In college, I made a bucket list — 100 things I wanted to do in my lifetime. On that list, after “own a miniature pig” and “plant 144 rose bushes just like my great grandfather famously did,” I wrote, “own my own agency.” It surprised me a little as I wrote it, but as I sat with it, it felt like something I could actually do… someday.
Fast forward nine years to 2009. The U.S. was in the middle of a recession. Not just any downturn, but one so awful it was dubbed the Great Recession. The company I’d been with for the last 10 years was closing. It was a small agency with a culture I loved. I’d basically grown up there, working my way from intern to VP.
Up until that point, my career plan had been to take over an agency or start from scratch someday, when I was older and ready. At the age of 27, I suddenly had to put together a plan B. My mind went back to that bucket list. I’d always known that owning an agency was in my future. I figured why not now? I can always go get another job. I can’t always try this.
After exploring other options, a coworker and I decided to go for it. We’d take the leap, go out on our own, and see if we could make things work by building on the great things we would learn.
I won’t lie. Starting a business during the middle of the most challenging economic time since the Great Depression took a lot of guts, a willingness to take a big risk, and above all, a lot of hard work. But looking back, I can see how that timing gave us some advantages.
Here are a few of the upsides to launching a business during a recession:
1. You get to start from scratch
While other companies are busy scrambling to figure out how to stay in business, you can focus solely on building your business from the ground up. You’re free from the responsibility of paying employees, the burden of huge monthly expenses, or the baggage of what’s “always worked before.” That gives you the space to think critically—and differently—about new approaches, as well as the flexibility to create a completely different model.
2. You find out fast what works
No one is spending money in a recession on things that aren’t absolutely necessary. You’ll discover pretty quickly if there’s market demand for what you offer. That’s information you can use to refine what you do until you’ve found something that clients are truly willing to invest in and will last through the long haul.
3. You become pretty awesome at what you do
Competition is fierce in a down market. Delivering great work or superior products distinguishes you from similar companies. There’s no room to phone it in, because that means you’ll lose business to the people willing to put in more work. And working at a higher standard has the beneficial side effect of becoming a career-long habit.
4. You build real character
When I started my business, I was more scared than brave. Yet, I was even more terrified of the latter: forcing myself into a job at a company that I didn’t love. Six months in, we said we’re doing this. We’re not waiting around for the economy to recover. We got an office. We tattooed the logo on our wrists (literally). We hired an intern. We developed the discipline it takes to keep going after something, even when it’s really hard. We put ourselves to the test and found out what we were made of.
Preparation is never time wasted
Last year, when COVID-19 hit, I had another opportunity to make the best of a recession. Like many companies, we faced a period where business was slow and the future was uncertain.
Instead of responding with a flurry of unfocused and brash activity (e.g., taking any client, saying yes to everything, expanding our offers and audience, lowering our prices, etc.), we decided to take advantage of the time we now had available to us. We did a deep dive into who we’d been serving and how. We examined the way we’d been positioning ourselves and decided there was room for improvement and refinement.
Because we were intentionally proactive at a time when it was easy (and natural) to just react, we’re emerging from the pandemic in a stronger place than where we were when we entered it.
Starting a business—and keeping it running—is a heck of a lot of work in any economic circumstance. You can’t do it for ego. You can’t do it for money. But when you’re doing it because you love it, you can succeed.
And if you can make it in a recession, you’ll no doubt thrive outside of one.
After starting her career in advertising as an intern at just 17 years old, Becca Apfelstadt co-founded Columbus-based marketing agency treetree to live out her passion for agency life. She was awarded Forty under 40 in Columbus Business First in 2015 and has been featured in Fortune, GrowWire, and I Want Her Job, as well as on the podcasts Conquering Columbus and Business First’s Women of Influence. Becca speaks on topics related to women in leadership, creative workplace policies, time management and treetree’s culture and workplace design.
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