When I lost the battle to save my first business, well-known bakery Auntie Loos, I was bankrupt, raw, despondent, and publicly humiliated.
I had been ignoring the signs for years: I’d wake up exhausted, snap at my staff over nothing, and cancel on friends to be alone. Then things got bigger. Payments were declined and cheques bounced. I fell behind on the rent. I hadn’t paid myself in two years, and my partner was rightfully annoyed at having to support us alone. Collectors called at all hours. I cried and had panic attacks in my sleep but was “on” during business hours.
Finally I sought financial counsel. I was sent home with bankruptcy paperwork and the advice “Sell what you can and go.” In the span of 24 hours, I went from being the darling of the Ottawa business scene to being the former owner of a failed business. I packed up my shop on Nelson Street, liquidated equipment, broke the news to staff, received hateful messages, sobbed openly, and chain-smoked.
A few days later I went to stay at my parents’ house outside Ottawa. I took calls on their landline, my cell phone one of the many losses of bankruptcy. I deleted my social media account and spent days lying on the couch, watching trashy television, and drinking cheap wine. It was around the end of the first month I started wondering if my life was worth living anymore. I was so broken and exhausted. I wasn’t sure I could keep bearing the pain. I began to consider ending my life. Thanks to family and friends, a part of me fought back.
I realized I had been so absorbed by my own pity party that I’d neglected to see the value in my experiences and my true purpose — I was meant to help my peers
Summer ended, and I came home to Ottawa to work in an office. I was excited by the prospect of a “normal” life, but it was a mismatch: I’m not meant for that kind of work, and it didn’t last long.
Folks in my life couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a business professor or an advisor with an agency. The reality is that employers don’t want someone who has created a job for themselves as an employee at their company. It’s a stain. After living the life of an entrepreneur, there are concerns that you won’t be able to abide by the hierarchy of a corporate structure.
I found a part-time retail job where the bosses liked my assertiveness. I began to rebuild my self esteem. Then I began getting emails from entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who were feeling overwhelmed, looking for advice, and wanting to know how I made it through. I realized I had been so absorbed by my own pity party that I’d neglected to see the value in my experiences and my true purpose — I was meant to help my peers. My coaching and consulting business was born.
Being a business “‘death doula”’ isn’t on my list of services. I largely strategize and write copy for social media, give practical advice, advocate for my clients at the municipal and provincial levels, and write business plans. But I consider it my duty to provide the “been there, done that, and it’s going to get better” comfort that wasn’t available to me when I closed. I give bear hugs, dry tears, help liquidate equipment, and answer panicked texts in the wee hours. I confirm things like “Yes, you’ll have nightmares about your business for years after you close” and “Yes, the CRA collectors are unnecessarily vicious.” I remind them that they are more than a brand — they’re humans who are loved and needed.
These days I’m proud to be a business veteran who has lived the highs and lows. At first I thought telling my story over and over might be weird. Then I ran into a business owner I knew on the street, and he said, “Keep talking. Keep telling that story. Never, ever shut up about it.” I got goosebumps.
Some find it odd I’m so open about my failure, but I’ve found that it not only helps others, it’s key to my recovery too. Because no matter how close you come to being broken, you cannot kill the entrepreneurial spirit, and experiencing failure is a natural part of entrepreneurship that no one talks about.
A client asked me why they should hire me since I’d “run a business into the ground.” I replied, “Who better to take you to the top than someone who’s hit the bottom?”
Mandi Lunan founded Auntie Loo’s Treats in 2003 and has been coaching businesses since 2016. She now lives in Warfield, B.C.