My Journey: Business, burn out and freedom

written by Sarah Colgate

Business Tips for 2024

March 17, 2023

Why do we go into business?

People go into businesses for loads of different reasons. The top reasons are;

  1. To make money.
  2. To be your own boss.
  3. To work at something you love or are good at.

Going into business whether it’s a startup or an existing business is a big undertaking, financially, emotionally and sometimes physically.

Being in business is something I have always done. If you have read any of my other blogs you will see it’s in my nature.

I talk about business, I read about business and I surround myself with friends who are in business. And most of all I think about business endlessly.

Me with an Aquaduck bus on the Great Wall Of China

I always have an “ideas book” on the go. I write anything and everything about a business I see or experience. I write down things like marketing suggestions, product extensions, branding, uniforms, communications etc. what I see or what I think of in this book. It can be about the cafe I just visited, the toy store I bought my kids christmas gifts just any business i come across. For a while there I even  considered sending a list of business improvements to each business I visited just to help them out. Then I thought better of it. Maybe those business owners don’t want unsolicited advice on how to improve their businesses. 

When we bought Aquaduck in 2018, my brain went into overdrive.

I spent hours every night writing down the million and one improvements we needed to make to produce sensational results. To begin with it was just so easy, everything flowed and the results rolled in. I put prices up, added more value and built a strong brand. I loved it, the staff were happy and my vitality was infinite. 

I remember the amazing feeling I felt every time I told people about the business or about our tours. I travelled across Australia and even to China to share my love of the business and the tours we offered.

Sure there were some things along the way that weren’t perfect but I dealt with them. Those that I didn’t deal with seemed to fade into the background while the real job of building the business came so easily and enjoyably to me. 

Then we bought a second business Duckabout in June 2019 which further challenged me and also provided me with an opportunity to really succeed and I did. We grew capacity, made profits and I kept everything moving in the right direction. We had what felt like unstoppable success. January 2020 was a record month and we made record profits across the board. In early 2020, we were on the verge of buying a third business but luckily for me the universe stepped in and put a stop to that with a series of events outside my control ensuring we didn’t buy that third business.

Business Burnout

As we all know March 2020 brought us a situation that changed life forever. At first, I looked at the COVID lockdown as a significant opportunity to take a break and reinvent my business to be sleeker, more efficient and easier to run. However with the extended lockdowns, travel restrictions and staffing issues my stress levels increased. I began to take every business issue personally. I let my thoughts, fears and stress rule my world and my thinking. Yes I kept going and kept improving but there was an underlying stress that was eating away at me. Causing me to be tired, emotional and eventually physically unwell. 

In early 2021, a very good friend of mine who owned a fantastic tourism business on the Gold Coast – Southern Cross Tours came to me asking if I would buy his business. They had run the business for 17 years, given their hearts and souls to it. Unfortunately the business had been 92% international business and they just weren’t able to keep going during COVID. They had lost their drive and their vitality to rebuild the business back to its successful highs. So I bought that business as well.

At first, I was buoyed by this new opportunity, the challenge of restoring the business to its former glory and my desire to turn things around personally and feel good again. However instead of feeling better the additional stress and strain caused a complete and utter burnout. Within 9 months of buying this third business I was telling my business partners in our strategy meeting that things needed to change and I needed help.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t as abrupt or direct as I needed to be because they didn’t respond and didn’t acknowledge that I was struggling and needed help. The date burned into my brain Friday 25th February 2022 as my world changed. I walked out of that meeting and I knew I was in trouble. In addition to my own feelings, my husband who was also in the business had told me he wanted out and my Admin Manager and the functional backbone of the business had announced her retirement. 

Four months later at a board meeting I handed my business partners a proposal for me to take control of the business financially or for them to buy me out. In taking control of the business I had a plan to restructure the business and bring in some external help for me and my team. And the second option would allow me to get out altogether. 

There are sliding doors moments in every experience. I remember the moment when one of my business partners said to me “Get over myself and harden up. I have been in business longer than you and I am still here.”  I was standing on the driveway at our office/depot in the sun on the phone to him. That moment was validation that I was doing the right thing for me. 

My family and I are taking a well earned break in Outback Queensland.

I then went on a two week outback trip with my family. No phones, emails or contact in any way. That allowed us the space to really separate the emotions of the situation and for us to prioritise what we wanted for our life. Three days in we decided we were done. We also put together some contingency plans in case the others made it hard to leave or if we changed our minds and wanted to stay. At no time from that point on was I ever going to stay. The wheels had been set in motion. However I did feel guilt about leaving, I did try and work through the issues and look at reorganizing the business with my partners but that piece of me was gone. It was just ash; I had been burned so much I was burned out. 

My steps to freedom

During the process of extracting myself from the business I had an amazing lawyer who pushed me through each step, a councillor who kept my thoughts on track, friends who supported me, an industry who encouraged me and a family that hugged me tight. 

Everytime I doubted my decision I got more validation to keep going. The support and comments I got from people I told were “Good for you”, “It will be the best decision ever”, “you deserve the best”  and finally a staff member said to me “it’s really brave that you have decided to put yourself first, it’s a hard thing and your life will be so much better now that you have made the decision to do so.” Oh my god wow, thank you. I felt so supported it was amazing and painless. 

However, for some ridiculous reason I agreed to stay on after the sale as did my husband. Neither of us wanted to, but I pushed us to agree even though everyone was saying just walk away. There were lots of “I should” “I could” and “if onlys” rolling around in my head. Duty bound or something we agreed to stay even though we desperately didn’t want to be there. 

Following the sale we took a two week family holiday and I was supposed to return to work the next Monday. My friends joked I would last an hour, others had bets on me and how long I would last. Most said I was crazy for even considering it. So before I went on leave I packed up my desk as if to clear the slate and provide an opportunity not to return. It was a visual clearing out that my ex business partners looked at each day, it was my signal that I had left and didn’t need to return. A suggestion my councillor had given me to get me out of there. 

My husband worked three days and resigned. I did return and was sent on my way by my ex-business partners straight after that. I remember getting in my car and laughing uncontrollably as I drove home. 

When I got home and told my husband, I think I was a bit shocked. An hour or two later, I was so very grateful. I was given an out and it was the best day of my business life. My guilt was gone, I had my freedom. I didn’t have to deal with it al. I didn’t need to watch someone else run the business or make changes. It was perfect, the perfect ending for me. 

Obviously it took a while for us to settle back into our life but the kids were on summer holidays and everything just started to pan out beautifully. I feel so blessed to have understood myself well enough to get out of the business, get out of a business relationship that didn’t work for me and get my freedom back. I finally put myself first and it has rewarded me in every way. I now live a life of freedom. I work for people I like, doing work I want to do. I have time to be creative, time to write and most of all time to be with my family which feels my heart and soul with love.

We all have a choice and I choose freedom each and every day! We all get ourselves into situations from time to time that don’t work well for us. However it’s our decision to stay and put up with it and suffer. It’s also our decision to make changes and leave. I have found the people that whinge and moan about the career, business or personal position they are in, are those that don’t believe in themselves or don’t have enough courage to make a change for the better.  

You know the people that are always “going to set up that business”, “going to leave that bully of a boss and go out on their own” but they are the ones that never do. They stay stuck and then complain to everyone about it. Stop and look at what you are doing, how you are treating yourself and what changes need to be made for you. 

What I have learnt from this life changing business experience.

  1. Me first then the world. Without me there is no life, no love and nothing of value. I need me in order to live a life that is worth living. So I have to come first in my life. 
  1. Acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling. Write it down. Look at it.
  1. Ask yourself why you are thinking and feeling this way? That helps you identify the problem bits. 
  1. Look at what gives you stress and remove it. Whether it’s a person, a relationship, a job or a business, if there is no way to handle it, then maybe there is no way to handle it and changes need to be made.
  1. Change can be hard, it can be a shock so start with baby steps. Start small and take one step towards what you want each day. 
  1. Life will always reward you for doing what you need and want to do for you.
  1. Turn around and look at what you have done. Be grateful, reward yourself.

8. Live the life you deserve, the one you have dreamed of. Make it happen for you.

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