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Surviving When a Supplier Disappears

Chris Guillebeau, author of 'The Art of Non-Conformity,' on his comeback from a business crisis.

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You can come back from anything. Even if your supplier disappears off the map and you are 5,000 miles away, a creative entrepreneur has to be able to patch things together. Here's how I learned this lesson the hard way.

During four years overseas in West Africa, I supported myself through moonlighting, consulting on Google Adwords accounts, and building web sites for clients in the U.S. and Europe. In my third year abroad, a new publishing business I had started on a home visit began to take off at the same time my volunteer responsibilities were picking up. A couple of times a month I'd set my alarm clock to wake up for 3:00 a.m. conference calls by satellite phone, where other participants would marvel at working on location from Los Angeles and London. I never said a word about being even further away in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia.

I worked 45 hours a week on volunteer projects and at least 20 hours a week on the business. It was all going well--or at least, as well as could be expected, but one evening, the duct-taped operation fell apart. I had just returned from a long day in the field, delivering medical supplies to a village. I went online through the flaky satellite connection and began downloading email.

Then I read the message titled "Urgent Update" and saw that it was from my new fulfillment center. The message explained that they were shutting down the company, effective immediately. "No more orders will be shipped," the owner said, and in fact, no orders had been shipped in three weeks. When I frantically called in on the satellite phone to get more info, the number was disconnected.

In retrospect, I should have seen the distress signs--inventory not being added to the database, a half-hearted response to inquiries--but in between delivering truckloads of relief supplies and helping bring patients in from all over the region, I simply missed it. I had a huge crisis on my hands, not much time to deal with it, and I was doing important work in Sierra Leone that I couldn’t just leave behind to fly back to the U.S.

Within a few hours, other business owners left out in the cold chimed in on several online forums to fume at the company that had left us all without a crucial link in the supply chain. The better answer, I knew, would be to focus on a solution to the problem. I could deal with the negative feelings later.

I called my brother back at home. "Ken," I said, "I’m going to need your help." My plan was for him to sign up as my temporary, one-man fulfillment center while I worked on a long-term solution. Thankfully, he was up for the task. Next, I called my printer to order new supplies, three new fulfillment centers to see if they could help, and several other customers of the failed supplier to check out the new options. Over the next 10 days, we replaced $20,000 worth of product and found a new supplier willing to accommodate a number of "refugee clients" from the failed fulfillment center.

At first, the process of sorting out the mess was extremely stressful. Sitting there after I had made my last phone call around midnight, however, I began to experience a deep sense of calm. As strange as it was, I felt that in some ways the crisis was even a welcome event. It forced me to reevaluate what I was doing, and to think creatively solving the problem.

"This will all be okay," I wrote in my journal while on hold with one of the vendors. "I'll find a way to get through this and be better for it in the end."

And in fact, it was okay. My brother did a great job as a one-man shipping agency for three weeks, the new fulfillment center took over after that (providing much better service than the first one ever had), and I gained a new sense of confidence that I could handle any problem that came my way.

Paradoxically, when you manage to survive a crisis that had "deathblow potential," you’ll often end up stronger than you were before the walls fell down. The best part of all was that most people around me had no idea what was going on. My faraway customers were happy, and my non-profit colleagues in Africa never knew about the crisis I was dealing with in the evenings. I continued the volunteer commitment for another year before relocating back to the U.S. for graduate school, and I even slowed down the extra hours I put in while the business continued to grow.

This article is an edited excerpt from The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau, a writer and world traveler who blogs about his adventures. Follow his live updates on Twitter at @chrisguillebeau.

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