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An Open Letter
Everything Was Great…Until It Wasn’t: The Sudden Death of A Successful Small Business
It’s been said that “if you can test the assumptions on which your business is based in the first six months of operation, then it’s been a successful period of time, even if it means deciding to close the business.” In the first six months of full-scale operations, Chickadee Larder Gourmet Condiments demonstrated on-target revenue according to the business plan despite unexpected bumps in the road. After the first year of operation, the business was a year and a half ahead of schedule with the focus turning toward setting new and larger goals. Two months after that, the business is closed. By all accounts, Chickadee was a successful business with a bright future: everything was truly great…until it wasn’t.
Chickadee Larder began as a farmers’ market hobby business in the winter of 2012, at a tiny four-foot stall with mason jars and a make-shift display. Over the course of the first summer season, the brand was gaining recognition in Southern New Brunswick and by October it was featured on CBC’s Shift which resulted in an immediate spike in sales. Recognizing that the business had reached capacity as a hobby, I opted to take on the business full time and scale up production for the Christmas craft show season in an effort to test the market and the viability of a possible wholesale operation. It was a success. Between December 2012 and April 2013 I hammered out a business plan, had it vetted and presented the model, raising $65,000 in capital to complete the construction of a home-based commercial kitchen and get the business to the next level. I had accidentally – on purpose – ended up a business owner with no business training and only my experiences in retail, as a classroom teacher and in the tech startup sector to back me up (along with the encouragement and support of friends, family and customers).
The year that followed was a whirlwind of successes. From home kitchen to small-scale commercial operations Chickadee immediately switched from mason jars to commercial packaging, homemade labels matured from paper to polyester (and, later, to professionally printed), show and market venues increased and brand awareness continued to grow as much via social and traditional media (CBC Radio, CBC TV, Startup Kitchen and print) as by word of mouth. By January 2014, Chickadee had exceeded the year’s planned number of retail outlets and staff was later hired to assist with orders: by mid-June the company had triple the expected number of accounts for 2014, and Sobeys had even expressed interest. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.
Small businesses generally operate on a financial tight rope where the slightest amount of slack in the line is enough to cause a tumble and there is no safety net. Chickadee’s rope slackened through the second half of June as sales were much slower than expected but, with some adjustments to operations, it looked like it could recover with the anticipated busy July and the new accounts still coming in. However, with an ever slackening rope, rather than a stiff breeze, Chickadee was knocked over by a wild wind as Post-Tropical Storm Arthur slammed New Brunswick leaving most of the province in the dark for days and – for many – a week or more. The loss of revenue (and, for grocery accounts, product) was devastating for many small businesses and the last thing on any buyer’s mind was gourmet condiments. July was the worst month of the year and – with heavy loan payments still due – the cash ran dry. Things were no longer great, and a decision had to be made.
I read an article recently on the psychological price of entrepreneurship and I really identified with the analogy likening an entrepreneur to a man riding a lion. "People look at him and think, ‘This guy's really got it together! He's brave!’ And the man riding the lion is thinking, ‘How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?’” The world of start-ups is filled with sentiments about never giving up, riding out the hard times and the virtue of suffering for your success. “Sheer persistence is the difference between success and failure (Donald Trump).” The reality of owning a business for most small business owners is that you will likely fail, that you will spend all waking and most of your sleeping hours with the single focus of growing enough to get the bills paid, that you will sacrifice relationships and miss out on a lot, that you will be in a constant state of stress, that you will need to put in a lot of personal capital to get started/keep going and, if you’re fortunate enough to succeed beyond the first four or five years, you're still not guaranteed to make it. With the prospect of needing to insert even more significant capital into Chickadee, I crunched the numbers and the decision was made: I would declare personal bankruptcy and the business would close. Donald Trump said “Part of being a winner is knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes you have to give up the fight and walk away.” and it became clear it was time for me to walk away.
It’s terribly painful to build something from the ground up, watch it grow, and see a bright future only to have it washed away in such a short space of time. The financial experts agreed: the business model and adoption were excellent – I had done everything right – but the debt model wasn’t sustainable for a small business. The best business plan is still only an educated guess, and nothing can predict the force of nature or the economy. The only way to get out from under the debt load and move on was to file for bankruptcy. In the space of a month and a half I went from planning the future of my successful business to scanning the classifieds for job openings and signing away my credit. Everything looks terrible…but it isn’t.
Along with the sometimes trite entrepreneurial quotes about pressing in and the virtue of hard work, there are also many reminders that failing at something does not, in fact, make you a failure. I am in good company: the list of business owners who failed and failed again is long, but most agree in hindsight that they were better for it. Walt Disney – who was once fired from a newspaper job for lacking imagination – said “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you're young. I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never had the feeling I couldn’t walk out and get a job doing something.” I believe in the adage “Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure. ” I am not my failure: I am stronger as a result of it and am looking forward to what the future holds – in large part – because of it.
I want to thank each and every family member, friend, retailer, mentor, customer and – especially – my husband Evan for the incredible show of support for Chickadee Larder and for me. Every kind word and every purchase is a treasured memory for me as I move forward into the future. Thank you and best wishes.
With Great Appreciation,
Former Owner/Operator and Founder of Chickadee Larder Gourmet Condiments
Including gluten, dairy, soy, mustard, nuts, sulphites
We are a peanut and sesame-free facility
Think Outside the Jar
when it comes to how we approach every aspect of our business
Be Green ~ We aim to limit our footprint as much as possible: ask us how!
Be Creative ~ Mustards aren't just for sandwiches, jelly isn't just for toast and BBQ sauce isn't limited to the grill: we challenge the typical uses of condiments to help give you more options and convenient, healthful meals
Be Aware ~ We are always learning about our customers' needs, the growing list of common allergens, and about how we can do our best to serve our community and our consumers. We also place great value in quality assurance and, so, are committed to small-batch production with a keen awareness of allergen cross-contamination
Buy Local First ~ As a core value of our business, we seek to purchase goods and services from local and independent businesses first, beginning with our own community/province and extending into Canada. We are committed to supporting other local businesses and the community.