In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business — and how they recovered.
Suddenly losing a client worth 75 percent of her business’s revenue sent Sandy Rubinstein into a spiral. The CEO of DX, a digital marketing and advertising firm, went home and cried for two days, wondering if she’d have to cut her losses and shutter the company. But a stern talking-to from her mentor — and inspiration from her grandparents, who had survived Nazi persecution decades earlier — gave her the boost she needed to turn things around. She not only used all of her personal savings to get the company back up on its feet but also revamped the business model. Rubinstein tells us how she did it.
What follows is a first-person account of this person’s experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“When I had been CEO of DX for about a year, I had my worst moment. Prior to 2010, we had built DX predominately to service one very large client, along with several smaller ones. The large client was an entertainment company, and it accounted for 75 percent of the annual revenue. Seventy-five percent of my employees (about 15 people) were responsible for taking care of that client, working in strategy, creative, email marketing, websites and media buying and planning. In 2010, the large client had a sudden shift in management. In the middle of the week, we were notified that we were to cease all work by the end of the week — and that a new agency was being brought in to start the next Monday. I was completely blindsided.
Losing 75 percent of your billing overnight — with no reserve cash — is pretty gut-wrenching, especially because we had little sales in the pipeline and 20 employees, with the majority of them dedicated to the account we lost. Some of this was on me. We didn’t prepare savings for a ‘rainy day,’ and we didn’t have sufficient language and protections in our working agreements. If I had let those employees go, I wouldn’t have had enough manpower to secure new clients, so I was in a tough spot. Do I use the remaining receivables to get me through the next three months? Do I close the doors?
I felt like I’d walked into a disaster. I had experience taking brands and teams from a midpoint to success, but this was different: a total flatline and the idea of coming back from the dead. It was terrifying.
I went home and cried for two days. I felt powerless, naive and foolish, and I couldn’t face my team. Then, my mentor gave me a good verbal lashing: ‘Go all out or pack up and go home, but stop acting like a baby. Put your big girl pants on because 20 peoples’ lives depend on you.’
I started thinking about my grandparents, who lost everything when the Nazis invaded. After their escape, they started with nothing and built beautiful lives. I decided I could do this as people before me had.
I took a risk, emptied my personal savings for family, vacations, kids’ college funds, etc. — it ended up being a high six figures — and used it to bankroll the company for 18 months while we restarted from square one. We literally rebooted everything in the company, because I wanted to ensure we didn’t have to fire anyone or dole out salary cuts. We were methodical with spending, and I sent half the team out to knock on doors to get more sales into the pipeline. We also looked at the current trends in our industry and what services we weren’t providing. I thought long and hard about what would make us a more well-rounded choice for clients to go with.
Slowly but surely, it worked. We bought another shop, we added more services and we grew. Eight years later, we have over 40 clients, three offices, 44 employees, with an ample reserve and no debt. Each and every day, I’m glad that I didn’t give up. When people are depending on you, you can decide that failure is not an option and it will help you push through.”