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(Photo: Twitter/@where_is_anna / Headline: The Courier Mail)
(Photo: Twitter/@where_is_anna / Headline: The Courier Mail)

BusinessJune 27, 2018

I lost everything in a house fire, but it still wasn’t as traumatic as scaling up my business

(Photo: Twitter/@where_is_anna / Headline: The Courier Mail)
(Photo: Twitter/@where_is_anna / Headline: The Courier Mail)

Earlier this month, PledgeMe founder Anna Guenther’s home in Brisbane tragically burnt down. Here she explains what happened, how she felt, and why she’s unusually zen about it.

On Monday morning on June 11, my house in Brisbane caught fire. To answer all the normal questions: no-one was hurt, yes everything was destroyed, no I didn’t own the house, and no I didn’t have contents insurance. I’m still not clear on what started the fire.

What it made me realise though, is that scaling my business up over the last few months have been harder on me than my house burning down.

I was travelling at the time of the fire. I was in New Zealand to speak about feminism at a business conference in Queenstown. I’d originally said no to the speaking gig because things had been so full on that taking time out to speak about feminism wasn’t really at the top of my list of things to do. But the organisers convinced me, and I really wanted to give my grandparents in Dunedin a hug, so I made a last minute decision to spend seven days in New Zealand.

On Friday 8 June, I gave a talk about feminism. I told the audience that I never thought I was a feminist. Until I did. This topic isn’t new for me, I’ve talked about it before. But this was the first time it was the singular focus of one of my talks. Despite some severe anxiety going up after a five-time Olympic medalist, I had an outpouring of positive feedback. I spent the weekend with family and friends, and then travelled up to Auckland for a few days before I planned to fly home to Brisbane.

The fire started around 6am on Monday morning. Normally, I would’ve been in bed at that time either dozily ticking through my to-do list for the day while attempting to fall back asleep or working in bed. The fire moved so fast that I probably would’ve died. 

I found out about the fire while I was at lunch with a friend. Towards the end of the lunch, I checked my phone. I saw a message from my flatmate that said: “Hey, I have some really shitty news…”

I was a bit shocked, but not really concerned. Once I was sure my flatmate was fine, I was okay. I finished lunch and headed off to a board meeting.

I can see how my response to losing my home and belongings in a fire might seem unusually zen, but there are few things that might help explain it.

First, I’m used to loss and change. I’ve lost a lot of people in my life which has put into perspective other shitty things that happen. My mother died of cancer when I was a child, one of my best friends from high school was murdered, and my cousin – who was like a brother to me – died a few years ago. After my mum died, I moved internationally almost every other year so I don’t really have an emotional attachment to things. The one box of irreplaceable photos of people I love are currently in storage with a friend in New Zealand.

PledgeMe’s Anna Guenther (Photo: Supplied)

Second, worse things have happened to me in the last few months. Honestly, scaling up the business recently has been much harder (and more traumatic) than my house burning down. Is that normal? I think it is.

Business is hard. Especially when you’re building a new way of doing things. We’re at an exciting time where social enterprise, capital raising, technology and community are all intersecting. We can do things in a whole new way. But doing things in a new way is hard.

One of my advisors once likened the work we do to map making. In a lot of respects, we’re charting uncharted territory. We can learn a lot from the places we’ve been, but there are still new nuances to the places we’re going. New environments, new responses, new hurdles and new opportunities. But we’re not going alone. We have a ship full of support going on this expedition too. Their livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our business. We need to value them for taking that leap of faith, and sticking with us through the highs and the lows while we work our way towards a new and sustainable way of doing things.

Scaling a business is much harder than starting one. It’s the constant focus – day in and day out – on building, improving, selling, doing, listening, responding, and going. It’s incessant and often unforgiving. Things go wrong and things go right. But when things go wrong, it’s often more searing and painful than the highs of when things going right. And while you might work your butt off to make things right, it’s not always appreciated.

Anna Guenther’s window (Photo: Twitter/@where_is_anna)

Then there’s this weird drive that a lot of founders get where success is never enough. You constantly strive to do things better (and often bigger). For example, our recent decision to come to Australia has been going really well, but it’s hard. It’s a new country which, while it looks a lot like New Zealand, has subtle but significant differences.

The third reason I’ve been able to take this house fire in my stride gets to the heart of PledgeMe, because while building a company often means you get to meet a lot of new people, building a crowdfunding company means getting to know a whole new crowd of people is even more of a given. I have a crew of great friends BP (Before PledgeMe) and a massive crowd of connections and friends AP (After PledgeMe). Both of these groups have come to support me over the last few days.

I’ve had such an overwhelming outpouring of support, love, and offers for pretty much everything (except a date. Seriously kids, blind dates are welcome). Hundreds of friends have got in touch to offer support, ask how I was doing, and tell me how happy they were I didn’t die (same!). I’ve had friends I made through business depositing money directly into my bank account, family telling me they can either give me money now or when they die (and they’d prefer to do it now), my Aunt Jo making sure I had “clean undies and something to cover your tits”, and my Uncle Garry who’s always there when I need him. My sister drove hours to take me shopping, and another friend I made through her PledgeMe campaign went so far as to create a Givealittle campaign for me.

So, even if scaling up is hard and everything feels like it’s literally burning down, you can get through anything with a bit of help from our friends.

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