In 2009, many businesses ground to a halt – almost a complete stop. Corporate customers stopped buying. Consumer sentiment was down, and people stopped spending. In the U.S., this was our entire economy. Most leaders found themselves navigating uncharted business waters, and leadership became narrowly focused on one thing: survival.
I am proud to say I made it through to the healthy market now in its tenth year. However, I remember every vivid detail of how I spent my days as the President of a once #20 Baker’s Dozen RPO firm during the recession. Here is a candid look at my recession-era experiences from that time and the lessons I learned.
Failure is a Good Thing
During the recession, much of my day involved customers calling by the dozens to say they were no longer hiring that year. “Yes, I know we have a contract for services, however, I need you to simply cancel services.” I couldn’t blame them. They were feeling the same pressures I was. I remember the fear, frantic calls, and discussions with my staff and managers. We were living in a whole new world.
At first, everyone played nice at work. We were all in this together, right? We were a good company with solid values and a great culture. We could survive anything together. But we were all nervous. Big contracts went away, one right after the other. Our recruiters came to work knowing there were no placements to be made. I’m sure they felt that their clock was ticking.
Eventually our business shrunk. Staff had to leave. Or be asked to leave. Everyone was fighting to feed their family and pay their bills – the future trajectory of their career was an afterthought. We all had fewer choices. My people found new jobs. Me? I had to stay and decide if I would run or fight. I’m not ashamed to admit that the “let’s get the hell out of here” path looked all too welcoming at times. But I wasn’t going to give in.
“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” – B.F. Skinner
I stayed and fought. And for a long time, I did every job in the company. And no, I didn’t do it near as well as the folks who left. I worked for less. Some weeks I worked for free.
I survived, so no failure…right? Wrong. I failed. But as a company, we emerged stronger through the failure. Here’s what 2009 taught me:
- Entrepreneurs are only done when they throw in the towel.
- Money can always be found even if it’s at a premium.
- My first business was not recession-proof, but you better believe Placers is recession-proof. Here’s why:
- We make money to save money.
- We avoid debt to grow.
- We pay attention to the economy and how it impacts staffing.
- We move up and down with GDP.
- We have a good business model that is proven.
- We’re not a jack of all trades so we can be a master where it matters.
- We know where we are going and relentlessly work towards that plan.
Throughout the recession, I was humbled. I had to be depressed. I went to work numb. I worked out a lot. I had dinner with my family. I could not work late – there was nothing to work on. Every minute I was not looking for new customers or ways to lower costs, I spent staring at my notebook hoping the answer to my problem would magically find its way on to the paper.
What I found out at the end is that painful situations fade. They get better. Everything changes. One of those things was my focus. I was going to learn a lesson from failure and run my business resiliently, and I still do.
The biggest lesson? We’ll never, ever, ever, ever quit. How about you?