It was a summer in 2005, and I remember it was sunny and warm. I was sitting in my accountant’s Midtown Manhattan office reviewing the previous year’s numbers and I was feeling great. At least until he looked at me and told me my company was hemorrhaging cash and there were millions owed to the bank. The air conditioning was on full blast, and I started to sweat.
I looked at him and told him flat out he was wrong. He had to be. It wasn’t possible. How could it be? I had started my e-commerce company in 1999, and within five years, we had offices in NY and LA, 50 employees and 40 million in revenue. We had been named one of Entrepreneur magazine’s fastest growing companies.
I knew we were going through a rough patch but nowhere near what he described. I took out my cell phone and called the bank. I remember very clearly not wanting to make that call. My bank rep quickly confirmed everything my accountant said. I hung up and felt my world come crashing down around me.
Nothing really changed, mind you… not really. The situation existed before I even walked into his nicely decorated office, but my perception and understanding of it changed drastically and irreversibly. Life would never be the same again. One minute, I was a successful entrepreneur, and the next, I was, what? I didn’t even know. I was simply scared, terrified actually.
When you’re afraid, I mean really afraid, very little goes through your mind. There is a stunned inner and outer silence. The crazy hypothetical situations that your mind creates would come flooding in soon enough, but in those few initial moments, the quiet disbelief drowns everything else out.
The next three years would be the most difficult of my life, personally and professionally. Lawyers, courts and investigations were taking their toll mentally, physically and financially. They became a big part of everyday business, never mind trying to turn the business around, increase sales, maintain our reputation and cut our expenses, all in an effort to save the company.
Sometimes people ask me what I’m most proud of. It’s never what they expect. I’m proud of starting a company from nothing, quadrupling sales year after year and being recognized by Entrepreneur magazine. I’m very proud of how I created my success, but I’m more proud of how I handled its agonizing failure.
In 2003, I started practicing Zen meditation under Roshi Richard Hart, of the Clear Mountain Zen Center. In the stressful, ever changing world of startups, the simplicity of Zen was very attractive. Every day I would try to carry my practice from my meditation cushion to my desk chair, bringing compassion to the work environment and mindfulness to a job that demanded multitasking. It wasn’t always easy but it absolutely made me a better business owner. When I missed a sitting I felt it, and I tried hard not to miss any.
I sometimes wonder how I would have handled those tough years if I didn’t have those years of practice to lean on. Zen teaches non attachment and no self, the idea that who we believe we are is an illusion we have created to survive in this world. These concepts didn’t come easy, but they somehow felt right. Some things can’t be learned in a book. They have to be experienced firsthand, and this was one of them.
After six years of running a growing company I was attached to it, to my employees and to my lifestyle. There was a time when we felt we could do no wrong. Every decision we made worked out. We felt like we could move the stars to align in our favor, and of course, this is nothing but ego and hubris and probably the start of the fall. The idea I was wrestling with, the idea of no self, was that I was not my company. Heck, I wasn’t even really Dean.
Roshi Hart would always remind me, “A fixed and permanent self is a frustrating and futile endeavor.” of course, I agreed with him intellectually. But it was meant for others to deal with, not me. I was, after all, untouchable and unstoppable. If things changed that was OK because they always changed for the better; until they didn’t.
And yet, when the time came, and my “permanent” self was under attack, I wanted nothing more than to defend the life I had spent years building. Even after years of practice and meditation, I was adamant that no one would take away what I worked so hard for. But of course it did no good, as I went from a young entrepreneur taking on the world, to one trying to hold it back. In every meditation session I struggled to accept the unacceptable.
Over the following weeks and months word started to spread, as it tends to do, about the company’s troubles. Things got harder. Employees left. Sales fell. Credit tightened. The unthinkable was quickly becoming the inevitable.
Perhaps I needed the humility of a failure. Perhaps there was a reason for it. Perhaps… well, there are a lot of perhaps. Sitting day after day, week after week in meditation helped me let go of the “what ifs” and “only ifs.” I don’t know how I would have gotten through those years without my meditation practice. It would not have been as easy, and easy was the last thing it was.
Business and technology will always be a part of my life, as will Zen and meditation. Sometimes I’m asked by someone starting out, “What should I do first?” My answer is always the same; “Start some sort of practice and stick to it.” Business has its highs and lows and having a practice helps keeps things in perspective, helps keep our egos in check and tends to bring a balance to life.