This week I’m honoured to host this searingly honest guest post from my colleague, Serena McCrossan. In it she tells the story of the lessons she learnt building a business whilst juggling parenting and graduating, only to see it fail during the recession.
Take it away, Serena.
This story is something I never thought I would be sharing with the world. After all, who wants to read a story about failure? My failure?
I’ve felt my fingers draw away from the keyboard on numerous occasions but then I thought I should tell this story. If just one person reads this and learns something from it, I’m not sure what, then I’m happy.
In 2009 I was working as a manager in a call centre, had a 1 year old daughter and was finishing my second year of full time study at University. Hectic was not the word.
I always loved the idea of my own business, not for fame or money initially, but for something deeper and more intrinsic, pride.
I had learnt what I thought was a lot from my existing job generating financial leads for some of the UK’s leading brokers. I excelled at my job to the point where I could move no higher up the hierarchical chain.
I had been researching the business in my own time, which always occurred in the wee hours of the morning when my daughter was asleep, university work done and my mind buzzing with electric ideas.
My business idea was not unique nor did it cater to a niche market. At the time the recession was just starting, financial brokers needed new business and the mortgage and remortgage market was nose diving fast. This gave birth to a plethora of pay day loan brokers, life insurance brokers and the PPI industry .
If you are reading this then I can guarantee you have had a call from at least one of the above in the last few years, if not once a few times. In some instances it may even have been me on the other end of the phone, so apologies, I swear I did not know you were just about to eat your dinner when I called.
So that was my business, lead generation and market research in the personal finance sector.
I secured my first contract with a Life Insurance broker and on we went. At the end of the first year I had a very modest workforce totalling 8, a fantastic group of people who helped keep the business going, most of whom I am still friends with to date.
There is lesson number 1. Do not employ staff who you have been friends with before, and/or don’t become friends with your staff to the point where, when the shit hits the fan and you have to let them go, it almost breaks your heart.
Lesson 2, in a similar vein, don’t take firing a member of staff to heart, it’s a business decision to better the business, there cannot be any love lost.
So we made it to the end of the first year, we had done it! I laughed in the face of the failure rates of small businesses in the first year. I was here, not one of the 50% who go under. Granted I made a loss of £64, but to me that was an achievement.
I wasn’t rich and I knew I wouldn’t be. There was no fame, but there was pride. I was damn proud of myself – I was 24, my daughter was 1, I was studying full time, working full time and I had beaten the failure rates. Enormous metaphorical high five for me please!
2010 rolled in then. It was my final year at University, I had a toddler who had decided that it was her time to slot in to the “terrible two” bracket and a business to run. I was ready.
The aim was to replicate last year to grow and possibly even make some profit. I was realistic throughout about my goals. Maybe I played my cards too close to my chest, and played my hand as safe as I could, but that was my choice. I felt this approach would get me to year 3 and then I could be ambitious.
In 2010 I had relationships with a few different brokers; one in particular was a dream partnership. We provided the company with leads, they then converted these leads and this continued for a while without hiccup.
Half way through the year there was an opportunity to grow, the aforementioned broker we were working with loved how we worked and wanted to up the numbers. This meant increasing staff and stopping supply to our smaller brokers, which I had no problem with.
In an environment such as lead generation thick skin is a trait that I found impossible to find. Staff started, staff left. Some walked out, some just didn’t come back the next day. I recall one who was even left crying by a customer over the phone.
Thick skin is something that can only be tested on the job and I learnt this quickly. Individuals who had promised the world in interviews crumbled on their first day whilst those who were a bit more shy and retiring I instantly dismissed within the first 3 minutes of an interview.
Lesson 3 – more than 1 interview is needed, especially for lead generation or market research. This is something I didn’t spend enough time on, I needed staff, and I needed them yesterday. I knew that in this business, getting staff was becoming increasingly difficult.
Anyway, I had my targets set. I didn’t have as many staff as I would have liked but with those I did have, we increased hours and bumped up incentives,. I needed the push.
Up until February 2010 I was working full time myself on the phones and contributed to the target each week. One reason was to lead by example, another was to simply help reach the target and make up for the lack of staff. I never sat twiddling my thumbs; I got in the thick of it.
My final exams were approaching and the pressure was immense. I was lucky to have a very understanding family that supported me and looked after my daughter as I clung on to my degree and my business by the fingernails.
The more intense University got, the less I got on the phones and contributed to the target but after a few weeks of no sleep and hard graft I got there. I finished my exams and my final year; I was ready to get back in to the thick of the business.
I employed a few more members of staff and it was shortly after that things started to take a turn for the worst.
Leads were getting sent back like a wrong order in a restaurant. The relationship with the dream broker started to fray as payments were late and warning signals began to flare. There were promises of payment, next week, next month, but they didn’t come.
I knew I had let something slip, I made the decision to supply leads to one company. I put all my eggs in to one basket, major mistake.
The broker, as suspected had gone in to administration.
I had no back up, I had fallen behind so much that I didn’t know how I could go on. I had to let the staff go and, as mentioned before, a few friends. The bills were coming on top of me like a meteor, I was a sinking ship in the sea of despair. At least it felt that way. It was over. I had failed. I had fallen.
Things I didn’t do
I didn’t have a back up, I didn’t allow for me having time off; I juggled 3 balls instead of 2. I didn’t allow for the companies we were supplying to go in to administration. In a recession, and looking back now, this seems so stupid.
Things I did do
I did succeed on the first year, I did complete my degree and I did provide a living for my daughter. I directed her into the land far away from the terrible two’s, a land where tantrums only happen once or twice a day. Praise the Lord.
I also avoided bankruptcy, something I am extremely proud of. I was so close to it and ready to throw in the towel, but it means that I still have a property for my daughter to inherit in the future. Once the recession ends and we get past the negative equity, of course, but it’s still a positive to me.
And I got back up again.
I do think sometimes, if it wasn’t for my daughter and the support from my family and friends I may have slipped into obscurity and hidden my head in the sand. But that thought only slips in to my head now and then.
My true belief is that I had to get back up; it’s who I am and what I’m about. Will I start up another business in the future? I would love to, is the answer to that. But all in good time.
Getting a job proved unbelievably hard after the business had failed. Employers seemed to see it as a downfall that I had my own business and had failed and, as I attended each interview, I felt myself die a little inside.
It occurred to me that what I had achieved in year 1 meant nothing. The fact that I had failed would haunt me forever and leave a black mark on my CV.
That was until I got an interview for Learning Pool. Although my confidence was knocked I was determined to get this job. The once confident and bubbly girl was fading fast and I knew to get this job would mean the return of my former self.
And here I am, proud as punch to say I am a Senior Sales and Marketing executive at Learning Pool. To say I love my job is an understatement. Learning Pool saw something in me and believed in me enough to invite me to be part of the team. So that feeling of pride is back! I’m am so proud to be a part of such a fantastic and growing company.
I’m 26 now, I’m in a position where I can begin to look for a new place to live for myself and my daughter, I love my job and I’m finally starting to feel like myself again.
I do not regret my choice to start up a business. Yes, I failed, but at least I tried. I always maintain that failure is never fatal. Money couldn’t buy the lessons I’ve learned and I know that someday all of this will make me a better person, a better mother, a better employee and maybe, in the future, a better entrepreneur.