How It All Started
In 2011 after a failed attempt to sell our home, my husband and I decided to renovate our 1965 bungalow. It was a big job but Chris, having owned a house flipping company during the Alberta real estate boom, is a pretty handy guy and he was confident he could handle the majority of the work himself and contract out the portions of the job that exceeded his skill level. We had only been together a little over a year at the time so I was somewhat wary but ultimately impressed when he tore down and rebuilt walls and chipped up tile to lay new ones in their place. He completely transformed our basement from the cold, inhospitable place we affectionately referred to as “the bunker” into a beautiful living space complete with 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a large recreation room for the kids. The basement transformation finished, miraculously, with very few setbacks or surprises and despite the fact that we had expected delays (I’m not sure any construction project in the history of construction has ever finished on time) we were moving along our timeline at a comfortable pace.
Our goal was to have the entire job finished by June 28th, 2011. Chris’s 40th birthday was on June 29th and we had a party planned and with guests coming to stay, we preferred that we not have to entertain in the rubble of a construction site. In early May we hired a company to gut and rebuild our kitchen and they assured us they could easily have the job done before the beginning of June. That would leave us enough time to put the finishing touches in and toast the birthday boy in our newly renovated home on his big day.
It is here that I will take a quick detour to provide some relevant background information. In 2011 Chris and I didn’t have a lot of connections in the Edmonton construction industry. Chris was relatively new to the city and I had never had cause to have contacts in the field, so when it came to hiring trades we were really at the mercy of what we could find on the internet. Despite checking BBB ratings and online reviews we wound up hiring a kitchen company that was, for lack of a better descriptor, complete shit. They started off strong but by the end of May they had literally disappeared. Weeks went by with cabinets sitting on the floor in our unfinished kitchen without a single word from the absent contractors. It was only after multiple increasingly angry phone calls that they finally returned to finish the job the last week of June. Like the inside walls of the house, our timeline had been demolished and now the pressure was on to install the hardwood floors, which Chris was doing himself. We talked briefly about employing a flooring contractor but this idea was quickly sidelined. There was no time to hire someone else who may, or may not, show up and who may, or may not, follow through on their promises. We just didn’t have the connections to be confident we would be hiring someone we could trust and we couldn’t afford the cost or the time of another unreliable trade.
BUSINESS LESSON #1 – You Can’t Do It All Alone
I get it, you’re your own boss. You don’t need other people with their opinions and advice. No one can do the job better than you can. It’s why you became a business owner in the first place. Well, I hate to break it to you but if you keep plowing through life with that mentality, you’re headed straight for burn out. Monumental undertakings, like a whole home renovation OR running a business, require a team of people to make things go smoothly. I’m not saying you have to employ a staff of hundreds but the question I will pose is this – who do you turn to when you’re out of your depth and you need a professional to step in? And how do you find this person? I’ll tell you from experience that Google is not always the most reliable way to find help. My first lesson from this experience is that you can’t do it alone (well technically you can but it’s WAY harder). You need a network of trusted professionals who you can count on to be there when you need help.
“My first lesson from this experience is that you can’t do it alone. You need a network of trusted professionals who you can count on to be there when you need help.”
Developing a professional network is hands down one of the most valuable things I have ever pursued as a business owner. Over the last 5 years I have made it my priority to build strong relationships with people from all kinds of businesses – from trades to banking. Why? Because not only do I now know a trusted cabinet company when I need one, but I also have a group of people that I can talk to when I’m not sure what my next steps should be. They can help because chances are they’ve been there too. Maybe if we’d had access to a reliable network of people back then, what happened next could have been avoided.
What Happened Next
It was crunch time. On June 28th there was about 100 square feet of hardwood floor to be finished and the house needed to be cleaned.
Chris set to work on the flooring while I, dressed in my fanciest sweatpants and a t-shirt bearing an image of my mustachioed brother smoking a carrot (pictured right), whipped around with the vacuum. The table saw was in the garage so Chris, also dressed in his finest tracksuit bottoms, sans shirt, travelled in and out of the house cutting and installing floor boards. I was in one of the bedrooms, running the Dyson over the new carpet when I heard a sound. It was coming from outside, muffled and barely audible over the din of the vacuum,“Uuuuuuuuuuggghhhh…”
“What is that?” I turned off the vacuum to hear better.
A little louder now, “UUUuuuuuccccccchhhh!”
“Who the heck is yelling outside?” I asked out loud.
And then clear as day from the back yard, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!”
I threw down the vacuum and bolted out the back door just in time to see Chris running circles in the grass screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs holding his hand. He ran into the house, “Fuck” then ran back to the garage, “FUCK” then back into the yard, “FUUCK!”
“Chris, what happened? What?! Let me see!” I tried desperately to get him to stop running back and forth between the house and the garage.
“It’s gone! It’s fucking gone!” He screamed.
Our very soft spoken, very Catholic neighbour poked his head up over the fence. “Is everything ok?” he asked.
“Oh god. Oh shit. Of fuck. It’s gone!” Chris bellowed.
“What’s gone?” I grabbed him by the shoulders and stared him down.
“My THUMB!!!!” came the reply. “My fucking thumb is gone!”
I asked him over and over again to let me see his hand, a request that he outright refused to oblige. I raced into the garage to survey the scene. Years of first aid training had taught me that I needed to find the thumb and take it with us to the hospital if there was any hope of having it re-attached.
“GET IN THE CAR!!!” He shouted. “WE NEED TO GO!”
I ran back into the house, looking for some clean fabric to wrap his hand in to catch the flow of blood. I handed him a towel and ran back to the garage to resume my search for his missing digit. Chris, shirtless and shoeless, jumped into the passenger side of my car and reiterated, “WE NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL. FORGET THE THUMB. IT’S GONE!”
What he was saying didn’t make much sense to me. Gone? Where did it go? Did he get it so badly tangled in the saw that it vaporized? It was really hard to think clearly so I grabbed some shoes for both of us and got into the car. Our very kind but very puzzled neighbour watched as we peeled out of the driveway and sped towards the University Hospital, the streak of obscenities growing quiet in the distance.
BUSINESS LESSON #2 – You Can’t Afford NOT to Take a Break
Every time Chris and I look back on this moment, he always says, “I knew that saw blade was dull but I was rushed and so I kept using it anyway.” Here’s what happened – there were a few boards left to be installed and rather than slowing down and taking a few minutes to exchange the dull blade for a new one, Chris decided the current blade could handle the last few cuts. As he went to push the floorboard through the serrated edge, the blade hit but could not make it through. The wood kicked out and the forward momentum of his hands put his thumb right into the saw’s spinning teeth. Had he taken just a few minutes to get a fresh blade, the entire disaster might have been prevented.
How often do we do this as business owners? We think we don’t have time to take a break. How can our business possibly be successful if we aren’t there to control every single aspect of every single transaction of every single day? The truth of the matter is, as entrepreneurs we can’t afford NOT to take a break. As Brene Brown once said, “You can’t live your life like you’re on fire and expect not to burn out.” It is so easy to get caught up in the grind of the day to day that we can lose sight of how dangerously close we are to getting caught in the saw blade. You don’t have to look far to find a business owner who is exhausted, working a million hours a week and barely turning a profit. Business owners with the benefit of hindsight will tell you that they wished they would have worked smarter, not harder. They’ll tell you how they should have paid attention to the gut sensation that was warning them of their imminent demise. These instincts are what make you a great entrepreneur but if you’re racing to the finish line, you’re more likely to ignore them. Lesson #2 is simple – when you’re feeling like it might be time to rest, REST. And for goodness sake, use that opportunity to sharpen your saw.
“Lesson #2 is simple – when you’re feeling like it might be time to rest, REST. And for goodness sake, use that opportunity to sharpen your saw.”
We arrived at the hospital in record time. It’s a short drive from our house as it is, but I made no qualms about driving on medians and speeding through lights with questionable legality. I pulled up to the emergency room entrance and the two of us leapt out of the car and ran through the double sliding glass doors. Chris, still naked from the waste up with his shirt slung haphazardly over his shoulder danced his way to the triage desk. His hand was wound in a towel that was once yellow but was quickly turning a deep shade of red. As he approached the nurse she looked up and said, “What seems to be the problem?”
“I cut my thumb off.” He replied, hopping from foot to foot clutching his bloody hand.
“Ok sir. Let’s have you take a seat and we’ll see what we can do.” Was her counter.
“Oh I’m sorry, I don’t think you heard me. I cut off my THUMB!” he repeated, louder.
She bristled unsympathetically, “I heard you sir. Please have a seat.”
He looked at me incredulously and I led him to a couple of nearby available chairs. Keeping him calm wasn’t easy. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off and his pain level was rising. He couldn’t sit still in the chair, his legs bounced erratically and his body swayed back and forth trying to find comfort. Suddenly his 6 foot 7 frame was up at the triage desk again but this time, he was asking for drugs. When his request was denied there, he moved on to a couple of unsuspecting EMS workers to solicit further.
“If we go out into the parking lot, you can give me drugs and no one will know.” He explained to them.
It’s at this point that I will remind you of what we looked like. Neither of us had showered and we were both wearing dirty, blood spattered sweatpants. Chris was shirtless and I was wearing tee with a photo a middle aged man wearing a rabbit hat and smoking a carrot ( a shirt, I should mention, that I promised my brother I would never wear in public – sorry Kent). Let’s just say that our credibility as upstanding citizens was questionable and the EMS workers were right to be suspicious.
The very nice ambulance attendants explained that regardless of whether or not we were on hospital grounds, they could not, in fact, dispense any substances to help with the pain. He would just have to wait like everyone else. Eventually Chris gave up his search for narcotics and sat impatiently in his seat. It may have been 10 minutes or 2 hours later, but a nurse finally called his name and we were escorted to a private room.
“What seems to be the problem sir?”
“I cut my thumb off with a table saw.”
“Ok, do you think I could take a look?”
“No, it’s gone.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to take a look so we can see how we can help you.”
He reluctantly moved his hands in her direction and loosened his grip on the towel. “My thumb is gone.” he repeated. “It’s gone.”
She eased his arms out over the sink and slowly began to unravel the makeshift bandage. I stood on his other side, rubbing his back and peering over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of the damage. As the nurse revealed the gory mess beneath the yellow terry cloth my eyes widened in surprise. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There, covered in blood and mangled but perfectly intact, was Chris’s thumb. Chris was even more surprised than I was.
BUSINESS LESSON #3 – You Cannot Think Clearly Under Stress
In very stressful situations we can get so bogged down in what we think is happening that can’t see things for how they really are. The higher the stakes, the more difficult it is to view the situation with an objective lens. Chris truly and honestly thought his thumb was gone. The disbelief that registered on his face when he was able to see it attached to his hand, right where it had always been, said it all. It took a calm, well trained professional to pull away the blood soaked towel and assess the situation for what it really was. Was there an injury? Absolutely. Was it painful? Of course it was. But had his thumb vaporized under the blade of that saw? Nope.
Being an entrepreneur is stressful. You are solely responsible for the outcome of your business. You need to manage cashflow, revenue, and expenditures. You have clients to please and staff to manage. There are meetings to attend, phone calls to answer and a never-ending flow of emails to respond to. You’re pulled in multiple directions and need to be able to wear numerous hats, sometimes switching from one to another in an instant. Circumstances like the loss of a contract, supply chain issues or a new competitor on the scene are a very real threat to your well being and you are wired to respond to these “paper tigers” as you would any other danger – by going into fight or flight mode. Also known as a sympathetic response, this reaction is completely involuntary and the increased heart rate, rapid breathing and boost of energy your body undergoes as a response to a perceived threat will occur before you have any conscious awareness that it is happening. It is literally impossible to think rationally under this kind of stress. And entrepreneurs are almost always under this kind of stress.
So, what’s the solution?
See The Forest For The Trees
What I’ve come to realize about this final lesson is that part of the solution lies in the first two lessons.
1. You cannot do it alone. Find your people. You can join a networking organization, hire a coach, find a mastermind group, employ staff, go to therapy, contract to a virtual assistant, etc. There are numerous ways to get support for you and your business but it requires you to put yourself out there and find what works for you. It’s time to let go of the notion that you and ONLY you can run your empire. Even Tony Danza needed help from time to time and he was still the boss.
2. You need to take a break. Every single day. Find time to turn off your phone, hit the gym, go for a walk, eat lunch away from your screens, drink water, spend time with people who make you smile, read a book. Self care doesn’t have to mean spending thousands of dollars on a vacation or pouring yourself an extra large glass of wine. Although these things can also help from time to time, most of us don’t have an unlimited bank account or an indestructible liver, so it’s important to develop small habits that compound to big returns when they are done consistently. Your gut is telling you what those things are and if you slow down for a hot minute and just listen, I promise you’ll know what you need. If you’re not sure, refer back to lesson one.
The Benefit of Hindsight
Thanks to the plastic surgeons at the U of A Hospital, Chris’s thumb is completely repaired. Other than some persistent numbness and lingering psychological scars that will probably prevent him from operating a table saw in the future, he has made a full recovery. 11 years later this story has become a dinner party/camp fire favourite, especially with some of the embellishments that have been added over the years. That’s the benefit of hindsight. We are able to view the time that my husband cut off his thumb (but not really) with levity while never forgetting the gravity of the lessons held within.
Chris has been a business owner for over 25 years and I have proudly called myself an entrepreneur for a decade. Our combined experience also gives us the benefit of hindsight. We have made countless mistakes and we have earned our education through years of experience. So far our business has managed to withstand the injuries it has endured, albeit with some persistent numbness and minor psychological scarring. But make no mistake about it, I firmly believe that our education is not complete. Owning a business is a lot like renovating a house. Sometimes you open up walls and find things you didn’t anticipate and the deeper you get into the work, the more there is to discover. I just hope that we’ve learned enough to make it to the end of the project with as little bloodshed as possible.
My husband Chris, and I are the owners of Camelot Interiors, a company that specializes in custom blinds and shades in Edmonton, Alberta. We’ve got Blind Enthusiasm!
Leave a Reply