I was on a lunch break from my job at Pier 1 Imports when I got the news I had been waiting for: I was getting a loan to open my own home decor store.
It was September, 2013, and I was 27, living in Montreal, making $10.25 an hour. I’d worked all summer on my business plan, and I knew striking out on my own would be challenging, but thoughtful planning and calculated risk are supposed to reap rewards in the world of self-employment.
The next several weeks were heady with excitement. I secured a location in downtown Cornwall, Ont., with high ceilings and hardwood floors. I picked out fixtures and carefully selected the products I would sell. On Dec. 7, 2013, just in time for some of the year’s busiest shopping days, I opened my doors to customers.
Soon after, in the grey stillness of winter, reality set in. Customer counts were far below the modest expectations that were in my vetted business plan. The foot traffic I’d banked on was mostly people transferring buses with no intention of shopping downtown. There were no upward trends even with nicer weather. During the first several months, revenues were about 15 per cent of projections. I fell behind on bills and waited desperately for a few good days to catch up, like a failing blackjack player waits for a hand that can turn around his waning fortunes.
But patience, like bank accounts and the life you can give a failing dream, isn’t limitless. After several months, I had a closing sale and moved the business 45 minutes away to Brockville to try and save it. My rent dropped by half and I slashed other expenses. I rebranded and further refined the product mix. Funds were so lean that I lived in the back of the store.
I was generally open six days a week, only taking Mondays off. However, on several occasions, I found myself taking mental-health days – losing potential sales in the process – because I’d exhausted myself and was overcome with stress. At the time, it seemed logical, but now I look back on those days grimly. Many mornings, even after a full night’s sleep, I didn’t want to wake up and face the day. I thought about trying to find a therapist with whom to talk things through, but that was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
Entrepreneurship turned out to be a lonely and isolating pursuit. I thought I could confide in other business owners that I was experiencing challenges, but most were happier avoiding the topic. A husband and wife who were frequent visitors started walking on the other side of the street after the closing signs went up, as though my failure was contagious. Even close friends of mine who were entrepreneurs blanched when I mentioned tough times.
In my experience, entrepreneurs are only happy to talk about failure if it follows a certain narrative. Failure, however, isn’t just a lesson dished out in a top 10 list, or a pivot before a fairy tale ending. Stories of failure are too often sanitized. They don’t dwell on the emotional hardship endured, or the fact that even a modest financial setback can turn into crushing debt. They are rooted in myth-making and privilege because people don’t want to hear about how messy endings can get. Family business owners and sole proprietors in this country lose businesses, stores and restaurants all the time, just like I did. The stories of failure we face are different than those of a serial entrepreneur with a large bank account or venture-capital infusions. We don’t write self-help books – we suffer in silence.
A fellow entrepreneur once told me that it took her a decade to recover from the double-whammy of closing her retail store and going through a divorce. I thought that seemed like an eternity, but it took at least a year for me to recognize that I’d experienced something traumatic. It takes time to lick your wounds after you’ve sold a dream off in pieces, and the future you planned and the net worth you hoped to build has disappeared into the air like vapour.
I’m not necessarily happier or better off in the life I live now. It’s an entirely different existence. The business loan is now paid off – the money has come from freelance writing and making lattes instead of selling home decor. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I still think of small things I could have done differently, even though I closed up in February, 2015.
Recently, when talking to a co-worker about the closing of my business, he didn’t want me to use the term failure. I could pull out a thesaurus and call it something else, but the story ends the same. It’s not a personal flaw to fail at business – a lot of people do. The real defeat is to avoid talking about failure unless it precedes a happily ever after.
Stay on top of all our small business stories. We have a weekly Report on Small Business newsletter for hard-working entrepreneurs pursuing growth and expansion. Sign up today.