By Jim Small, an EO Arizona member and managing director of Sante International
When faced with challenges, people often say, “When it rains, it pours.” In my time as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned to carry an umbrella around because the setbacks that happen on a daily basis can oftentimes seem like a torrential downpour. Like my EO peers, I embrace hardships and see them as opportunities to learn and grow. They make me who I am. And if you meet them head on, if you embrace them, you’ll discover what you’re truly made of. A few years ago, I faced a challenge that shook me to the core. Forget the downpour— I wound up in a personal tsunami.
A Storm before the Hurricane
After running a successful startup for three years, I decided to kick into hyper-growth mode and franchise my property management business. Although it had been posting consistent profits, it was time to take it up a notch. I decided to follow the textbook formula I learned in business school. I added franchise talent to my sales team, raised capital to support our upcoming volume of business and filled out the necessary paperwork to expand the franchise nationally. But about a year into the ramp up, we had only sold four franchises and spent well more than US$2.5 million. We had hit a dead end.
Although the pipeline of prospects inquiring about a franchise grew, almost none of them made it to a closed deal; revenue became more and more elusive. What was the problem? I took the question as a challenge to solve, and began to deconstruct our franchise offering to uncover the truth. I’ve always had a strong work ethic, so working harder seemed like the only solution. I recalled the case studies I learned in school; the “success stories” about the founders of Yahoo! who worked so much early on that they slept under their desks at their office. I had no problem with sleeping on floors if that’s what it took to be successful. No pain, no gain, right?
For the next few months, I worked to keep the business moving forward. It was my number-one focus, but it began to take a toll on me personally. I was borrowing money from family and friends to cover the higher overhead. I wasn’t at home watching my family grow. I wasn’t tucking my young daughters into bed or having dinner with my wife, Audra. And yet, we both believed strongly in the business, and were willing to sacrifice time together now for an even better life tomorrow. What we couldn’t have foreseen, however, was an obstacle that went far beyond any business issue. It was a crisis that put everything in perspective. It was a challenge that hit home.
The Surprise of a Lifetime
During this tough time in my business, my 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, was going through her “terrible twos,” and my 3-month-old, Isabella, was barely starting to sleep through the night. It was a busy time in our household, but one I cherished. Little did I know that our world would soon turn upside down. While I was attending a Forum retreat that July, my wife had her cousin, a speech therapist, evaluate Sophia. Audra’s mom had connected them because she intuitively knew that Sophia was not behaving like other kids her age. During the session, Sophia was asked to play with toys, asked her name, asked where her mommy was, etc. But instead of responding to the requests, she just walked around the room, touching everything like a busy butterfly, as if no demands at all were asked of her. In minutes, everything became painfully clear for my wife. I, on the other hand, would be pained by a slow realization.
While this was going on, I was away connecting with my Forum mates, discussing my franchising venture and trying to figure out the best way to rebound. Aware that Sophia’s condition was not the stuff for a phone conversation, Audra didn’t tell me about the evaluation until I got home from my trip. When she brought it up, I rebutted that Sophia was simply going through a stage, and that having a newborn in the house had made my wife sleep deprived. But Audra wasn’t convinced, so she scheduled an appointment with a pediatric behavioral specialist for a second opinion. Afterward, the doctor looked at us and said, “Sophia’s young, so catching it this early is good. If she were a little older, I’d say she has autism.” I was completely numb. Autism? It was as if someone had thrown a sledgehammer into my gut. Autism?! I didn’t know much about it, but it didn’t sound good.
Searching for Solutions
I returned to my office in a blur. I had a long list of meetings ahead of me that day, and I still needed to figure out how to get the company to stop losing money … but my mind was elsewhere. My precious little girl had a serious problem that threatened her future and may end up requiring constant care. I had to step up. The following week, I held a meeting with my management team. Struggling to hold back my tears, I explained that I would be dramatically cutting back on my time at the office. I had faced big challenges before, and I only knew one way to respond— work harder. “Find a solution at all costs,” I told myself. “Be the problem solver now when you need it the most.” I posted a sign above the inside of my office door so that I could see it when I was in the office. It read: “Defy the Odds.”
I decided that with an unknown future of medical costs and caregiver expenses, my business was no longer a place where I worked— it was a strategic asset that I had to use as a weapon to fund Sophia’s medical expenses. Knowing that the business was now a means to the end of helping my daughter, I attacked it like a hungry lion staring at a raw T-bone steak. I was ready to do anything and everything to get the business to a place that benefited the future of my family. I cut costs immediately. I broke a multi-year lease and downsized office space. I stopped paying for management team perks. I renegotiated vendor contracts to get payments deferred and interest rates reduced. I even got rid of the free coffee service. Nothing was sacred except, of course, my daughter.
Meanwhile, back at home, things continued to get worse for Sophia. She developed a blank stare and would no longer talk or even smile. It was heart-wrenching, to say the least. I needed to learn more, I needed to do more. I spent endless nights researching, while Audra busily lined up therapists and scheduled 40 hours of in-home sessions per week. I knew that anything that ends in the word “therapy” wouldn’t be cheap, so I continued to squeeze more profit out of the business. Little did I know that by doing this—by completely “gutting” the company and streamlining all of our processes and proce¬dures—we were able to establish a more appropriate infrastructure. Taking my company through a turnaround while navigating a family crisis had made me laser-focused on my company’s reason for existing; this in turn created the type of efficiency that we needed all along. Before we knew it, we started seeing black instead of only red on the income statement.
Accepting a New Reality
As the company continued to run in this newly streamlined and highly profitable manner, I was able to spend more and more time away from the business. The freedom was great, but I still felt an ache in my gut; Sophia was not improving like the other children in her autism therapy groups. In fact, her condition worsened. She developed what appeared to be night terrors. One neurologist in¬formed us that they were seizures and suggested that we subject Sophia to brain surgery. Now, I’m no neurosurgeon, but I was ab-solutely sure that no one was going to cut into my daughter’s brain based solely on a hunch and the reasoning that nothing else had worked yet. Eager for answers, we reached out to fellow EO members and managed to secure an appointment at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. The solution, we hoped, was near.
As the doctors tried to figure out what was going on in Sophia’s little body, we prayed that the answer to that question would enable them to provide appropriate treatments. After two days of seeing specialists, a geneticist suggested we have Sophia tested for Rett Syndrome (for the third time), so we did. Two weeks later, we were told that Sophia does, indeed, have Rett Syndrome, and that we needed to connect with a neurologist that specializes in the disorder. When we met with one, we were handed a “Rett Syndrome Facts” book and told that girls with this disease are born fine, but then start to regress; they lose skills like their ability to talk, walk, feed themselves, use their hands, etc. She concluded by saying that Sophia would probably end up on a feeding tube and in a wheelchair, unable to walk on her own. I asked, “Are you absolutely sure nothing can be done?” The doctor simply replied, “I’m truly sorry. This just happens to one out of every 10,000 girls, and Sophia is that one.”
Although my business was finally running well and turning a profit, I found myself facing a bigger problem. I had to defy the odds and find a cure for an “incurable” disease— Rett Syndrome became my new number-one enemy. I dove into medical research again, attended conferences and talked to leading researchers. Surprisingly, I discovered that Sophia actually had a less severe form of the disorder called Atypical Rett Syndrome. I’d come to learn that we are very lucky in this manner, as she has been able to retain some of her ability to talk, walk and feed herself. I also discovered that Rett Syndrome, unlike autism in general, has a specific cause—a mutated gene—and that a scientist in Scotland has reversed its symptoms in mice. Even better, a cure for this horrible disease is in the works. All that is needed is the money to fund the research.
As the journey to support Sophia continued, I found my passion for my property management business waning. I had done more than enough to turn it into a profit-making machine, thanks to the overhaul, so when a competitor came along with a great price, I decided to sell it. I then took that money and put it into a new venture that aligns with my passions as an entrepreneur and better supports my family-first mission. I started an international real estate firm called Santé International, which is based on the French term “santé,” meaning “to your health.” I thought that was appropriate. It is with this new business—I create tax-efficient ways for foreigners to invest in U.S. real estate—that I am able to generate the funds needed to better care for Sophia, and to support scientists to help move the cure for Rett Syndrome from mice to girls like Sophia around the world. By applying what I learned during the overhaul, I was able to create a more successful business that will ensure Sophia has a healthy and happy future.
Defying the Odds
Often out of the direst of circumstances, we find our life’s mission. That is true for Audra and me. To this day, I am still working hard to fulfill both my family and entrepreneurial dreams. What’s more, I am using my resources as an entrepreneur to help pave the way so that Sophia—and 300,000 girls like her—will one day be free from the syndrome that afflicts them. Looking back at everything, I can honestly say that this has been the biggest challenge I have ever had to face. But thanks to Sophia, I now see that my true purpose in life is to help eliminate Rett Syndrome … to defy the odds.