood at a time, by unbounded gentrification and an impossibly inflated real-estate market.

My staff and I worked hard to implement new business systems and policies, we adjusted our rates, we cut back on a few things here and there, and we got that company financially lean. We were doing it! We were holding this scrappy little company together! Whew!

The teachers were happy. The students were happy. The musicians and community members who would use our space and share in our little adventure were happy. The financial advisor was even happy! Look what we had accomplished! Look what we were accomplishing!

I was deeply proud of myself, the team, and my company, and there were many moments that were truly full of joy. You cannot work with adult learners of singing, and not be wonderfully moved by their journeys, the fears they conquer along the way, and the absolutely stunning beauty of their personal growth and development. To work with people in this way…oh wow…there is absolutely nothing better.

The teachers definitely didn’t work at OpenVoice because of the salary. They joined the project because of the mission. OpenVoice was bursting with love in every direction. When the staff packed up to leave at the end of the day, the typical goodbye was, ‘I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ It was a gorgeous team of people coming together to genuinely spread love, healing, and music, and it was an honor to work with each of them.

When you are the owner of the company, though, there are so many other pieces that you are solely and personally responsible for. You’re the one on the phone speaking with the IRS or the insurance people, handling landlord issues, dealing with a roof leak on your one day off in two weeks, or the toilet breaking, or the ginormous bumble bees in the outside walkway that are freaking out the clients. On top of all that you are always worrying about whether your revenue will cover your overhead. And sometimes it doesn’t. And then you have to deal with that.

I’m not the first small business owner who has emptied their personal IRA or stretched the limits of their credit cards to meet payroll, and I certainly won’t be the last. When you own a company that you love, and you work with people that you love, doing work that you love, you will do anything in your power to keep everything going. You do this because you believe in the product, the service, the team, the impact you’re having…all of it. You do it because you believe you can. You do it because you believe it’s worth it. And OpenVoice Studios was 1,000% worth it.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

In December 2014, my financial advisor and I met for our year-end meeting. The revenue numbers looked incredible. We had more than doubled our gross revenue over the previous year, hitting an astounding $285K. Astounding, I believe, for a business of that kind, in that market, during that stage of growth. Astounding, I also believe, because of the fact that we were able to stay in business, period, under my leadership, and while I was navigating a painful divorce.

My advisor looked at me with a congratulatory smile, and a twinkle in her eye and said, let’s set a goal for $300,000 for 2015.

My shoulders slumped, and I started crying.

“You want me to hit $300k next year?” I asked her. “Yep. I think you can totally do it.” “But, this P&L doesn’t show any room in the numbers for additional staff. I can’t afford to hire any additional non-billable employees to help out. I just don’t think I have the energy in my own body to pull another $15K out of this company without additional staff resources.” Though we were operating very lean, our burn still approached nearly $20k/month, and just about every penny that came in was already being spent on the operating costs. We didn’t have any savings. We didn’t have an emergency buffer. We definitely didn’t have any additional cash for any additional office staff.

It was supposed to be a moment of joy and excitement. Instead, I felt terrible. She felt terrible that I felt terrible. I felt terrible for making her feel terrible. She left feeling terrible. I sat at my desk trying to dry my tears before the first staff members were set to arrive for the day.

The company was thriving…on paper. I was insanely proud of the fact that we had hit $285K gross revenue. I had never run a company by myself before, and holy shit…I was totally holding this company together! On my own! In San Francisco! And we had real numbers! And they were good! Hoorah!

So why the tears?

When my marriage dissolved I decided to put all of my effort and energy into OpenVoice Studios. In part, because we were barely 1 year into a 5 year lease on our commercial space, in part because I now had a staff of 9 and 130+ recurring clients I felt personally responsible for, in part because I loved what OpenVoice stood for and what we were doing, and in part because I had absolutely no idea what else to do with myself. I had moved 3,000 miles away from my friends and family to start a new life in San Francisco with my husband, and suddenly I was on my own. I felt a bit stunned and frozen. I needed some time to absorb the shock of it all, so I threw myself into my company.

Fast forward 18 months later: I was exhausted in every imaginable way. I was working 12 hour days, doing office work in the morning, and teaching lessons in the evenings. I would get home as late as 10:30 on some nights. It was that combination of stress and exhaustion that doesn’t let you sleep, so I would sit on my couch with my cats, drinking wine and watching Netflix until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, when sleep would finally creep in. Then I would get up and get to the studio at 10:30 the next morning and do it all again.

I was mostly sort of able to pay my bills, but I wasn’t saving or moving forward financially. I couldn’t afford fancy things like health insurance. My diet was a mess, and except for the occasional yoga class, my main exercise was walking up and down the stairs between the lobby and the teaching studios. I also had no social life. When my friends would ask me to get together, my response was always either “I can’t, I’m teaching that night” or “I’m too tired.”

The moment when my financial advisor showed me the numbers and asked me to produce even bigger results in the next year was the moment I came to fully understand what I had been feeling deep inside myself, but ignoring for quite a while: That this way of living my life and running my business was not healthy, enjoyable, or sustainable. Though I was working for myself — the dream of a lot of people, I was incredibly unhappy. When I would walk into my beautiful sunlit lobby each morning, my heart would completely sink with the heaviness of it all.

In the evening of that same day in which I cried in front of my financial advisor, I met with my therapist. All of a sudden the words were coming out of my mouth before I even knew they were in me to begin with: “Between you and me, Carol, I just don’t want to do this anymore.” I didn’t know what the words meant when I said them, nor did I know what they would mean for my future. But in that moment something big shifted within me. Something deep down in my own voice was opened. I felt lighter and more spacious.

When I returned home from my therapy appointment, I called my boyfriend and shared with him about my two meetings that day. I asked him what he would do if it were his company, to which he replied in an almost offhanded way, “Well, if you wind it down, you can always wind it up again later.”

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” I said as I leaned closer to the phone that I had on speaker sitting on the table in front of me.

“I said, if you close it down, you can always open it back up again later.”

“You mean, I can keep all the curriculum I’ve generated, the branding, the website, all of it…it’s mine? That’s right…it’s mine!” I said.

“Yeah, of course.”

“So, like, if I close it down, and then decide to teach again later, all the work I’ve done to get to this point can be applied in the future, and I’ll already have all the stuff?” I asked one more time, just to hear him say it again to make sure I wasn’t dreaming or something.

“Yeah. It’s yours. You can use it for whatever you want, whenever you want.”

“Oh! Then that’s what I’m doing! I’m closing the company down.”

I felt that statement all the way down to the marrow of my bones. I was never more clear or certain about anything in my entire life. Ever. And I never looked back.

(Well, maybe once or twice I gave a short glance over my shoulder, because I am human after all. But I never stopped moving forward into the next chapter.)

I don’t remember the exact day I made the decision, but I believe it was December 20th of 2014. I know it was a Monday because I used to meet with my therapist on Mondays, and I know it was late December because we were just about to close the studio for the two week holiday break.

I wanted to be very thoughtful and strategic about how I would close the company, and because we were just about to go into the holiday break I decided to keep my decision to myself until we returned in the new year. It felt incredibly heavy to harbor this massive secret from my staff and clients, though if I’m being honest, much of this heaviness was offset by the lightness that was generated from the actual decision to close. On the first day we returned, I told my studio manager (and dear friend). She was terribly sad that OpenVoice would be ending, but unwavering in her support of me and my decision. We talked through the plan and set things in motion.

Then-Husband Putting the Sign Up

Something that most people don’t know is that before I hit my breakpoint with OpenVoice, I exhausted all other avenues of trying to find some cash for the company. I explored the idea of private equity, I tried to find investors, and I called around looking for small business loans everywhere. I even spoke to a small business broker about potentially selling the business. Every single person that I spoke to told me that the company had a good story, and it was on the right path, but it needed more time and traction to qualify for any kind of cash infusion, or to look attractive to any potential buyers. It was incredibly frustrating to hear this over and over again, especially here in Silicon Valley where investors regularly throw millions of dollars at startup ideas all the time, just to test them out and watch them fail, and here we were with an actual real service, and actual real customers, and actual revenue. In any case, nobody would help, and I felt completely alone in the struggle. I was too tired to fight this fight by myself any longer.

In January 2015, I put the wheels in motion to close the studio, and we delivered our final lessons that April. Closing a company is a truly awful and terribly stressful experience. There is equipment to sell, prepaid services to deliver, a lease to get out of, advertising to shut down, new business to turn away, taxes to pay, and worst of all, employees to layoff.

Another thing that most people probably don’t know is that closing a business is expensive. I went into a significant amount of debt to close OpenVoice Studios. Throughout the final few months our revenue was not covering our overhead as we attempted to deliver or refund thousands of dollars in prepaid service. An incredibly generous loan from a close friend, a humbling call to my ex-husband to move some shared debt out of my name, some increases to my credit card limits, and a couple of massive tax bills later, and voila! I’m 6 figures in the red.

This debt will take me a few more years to pay off. For a long time the idea of being so much in debt, and for so long, hovered over me like a black cloud. I felt really defeated and on some days, pretty depressed. How could I go into so much debt to close a company? It felt completely insane to owe so much money and have nothing to show for it but a huge void where a company used to be. That is until one day I realized that it was that very void itself that I paid for. I needed that empty space where I could create something new. Suddenly, it wasn’t debt at all. In fact, every cent of it now felt like an investment that I made in myself and my future. Some people take out college loans to get to the next phase in their life. I took out a life loan.

I’m not saying that it feels great to owe all this money. I am saying that it was absolutely worth it to get a fresh start, and I would do it again without question.

I wanted to preserve the legacy of OpenVoice to the best of my ability. I also wanted to start the next life chapter knowing that I had executed through the closing process in the most thoughtful and compassionate way possible, for everyone involved. It was important to me that as we wound down, the students were able to complete their work or continue their progress elsewhere. It was also important that the teachers could continue to earn a living doing what they love. I did whatever I could to help set each person up for the next leg of their singing journeys. I encouraged and supported the teachers to continue their work independently or at other studios. I also encouraged the students to follow their teachers to their next teaching gig. I also referred all incoming new business to other local studios.

One of these other local voice coaching studios was just barely starting to think about expanding their business. They very thoughtfully called us one day to thank us for sending them the business, and wondered why we were doing it. I told them I was closing the company, and when they learned that I needed to get out of my lease, they jumped at the opportunity to take over the space. They took over the remaining 2+ years on my commercial building rental, and moved in. This meant that I could get out of my contract, the other company could grow (they even offered my teachers jobs!), and the neighborhood could continue to benefit from having a similar music-related business. (We had just watched two guitar shops in the neighborhood close, so this felt extra good.) It was win/win all around!

Me Taking the Sign Down

At OpenVoice Studios, my energy and efforts were projected everywhere besides on myself. I gave everything I had, to anyone who asked. I wasn’t able to say ‘no’. I wasn’t able to hold others personally or professionally accountable. I had a faulty belief that I had to do everything myself. I was not skilled in asking for what I needed, and even if I’d been able to ask, I was not skilled at receiving either. I wasn’t able to set boundaries with people. I wanted everyone else to feel loved, and be able to thrive. And so, of course, I became depleted.

Prior to deciding to close OpenVoice, I asked myself some hard questions: ‘Can I make the changes to myself to become the kind of leader this place needs in order to continue and thrive? Can I learn to set clear boundaries, hold people accountable, ask for and receive what I need? Can I be a little tougher, let my teachers or students be angry or upset with me when necessary? Can I learn to make difficult or unpopular choices for the greater good, and really learn to be a better boss?’

My answer to myself was: ‘I can make all those changes and do all those things, but I do not have the energy to do that work here in this company, with these people, under these conditions, at this time.’ In order to become the type of leader that a company like OpenVoice Studios would need in order to be its best, I had to leave OpenVoice Studios behind.

Another pretty important side note is that everywhere I looked I could see the imprint of my ex-husband. We had painted the walls together. He had been on a ladder replacing all the ceiling tiles in the lobby, while I was on the floor putting together all the IKEA desks. We’d made the website together, bought the equipment together. We’d hung the logo sign on the front of the building together. I was ready to close that chapter. I was ready to go find who I was without him. I was ready to own MY voice.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this story, when I closed OpenVoice Studios, I had no idea what to do next. I grabbed a teeny little room to teach in so I could generate an income, while I figured out a strategy for the future.

Except for a few students who came with me, and a few connections I’d talk to now and then, I withdrew almost entirely from the community that I’d helped to build at OpenVoice. I needed some time and space to heal. I needed some time and space to figure out who I wanted to be, and what tools and information I would need in order to do it. I needed some time to focus on my health, diet, and sleep. I needed to figure out how to create and maintain boundaries, and build effective personal and professional relationships.

So, I hand-picked a core team of friends and professionals (like Carol, my therapist) who I knew would be able to help me on this journey. I then let everything and everyone else fall away, and I got to work.

While bouncing around names over a few days with a couple of friends, the name InnerVoice Studio emerged and, I dunno, I just couldn’t shake it. It just felt right. It wasn’t in opposition to the outward nature of the OpenVoice experience, rather it was more of a call to look inside, and really, really listen to what’s in there.

I didn’t understand until much later that I was listening to my own inner voice when deciding to close OpenVoice Studios. Though it seems super obvious to me now, I didn’t realize until much later that the choice to move on was a radical act of self-care, of self-love. That it was an endeavor to put myself in touch with my most authentic and healthy self. I thought I was just burnt out and looking for a change. I thought I was just reacting to being tired of grind, and tired of seeing the ghost of my failed marriage everywhere. And sure, I was feeling and reacting to those things, but in choosing the name InnerVoice I was proactively creating a space for me to come home to myself. To find a way to live my life, in my way, to the best of my ability, whatever that is.

My friend Alex is a beautiful graphic and web designer. I immediately turned to her to create my new logo. I explained to her that I wanted something warm and inviting, while at the same time sophisticated and professional. Something that would say ‘You are welcome here, whatever your experience level and goals are’, while at the same time saying ‘This is a serious business and we are firm in our rules.’ I wanted something soft, yet clean, not too curly, or schwoopy, not too straight, or choppy, or rough. We talked about incorporating a key to imply ‘unlocking your inner voice’. From there it was up to her talent and beautiful creative mind.

New InnerVoice Logo

When she sent it over I practically fell off my chair. I mean, she just so completely nailed it. It’s flowy at the front, serious at the back. It’s modern and timeless all at once.

I wanted a logo that I would have to live up to. I wanted a logo that would challenge me to level up and become the person, the coach, and the business leader that I knew I could be.

I have to say, it has absolutely been working.

Every time I look at this logo, I think of this whole long journey. I think of when I felt stuck and scared, tired and lonely. I think of the moment I decided to break myself out of the old way and see what could possibly be on the other side — even though I couldn’t see over there. I think of all the guilt and fear of letting down everyone who had believed in OpenVoice Studios. And I think of the courage it took for me to believe in myself, to take a chance, to start over, to do better.

Having InnerVoice Studio, the company, and the beautiful logo to go with it has been an immensely healing journey. I took that time I needed to withdraw from the external world, and focus on myself. Remember that teeny room in the basement of an apartment building that I grabbed as a solution ‘until I figured out my strategy’? Yeah, well, I taught out of that room for two whole years. One day, I walked into that room and it hit me out of nowhere: I’m done here. I gave my notice immediately and was out in 30 days.

As is my way, I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I couldn’t do it in that room.

In addition to studying new singing and teaching techniques, I had also already started coaching a few people on general communication and public speaking, so I focused on officially expanding the company into those areas. I began to offer corporate workshops, while at the same time continuing to focus on deepening my own knowledge and skillset. Continuously listening to my inner voice and letting it guide the way. Oftentimes feeling very vulnerable and afraid, and doing it anyway.

Within a few months of leaving the teeny little room behind, I changed my business model and raised my rates. I begin limiting my schedule availability, and only choosing to work with the specific clients that I want to work with. I continued tinkering with the business, testing new programs, services, and coaching ideas.

These days, I feel more creative and excited than I ever have. I am spread less thin. I also feel that the individual impact with each client or group is greater, because I am able to be fully present with each one and address their specific goals and challenges. I now have the time and energy to maintain my own professional growth, and explore interesting new concepts, ideas and approaches. I have clear boundaries, and I regularly practice saying ‘no’. I carve more time for self-care with the knowledge that I’m worth it, and that it’s up to me to model healthy habits and behavior for the people I work with.

The takeaway is that listening to my inner voice, trusting its wisdom, giving myself permission to follow where it leads, and developing the practical skills needed to follow that journey and express myself clearly in any circumstance, has fundamentally changed my life. It has also deepened my ability to help other people respect and honor their inner wisdom, and follow their own path.

I started out as a singing coach, but even at the beginning of my career it was clear to me that my most powerful skill is getting people to take a chance on themselves, and surprise themselves by discovering what they are truly capable of. Singing is not the end result, singing is the tool — one tool of many to help people build confidence and connection.

It is my truest love and deepest calling to help people build confidence through self expression. Self expression takes many forms. Sometimes it means we’re singing scales. Other times we’re sitting on the floor discussing how to communicate through a difficult workplace challenge. Sometimes it means we’re laughing our way through some singing improv. Other times we’re dissecting the pronunciation differences between Korean and American vowels. Always the bottom line remains the same: Helping people conquer their fears, believe in themselves, and share their thoughts, ideas, wisdom and experiences with others, for the benefit of themselves and the community at large.

InnerVoice as a company, and myself as a teacher, coach, and explorer of life will continue to grow and change and learn and evolve. I’ll continue to try things that don’t work, and try things that do work and decide that I don’t want to do them anyway. I’ll get bored and distracted by shiny things and new experiences. I’m ok with all of that. I’m not worried about getting everything right. Life is dynamic and every moment is an opportunity for learning and growth. Every day I continue to do whatever I can do to live a healthy, authentic, and fulfilling life, while creating tools and opportunities for other people do the same.

Owning your voice is not easy work and I’m so glad I had the courage to leap into the unknown. It was so, so hard to navigate through it all, but it was so, so worth it to take that chance on myself and give myself the opportunity to prove that I could show up better than before.

If you are feeling lost or stuck or confused and you feel a little crazy because from the outside things look good, I’m here to tell you that you aren’t crazy and only you can know what’s right for you. Or if you just simply need someone to give you permission to listen to your inner voice, I am giving it to you right now. You are worth it.

Close your eyes, go deep, and listen.

If you’d like to explore your inner voice in more depth, or otherwise take the next step toward confident self-expression, please reach out directly to sam@innervoicestudio.com to schedule a 1-to-1 coaching session or phone consultation.

Click here to download our free workbook “Trust Your Voice — Take your first step toward confident self-expression”.


Sam Whitehouse is a voice and self-expression coach. She is also a singer and a writer.