MAY 5, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

Postcards from the Recovery

As the president of a San Francisco marketing outfit, I've seen some dramatic highs and lows. Now, I'll be writing about them

Only two years ago, I had a staff of 35 employees, more than $3 million in annual revenue, and a roster of Fortune 500 clients. With no active marketing and no sales staff, we turned away dozens of new prospects every month, contracted out hundreds of hours of work, and interviewed job candidates every day of the week for months on end. At the height of the bubble, we literally could not grow fast enough to keep up with demand.

Today, we have fewer than 10 employees. We've had to give up our beautiful offices, along with a raft of benefits and office equipment. With sales projections looking bleak for the foreseeable future, we face terrifying financial questions on a daily basis. The economic boom and bust has been a roller-coaster ride, not only for my own business, but for my clients, my colleagues and friends, and especially for my family.

HARD LESSONS. And yet, I wouldn't change places with anyone. Over the past four years, I've learned more about business, and more about myself, than I could ever have imagined. In the past year alone, as our market has collapsed, I've had to learn -- and learn fast -- not only how to survive but to look beyond every impending disaster to find the way forward. I've mastered a number of "textbook" lessons from mistakes I will never repeat, things like the importance of qualifying sales prospects, of checking employee references, of moving beyond cash-flow management.

I've also learned a number of lessons I don't expect to see in a textbook any time soon, like how to prioritize every day, how to work a room effectively at business events, how to say no to a valuable client. Most of all I've learned how to make decisions I can trust in the context of an uncertain and rapidly shifting environment. Part of my decision-making process has become active reflection -- keeping a journal -- which is why I'll be keeping this diary for BusinessWeek Online.

STAY TUNED. In future columns, I'll explore some of the challenges and opportunities my business has faced as our focus has shifted from growth to survival, and as we now find ourselves working to build a new footing in a difficult market. There will be some interesting stories along the way -- from the wildly successful CEO who told me of his plans to build a recreational spaceship, to the formerly successful chairman who blew $65 million dollars on a failed startup.

There will be some commentary on the current business climate, especially in the areas of technology and marketing. And there will be some honest reflection on what it means to labor every day in pursuit of success in a service industry. If you have any questions, suggestions or comments at any time, please don't hesitate to drop me an e-mail.