How is Switchboard like a pair of jeans?
By Kathleen Reid
January 19, 2021
Divulging big mistakes (and the reinforcement that helped us survive) on Switchboard’s fifth birthday.
More than in any other industry, “content” within communications is a form of sales. It’s for this reason that communications leaders are inclined to focus on company wins – the cheerful stuff – over the grittier moments or the mistakes that push teams to create stronger, better companies.
But, as Switchboard turns five, I want our community to understand our joys – not merely our wins. Many of our most joyous team moments have come in the midst of grueling hard work and mistakes that caused self-doubt. Like with a favourite pair of jeans, it has occasionally required a snag to alert me that a certain area needed reinforcement. It’s with this reinforcement that Switchboard arrived on the other end of 2020 alive and kicking. It’s also this depth of experience, including both highs and lows, that allows us to feel joy in what we do.
January 2016 – January 2017
Early in 2016 we officially launched (rebranded) as Switchboard, with a killer brand, a solid company ethos and a fiery little bundle of contractors who were excited to work in our pre-renovated office. We put buckets under the roof leaks from October to June to collect the rainwater. (To be fair, it had a garden, a fireplace and a very cute Labrador.) What we wouldn’t have, moving forward, was one of our favourite clients. They were moving on to take Communications in-house.
Early on, I was crushed. As the weeks turned to months, we received requests to facilitate training for in-house staff, and their leadership team championed Switchboard at every turn – sending us referrals and opportunities. This was a lesson that doing excellent work is the kind of sales where you can hold clients with an open hand. People came and went from the bundle of contractors, but all of them rallied behind that brand, and it stood the test of time. So did the lab.
January 2017 – January 2018
In the summer of this year, we made a major change to our employment model while I was bootstrapping the business. Our independent contractors were moving toward full-time employment, which shortened the length of time between work completed and work paid-for. Switchboard had been incorporated for some time, but I was still functioning as accounts payable and accounts receivable. We needed a cashflow infusion. Ultimately, I borrowed from the bank of Kathleen Reid. I put my RRSPs into the business and it was a fantastic motivator for learning how to chase money. Around this time the phone started to ring with recognizable brands on the other end.
January 2018 – January 2019
Just as the RRSP decision was beginning to pan out, the CRA came knocking on my door with an audit. Moving contractors to full-time employees can trigger this, and there are some murky areas when distinguishing between someone who should be considered a contractor and someone who should be considered an employee. Our method for approaching EI and CPP needed to change. One giant bill and several humbling conversations later, we cleaned house – we cleaned house like the Queen was visiting and bringing friends. It turns out I also enjoy working in a clean house, and my employees appreciate it, too.
Shortly thereafter we landed a major international tech client – be still my beating heart.
January 2019 – January 2020
This was the year I learned that knowing the accounting rules and executing on them flawlessly are not the same thing. In my exhaustion from trying to do too much without support, I double-paid a consultant and was unable to remit. I had yet to fully hand over the reins to an accounting firm. Going through the next several months with a lower-than-expected cash buffer was all the motivation I needed to ask for help. MNP LLP entered, stage right.
A highly valued employee exited, stage left. Switchboard was starting to gain a reputation for attracting and training promising talent, often in niche areas. Some of our employees pivoted back into their industries of specialization, be it tech, community infrastructure, humanitarian work. In the world of small business, it is hard when people transition – but Switchboard’s company fabric is reinforced both by hard lessons and by fresh ideas brought in by new faces. I can’t underscore enough the value that newer people have brought to Switchboard. It is with your new energy and strategies that we grow.
January 2020 – January 2021
Come March 2020 many of our best-laid plans had to be put aside to keep Switchboard afloat during the global pandemic.
Just as the world started to come apart at the seams, morning sickness hit me. It was the year of asking for help and having fewer people to ask. It was the year that I understood the meaning of resilience at a deep level. It was a year of stripping away the brave face and acknowledging that ugly-cries and team over-shares can be the face of strength. Further, if you ever want to be ground into a fine dust and put back together again in a totally different way, try becoming a mom at the same time.
But the people that stuck with us and joined us during that time are highly skilled, empathetic and genuinely interesting to spend time with. This team has stood the test of their business’ founder going through pregnancy and those first sleepless months. I include those who are mentors, clients, co-conspirators and sister businesses here. Without people like Marcia Smith, Bill Tam, Kevin Sandhu and Megan Halkett, for example, Switchboard wouldn’t have the strength that it does today. I count your support among my joys.
Kicking off 2021
Our team members select a word for each year for themselves. My word is OWN. It hasn’t been an easy five years, but I’m proudly owning them.
After all, without the learning that comes from “weakness,” 2020 could have been a significantly more perilous year for our business – and only 63 per cent of Canadian businesses come out of their first five years intact, even without a global catastrophe. As Switchboard turns five, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating both the highs and lows that have been born out of this business, from RRSPs, to cherished colleagues past and present, to clients who make me want to sing. They’ve become part of the reinforcement holding this pair of jeans together. And it’s a damn good pair of jeans, if I do say so myself.
Kathleen Reid reflects on five years of Team Switchboard.
Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the past five years…