I want to take a moment and look back 14 months ago, when the pandemic (I know it seems like it has been longer than that).
Two weeks into the lock down, I received a phone call from one of my biggest retainer clients. It went something like this: “Shawn, we love you, and this has nothing to do with your work, but we need to halt everything right now.”
This was devastating not only because I hated the thought of losing this particular client, but because I had been receiving phone calls just like this one for two weeks. A lot of my business was in person, and suddenly, “in person” was on hold – indefinitely. And so, it seemed like, overnight, I had lost about 85 percent of my business.
With this latest blow, I felt utterly crushed. In that moment, there was no internal pep talk. No inspirational quotes floating above my head, ready for the plucking. No reminding myself that this was a “learning opportunity.”
I want to be really clear here: it sucked!
I remember walking downstairs and having lunch with my wife. As we sat across from each other over our grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, I decided that the time for wallowing was officially over. That’s when I asked my wonderful wife for a favor. “Can you call me out if I start complaining and playing the ‘ain’t it awful’ card?” I asked her. “Gladly”, she said.
I went back up to my office, and launched into “figuring it out” mode – still wearing my soft pants.
Only one problem…..
I had no idea how to figure this one out.
The irony of my situation wasn’t lost on me. Helping people through their hardest days at work is what I do for a living. And now here I was, the one in need of help, with no clue where to start.
So, I took a page from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and I phoned a friend. Not just any friend, mind you. I called someone I have a lot of respect for, personally and professionally, and I asked him what he thought about my predicament. His response, though I didn’t know it right away, would change everything.
He said: “Shawn, the next little while is going to be full of unknowns, and it’s going to be tough financially, regardless of what you do – whether you spend your time complaining or whether you try something new.” Then he said:
“Just focus on serving the clients that you absolutely love, and go from there.”
When we got off the phone, I thought about my friend’s advice – and thought some more. “Couldn’t he have been a little more specific?” whispered my inner voice. I decided to start by taking out a pen and paper and writing down a list of those clients I absolutely love; the clients I’d love to have over to my house for dinner; the clients whose company I simply and truly enjoy. When I was finished, I looked over each name on my list and thought: “how can I serve them today?”
And I did that every day.
Some days, I’d pick one or two names on the list; other days, three or four. I would do something as simple as record a voice message or a goofy selfie video, saying something along the lines of: “Hey, I know what you and your team are going through – here’s a tip.” Nothing major. But I just kept focusing on them.
And guess what happened?
They started calling me.
Before I knew it, I was being inundated with “thank yous” and requests to share my videos more widely. I started to ask myself: how else can I create and serve? “Wait a minute”, I thought, “Why don’t I get everyone in the same room – virtually?”
And that was when I decided to bring my pre-pandemic “Socials with Shawn” series to the wonderful world of Zoom.
In the old days, “Socials with Shawn” was an in-person event that brought together my best clients and their friends. There was music, and food, and coaching, and fun. I had no idea how such an event would translate to the online world, but I was willing to give it a shot. So, I created a Zoom account, set a date for the following Monday evening, invited those clients from my list, and hit “send.”
Then, I stared at my computer screen. Would anyone even be interested?
As it turned out, the answer was yes. That same day, much to my surprise, the RSVPs starting rolling in. “Oh”, I thought, “I guess I’d better come up with something!”
As someone without much prior experience in online hosting platforms, I called one of my Zoom-savviest friends. I explained my situation, confessed that I was afraid of hitting the wrong buttons and screwing the whole thing up, and she generously offered to serve as my backstage manager for the event on Monday. Phew.
Over that weekend, I solidified my vision for the inaugural virtual edition of “Socials with Shawn.” I had a pretty good feeling that what people were largely looking for was a nice distraction from all the craziness swirling around them at the moment. They wanted an opportunity to connect with other business leaders and talk about what they were going through, but they also wanted to have some fun. So, that was my goals I put together some exercises and activities for the big event (which, at that time, I viewed as a one-and-done affair.)
On Monday evening, five minutes before the event started, I logged in with my backstage manager and waited. There was nobody in the waiting room, just the two of us. Two minutes passed, and I started to get queasy. “This is so embarrassing,” I said to my friend. “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time.” She shook her head and said: “Just wait.”
Then, someone showed up. Then another. And then another. And all of the sudden, there were 14 people in the Zoom room. Fourteen people from three different countries. The 90 minutes flew by, as we reconnected over laughs, shared experiences, and tips and tools for the workplace.
At the end of the event, someone said: “This was great, thank you. When’s the next one?”
For a brief moment, I was speechless. I hadn’t even considered doing a second event. “Well, when would you like it to be?” I asked. Everyone agreed on the following Monday, and every Monday after that.
And so, for the next 12 weeks, that’s what we did. Every week, the numbers got bigger. A few people even reached out and asked if I’d be willing to come and host socials with their teams.
What began as an experiment has become so much greater than I ever could have imagined. By taking a risk and dipping my toe into the virtual landscape – despite having no idea what was beneath the water – I realized just how much potential lay before me; potential I didn’t even know existed 14 months ago.
Before the pandemic, I was used to going to clients’ houses, presenting in their boardrooms, playing by their rules. And as much as I loved that, in a way, it kept my horizons from expanding. I was always working with the same people, around the same tables, repeating the same patterns. Having to move away from in-person interactions forced me to re-think everything. It forced me to think about how I could play host instead; how I could both provide the content and create the connections that so many of my clients were longing for.
Now, I’m in the habit of welcoming all these wonderful people – and their wonderful friends – to my house (cue ‘Welcome to My House’ by Flo Rida.) I’m getting to live my dream of having my favourite clients over for dinner on a regular basis – with some small adjustments (namely, the actual dinner part.) And my online offerings are only continuing to grow. This summer, I’ll be launching my ‘Strategic Focus Program’ online, bringing together world-class leaders for meaningful conversations, contact building, and awesome resources.
None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t first gotten really uncomfortable. I’ve come to learn that, sometimes, a comfortable job or pay check can actually be a barrier to fresh thinking and creative ideas. We can get a little bit lazy, without something to shake us up every once in a while. I know I certainly did. I needed a wake-up call, and I got one – big time.
My next step, a crucial step, was asking myself that one essential question:
“How can I serve and create for the people I love and respect?” I’m so glad I asked.