Starting a new business can make you feel like you’re drowning. There’s a flood of new information to assimilate, unexpected setbacks and delays (especially during Covid), and the personal struggle of trying to stay “above water”. Many entrepreneurs balance multiple roles (and even multiple jobs) until their business takes off. As new innkeepers treading a bit of water ourselves, I recently recalled how we almost literally sunk 38 years ago. Our lives merged together at a river, and now we live next to one! It was at the Mojave River in Southern California that my husband Brian and I wrestled to stay afloat. Now, along the Androscoggin River in Northern New Hampshire where we recently opened The Inn at OxBow Acres, there are days when we feel like we’re being pulled under again. Just when we think, “What else could possibly go wrong?” another crisis arises. But reflecting back on our first experience, the principles learned from almost drowning in a deluge equally apply to business.
Lesson #1: Grab a rope!
Let me fill you in on the backstory. When we met in 1983, Brian was a young, adventurous Marine stationed in Tustin, CA. Brian LOVED his little 2WD Ford pickup. He would whisk me away from the city to the high desert of Apple Valley to go four-wheeling. As he jostled and bounced over rocks and up and down gravelly hills, Brian happily chatted away about lift kits and suspensions. I smiled nervously and held onto the seat trying to engage my useless invisible brake. What I really enjoyed were our visits afterward with a sweet elderly couple. I loved that this adventurous Marine would take time to visit with friends of his parents. The Tompkins had moved from New Hampshire to Hesperia, California, and after a day of dusty riding around those precarious bluffs, we would visit and be treated to a delicious dinner. This amazing couple had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Aunty Dot was an amazing storyteller! The conversation was always fascinating, fun, and quite frank. It was often said, “Aunty Dot tells it like it is.” And she did; sternly warning Brian to be careful with his cargo (me) and to STAY OUT OF THE RIVER because of flash flooding. We didn’t take her too seriously. Floods didn’t happen often in Southern California. The urban riverbed near my city ran with a mere trickle of water. My siblings and I would ride our bikes along the wide cement banks wondering why such a huge basin existed when it hardly ever rained. Here in the desert, Brian would brazenly meander up and down the shallow riverbed despite Aunty Dot’s admonitions. On a good day there might be 6 inches of water to splash his tires; the width of the wadi equal to about the length of his little Ranger.
One October day Brian came to pick me up in his brand new 4WD Ford Ranger XLT. He was anxious to leave the city and test his off-road capabilities. This guy was the epitome of confidence! When I mildly suggested that we don’t do anything too crazy, he emphatically responded “My truck can do anything!” We sped off on Interstate 15 to see if this was true.
As we entered San Bernadino, the usual hazy sunshine was replaced with low slate-colored clouds overhanging the barren landscape. We rolled (and occasionally gunned) up bluffs enjoying the panoramic vistas. “Let’s check out the riverbed,” Brian suggested. When it came into view, I was stunned. Before us, white capped waves whipped by. No longer an eight-foot-wide stream of quiet water – this was a menacing fifty-foot-wide stretch of rapids! Brian’s eyes gleamed with that, “My truck can do anything” look.
“No,” I said quietly, but Brian had already inched his front tires forward.
Before we could even blink, we were sucked into the raging current. The Ranger spun ninety degrees, and characteristic of the peculiar Mojave River, we were carried backwards. After thirty yards or so, we hit a rock and jerked to a stop. Brian sat without a sound, incredulous over what just happened. Suddenly my feet were getting soaked!
“Uh, Bri… there’s water pouring in through the doors. Do you suppose we ought to climb out the back window and get in the bed of the truck?”
“Quiet!” he roared. Then, “Let’s climb out the back window into the bed of the truck.”
For an instant I was reminded of Agent 99 in the TV comedy, “Get Smart.” I said nothing, and we clambered out surveying the turbulent waters around us. Then we saw – him. Someone older… Someone wiser… Someone who could help! Watching two unfortunate fools stuck in the middle of a torrent, our onlooker didn’t appear concerned. Nope, this guy was drinking a beer and laughing his head off!
“Got a rope?” Brian yelled.
“Of course, I do,” the observer smugly replied.
That was when I realized that we’d been doing a lot of crazy things over the past few months – and we didn’t even have a rope. So that’s lesson one: When undertaking a new venture (or adventure) grab a rope from people wiser and more experienced than you. It would have been better to have talked with seasoned off-roaders or at the very least we should have heeded Aunty Dot’s advice. Obviously the locals knew more about the terrain than we did. One can glean so much from those who have been down the path before .
In this current business venture, SCORE is one organization that has extended a rope to me. SCORE stands for the “Service Corps of Retired Executives” and has been around since the 1960s. It is the largest network of small business advisors in the United States. Whatever your field, they will set you up with an experienced mentor. These mentors have been in your shoes and can share valuable wisdom. They connect small business owners with resources to help them succeed. Besides the 1:1 counsel, there are amazing workshops to help entrepreneurs succeed in business. I have learned a lot from the Merrimack Valley Score chapter in particular. From creating a business plan, to marketing, disaster planning, trends and tax planning, there are webinars that one can attend live or register for the recording. From SCORE I learned about the Small Business Association Mentorship program and am currently working with a gentleman from this organization as well. My SBA mentor encouraged me early on when I was setting the room prices for our Bed and Breakfast. He knew the area and the clientele, and he encouraged me to “not to work for free”. My mentor made me honestly value my time and has been a wonderful help with QuickBooks. There were so many details to navigate when starting this new business that I was sinking under a sea of information! SCORE and the SBA cast out ropes to help me out of rough waters. My mentors may have needed a beer after all my questions, but at least they didn’t laugh at me!
Anyway, after draining his Budweiser, this fellow threw the rope, and Brian just about toppled out of the truck bed trying to catch it. He tied it tightly, and then holding on for dear life, we jumped into the icy water. The current was unrelenting – trying to rip away my grasp on that line, but somehow, we eventually reached the bank. Our unlikely angel gave us a blanket (another good thing to have) and drove to town to fetch a tow truck.
Brian and I waited, shivering. I had never experienced real cold or wind chill and neither of us could speak. There in the middle of the Mojave sat his shiny new truck settling deeper and deeper into the sand below. The Mohave River runs mostly underground, and this flash flood created a water monster that was devouring everything in its path.
The nearest town was eight miles away and we were quite a distance from the highway. After an eternity, our amused friend returned, but he wasn’t smiling. “The truck won’t come out. They don’t believe anyone was stupid enough to get stuck in the river.”
Cold, depressed, and ashamed, we climbed into his truck and once again he drove into town. At the sight of us, the tow truck driver’s jaw dropped. We climbed into HIS truck, freezing, wet and bedraggled, and back toward the river we drove. Only not just us. Our new friend rode behind, and behind him, one by one, a convoy of a cars, trucks, dirt bikes, even bicycles began to follow. Word spread like wildfire. Tow truck headed to the river! We were heading a town parade.
Lesson #2 – People are going to discover you messed up.
That’s a lesson? Yep. A huge lesson in humility. Even though we all may consistently put our best foot forward when talking to people or posting on social media, it’s inevitable that our failures are going to come to light. Everyone makes lousy decisions from time to time, and most don’t stay hidden. Transparency is acceptable in the 21st century, but I come from a generation that wasn’t comfortable with sharing struggles. I rarely heard people talk about failures. We were supposed to appear like we had it all together. But I’ve come to understand that our “secrets” will get out, word will spread, and there will be an audience to watch how we handle our predicaments.
I personally like to look nice, dress decently, and look “put together.” After fighting to get to shore, I was completely disheveled with dripping mascara; my hair was plastered with sand and mud. It was not how I wanted the parade of townspeople to see me. But you know what – it didn’t matter. No one cared about my appearance. They were there to see the problem (sunken truck) and how it was to be resolved. And you know what? It was really wonderful. There were kind people who brought dry blankets and hot coffee. I remember I was shaking so hard I could hardly hold the cup, spilling the contents all over my clothes. Sympathetic observers reassured me as we watched events unfold together. Had Facebook been around back then, we’d probably still be in touch! And then there was the person who documented the event, developed the pictures, and mailed them to me afterwards. If that crowd hadn’t followed, this situation would have been so much harder to bear. Although humbling, once this mistake was made manifest, help arrived!
When we got back to the truck, the hood was covered in water. The tow driver surveyed the situation and concluded, “I can’t help ya. You’re going to have to get a diver to hook up the winch.”
A diver? Where were we going to find a diver? This was when telephones were still corded! I didn’t even know where to start. The Yellow Pages? Marineland? Well, I guess it was Marine-land. My intrepid Marine boyfriend said…well, I’ll skip all he said, but he concluded with “I’ll do it myself!”
Lesson #3 – When you’re up a creek (or a river) resolve will work wonders.
One thing I love about Brian is that he doesn’t wallow in his troubles. He may not know exactly HOW he is going to get out of a situation, but he owns it, and he works hard to figure it out. No blaming. No arguing. Just a thorough assessment and then – action. Only… Brian isn’t a swimmer. In fact, he can’t even float well. He’s always been a lot of muscle and tends to sink rather than buoy in the water. A diver he was not! But resolute, brave, and just a little bit crazy – yes!
Clutching the rope once again, Brian dragged himself to the truck while we anxiously watched. After several tries, he got the winch secured onto the ball hitch, and then climbed into the bed. Slowly we watched as the tow trawled and the truck lurched. At times it looked as though it would tip. Brian shuttled from one side of the bed to the other to keep the Ford as level as possible. Finally, the truck was on dry land! Our band of spectators clapped and collectively gave a sigh of relief! But then an even harder lesson was soon to be learned.
Lesson #4: After a failure, things are not instantly going to return to normal.
There needs to be a time of recovery. Whether it is a mechanical mess, medical mess, or marital mess, it’s unrealistic to think that you can instantly return to “life the way it was” before the failure. Time is needed. How do I know?
This strapping young Marine thanked the tow driver, but he was quite proud of himself. He “didn’t need no diver!” Within minutes of this victory, he climbed into the cab, put the key in the ignition, and…cracked the head of the engine. (Are you groaning with me?) His brand-new truck – less than three months in his possession – was rendered useless, and we were about 100 miles away from the military base. Think of the cost just to tow it! Aunty Dot came to pick us up and take us back to her home to clean up. She sure had some stinging words! But of course, this was not how she planned to spend her weekend. This poor woman had to drive us all the way back into Los Angeles and home again.
Had Brian let the truck sit and dry out for a couple of days, he probably could have driven it home and saved thousands of dollars and several months of frustration. But this was a good lesson. Both of us have had various setbacks personally, professionally, and physically. We’ve grasped the value of waiting – even suspending our plans – until a period of time has passed, and we can assess how things are going. There’s a time for quick action, but typically it’s not immediately after a setback. Like that muddy turbulence before us, the waves had to quiet, and the sand had to settle before the river became clear again. It took several weeks before the Mojave River began to flow underground again as it typically does. Nature itself reveals that return to normalcy takes a period of time.
The final lesson learned that day is one that brings hope.
Lesson #5: Our mistakes and our response to them can change the course of our lives (often for the better.)
When our Budweiser buddy first drove into town and we stood shivering, I saw a side of Brian that I hadn’t seen before: total discouragement. I’ll never forget the look of defeat that was evident in his posture, his demeanor, his entire being as he surveyed the situation. But it’s strange – instead of thinking, “If only he hadn’t been so cocky and inched so close to the water…” I was overwhelmed with this sense of, “If I can get through this terrible situation with this guy, I can probably get through anything.”
Later when I watched him face this problem head on, I thought, “That is one brave, resourceful, and resilient guy. I think I could grow old with him.” And that’s where we are 38 years later. It took a big FAIL to see what both of us were really like and discover what we really valued. That shared hardship of almost being swept away by a flood matured us and drew us closer together. We’ve encountered many difficulties since then, but many joys as well. We’ve raised children that are making their unique mark on this world. We’ve utilized our skills to try to make life better for those around us. Yet after all this time and lessons learned, we are still a tad daring and impulsive. Purchasing this property and starting a new business could be one of the most reckless decisions we’ve ever made. The needed renovations and seemingly continual repairs have unleashed a flood of frustrations. But as we apply these five life lessons, we can embrace the difficulties and enjoy the challenges.
Today the river we border is always full of water. We’ve had great fun paddling in a canoe, and our daughter gave us matching kayaks for Christmas this year. No more testing out trucks in the water! But whenever we venture out, life preservers and emergency gear are a must. We might never need it ourselves, but one day we might need to extend a rope to someone else.
Operating a hospitality business and a farm puts us in a vulnerable spotlight; various people see us every day – and some days are hard! We’ve had several expensive surprise repairs. Within a year we ended up having to redo the electric, septic, and heating systems besides the planned aesthetic renovations. It hasn’t been an easy start, but we have received helpful advice and practical help from sympathetic observers.
This beautiful mountain property has so much potential! The indoor function room could be a popular rental, and many people have asked when we’ll be opening up for regular dining. I dream of expanding our gardens , and we have an ancient orchard that desperately needs care. But we are in a season of recovery from major renovations, and several plans are on hold for the present. The name – OxBow Acres – signifies an industrious work ethic, but for things to move, there must be both potential and kinetic energy. This month, we are in that potential phase. If we move too quickly in our pursuits, we just might crack – like the head of that engine!
Starting this business with all its ups, downs, and uncertainties in the midst of a pandemic might have been a mistake. Time will tell. But I’m banking that it will change the course of our lives for the better. No “If onlys” here. Just gratefulness that we are sharing this journey together in a beautiful log cabin along the Androscoggin River.