The KickStarter
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The KickStarter

It Took Me 12+ Years In Business To Learn This One Strategy That Helps Me Sleep At Night

I used to think business was all about building something big and enjoying the view from the top. Post-COVID, I’ve started to put my mental health back in the picture by taking the financial pressure off. Here’s how I’ve streamlined my team, but not my capabilities.

Wow. I can’t believe it’s been 2 years since I wrote “My Ultimate Guide To Hiring & Firing Post COVID-19”. After the first wave subsided in June 2020, I thought we could finally get on with our lives. I was wrong!

At the time, I wrote that article with the intention of helping managers make better decisions for their businesses moving forward. But a lot continued to change. The pandemic didn’t go away. Now, based on my own experience, I’m writing this follow-up article to inspire managers to make better decisions for themselves, too.

😭 The Great Resignation begins

The great resignation struck for me in November 2020. One of my team members resigned, then 4 more continued to give notice like dominoes over the next 6 months — this was almost half of my team.

  • The first wanted time-out from work.
  • A fast-growing international tech company poached the second.
  • The third wanted to focus on part-time study and freelance work.
  • A large Australian enterprise swept the fourth away.
  • The fifth wanted to pursue a full-time PhD.

This was a hard pill to swallow, and I had to reflect on whether the resignations were due to business culture or a sign of the times. Now, I can appreciate that people were looking for change, but as you can imagine, this put me in panic mode. How would I continue to service the clients we had on our books? Keeping Avion afloat during a pandemic was already hard enough.

I had to remember “it’s just business” when people leave, but I was sad to see my colleagues go. I was trying to fill multiple roles and worried about what might happen next. Then something magical occurred. I realised, like those who resigned, this was my opportunity to reset.

Rather than rush into replacing people like-for-like, I could reassess what skills I really needed within the team.

For example:

  • What vision did I have for Avion post-COVID?
  • Did I need ‘thinkers’ or ‘doers’?
  • Did I really need the same number of resources?
  • How about I swap a few mids for one senior?

It took me 10+ years in business to use a recruiter. I engaged a specialist to help me cast a wider net and build the dream team I was after. I was so pleased with the new faces I welcomed to Avion — they’ve each contributed remarkable enthusiasm and skills from past workplaces that have strengthened our capabilities. What a silver lining amidst the doom and gloom!

😌 Planning my future self. I’ve got this!

During this debacle, I thought [insert singalong here]: “What about me? It isn’t fair, I’ve had enough now I want my share.” Everyone else seemed to be re-evaluating their lives while I was in a scramble. Someone I’d connected with on LinkedIn recommended a valuable exercise I’d never heard of before called Odyssey Planning. (I rave about it here in this article, about saying NO to living my best life.)

Like a slap in the face, I was reminded that hiring and firing isn’t just about running a business — it’s about fostering the kind of life you want to live.

Essentially, I mapped out ‘my best lives’ featuring a range of personal and professional goals, including a crazy concept I invented for myself: never working full-time ever again.

I redesigned Avion’s service delivery model to remove me from the picture and committed to rolling out the changes over 6 months. If you want to know how it went, I also wrote about this in a previous article.

Down to 4 days per week by the end of 2021, I thought I was winning at life. How humbling life is; I was wrong again.

😫 Hang on. Is this what I really want?

It’s now early 2022, and I thought my life was going to be easier. I’d spent my whole career trying to figure out how to delegate more. Having more staff was the secret, right? Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t so.

More staff meant more payroll. My monthly revenue targets increased to levels that were achievable pre-COVID — but Omicron happened, and I was suddenly struggling to pay the bills.

While Avion had a solid base of recurring work, I still needed a fresh rotation of new projects each month to keep up. Throw in inflation, and it didn’t take long to realise my headcount wasn’t sustainable unless I had more guaranteed work in the pipeline for every single member of the team. Here we go again — I was really, really, really stressed.

A couple of key moments unfolded in parallel here.

  • Another copywriter resigned upon graduating from part-time studies.
  • One of my Senior Copywriters was about to go on maternity leave.
  • One of my Communications Specialists was finishing up a big project.
  • My Business Development Associate and I were weighing up whether things were working out. In the end, it was a mutual decision that her role was an overhead the business couldn’t afford.

Pre-COVID, I would’ve jumped at replacing most of these roles. But removing the expense from payroll (even if temporarily) made a huge difference to our bottom line.

The biggest question then became: how would we service any overflow of work?

My answer: a reliable network of contractors. It finally clicked that de-risking my business financially (i.e. reducing my payroll) was the best thing I could’ve done for my mental health, and if I may, the team.

🙃 Flipping the switch to a mix of in-house and external resources

Streamlining my team to a core crew on billable work is probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a business owner. This is especially relevant today as there are so many talented contractors in my network who have ditched the 9 to 5 for freelance work. I can lean on my “bench team” to ramp up as needed when paid work is there.

Before 2020, I was addicted to the hustle and bustle. Avion had always grown year on year, and I wanted to achieve something impressive — something shiny.

It took a global health crisis for me to realise that resourcing is more than just finding the right talent — it’s a key to your financial wellbeing and quality of life.

I’ve always thought that anything was possible with hard work, but sometimes the economy isn’t great. Circumstances are hard. You have a personal life that’s sick of being on the backburner and you realise maybe it’s ok to take the pressure off.

The moral of my story is that you can still do amazing things with a small core team. When you strip things back, you’re left with the best talent that can contribute exactly what the business needs at the time.

Sure, things might change… If I land a few client contracts that guarantee financial certainty, I can afford to hire more in-house staff (although, I may consider increasing my contractor network first). Until those projects are in the bag, I’ll keep things lean. Sleeping at night, because my team is taken care of and my bills are paid is a great way to be.

About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.

To find out more: Visit the Avion website.

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