Lesson(s) Learned

If we’ve learned anything in the past six months, it’s that very, very, very little is in our control. We’re all helplessly embedded in the fabric of cities, towns, counties and countries, dependent on our neighbors near and far, and completely incapable of operating on our own.

I always considered myself a fiercely independent person, and sank deeper into that identity when we started our first business. I felt like I was operating outside the status quo and outside of the fluctuations and financial ups and downs that hit a lot harder when you’re in the back of the caravan instead of in the driver’s seat.

COVID-19 absolutely shattered one of my favorite parts of myself – my independence. I realized overnight not only that many things well beyond my imagination were possible – correction, currently happening in real time – but that those external things had near-complete control over my life.

Within a few days, our income was cut down over 90%, we were on full lockdown, and our island was shut off from the outside world. There was no timeline, no hints, no warnings. And the interim – of not knowing when we would reopen, when we could make money again, when things would go back to normal – has lasted for six long, painful months.

We didn’t know what to do, so we focused on what we could do. We could rearrange our business to bring in income. We could apply for the SBA, PPP and local grants and wait out as they ran out of money (twice) before ours got approved. We could speak to our clients, let them know our plan, and keep them updated as things progressed. We could keep our cool and put one foot in front of the other. So, we did.

It’s important to note that most of these changes were very uncomfortable, scary, risky, brave, bold, painful, laborious and miserable. There were days I woke up and just told myself to make it through today, and try for a better day the next. There were tears, panic, loss, loneliness, struggle, lost sleep, anxiety, mental breakdowns and panic attacks. There was all of it, but somehow we just kept moving forward.

And that, at least for us, is the lesson of it all – we just have to keep moving, that will always, always, always be enough. That’s something we can always do.

If it Don’t Make Dollars, it Don’t Make Sense.

Let’s keep it real: businesses are designed to make money. Sure, there’s childhood dreams, life-long aspirations, passion, talent and love involved – but the purpose is positive cash flow. The whole idea is to make money in a different way.

Dreams & passion aside, we all need income to survive. To pay bills, keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. We don’t always like to talk about it, but it’s true.

When you start a business, the scariest leap is the financial one. Will this business make enough money for my life? Will I go into debt? Will I lose everything?

We were lucky that our business was pretty cheap to start. We had cleaning supplies, our real estate licenses, some software and a shared laptop in a one-bedroom apartment. That was it. As the business started to take shape, though, we constantly came up to the same obstacle:

This would be great for our business, but does it make financial sense to do so?

The answer to this question popped up as a lyric from one of our favorite groups: if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

We wanted so many things: a luxe office space, all organic, locally made cleaning products, sustainable/fair trade cotton linens, and a third person to help us out.

We settled for a new laptop, a cheap desk from Walmart, and generic cleaning products/linens from amazon. It was what made financial sense at the time, and it was absolutely the right choice.

Two years later, we’re moving into a beautiful three-bedroom home so we can have a proper office. We’re still working towards our third person, but for now, we’ve started contracting out the cleanings and laundry work, so we can focus on accounting and growth.

It’s what makes dollars and sense, where we are right now. And that’s what has empowered our business to grow and improve without putting us into debt.

So keep in mind – if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. You have to put YOU and YOUR business first. Before all the partnerships, collaborations, and shiny, attractive services you can’t quite afford yet. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on what you really want – it just means that you have to take your time to get there.

Saying No to Customers

As small business owners, we love our clients. After all, they’re what keep us in business! It’s deeply important to us that our customers are happy, but it’s also equally important that we don’t allow them to push us around.

Let me be clear: most customers are wonderful people, and we’ve made some great friendships along our journey. And of course, we are always happy to fix mistakes and improve our services. But, as most of us know, not every person is easy – or possible – to please.

In the beginning, we had a really tough time dealing with difficult customers and outlandish requests. We’d freak out and panic because we want to do a great job and ensure all of our customers are happy. Now that we have some time and experience under our belts, however, we don’t break a sweat when we come across a tough client, because we’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.

You Can’t Please Everyone

You could create the most delicious/original/unique/beautiful service or product, and someone out there will not like it. In fact, someone out there will hate it.

People come with their own tastes, expectations, needs, wants, and issues, and you cannot possibly meet all of them. And even if you did, someone out there will still not like it – still – because they are having a bad day.

It’s (Usually) Not About You

When a customer overreacts to a small issue – like cilantro as a garnish, or a wrinkled pillowcase – it is usually not really about the issue. It’s about something else.

When people overreact, the problem at hand is likely the latest cherry on top of a bad day, week, month, year, or even life. It’s not the core of the problem, it’s just the latest straw.

So, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you, your product/service, or your business. All you can do is do your best and handle the situation as best you can. Which brings us to our next point:

Do Not Escalate. Ever.

Since the issue is usually not really about the actual issue – or you, or your business – there is no sense in participating in whatever madness is going on. Do not escalate, ever.

We’ve come across a handful of people that pop up now and again. They are analytical, critical, and angry, and they are – get this – looking for an argument. They are actively searching for the opportunity to yell at someone, and we do our best to ensure it’s not us.

These types of customers are easy to spot, because they blow up over a small problem (or an imaginary one) and are often disarmed when we stay calm, logical, and helpful. We’ve come up with a magical power-sentence to disarm anyone that comes in too hot:

“I understand that you would like [their complaint/request], but unfortunately we cannot [logical reason why not], and [reiterate that that their demand will not be met]. We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.”

That is our de-escalation secret sauce, and it hasn’t failed us yet.

Offer a Baby-Compromise

In the harsh world of internet reviews, sometimes you have to give in a little – even if it’s unjustified and unfair. Keep in mind that you have to do the best for your business, and it’s pivotal to put your pride aside when you need to.

We like to offer baby-compromises. They’re often easier and more cost-effective than spending hours on the phone or stressing about the impending bad review. A baby-compromise is just that – a very, very small compromise, in which you give the disgruntled customer just enough for them to move on.

This could be refunding one night of someone’s stay, or comping one small item off of someone’s check. And no, they usually don’t deserve it – but you also don’t deserve to run yourself into the ground trying to reason with someone who is unreasonable.

Remember: all you can do is do your best, and that may occasionally mean giving in. More importantly, saying No gives you the time, space and energy to better serve your customer base. Saying No can free up the time you need to launch a new product, polish up your service, or dust off some marketing materials to grow – baby compromises & all.