How do you measure success? Is it by the neighborhood you live in? The size of your house? Or maybe the lofty title of your job? Perhaps being your own boss conjures the pinnacle of success. Some might suffice to say they measure success by no longer making mistakes. However, mistakes are inevitable. It is how we recover from those mistakes that matter most and ultimately may determine our success.
Let’s roll back the calendar to 2006. The real estate and financial markets were booming with no end in sight, FSB Associates, our online book publicity & marketing firm, was better than thriving. John, my business partner and husband, and I decided to expand our company because given those upward moving trends it appeared to be the next logical step.
We enlarged our organization from six to 13 full-time employees. We leased a larger office space, bought new furniture, and faster, better Apple computers for our entire team. If success were measured by how things looked, we were hugely successful. I had a giant office with spectacular windows and an impressive teak desk. All in all, it was all a bit of an ego trip for me.
However, after about a year, John and I realized we had made a mistake. The expansion had not been what we expected. Thankfully, we had not taken on partners or loans to expand, but we were heavily invested nonetheless.
The daily pressure to meet pay roll and provide quality health insurance for 13 people was beyond daunting. I had never managed more than three people. Managing this many people meant I needed to acquire more skills and training. In what seemed like overnight, my job had morphed from being the creative campaign manager and book publicist, a job that I loved, into managing staff. I was better than good at my old job, but I found these new duties overwhelming and not at all fun. As an entrepreneur, I was accustomed to doing everything myself. Taking on this new role in our organization where I had to ask and train other people to do the things I wanted to do myself took discipline. A lot of discipline. John’s job changed too. He had always been our CTO and our CEO. He was developing websites for authors and publishers, but also managing the needs of 13 people. This managing became a job in itself and left less time to actually develop websites, something we needed to help bring in revenue.
John and I were both unhappy, but we thought it was just growing pains. Surely this unhappiness would subside once we reached homeostasis. Learning to delegate and hire the right people was one facet of this transition along with acquiring new skills to move our organization forward. But soon we would learn it wasn’t just growing pains. I began to feel resentful and actually came to dislike my job. The logical part of me sought to right this sinking ship and embrace that which was new and demanding. I read books (including some written by our wonderful clients), took classes and learned what needed to be done, but none of it changed how I felt. I wanted to be free. I believed I was a maverick, a change maker. Everything felt wrong. I felt stuck and unfulfilled. I loved collaborating with people, but managing at that level left me exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
I have friends who I believe are fabulous managers. I have been blessed in my work to be led by exceptional bosses and managers, but in all honesty I am not one of them. I really wanted to be better and I was trying, but I don’t think I was improving. I began to be discouraged. The economy had changed, it was spiraling downward. There was pressure to bring in more and more business even while we knew it was impossible. This new adventure and investment felt crushing. For the first time in my career, my work was not fulfilling and exciting; I was worse than unhappy. My work had become a slog, a drag. I didn’t know what to do to change those dynamics or where to turn.
To make matters worse, two people resigned in a single week—likely because I was a terrible manager, or so I thought. Jeez, I thought. Now I’ve got to do more interviewing and training. Neither was a fun proposition at that moment. That night I went to bed feeling particularly disheartened, but when I woke up, I imagined a different, potentially life-altering scenario. I began to assess whether or not 13 people had added to our profitability or diminished it. I came to the foregone conclusion that we were not more profitable. Originally, I thought a bigger company implied that we were successful, but were we? If neither of us was happy nor was our organization as profitable as it had been before the expansion, how were we more successful? I started to wonder what it truly meant to be successful.
There was a time when success to me was clear cut. I grew up in the 80s when the most popular slogans were “greed is good” and “who ever has the most toys wins.” I had bought into the idea that the appearance of success actually translated into real success. If this was success it sure didn’t feel like success to me and John. The expansion was a sham. Adding more employees was a disaster. John and I were so miserable. We were stuck doing jobs we clearly did not enjoy. As I mulled over the situation, I remembered that FSB is our company (the initials FSB are actually mine). We truly are in charge of the decisions we make. We do not have to believe what everyone else does about success. It’s ok for success to mean different things to different people and it certainly did mean different things to us.
Success meant doing the work I love, collaborating with a team that works at my speed, and growing with people who care as much about our clients and our work as I do. I may not have known that that morning, but I have known it every day since. As time marched forward we did not replace people as they left FSB, which meant we turned down business. This was uber scary at first. However, it ended up being a great decision in the end. This meant we could be more selective and potentially work with better business partners. Eventually, we gave up the large, ostentatious office and moved to a smaller space. We gave away our expensive office furniture. Going back to our roots helped us to form a team-based work environment that we call “The Mighty 5”. John and I instantly felt renewed and energized. It was and is glorious. Furthermore, I am so thrilled that I challenged what success means, especially to us. I no longer simply believe what others tell me about success. I know better! We have increased our clientele and provided quality services to them. So when people say, “You’ll need to hire more people.” I just smile and say, “I don’t think so.”
My advice to you:
• Don’t believe what others tell you about success. Find out what success means to you. It’s easy to assume that growth and expansion mean success.
• Go back to your roots. Remember why you started your company in the first place.
• Always do what you are good at. It’s far more fulfilling.
• If you are not eager to get up each morning filled with joy and enthusiasm for your work, change what you are doing.
• Make your own rules and follow your heart.
Lesson Learned: expanding our company was a mistake. It took many years and lots of money to recover from that mistake, but in the end, I am glad we made it. I now know what success means to me and it has been one of the most valuable lessons of my entire career. Today I spend all my time working with authors on book launch strategies or devising successful publicity campaigns or launching their author websites or talking with them at book conferences. I love my job. What could be better than that?