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How to cope when business is driving you nuts

(MoneyWatch) Today I'm going to get a bit personal: My business is going through what seems like a perfect storm of colossal headaches, and I'm hoping that a little sharing will be constructive.

Like any business owner, I spend lots of time putting out fires. But these days it seems like I don't have enough hoses, and at times it's testing my capacity for stress (and that's saying something). It's gotten to the point that when someone says my name lately, my standard answer -- only slightly tongue in cheek -- is "now what happened?"

To be clear, it's nothing fatal -- this too shall pass. In fact, much of it is growing pain, even though my company is 13 years old.

The short version is that just when some big customers are growing exponentially and a bunch of fantastic new business opportunities are popping up, we're experiencing the worst production delays ever due to a Murphy's Law variety of supply-chain issues. This is leading to significant, lengthy stock outages and the nauseating need to turn away a bunch of new business.

People like to say that having demand exceed supply is "a good problem to have," but it's not. We're a small, boutique company with a limited number of products, competing against countless others with full warehouses. A lost order is lost for good; not having stock to meet demand is never a "good problem" for us.

Compounding the problem is the fact that all of these late products are going to land at once, along with all the expenses that go with them. So we'll be back in the swing of things -- great. But after several months of lost sales and receivables that normally support the stock on the shelves -- not so great.

We will get through it, and of course we're taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. And once we get to the other side of this, I know we'll have a fantastic second half. But right now that's cold comfort. It's hard to see past today's problems, and I suspect many other owners can relate.

Because happy employees and happy customers are the heart and soul of my business, we can't allow even the most daunting challenges to kill our mojo. So here's what I'm reminding myself and my team:

Don't dwell on the cause. An old boss of mine liked to say "it's not your fault, but it's your problem," whenever someone complained about circumstances for which they weren't to blame. You can talk all day about what got you into this mess, but that usually won't get you out of it, though of course you must learn from it.

Don't waste time on what you can't do -- think about what you can. I'm passionate about yoga -- it's one of the few things that settles me -- and a popular expression in the practice is "be present". Basically, it means there's nothing you can do about the past, and the future is literally never here (wrap your mind around that), so you can only act now. When business hands you sudden challenges, you should spend as little time as possible thinking about anything you can't do right now.

Right now I can't do anything about suppliers who screwed up two months ago, and I can't wave a wand and fill my shelves tomorrow, so every moment I spend grinding my teeth about it is wasted. Instead, I need to focus on available contingencies: finding new ways to sell more of the stock we do have, doing whatever it takes to keep customers happy, managing cash flow.

Stay positive. Assuming you're confident you'll get through whatever it is, remember that light at the end of the tunnel (if the light is a train and you might not get through it, that's an entirely different topic). Sometimes it's easier said than done. Keeping the place smiling and fun when we're swimming in backorders and missed opportunities isn't easy. But the good news is that our rabid obsession with making people happy pays a bonus at times like this.

When we actively and honestly reach out to our customers, explain the situation and ask for their forbearance, they are invariably kind, patient and supportive. And knowing that our customers like and trust us enough to put up with this rare annoyance makes it a heck of a lot easier to keep smiling and soldier on. If you didn't already have enough reasons to treat people well all the time, consider what a difference it makes on the rainy days.

So that's my month. How's yours going? I decided to share how things are going with my business for two reasons. First, because I hope it will provide some real-world lessons and suggestions that may help others who are down to their last nerve. Second, because, frankly, it's cathartic. And misery loves company, so I'd love to hear from you. If you'd care to open up about some of your own moments of extreme business grief and how you've dealt with them, please do; everyone benefits from hearing about common experiences.

Image by Flickr user Lisa Brewster

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