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As part of a series looking into the under-discussed side of founding a company, Forbes speaks with the founder of Virtual Umbrella, Samantha Kingston, about building a business while going through grief. For more Founder Therapy, click here.
For Samantha Kingston, it turned out that two days was the amount of time it took for her life to be turned upside down.
A late night call from family, a flight home to Scotland and a rushed taxi to the hospital bought ten minutes of conversation with her mother, before she was taken off oxygen. After twenty further hours by her bedside, Kingston was left with missed calls from clients, a family reeling from shock and a booklet entitled What to do after a death in Scotland…practical advice for times of bereavement.
“I was 100% not ready for that.”
What followed was an unwelcome life lesson in grieving while running a business: an odd cocktail of the surreal and the familiar.
“You’re not speaking. You’re not eating. Your brain isn’t functioning properly. You get annoyed for no reason. And then you laugh at stupid things and you say silly things and then at the back of my mind, I was still getting phone calls from clients.”
Grieving takes time: a commodity that is in short supply when growing a business. With practical considerations such as funeral planning, it was important for others to pick up the slack. For example, while Kingston was meeting funeral directors in Scotland, her business partner Bertie Millis tried to create the space she needed.
“Bertie was great at channeling clients via him, and just pushing it that way without necessarily telling them. That’s that’s down to organization within your team.”
Did it work as planned? Not exactly. “I got calls from clients during the funeral.”
Still, leaning on those around did have an impact. There was a point where Virtual Umbrella staff knew more than their clients, allowing them to step up by covering emails and contacting clients.
If you don’t have a cofounder Kingston recommends finding someone else to lean on, whether a trusted freelancer, a member of the board of directors or someone closer to home.“If you’ve got family around you that know your business, well, they might be able to step in, just to help out a little bit.”
Money and mourning
As many in her position found out. Kingston soon discovered the costs associated with losing a loved one. “I haven’t got four grand sat in a bank and that four grand is the minimum for a funeral.”
Financial pressure took other options off the table. Closing the business or taking a month out? “I wouldn’t have a flat to live in.” As Kingston made clear, as a founder, it’s not just your own financial well-being you are looking after. “My staff wouldn’t be paid.”
Such a stark realisation has since led to behavioural change.
“We put 40% way of every invoice or for tax. But we now do the same for rainy days and problems like this. So we put 20% away from every invoice into a savings account. That means we’ve got cash flow for particular reasons like this.
What to say
All cultures struggle to deal with death. Unsurprisingly the British way of dealing with the issue is somewhere between stiff upper lip and strained silence. Kingston encourages people to speak imperfectly but honestly, whether they be client or close friend.
What would she like to hear more of? “I understand what you’re going through or I don’t understand what you’re going through. But if you need anything, I’m here.”
The Founder Therapy series explores the under-discussed side of founding a company, with interviews from those who’ve seen it firsthand. For more, click here.
April 15, 2019 at 02:57PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs