In the days ahead

[Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Artisan Spirit]

Elizabeth loaded the last box of hand sanitizer into the back of her battered truck, closed the tailgate and swore.  The last several weeks had been a mad scramble.  Her six-year old distillery, seemingly poised to turn the corner and take over the world at the end of 2019, now seemed likely to become yet another casualty of the viral pandemic sweeping the globe.  In her home state, the Governor’s Office had imposed a regime of mandatory closures of most public establishments in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.  That meant all bars were closed.  Restaurants were open and serving food to go, but her state’s laws didn’t allow on-premises retailers to sell alcohol to go.  And so with a single stroke of his pen, Elizabeth’s Governor had nullified all the work she’d put into getting her products into a majority of the high-end restaurants and bars in her three-county metro area.  Her plan – to win first in her business’ back yard – had actually been starting to work.  But today, with all those locations closed for the indefinite future, that didn’t seem to matter.

Walking back inside, Elizabeth passed her empty tasting room, through the doorway into the production facility – wide open since the Governor’s order had closed her tasting room to the public – and entered her office.  She put her feet on the desk, leaned back in her chair, and clenched her jaw in an effort to hold back tears of exhaustion, anxiety and fear.  “How am I going to make this work?” she asked herself. 

Like hundreds of times before, she went through a checklist of all the steps she could take – all the levers she could pull – to help her business stay afloat.  She’d already gone to family and friends for financial support, in some cases multiple times, when she’d started the business and as it had limped along from a dream to a reality.  Many of those supporters were themselves now in financial distress as a result of the pandemic.  She knew she couldn’t approach them again.  And she had tried to apply for the small business loan assistance program rolled out by the federal government, but by the time she’d been able to submit her application the cash had already dried up.  Her bank?  They hadn’t seemed all that interested in lending to her once they figured out they couldn’t easily take a security interest in the barrels of whiskey quietly aging away in her storeroom.  Making the hand sanitizer was helping to keep the lights on, but not much more than that.  She’d been forced to lay off most of her production crew, and so today – six years after launching her brand – she felt she was back very close to square one.  Except today, unlike six years ago, she was utterly exhausted and had higher overhead.

Sound familiar?

At the time of writing, Elizabeth’s plight is unfortunately playing out throughout the country.  And while I am hopeful that by the time of publication the country will have emerged from COVID-19 darkness into a bright and shining land of unbridled opportunity, I’m not especially confident of that outcome.  Rather, it seems likely that we are in for a long period of recovery and – if the epidemiologists are right – a bumpy one at that.  So what’s to be done?  What follows are a few suggestions for how we can all help ourselves – and help each other – through the process.

Primum non nocere.  Loosely translated from the Latin, the phrase (which is itself a translation from ancient Greek) means “first, do no harm.”  And while it is commonly thought to be part of the Hippocratic Oath sworn by all who become physicians, it isn’t actually part of the oath.  Rather, the phrase has its roots back in another work by Hippocrates: Of the Epidemics.  Fitting, isn’t it?  But for our purpose let me translate it even more loosely to bring it into the present situation:  Don’t Make Things Worse.

Entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic people.  After all, you probably wouldn’t start a business if you were pessimistic about the future.  But the fatal flaw in many entrepreneurs – their Achilles Heel if you’ll permit me to extend further the Greek theme – is that their optimism can often lead to taking risks which, in hindsight, appear to have been quite foolish.  And those risks can have drastic consequences. 

To explore, let’s revisit Elizabeth.  Let’s suppose that Elizabeth has been successful until now in getting her distillery off the ground without personally incurring a lot of debt.  She’s put a ton of her own money into the business, but she didn’t mortgage her house or borrow on credit cards to cover startup costs.  She didn’t even have to give a personal guaranty on the distillery’s lease.  In all of this she’s either been extremely skillful or extremely lucky – most likely both.

But now Elizabeth is faced with a dilemma.  She feels certain that her business will fail without a cash infusion.  Getting the cash now would let her bring back to work her production team, start once again putting whiskey in barrels, and make things feel normal.  She’s convinced herself that the effects of the pandemic are starting to wane and she’s poring over every bit of news she can find in an effort to divine when things will restart so she can ramp back up her production.  After all, why waste a good crisis?  If she can get a jump on the recovery she might just be able to emerge from this stronger than she was at the start.  But she needs the cash to make it happen – and offers for new credit cards keep arriving in the mail.  So that’s the solution.  Right? 

Probably not.  As we’ve said, Elizabeth did everything right at the outset and – in so doing – was able to avoid the cash flow trap that comes from being saddled with high-rate debt.  Pulling the trigger on that debt at this point is a big bet not only that her business is going to come back online in the short term but that it will have sufficient extra income to service this new debt.  And while she’s seeing signs that her state may be reopening soon, she can’t be sure.  In fact, there is a very real chance that her interpretation of those signs may be influenced by confirmation bias – a tendency for humans to see in data what we want to see in order to confirm our preconceived beliefs (or desires).  For every sign Elizabeth sees which suggests that her state will soon lift its mandatory quarantine regime, there are just as many signs that suggest that the regime will be eased over time – with bars and restaurants being among the last places to get back to “normal.”  And even if all restrictions were lifted in a single day, Elizabeth has no way of knowing that those same restaurants and bars would reopen; they too are experiencing the pain and misfortune brought on by the pandemic.  Some of them – possibly many of them – will fail to reopen.

Elizabeth’s temptation to take in the cash now and worry about the consequences later is understandable.  But it probably violates our ancient Greek physician’s maxim.  The outcome of her wager is almost entirely outside of her control; there is little that she can do which will have any meaningful direct impact on whether and when her state’s quarantine restrictions will be lifted.  In the meantime, she will have put a yoke around the neck of her business.  And what’s worse, she will almost certainly have put that same yoke around her own neck as she’s likely to be personally liable on the debt.  If that happens, and if the business ultimately fails to generate the cash to pay the debt, Hippocrates will be spinning in his grave.

Don’t panic.  I once read of a helpful book that had this admonition in bold print on the cover.  And while I don’t often find myself arguing with aliens, saying farewell to dolphins or dining at restaurants at the end of the universe, the book’s advice is nevertheless good counsel.  Very few things are made better by panic, but a great number of things may be made a great deal worse. 

Part of the problem with panic is that we don’t always know when we’re experiencing it; we may feel we’re being completely rational at the time.  But panic can cause a range of negative effects – from an inability to think clearly or make decisions all the way to a willingness to take unnecessary and ill-advised risks.  

In many cases, panic is a perfectly human and natural reaction to stress – perhaps a left-over evolutionary trait that helped us escape from predators while our ancestors wandered about in the savanna.  But what may help you avoid being eaten by a lion will not necessarily help you when what is needed is the concentration required to project cash flow for months into the future while modeling the uncertainty of a pandemic.  So Elizabeth would be well advised to take deep breaths (in for the count of four through her nose and out slowly through her mouth) – or whatever other action works for her – in order to center herself and help her to focus her attention on options to save her business.

Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.  For years, I chuckled at this part of the pre-flight schtick from flight attendants.  After all, if the cabin pressure suddenly dropped and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, I expected to be throwing elbows like an NBA player trying to clear the area beneath the basket in my efforts to secure my own mask.  And then I became a parent and everything changed.  Suddenly, I knew that I would be focused on getting oxygen to a tiny human before I did anything else.  Which is of course a bit nonsensical since that same tiny human wouldn’t have been able to fend for himself in the event that I had passed out for lack of oxygen.  The flight attendant’s advice was sound.

But the key here for Elizabeth is that her tiny human isn’t a human at all – it is her business.  And Elizabeth is going to need to fight the urge to focus so heavily on her business that she forgets about her own well-being.  That includes her financial well-being as discussed above.  But it doesn’t end there.  Elizabeth is exhausted.  By continuing at her current pace she runs the very real risk of burning out or possibly even endangering her own health.  Consider the potential irony of Elizabeth working herself to the point of illness while producing hand sanitizer to be used to fight… illness.  Poetic, perhaps, but hardly a course Elizabeth would choose if she were thinking about it objectively. 

In any situation of high stress – like, say, trying to keep your business afloat during a pandemic – it is important to periodically take a moment to practice a bit of self-care.  That can mean something as simple as taking a walk (assuming it is permitted in your location) or reading a book.  Exercise, doctors tell us, is particularly good at helping to alleviate the effects of stress.  But your particular method of self-care probably shouldn’t be something that violates Hippocrates advice.  So, for example, Elizabeth should avoid the temptation to begin binge drinking directly from those barrels in the back of the storeroom.  That might feel good on a temporary basis but would not be a positive long-term solution (and wouldn’t thrill her friends at the TTB).

Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.  This phrase, attributed to the Dalai Lama, lived on a yellow sticky-note on my desk for several years.  A helpful reminder to me that notwithstanding the stress of any particular moment, client demand or unreasonable colleague, it was entirely within my power to try to make the situation better.  While some corners of popular culture sometimes suggest that kindness is evidence of weakness, this is empirically false.  Kindness requires courage – which is most assuredly not a symptom of weakness.  It can be difficult to find the courage to be kind – to one’s self or others – when confronted with challenge.  Kindness also requires generosity.  This too is not evidence of weakness.  Far from it.  The ability to be generous demonstrates that the individual has a surplus of whatever is being offered – whether time, energy or other resources – to share with someone less fortunate. 

But neuroscientists have long known that what we practice becomes our experience going forward.  In a sense, this is the active seeking of the confirmation bias we warned Elizabeth about earlier.  If you practice kindness, you will find that you identify more and more opportunities to be kind.  Similarly, if you make a habit of finding and expressing gratitude for experiences within your life, you will find that you are rewarded with feelings of gratitude for ever more experiences.  This isn’t to say that your experiences will change – although they certainly might – but rather that your experiences of them will change for the better.  Unfortunately, however, this works both ways – meaning that if you make a point of noticing and dwelling on the negative experiences in your life you will become accustomed to exactly that and will find them around every corner. 

Of course this is one area where Elizabeth is quite fortunate.  As a member of the distilling community, she is fortunate to be one of a great number of remarkably kind and generous individuals.  It is, after all, a hallmark of the community.  And so even in her quarantine Elizabeth can be comforted to know that she has a great many friends to whom she can demonstrate kindness and from whom she will undoubtedly receive kindness in return.

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