Good Intentions: How Not To Run a Business

In 2009, I decided to rebrand my web writing agency, Brain Traffic, as a content strategy firm. I hired people I respected enormously to develop the practice and run the business. I networked like a crazy person, started speaking at conferences, and struggled through writing Content Strategy for the Web. Soon the leads were coming in fast and furious, from big companies with big dollars to spend. I’d found the right niche, hired the right people, and built a one-of-a-kind culture we all felt lucky to be a part of. By the fall of 2011, Brain Traffic was up to 22 people, and I started planning to expand the space again.

And now, let’s skip ahead to spring 2012.

Sales weren’t closing. My staff had run out of busy work. There was tension among leadership. Our overhead was eating us alive—we were barely making payroll. I laid off a few people (poorly, horribly), and our one-of-a-kind culture took a turn for the worse.

Before long, our line of credit was maxed out. I ran up tens of thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt. I borrowed against my 401(k). But the red numbers on the spreadsheets kept getting bigger, and finally, there was nothing left to do. I laid off 75% of my staff (at least, the ones who hadn’t already resigned). I felt humiliated, guilty, furious, helpless. My remaining staff was exhausted and traumatized. Going to the office was like going to a warzone after the troops had moved out. We were in a deep, deep hole, and crawling out of it seemed like an impossible task.

Now. This story isn’t about how Brain Traffic recovered (which it quickly did—last year was our best ever). It’s not about how perseverance and hard work will get you through your darkest hours (which, sometimes, it won’t). And it’s definitely not about celebrating failure (which, as Frank Chimero aptly points out, is really only celebrated by people who go on to be successful).

No. This story is about how I made business choices based on good intentions, and how a bunch of people lost their jobs because of it.

My intent was to be courageous, so I forged ahead despite the numbers. My intent was to work harder than ever, as though going through the motions would somehow get us through. My intent was to make good on my commitment to my employees and keep them on payroll no matter what the cost, because we were all in this together, and goddammit, I wouldn’t leave them behind.

It is so extraordinarily difficult not to mistake good intentions for values. My good intentions were solely focused on keeping everyone happy. But in the end, it turned out that courage meant firing my friends and digging into the terrifying spreadsheets. Hard work meant rebuilding a practice I hadn’t truly led in years. Commitment meant my five remaining employees showing up on that awful Monday, ready to have each other’s backs for whatever came next.

Today—every day—I have never worked harder to reconcile my values with my actions. I screw up all the time. I protest the outcomes, citing my good intentions. I suppose it’s something we never stop working on: accountability, both for the choices we make and the choices we don’t.

Our story continues.