Mangled to the Manacles

Two police officers, one who I partially knew, requested to talk to me in private. Given the small nature of our office, the car park out the front would suffice.

One of them said there’d been an incident, or words to that effect. Their stiffened broad shoulders held the entire frame of their bodies in a permanent posture as if someone had shouted attention on the parade ground.  

They asked if I could assist in obtaining CCTV footage from one of my company’s clients. An organization I knew well. A man I’d had many dealings with.  

Not without their permission, I advised.

That won’t be possible, they replied.

I sat my arse hard up against the bonnet of the company-owned white Falcon wagon. The day was unnecessarily clear, bright and blue.

I then asked if something had happened to Jim.

They looked at each other first, then one answered by way of a quiet nod.

I asked colloquially, crudely and without thought or regard, words to the effect of whether he’d self-harmed.

A quietly alarmed look was shared between the officers. Then with a stern look the officer I knew nodded again. He asked what I might know of it.

All I knew then – and now – is that he’d been struggling. Given the tardiness of his bill payments, I assumed at least in part financially. What small business doesn’t struggle though?

A sometimes-difficult character, Jim was generally considered a good man. Generous to me with his time to discuss business, generous to my business as a client, generous to my family in caring for our pet beagle.

Veterinarians hold an unenviable position as one of the leading occupations for suicide, perhaps due to the ease of accessibility to highly effective lethal drugs. The case as that may be, many other business owners find other ways to come to the same end for similar reason. Business owners overall are overrepresented in deaths due to self-harm. These means to an end are the symptom of societal pressures on those with the initiative to burden the challenge of the economy’s powerhouse that is small business

Within six months of Jim’s death I’d liquidated my own small business. Too ill to carry on working, too debt-ridden to sell, too overwhelmed with shame to tie my thoughts together, I considered Jim often. Not three years later, whilst still mellowing in my own self-pity, Mark would become the next small businessperson I’d personally known to cut his own life unnecessarily short.

For both Jim and Mark there was far more to their rich extensive lives than their businesses. And therein lays the trap: for work is often only one aspect of any life, but when one has a small business they are tied to that business. Running their business becomes the often-unintentional epicenter of their lives as they strive to meet expectations as a service provider, employer, charity giver, community leader, tax collector and government red-tape manager.

Eventually, all too often, the business you owned owns you.

Businesspeople I’ve known have enjoyed imparting on me the advice to “bite off more than you can chew and chew hard.” Regrettably, those whom try this advice regularly choke. More than half of all new Australian business ventures fail within twelve months of starting to trade. A staggering ninety per cent cease trading within three years. Over a quarter of a million businesses deregister annually in Australia. The country’s economic growth is depicted by there being more new registrations then deregistration’s in the same time frame.

The churn of businesses is its own industry: supporting accountants and lawyers, all whilst providing the lifeblood of liquidators.

Statistically, I am an anomaly, as my business lasted just shy of nine years. Still, I have nothing to show for it.

Six months after a move to a quiet country town I exercised the several years of industry experience in the city to start my own business from scratch in the unused front room of our family home. We’d made a tree-change. We wanted a country life to raise a family. I sought opportunity. I’d spent months prior watching small business television on Sunday mornings. Years devouring every book by Robert Kiyosaki on sales and money. Countless nights falling asleep reading books about business management. Like many who take the plunge, I was never in business to be an entrepreneur. I was there simply to serve customers the best way I could see, with no real interest in capitalistic market opportunities or the reams of paperwork required by various levels of government to facilitate the services I dared dream to provide.

I was ignorantly confident, and utterly unprepared for the possibilities of reality. The trail of success would be peppered by failures. Each one taking a compounding toll till the trap was fully set for total utter failure.

It was easiest when I first started. Hours spent thinking, plotting, peering out the window of the early nineteen-hundreds red brick cottage, scrutinising the giant Dutch Elm tree – one of many along our street. One of those extra-wide country town roads built long before cars were a consideration. The Elm trees had survived so much that had happened around the world: wars, economic strife, Dutch Elm disease. They’d change with every season, stripped bare to match the starkness of the bitter Winter, sprout leaf blossoms in Spring, radiate all shades of red in Autumn. Those trees, as did my business, started out easily. They were small, struggled, and those that survived their infancy outgrew their challenges, adjusting for the seasons as needed. Just as businesses do. Some will become ill, some will recover. Some won’t. Some will be cut short before they can flourish.

Registering as a sole trader business with an entity name in Australia will cost you about twelve minutes and thirty-four dollars. Setting up a company requires extraordinarily little more effort, however, comes with vastly more complex responsibilities. Companies are legally an entity. A paper-based person with legal rights only outweighed by a raft of responsibilities that are ultimately those of the directors. You don’t even need a partner: today in Australia you can just jump online and sign up to be a sole director, sole shareholder. Just don’t forget your inane Annual General Meeting of one, or the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) will hunt you down for breach of the Companies Act. Helpfully, ASIC’s website strongly recommends reading specified articles before proceeding with registering a company. These provide a preventative awareness measure, so you might understand your pending responsibilities – for once you register, you are responsible for innumerous matters, and ignorance of such knowledge is not a defense. There’s no test to prevent the ignorant from jeopardising themselves.

I registered myself as a sole trader with a trading name in July 2006. Trade significantly increased a few months later when I discovered I could sub-contract my services to other businesses within the industry. This cash flow soon allowed me the resources to build the business to have its own customers. With the knowledge of a first child incubating within the first few months of the business’s fledgling start, I knew it was sink or swim. I needed to be income positive. I had to work no matter the strain, and a double inguinal hernia was not going to stop me (though it did slow me down for two weeks after the birth of our child. That being two weeks shorter than the four-week recommended recovery time). I vividly recall the late-night discomfort of the pull of the mesh that had been surgically affixed to grip my upper groin muscles together as I worked outside of regular business hours to pull cables through the ceiling of a local supermarket. One of many late nights over the years.

The first employee, a like-minded technician to provide practical support, came at about the same time that our first-born started crawling. He was recommended to me by a mutual friend. Our first meeting – a job interview, of sorts – held over a beer in the loungeroom of the same red-brick home that contained my office.

The nature of the business meant we travelled for work, usually within the region, although sometimes we stayed away for days at a time, several hours from home. We shared motel rooms, and later, as I worked out various efficiencies of business, we’d share caravan park cabins, a room each, dinners cooked and shared within close quarters. We forged a friendship that stands true to this day. Though he may not realise it, he is still one of my closest friends.

I was cutting my teeth as an employer, and if there was a mistake to be made, I was likely making it.

By late 2008 we moved into our first office. Despite not needing Main Street exposure, I reasoned it would help give the business legitimacy. As humans we crawl before we walk, and a business should do the same. However, I was off and running, first trying to keep up with demand by adding more staff, then trying to keep up with staff by chasing more work. And so it was a seemingly endless cycle. The first of January 2009 was our first trading day as an official corporation, held solely by my one share, steered by my sole responsibility as the only Director. Soon after, the business had three technicians, an office administrator and, to try and keep the work coming in to pay for all those salaries, a part-time salesperson whose role consisted of introducing new clients to the business.

We had enough to keep us busy, but it seemed we didn’t offer enough. We offered a unique service to our town, though primarily our work was conducted outside of the town. We brought income into the local economy and were able to provide services that could not otherwise be done easily by locals, if at all. I was approached over some weeks by several members of the town business community to setup a security night patrol: a seemingly logical extension to our existing electronic security systems business. This would mean offering the services of a security guard to travel at night to check on buildings, compounds and yards of our customers, making sure they had been locked up, and conducting random patrols throughout the night. Monotonous and dreary, no matter the weather. Extraordinarily draining in every sense of the word for anyone who’s ever worked the role.

Strategically simple to implement but overtly complex to maintain, I figured if it were good for the town, it would be good for us, too. We hired a guard to cover the weeknights, and I would work the nightshift on weekends until the service could afford to do otherwise. And we would lose money hand over fist until it did. During that initial two-year period, I worked seven days a week, often with no layover between night and day responsibilities. Over the following years I rarely had a Christmas break, usually working the Eve or Day of; Easters I often worked right through.

The strain on the business was untold. Sometime in early 2010 we lost that first employee to a better offer to which we couldn’t compete. I’d told him he’d be mad not to take the offer.

Later, over years of trying to refill his shoes, I discovered I had never deserved him. The company floundered without senior technician, and I experienced the gut-wrenching sting of retrenching staff. Some took the difficulties better then others. One took the best part of the twelve months filing complaints wherever he could: firstly, a Workcover claim lodged directly with the insurer, which I only found out about when the insurer rang me to confirm some of the details. Secondly, a claim to Workcover inspectors for insufficient workplace conditions. And then a complaint to the Union. All the complaints were eventually determined unfounded by the investigating bodies. But in the meantime, all warranted investigation, tying up my time and resources, affecting the efficiency of the business, adding to the strain of one person’s responsibility to everyone involved. Meanwhile, there were the essentials to be concerned with: cashflow, paying wages, keeping suppliers and customers content.

At the time I would lament with other business owners that if they thought business was hard, they should try having one that operates twenty-four hours a day, non-stop, seven days a week. In hindsight I may have been lucky not to be lying awake at night worrying about the business as I trudged through night patrols. My physical and mental exhaustion, at those times I made it to bed, did not grant me such a luxury as lying awake with worry.

When a business relies on one person there is the risk of a single point of failure. My deteriorating health was ultimately outside of my control. Sometime in 2013 I was diagnosed with a condition undoubtedly exacerbated by the daily strains of a life made by my own creation. I’d been medically advised to work less, so reduced the hours I worked. I employed more staff. I relied on those staff more. I looked for options to make the business less dependent on me. I considered I had too much skin in the game.

An opportunity availed to purchase a local business which could complement our existing services with similarly qualified technical staff, while also providing further opportunity for expansion. Finance was tough to obtain, yet doable under strict conditions. This would be the solution to my inability to commit to the workload. Rather than go small, or close, we’d go big and be self-sustainable: a business that could operate without my daily input, continuing to support all staff within the business, and supporting the town overall.

The deal worked out over several months of mid-2014, culminating in about September that year to a launch of the newly combined business. I was naively positive, under pressure from all angles, and as it would turn out, made a regular habit of making poor decisions. Staff from both original businesses were for various reasons not happy with the new team’s combination of personalities and skill sets. I just wanted them to work well together and get on with the work at hand. Cash flow was tight, work was decreasing, morale was low.

Then January 2015 happened. Or perhaps, as it turned out, didn’t happen. The slowest of slow cash-flow months at a time when every cent counted towards solvency, there’d be no recovery without that dreaded sting again of retrenchments. Again, I made enemies of people I’d considered friends. Those who turned out only to care for their own circumstance, with no interest in that of their former colleagues that remained. Regardless, I continued to show, until I couldn’t. In May came the medical appointment that concluded I could no longer perform my duties, and that I probably hadn’t been able to for some time. I sought options to dismantle the business. Instead I was offered investor cash to keep the company afloat, provided I stay at the helm. My health was of no interest to anyone.

I couldn’t perform my employed roles. I couldn’t operate as a manager. I couldn’t meet my obligations and responsibilities as a Director – I wasn’t so sure anymore that I’d ever really understood what they even were. We couldn’t keep trading. My skin in the game had long ago become flesh mangled to the manacles that shackled me to my own ship. As Captain, I went down at the helm, appointing liquidators in June, just shy of nine years in business.

At its smallest, in the early days, the business had a staff of one – me – and a ten-year-old Commodore that overheated on long drives. At its largest, the business had thirteen staff, a fleet of cars, and two offices.

Despite all the real-world responsibilities it encompasses, starting a business is substantially too easy. Registering a company only fractionally more complex. It is in the same vein of creating a child in that almost anyone can do it, but the majority are ill-equipped and under-qualified for the responsibilities that follow. Unlike child creation though, business owners often lack instinct, guidance and the support of friends and family needed to manage and maintain a business. A business – company or otherwise – is a ship that must be run as such. No sane person would take a ship to sea without qualification to first know how to sail one. Yet anyone in Australia can tie themselves to a business without prior qualification, damn to any sanity. Be sure though, they’ll be held responsible when that business, as per statistics, likely fails. Even as ignorance is no excuse, lack of qualification is still no barrier to prevent been placed in that difficult position of ultimate responsibility.

I still think of Jim. The pressures he must have felt from decades of running his business as Captain at the helm of three practices in three towns. How his end seemingly came by there been for him no other way forward, no other way out.

Despite part of my identity been tied to the ship when it disappeared to the depths, now lost forever, I’m living proof there is life after the ship has sunk.

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