Creative Entrepreneur Shares Lessons Learned From Recent Building Fire
FILED IN: Behind-the-Scenes, Education, M&G Happenings
Posted By: Jamie Kutchman, Founder
Brace yourself you guys, this is a long one. These last few weeks have been a blur where one day seems to bleed into the next. I'm sure my team feels the same. They've been working long hours right alongside me. Our days consist of a team huddle in the morning to get ourselves on the same page, hustling like crazy, problem solving like it's an Olympic sport, and then suddenly looking up and realizing it's 6 o'clock and we're sweaty, punch drunk, and sometimes in a little disbelief at how much we were able to accomplish despite the challenging circumstances. There's a ton of distraction. Battles with the insurance company, some conversations involving tears. (Next insurance call I'll be bulletproof, I keep telling myself.) Constant coordination with the disaster recovery firm we're working with. Fire inspectors and building engineers dropping by unannounced. Tensions running high with our landlord. Meanwhile, executing our busiest time of year (holiday client gifting!) with less space than we ever anticipated.
But we're making it work. WE'RE ACTUALLY THRIVING! It doesn't look pretty but we're meeting client deadlines and exceeding expectations and that's all that counts. This has always been our commitment to clients and we won't let a situation like this change that.
I've been learning some serious entrepreneurship lessons during this time. I think it's important for me to openly share these in hopes of helping other business owners going through unexpected disasters like the one we've just experienced.
Gratitude is Key
Our studio is uninhabitable and will be for months. Oh, and it's our busiest season of the year. None of this is ideal timing. But, there are SO many things that went right for us during this crisis that it's easy to get our heads out of the negative space and into the positive simply by focusing on these thoughts:
- No one was hurt!!!! The fire broke out in the office space directly above us at 3:30 a.m. A nearby night-shift worker randomly happened to be outside taking a break, saw the fire, and immediately called 911, allowing the local fire department to arrive within minutes.
- While it took 75 fire fighters to finally extinguish the blaze and we had to dispose of the majority of our inventory, fire didn't spread to our space because our ceiling and walls were concrete. We suffered MAJOR water damage and can no longer operate in our space due to the structural integrity of our studio being compromised (due to the risk of roof collapse), but thankfully the concrete construction of the building kept the fire from burning every single item of ours to the ground!
- Our neighbor in the building next door heard about the fire and despite it being her day off, she drove over and handed us keys to her studio and said "Here, do your thing! Make yourselves at home". We immediately set up a triage area in her space. We began communicating with clients and vendors, making emergency calls, and continuing to assemble whatever gifts we could to meet deadlines for the week. This held us over until we could move into the temporary space we're up and running in now.
- I am blessed with a team that is devoted and hard-working and committed to digging in and doing the hard work to get us back to new. They are just as committed to the success of the business as I am as the owner and I realize how lucky I am to have this.
- We've been flooded with offers to help from local business owners as well as those from across the country who have even offered to help out remotely however they can. Even from complete strangers!
- Our clients have been supportive and flexible and have been cheering us on instead of cancelling their projects. They're showing faith in us and we're doing everything in our power to deliver.
Whenever we get exhausted and worry that our holiday season is doomed, we simply focus on all that went right that could've just as easily gone wrong and we instantly have the energy to press forward. Gratitude is powerful. I had always heard those words and nodded my ahead in agreement but never really GOT IT until now.
And here's how I know. When I finally got home at 10 p.m. the night of the fire after being on scene since 4 a.m. that morning, I hopped in the shower to wash all the soot and sweat and fatigue away. I wasn't angry and wasn't sad. I actually stood there smiling. Gratitude is key and it will get us through this.
Control What You Can and Let the Rest Go
When my security alarm company called and woke me at 4 a.m. on the morning of the fire, I was on scene within 15 minutes. The fire was coming from the 2nd floor of the building with our space being the floor directly below it. I kept asking firefighters "Have you personally been inside the bottom level - do you know if there's anything left?" or "I see that all of our windows were broken but do you think there's any hope that my space could possibly still be okay?" and on and on. I was in hysterics. One fire fighter looked me dead in the eye and said "This is a bad fire so you need to prepare yourself for the worst. I'm sorry but I'm just being truthful with you and I don't want you to get your hopes up". I sat down on the sidewalk, stopped crying, and became quiet. I watched firefighters climb the ladders to the top of the building in shifts to try to extinguish the fire. I watched them hack into the roof and then come back down and trade off for the next crew to go up and take a turn. They kept thinking it was extinguished and then it would flare up over and over again. Meanwhile, I was formulating plans in my mind of how I would break bad news to clients, especially clients we were supposed to deliver to THAT morning. I began thinking of emergency backup plans of how we would get gifts to clients who were expecting gifts to be delivered that same week. I looked up my insurance company's information so I would be ready to contact them as soon as I could get inside and assess the damage. (And the ultra paranoid side of me even pulled up my P&L statement for the month prior to make sure I had, in fact, made my insurance payment even though I knew I had it on auto-pay).
I somehow accepted that there was nothing I could do in that very moment to change the situation so I simply moved ahead on the things I could control. It helped.
Remember all the fire fighters I told you about? Well, one particular fire captain saw how distraught I was on scene and just prior to our studio becoming condemned, he offered to let me inside to assess the damage and see if there was anything that could possibly be saved. When I walked in, it was BAD. Most everything was water logged and disgusting but there was one section of the studio where things were miraculously and completely untouched. There was no earthly explanation for it - the entire studio was flooded and being rained on except for this one area that happened to contain several of our finished projects. He immediately called for backup and I ran around like crazy woman grabbing whatever I could while these fire fighters helped do the heavy lifting to get everything outside. Sure, technically speaking, they were on-scene to fight fire. But they saw ME. They saw more than just a commercial warehouse building on fire. They saw my dream in serious jeopardy and deemed saving my business just as important as anything else they were there on scene to do. They made it their personal mission to help me salvage as much as we could in the short amount of time we had. I can remember hearing the fire chief come across their walkie talkies several times telling everyone to get out because they were condemning the building due to possible roof collapse and instead of them telling me "sorry, time to go", they just hustled even harder, resulting in more property being saved.
Without them, I'd no longer be in business. The loss would've been far too huge. We would've had nothing left to work with and with insurance being uncooperative (more on this later), it would've been game-over for Marigold & Grey.
People say that "business is business" and "don't take it personally". But with small business, I disagree. When you spend so much time devoted to building something from the ground up, and sacrifice time away from your family and friends to do it, it IS personal. I'm so lucky that this huge-hearted group of men and women went out of their way to save something so meaningful to me. I could say 'thank you' to them a million times but it would never be enough.
(From the day of the fire through the end of the year, we are so excited to donate a portion of our proceeds from our online shop directly to Kensington Volunteer Fire Department so they can continue helping others in need, and who knows, hopefully save more small businesses along the way. It's the least we can do!)
Honesty and Transparency Rule
We didn't have a pre-established PR crisis plan ready to go when this occurred. I'm ashamed to admit that the thought never even crossed my mind in my five years as a business owner. But on the day of the fire, several press outlets kept showing up and whipping out the cameras. I felt so violated as we were out in our parking lot amidst cart after cart of damaged inventory and trying to fully grasp all that we'd lost. I asked them to leave and they wouldn't. I finally realized why I wanted them to leave. I was fearful that people would see what happened and abandon our business, especially at our most crucial season of the year from a revenue standpoint. But I also knew that I couldn't keep this is a secret. I knew I had to make an announcement but what would I say? First and foremost, we owed clients with existing projects updates before making any public announcements. I didn't want anyone currently working with us to find out from anyone other than from me. So I, as the owner, made countless difficult phone calls and sent numerous tough-to-write emails to these clients letting them know the status of their projects, some good and some not exactly ideal. Then, how to proceed with a more widespread public announcement once all of our current clients had been notified? I sat one down one evening and just began writing from the heart. The email detailed exactly what happened, how we were responding to the challenges as a team, which parts of the business would have an interruptions, and then thanked them for being with us in good times and bad. I hit "send" and had the worst butterflies in my stomach. But I shouldn't have worried. Emails immediately came flooding in with words of encouragement and offers to help. One after another after another. And several weeks later, they're still coming! Honesty and transparency are always the best way to proceed. I'm sure some PR experts out there might have something different to say, but for us, if we strive to have an authentic and transparent brand, then our communication in a crisis should be no different.
We don't get to pick and choose and only be authentic when we're landing noteworthy projects or getting national press recognition. It doesn't work that way. If we truly believe in transparency, we have to do it even when it's hard.
I've never been one to accept help. When people offer, I'm always polite and say "thank you SO much but we have it under control" and turn into myself and try to keep my weaknesses hidden. But this time is different. We have NEEDED help. It's taken some miracles to meet some of our client deadlines during the first week.
I reached out to friends and said "I need you" and they were there immediately. Once I started taking people up on their offers to help, it wasn't as hard as I thought.
I fully intend to pay it forward, whether to them or to someone else in need. Asking for help isn't a weakness. It's a strength and shows that you care about your business and its well-being and getting over your pride in order to save it.
Wants Aren't Needs
Our sofas, rugs, chairs, accent furniture and a ton of decor are virtually all gone. My I-saved-up-for-this-for-a-long-time office furniture I brought from home to make my studio office feel more home-like were severely damaged. The artwork that has made our studio feel like "us"...long gone. At the time I'm writing this, two of us are sharing one desk and one person is using a foldable plastic table as their desk. Our cute grey swivel office chairs bit the dust. But we're receiving our replacement inventory as quickly as our vendors can ship to us. Our fleet of Mac computers are a little shaky but do turn on and every now and then the printer decides to still work. And our beloved peanut dispenser survived.
We have what we NEED, not necessarily what we want. All the gorgeous studio spaces that you see in your Instagram feeds, they're nice to haves. They're not NEEDS.
One day we'll have a pretty studio again where we can host clients but we're no less of a business right now if we don't.
Community is Key
There are not enough words to adequately describe how much support we've received since this happened. From our next door neighbor Tyler Whitmore Interiors handing us her keys that morning and saying "make yourself at home and just do your thing" to another neighbor whom I'd never even met offering to let us move in rent-free for a month or two and giving us their wifi code, to Lissa Ryan Photography showing up to document the damage for us to send to insurance so we could focus our efforts on clients, to other neighbors we didn't even know bringing fans and offering forklifts for help moving our pallets, to friends arriving to help sift through damaged inventory, to bringing us water to keep us hydrated, to industry friends helping us build and pack gifts to get ourselves caught up on major deadlines, to competitors calling and offering us their supplies, to countless emails and texts and DMs and phone calls with words of encouragement from literally all over the globe.
I've always believed that people are inherently good but to witness it and experience it in this concentrated way...it's been life changing. I fully intend to pay it forward however I can. For the rest of my life.
One Day at a Time
Marigold & Grey wasn't built in a day. So, with this much damage, rebuilding Marigold & Grey can't happen in a day either. As a business owner, I'm Type A. I believe that if I try my absolute best and hustle hard enough, I should see the desired outcome. But in this case, part of the building (including our original studio) is still condemned because they have to first re-stabilize the building before they can let fire inspectors in to identify the cause of the fire. Until they do this, they can't even begin to repair our original studio. So, waiting has become our new norm and making the most of our temporary space is our reality. There's nothing I can say or do to push this process forward. (Trust me, I've tried). There's no one I can convince to see my side and expedite things. I have to take one day at a time and do the best I can with what we have. If I think ahead to the end of the quarter and what this loss likely means for our holiday season (our holiday season has traditionally represented 40% of our annual revenue), my chest tightens and I can barely breathe. We were even trending to more than double in size again this year and now I fear that won't happen.
But I have to force myself to stay in the present. I must take one day at a time. This makes things much more manageable.
Understand Your Insurance Policy
Last but certainly not least. This is probably the most important one on here, especially for small business owners. Sadly, I find myself under-insured. This is NOT something you want to discover when you're in the middle of a disaster like this. In fact, I even pro-actively reached out to the insurance company a year and half ago when we had experienced a year of significant growth to ask them to do a "check-up" and review my policy to make sure I had adequate coverage and took their recommendations. I trusted what they told me, took their advice, yet still find that those levels of coverage aren't enough. Make sure YOU understand your policy in full and that you have an actual agent. It's less expensive if you buy a policy without an agent assigned but you get what you pay for. I'm living this lesson right now and it isn't pretty. Thankfully, we aren't going to go out of business because of the reserves we've worked hard to build but we also aren't getting the coverage that we desperately need in this situation. I'll be cancelling my current policy and upgrading to one with an agent and will make sure that my coverage is in-line with where my business is at any given time.
When you're a small business and growing year after year, your policy has to grow with your business and reviewing it once a year may not even be enough.
I'll be doing 6-month reviews from here on out. If you haven't reviewed yours in a while or don't fully understand your coverage, do it NOW. For example, my policy is 163 pages and complicated as ever. At first glance, it appears that I would have more than adequate coverage, but when you read the countless pages of "fine print", it appears that the insurance has ways of justifying not covering just about anything they want. I promise it's worth the time out of your day to make sure you're properly covered. In fact, before you do anything else, please stop and do this RIGHT NOW!!!
I don't wish something like this on anyone. But on the flip side, I've learned so much. Our team has TRULY rallied, and with help and tons of words of encouragement from community near and far, we have the business back up and running we're ready to tackle the holiday rush! Thank you for sticking with us!
I am from Mauritius and I have been struggling with building my business and still in the process.
sharing your story with the people is sonething amazing you have done and i really feel inspired right now.
i am kind of in the same line as you in business but am still small for now as i do not have a team.
i have learned from reading your story above that a team is essential.
you and your team are an inspiration to small businesses.
i sincerely pray that you achieve your goals and always keep inspiring women around the world with the authenticity that you have.
Very heart wrenching story but very encouraging and positive vibes from you all. Great documentation.
I know your optimistic vibes won’t let you crumble. And you’ll rebuild everything in no time.
Mabel (BelFinesse Lifestyle Management)