COVID Killed My Business and I’m Glad It Did.

Photo of an old Sophwell t-shirt worn down over time. Print, apparel and promotional products

In February of 2020, my company was busy. Sophwell managed production and sourcing of custom marketing materials like print, apparel and promotional products. The three biggest business verticals for the company were restaurants, nursing homes, and tech companies that marketed at events. Then COVID arrived and killed all three.

By mid-March, the state shut down. My biggest clients were among the hardest hit. Buyers cancelled orders or put them on indefinite hold. There was nobody buying and no vendors producing. Sales went to zero overnight. Thousands of dollars in orders from January and February went unpaid.

Zero revenue, with a lease, loans, and the ongoing expenses of keeping a business open. There were many nights when I couldn’t sleep.

Where it started

I founded Sophwell in 2008 after losing my previous job. Printing sales had been my primary career since 1984. A list of loyal clients stayed with me as I switched employers over the years. Getting fired was actually a blessing, since my last employer was never the right fit for me, and the owner let me know it often. At 52, I decided to start my own distributorship because I never wanted to work for someone like him again.

When I couldn’t find another job, I created one.

My clients came with me but the economy faltered. It was the beginning of the Great Recession. The initial business plan was no longer viable. I had to pivot.

I took whatever business I could find to survive. My office moved from a converted playroom to a business park. Salespeople, part-timers, and interns were hired. Hours were spent learning how to build a website, master Quickbooks, and manage social media.

I pursued public speaking opportunities about LinkedIn, marketing, and sales. Networking like crazy introduced me to a lot of fun, smart, but newly unemployed people. In the process, I made great friends who later became clients as they got rehired. Those friends brought me other clients. I survived the critical first years of being an entrepreneur. It seemed like I might work this gig into retirement, with a plan to sell the company’s book of business when the time came.

Beginning of the end

Then came COVID. It felt like 2008 all over again.

With no orders to work on, there were plenty of days for long walks. On one of those days, the hard truth that the business needed to close became real. It’s every entrepreneur’s secret fear.

When you own and manage this thing you built, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing something else. I am still tied to years left on my office lease. I have a business loan. Where would revenue come from? What would happen to my loyal clients when they needed marketing materials again?

Finding a new career when you are over 60

There was an ad online for a job that suited my qualifications, although the algorithms often don’t parse accurately unless the keywords align. I applied. A couple of weeks went by with no response. Honestly, I didn’t expect to hear back at all. Finally, after three weeks, I got an email saying they had received my application. A week later I got another email asking for a phone interview. It went well, so a few days later I was invited in for an in-person interview. Surprisingly, I got the job.

While this may seem normal to most people, for men in their 60’s it is extremely unusual. Businesses don’t hire older workers because they think they won’t fit in or don’t understand the technology. They fear hiring previous business owners because they worry the new guy will tell them how to run things. The woman who interviewed me told me later that when she hired older workers it usually wasn’t successful over time. (I’m fortunate to not look my true age. Thanks, Mom, for the good hair genes).

What made me stand out to my future boss (a woman three decades younger than me) were things I did that were not part of my actual work experience. I volunteered extensively in the community, including being a site visitor for the Cummings Foundation, a Mentor for the Woburn Business Association, and a Council leader in my church. I was active with the local business chamber, a business resource she wanted to cultivate. In the end, she hired me because of my connections to the community, not because of my 40 years in the printing industry.

The pivot

On July 7, 2020, I started my job as the Print & Marketing Supervisor for the Copy Center inside the Staples Connect store in Reading, Mass. I have five full and part-time associates working under me. I am older than their parents.

With my own business, the orders I managed took 1-4 weeks to complete. Now 95% of what we do is completed in 24 hours or less. I feel like I went from being a full-service caterer to a short-order cook.

The subject matter of the work is also different. While there are similarities to the print marketing we do for businesses, much of the work is simply a reflection of daily life.

Invitations to weddings and baby showers. Banners for birthday parties and graduation celebrations. New license and car registrations. Packages from home for college students. Visa applications, mortgages, divorce papers, and death certificates. Blueprints for home renovations. A letter from prisoner to his lawyer, written by someone my son knew in high school. Ancient family photos to share with the next generations, or display at a funeral (many the result of COVID). Pictures of deceased pets whose owners break down in tears at the pick up counter. Laminating a COVID vaccination card as people share plans to visit their families after 16 months of separation.

I see everyday life, every day.

Often, when people just need one or two copies, we hand it to them at no charge. The truth is, Staples measures metrics on everything and a $.40 order hurts ours. But the looks of surprise and gratitude are a welcome sight. I get to do something nice for people every day.

Letting go of the thing I created

I’ll admit it took me months to adjust from the idea of being an entrepreneur to working in a retail store. It was all in my head. The truth is, I was no longer at the top of my game. The challenges of running a business are constant. I was worn down.

While my business offered aspects I loved, the essential problem was I just didn’t love my job anymore.

I didn’t like working on Saturday on accounting or marketing chores that weren’t finished during the week. Chasing down substitutes when products were out of stock? Not again. Writing a blog post? Forget it. Scheduling social media posts? Not today. Twelve years is the longest I worked at any one place. I didn’t just need a new job. I needed a career change.

Now, instead of sitting alone at my computer sending emails for 8-10 lonely hours, I interact with 40-100 people in person every day. I love the young team that works with me. Old friends I hadn’t seen in years come in to the store. Parents of my kids’ friends tell me about their grandchildren. Regular customers linger to chat. Babies and toddlers give me shy waves back. I teach an endless stream of people how to send a fax or forward an email from their phone. Then I clock out at the end of the day and leave it all behind until the next shift.

Even the crazy customers are a story to tell. Oh yes, I have stories.

How have you reset?

COVID in 2020 and 2021 has been a reset time. Two years ago at a holiday event with friends, someone asked the group, “What is your hobby.” I replied that I didn’t have one. My work was my job AND my hobby. It didn’t leave time for other pursuits. That realization stuck with me.

COVID was actually my way out. Now on Saturdays my wife and I go out for walks, go to the beach down the street where we moved in 2020, or I play guitar. Every month I pay off the lingering expenses from owning a business.

I started in sales in 1981. It requires optimism and resilience. Salespeople learn that bouncing back from failure is a job requirement. And as any Sales Coach will tell you, there is no such thing as failure – only a lesson. I am grateful for the chance to do something that brings me satisfaction without the stress of being an entrepreneur.  

The lesson I would leave with you is this: don’t keep doing what you don’t love. There is something else that will make you happy. Be ready to pivot when the opportunity comes.

Resources

Here are some resources I found to be extremely helpful both in running my business and in my career.

What is Your What – Discover the one amazing thing you were born to do by Steve Olsher

https://whatisyourwhat.com/

Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen

https://gettingthingsdone.com/

There are many people who supported me during my entrepreneurial journey, but none more than Mark Gallagher and Laura Savard at blackcoffee, one of the top branding agencies in the country. If you work with marketing or branding, check out their website. You will be smarter for it.

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