Monster: A Pandemic Story

by By Carmen - Founder of The Prop Factory

Wednesday 30th June 2021 17:36:22


This is a story of rebalance and an unlikely hero.

Openness alone can’t drive change. [Conflict drives change]”1 - Margaret Heffernan

2020 was going to be OUR year. Never before in the 8 years of running the company had I felt more like the planets had aligned. We had all our ducks in a row, and they weren’t just in a row, they were rare breeds. Beautiful manicured assets, poised and set to provide our most successful year ever. January 2020 there was an absolute buzz about the place, we were smashing targets and punching our way through our KPIs. I was flying high knowing the point at which we’d brought the company to after years of trial and failings, learning, recalibrating and fine tuning. February came quickly and we advertised for two extra full-time staff in anticipation of the busy summer ahead. Set to bring our staff total to 15 it was a nervous but exciting time. We’d taken huge risks leading up to this point but were comfortable in the choices we’d made and our ability to take on those risks. Then March came. 

The first inkling of the pending doom the company would endure over the next 16 months reared its sobering head in mid March. The cancellations started to roll in, with the amount of refunds we were issuing our turnover target starting to tick backwards. It was unprecedented. A scenario in all our contingency planning we’d never prepared for. The events industry was the first to go. And ultimately the last to return. 

A few weeks before the announcement of the first lockdown I was my usual self, relentlessly optimistic, somewhat naively so about how we’d take on the difficulties the pandemic had dealt us. We held a staff meeting and relayed an emergency contingency plan based on no events for the next 3 months then a relatively normal return to business. The presentation was sprinkled with humor and pleasantries. The prop makers were tasked with setting up a village fete style scene using our props, to which they surpassed themselves. Sitting on straw bales and knitted blankets we ate scones with clotted cream and drank pink lemonade. Oh how delightfully relaxed about the whole situation we were. 

The plan mostly involved upping our financial investment in the company and carrying on with our growth plan, but bigger and better. It hinged on what we thought would be 3 months of downtime to get ahead of the game and then squeeze out the missed income out of the rest of the year. Prior to 2020 we’d taken out a substantial investment loan in September 2019. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse. By March 2020 we still had a sizable chunk left which saw us through until October 2020 at which point we held out our hand and took the government bounce back loan. However the loan repayments were pretty crippling and we were unable to negotiate any sort of repayment break. We had trimmed so much financial fat from the company that we became skin and bone. Not an inch of leway left. From negating 30% off our rent, cancelling all software subscriptions, external services and subcontractors, pulling out of advertising deals and withdrawing from sponsorship commitments, right down to switching off our hot water for over a year. We also had help in the form of various grants, no business rates to pay for a year and a corporation tax rebate. But sadly that wasn't enough to stop the 7 redundancies we had to make. We unpicked the company penny by penny. It was only our investment loan left that provided us with significant financial difficulty. 


Like thousands of other businesses we were fighting a monster intent on destroying livelihoods, no business was untouchable. That was the monster of the pandemic, everyone knew about this monster. The pain it caused is beyond words. But for me there was another one closer to home. The other monster wasn’t the most obvious one. In fact it was a stealthy one. It had been around longer than the pandemic. Born years earlier it was reaching adolescence before the monster of the pandemic fought with it. Fought it and won. 

Before that fight occurred my monster had been threatening its own attack. In January 2020 I began searching for a new commercial property. We were literally bursting at the seams of our 8,000 square foot warehouse. What once seemed a disproportionately huge building was now a hive of subsidiary departments competing for space. It was only January and I could already feel the space issue tension as it produced conflict between staff. I was extremely concerned about how we’d manage operations during the summer with a predicted growth rate of 80%. It was a ticking time bomb threatening to implode the company in the summer. It worried me everyday and I didn’t have a solution yet. That wasn’t the only concern I had. With my 6 week old baby tucked up next to my desk I spent every hour possible trouble shooting the company and it’s growing list of problems. Yes all our ducks were lined up but it turns out some of them were a flight risk, namely finance, HR, resources and simply our capacity to fulfill orders. These energetic things were swimming off under their own steam. Completely uncatchable. 

Spreadsheets were my best friend. I even had a spreadsheet of cross referenced spreadsheets. My note books overflowed with every single thought imaginable I had about the company. I had an archive of voice memos to myself, five diaries, folders of both the online and offline type full of product ideas, and more sketch books than I had at college. I barely had time to touch my emails, only emailing people to apologize for not emailing. My time was oversubscribed to the point at which I wore my pyjamas to work on more than one occasion. I even napped on the sofas stored on the pallet racking in the warehouse. The company’s rapid growth was the monster. It ruled my life and was on a fast track path to destroying it.

No one will truly know the pressures of running a business unless you’ve been there, especially when it gets to a certain size. Whether that size is quantified by staff headcount, turnover or output the result is the same. You are the only one truly accountable for everything. The choices you make have real consequences in people's lives and you can’t keep everyone happy. The bigger the company gets the more people personally remove themselves from you, and instead adjust their focus to treat you as the business entity. You become the focus of blame, and people can be quite unforgiving. They question your character and pick apart your decisions coming up with their own theories on your motives despite you doing your absolute level best, and it made me cry. 

One of my biggest battles was the conflict of individual people vs the greater good for the company. I despise the way our working culture demonises bosses and employers. I think it exacerbates an already fragile relationship. Nobody taught me how to be an employer, so I’ve spent the best part of my career figuring it out for myself. I’ve got the qualifications, read the books, and had various mentors but it wasn’t enough. Only experience and hard knocks really equip you with how to take on the world of employment. With the company growth, my personal insecurities that make me a people pleaser, and my unfavourable decision making, I was existing in a pressure cooker of anxiety. When I started out in business never did I imagine the struggles that would come my way. 

To this point my ambition had always got the better of me. I was spurred on by vanity statistics. Measuring my success in staff headcount, turnover, warehouse size, and quantity of events. But I never measured my success in joy, the work life balance, or my interpersonal relationships. At the beginning of 2020 I’d spent 8 years of my life labouring under false pretense. I hate to have to admit it but I thought the key to my happiness was to work hard, grow a large company and live off the fruits of my labours. There were signs along the way that I might have been wrong. I remember turning over our first million. I was eating a digestive biscuit, sitting at my desk made of chipboard we’d got from a skip. My chair was a hand-me-down from a car part sales company. It was a far cry from what I thought my office desk might look like at this point in the company. I remember thinking I don’t feel any different. My only solution was to work harder. Fail fast and fail hard, get up, dust myself off and do better next time. Constantly chasing the next thing that I thought was the key to success and ultimately happiness. It was a destination I hadn’t yet reached. 

Of course I don’t want to do a disservice to my journey and the joy the company has bought too. Running parallel to all the struggles was something quite wonderful. Times of exhilaration when we’ve landed a big contract, the ideas we have trail blazed through the events industry. The thousands of events and projects we have been a part of, the people we’ve met and household brands we have created products for. Seeing things we’d made on TV commercials and prime time shows. Having a secret smile knowing the organised chaos that brought those products into fruition. All from our humble base in the heart of Devon. 

I was accustomed to this high octane lifestyle of highs and lows for the best part of a decade. So when the pandemic hit and lockdown derailed the company overnight I was completely and utterly lost. I can’t recall a day when I hadn’t worked in some sort of capacity or other. I came into work when my baby boy was 2 days old. My whole career this was all I’d ever known. I didn’t know what to do with my time, my mood distended to a low hum. A mixture of frustration, a sense of limbo and a feeling of insecurity I had no fix for. 

My work had allowed me to breeze over problems in my life. In fact it was actually my saviour. Around the same time I started the company I’d had a lot of trauma in my life and I was in a dark place. The only thing that kept me functioning was my work. It demanded so much of my time that I never needed to deal with my past and the feelings surrounding it. My feelings might have occasionally floated to the surface but there was always an urgent email to send or payrun to sort out that diverted my attention.

During the first 3 months of the pandemic; the first lockdown; we did exactly what was asked of us and that of the whole country - stayed at home. We took our half an hour walk. If it was a bit longer I was armed with my excuse as to why I had been out for 45 mins. I watched a lot of TV, spent a lot of time asleep with my 4 month old and slumped around the house, letting piles of disorder build up in each room. Home schooling was an utter disaster. I sold it to myself, rightly, that mental health superseded education. But perhaps I took it to the extreme letting my eldest spend most of his time on his phone and computer because of my inability to apply myself. There was the odd token gesture but my 10 year old had such meltdowns about doing work I just buried my head in the sand. It was pretty alien to me not to work and to spend so much time with my family. 

Having so much downtime meant I had to face the feelings presented to me by my past. My mental health was pretty bad. I spent most days questioning everything, focusing only on the bad and dismissing all the good in my life. It was intense paranoia and most likely exacerbated by the lack of social contact. My anxiety was at its worst. I had no motivation for anything. 

I gave up on work. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. No money to pay the bills and no staff to generate money. I was used to having a bustling little team around me. What I could do in a month on my own, my team could do in a few days. To suddenly have no staff and the pressure of a failing company was quite overwhelming. So I decided to ignore it. I didn’t step foot in work for 3 months. 

As the lockdown weeks clocked up I reached out to new horizons to fill a void. I slowly started engaging with time filling activities. I began cooking proper family meals again, making my own jewelry, and customising clothes. But each new found hobby was short lived before I moved onto the next having not quite got my fix. My need for fulfillment or perhaps distraction grew so my interests started to get a bit more disjointed. I applied to study for a degree in psychology and even got as far as being accepted onto the course. I bought some books on law and researched different career paths. I started writing a cookbook and obsessed about taking perfect photos of everything I made. I even spent a significant amount of time developing a new business idea based on using business management techniques to run family life. All of my ideas started with enthusiasm that then petered out leaving my feelings of inadequacy and self doubt uncovered. 

After spending the first lockdown completely ignoring the company, a niggling anxiety began to creep in. The monster started to wake from its slumber. The reality of going back and actually having to deal with the company again was making me feel numb. All the problems I’d found temporary refuge from were still there. Except worse still, we now had additional financial issues added into the mix. In July when the first lockdown was lifted, I set foot inside the warehouse for the first time since the pandemic began.

It was eerily quiet. Like an abandoned ghost town everything was perfectly in situ from the last working day 3 months earlier. There were still people's cups waiting to be washed up, paintbrushes on workstations midway through projects, our ‘what’s on this week’ whiteboard in the office dated the week of March 16th.  

As I walked down the aisles it made me sad seeing all the products left sitting on shelves. I feel an odd guilt because they’d all just been left for so long. I definitely have an emotional attachment to our products. They are an extension of me. Almost a ‘diary’ of my life, each item carries connection to a past memory. After the initial sadness I started to feel uneasy. I looked at our sofas and remembered the issues we were having cleaning them. I looked at our light up letters and remembered the inconsistency in the bulb colours that customers had complained about and we hadn’t yet resolved. I saw all the chairs in the office and thought that the space was probably half the size it needed to be. These were all surface level issues, the type you can see. The much bigger, more deeply embedded issues surrounding managing the company and its out of control growth hadn’t gone away. The monster was still there, quietly laying in wait. 

The thought of going back to the way things were had knocked all my love for the company out of me. There wasn’t an ounce left of fight in me. I never thought I’d see the day that I wanted to quit. 

I didn’t want to go back to ‘that’ place. 

I sat on the warehouse floor, finally accepting that the monster had been destroying me, and would continue to do so when we reopened. I just said “I’m not doing this anymore”. 

The monster released me from its grip there and then. My fight with it was over. And it was the pandemic that saved me. 

[image: Andy Robinson]

2020 was the beginning of my healing process.

My plan was to completely close the company. I had started to play around with ideas of an exit strategy. Should we sell off our assets or try to sell the company as an ongoing concern? Who would buy it? Could I even live with the fact that something I’d created and poured my heart and soul into still existed but it wasn’t mine anymore? 

It all felt very final. 

After some time of deliberating, I came round to the idea that it didn’t need to be an all or nothing approach. The huge relief I had had deciding that we couldn’t go on was enough to spark a significant shift in the company.

I framed the pandemic as an opportunity to stop dead in the water and completely reevaluate what we were doing and why. We took all the best bits of our current business model and made a new one. We would be in effect shutting down our current business. But in the form of selling off all the assets in phases over 3 years. These phases would be dictated by the hire bookings we needed to fulfill. Running parallel to the closing of that side of the business we’d develop the new one. Our plan was to evolve into a manufacturing and product sales company. Keeping it as simple as humanly possible, a tall order given the variety of work that comes our way and the exponential number of new products and markets we could explore. But I felt that was the key, our previous growth problem had somewhat been caused by how many tangents we were going off in. Some things would stay the same like our location, staff, and customer database but everything else about the company we would have to completely re-architect. We’d simply be using the profit generated for the remaining three years of hiring events as capital to start anew. 

Referring to the quote, openness alone can’t drive change: I had been aware for some time that it shouldn’t be this hard, something was drastically wrong. I knew this. Like with most issues we know about, the big ones and the small ones, we carry on with our daily life mostly ignoring them. Only when conflict entered the arena - in this case in the form of the global pandemic - did that fundamental change happen. 

In June it was announced that furlough would be in place until November which made us very concerned. We realised what we thought would be a 3 month break was much more serious. So that fast tracked the sale of assets. The whole month of July was spent selecting props to sell and listing them online. To begin with I did have reservations as the collection we'd curated was so big, so unique and unrivalled I felt like we were cutting down an oak tree. Over the next 6 months more and more products were listed for sale and by Christmas we had advertised approximately 30% of our stock for sale. It felt we were on a one way street by that point, and had we reversed our decision to stop hiring products we'd already have significantly damaged our ability to generate revenue from our collection.

It was a whole further 7 months on from listing our first item for sale that we decided to cement our plan by officially announcing that we are to close the hire side of the company. 

We began setting up the new business model just before Christmas. All bar one staff member were on furlough which put us in an impossible position. Furlough was a bit of a catch22 as we didn't have money to pay ourselves and our staff so we were paid by the government as long as we didn't work. But exactly what a struggling company needs is it's staff to proactively generate income. Quite frankly a ridiculous scenario. The one staff member working - because she didn't qualify for Furlough - simply couldn’t produce, market, list and sell products as a one man band. So we began to think about machines. And with the government bounce back loan we bought a CNC machine in October. Total game changer. I almost feel silly we didn't already have one. I guess the Furlough situation had a silver lining in that we had to seek ways to do more with less. Product sales over Christmas were very demanding, re-affirming our decision to sell products permanently. 

In fact we were so convinced, that in early 2021 we sold our house, moved in with my parents and bought the biggest baddest printing machine our house deposit could afford us. 

We pledged to keep our new business simple, grow in a manageable way resisting the urge to forsake our personal lives in order to chase turnover.

That was what happened to the company 


But it wasn’t the change the company underwent that is the backbone of this story. It was the change I went through personally. Up until now my work has caused me to neglect most aspects of my personal life in some form or another. For someone like me sitting watching a film was a waste of an evening that I could be filling with something productive. I was the person eating my lunch at my desk, taking my laptop to soft play, writing notes under the table at a restaurant. Never in the moment. Always chasing my perfect future rather than enjoying the present. 

I had been spinning so many plates, wearing so many hats and dropping too many balls. My life was a bad performance. I had zero work life balance. I was working to plaster over the issues in my life created by the lack of time I allowed myself to deal with them. The pandemic broke this self perpetuating cycle. It forced me to stop and let my feelings truly surface. They took me to a place I didn't want to go but needed to in order to start healing.

Lockdown stripped all the types of activities that allow us to drift through life on auto-pilot. No fast paced social life, dipping in and out of one gathering to the next barely having time to learn the names of the people around you let alone have a meaningful conversation. No mindlessly pinballing around kids clubs and playdates. No shopping for leisure and other pastimes that create a distraction from real life. Nothing. I, like others, was alone with my thoughts. To begin with my negative thoughts consumed me, but through the noise I found the occasional place of peace. A walk in the sunshine with my baby boy. Treading barefoot in the garden and feeling the grass beneath my feet. Inventing smoothies with my eldest. I began to live for these moments and started to be able to quieten the noise of my thoughts. 

Since then my mind has been on quite a journey. It is difficult to list key moments at which my mindset began to change so I can only really quantify my journey by looking at how I feel now vs where I was 16 months ago. 

Now I would say I am the happiest I have ever been but that isn’t quite the correct statement. I would say I have the ability to be the happiest I have ever been. I have come to realise that happiness is a choice not a destination. That the fixes we chase in life, particularly materistically are all superficial. Despite the fact my life has taken 10 steps backwards on the Socioeconomic ladder I am so at peace with where I am. My desire for the dream house, three holidays a year, the perfect family and such wants has gone. I can see through all the things that are packaged up and sold to us as happiness with such clarity I’m a bit dumb-founded I never saw it before. My cultural shift has been life changing. 

I feel truly grounded. I'm excited to explore the rich tapestry of life in all its glorious colour. My mind has woken from the rudimentary slumber of daily life. I am going to make less noise and listen more. Listen to others stories, to have my beliefs challenged and to welcome new ideas about our very being. I feel like there is so much to know, so much to experience. Time is our most precious commodity and I intend to invest it well. I could go on but I don’t feel the need to shout about it as after all shouting about being peaceful is a bit of an oxymoron. I plan to quietly trundle on in my own new direction.

[image: Andy Robinson]

Looking back now it scares me, no, terrifies me to think that, had the pandemic not happened, where I'd be now. I was undoubtedly nosediving towards an inevitable breakdown. The tipping point of good motivating stress vs unhealthy stress had long been and gone. It would of taken an intervention of huge proportions to stop this fall. Unwittingly this intervention did come in the form of a global pandemic. I cannot believe how lucky I was. And while the pandemic wreaked utter devastation around the planet and destroyed so so much, it actually saved me. Unless you've been in my position, at the helm of a company, you would never understand the pressure it causes. It changes you as a person. 

Like a fire ripping through a forest, making way for new growth, 2020 will forever be the year that changed my life. 

Images: Andy Robinson. J&A Photography.