From Major Crisis to Comeback, What One Startup Learned
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When Annette Giacomazzi's young daughter broke her arm, she was looking for ways to cheer her up. The creative mom developed a fun, brightly colored cover for her cast that quickly became popular. That one creation led Giacomazzi to launch CastCoverz in 2009, with a friend who became her business partner. Nothing in those first whirlwind weeks foretold how her resilience would be put to the ultimate test.
Within two months, the business partners split after opposing work styles led to bitter clashes. The startup was also dealing with a costly and unwitting mistake. The first bulk order of 600 cast covers was not latex-free, rendering them unsalable to doctors. Shortly afterward, on August 2009, Giacomazzi was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer that required surgery and radiation.
"I'm a very positive person, but it was exhausting. Every level of your being is affected," she says. "Mentally, you're just thinking 'Holy cow, I've got cancer' and trying to help your family through it, too."
Shaken, Giacomazzi needed to maintain a sense of normalcy for her family -- and her business. She rose early every morning to read inspirational stories and pray, which helped combat some of the fear and anxiety. She made sure the family ate dinner together each night.
Taking care of herself also helped her stay focused, so she could protect her business from falling apart. She managed the physical exhaustion by going to bed at 8 p.m. and taking naps—whether she needed them or not.
Keeping her fledgling company afloat as she healed was going to take some extreme measures. The first was to slash costs. She hired a seamstress to fill orders as needed because she could not afford another bulk shipment. While the per-unit price was higher, the smaller payments didn't dip as steeply into cash flow. CastCoverz would only accept domestic orders to save on shipping costs, and new product introductions and marketing ideas were put on hold.
But Giacomazzi also assured her four employees that she would keep the business going. In exchange, she needed them to step up while she underwent medical treatment. They had her permission to do what was needed to keep customers happy, including authorizing returns and correcting orders.
Within a year she felt well enough to dive back in full-time. Fortunately, she had not lost any of those early customers. "That first year was about learning lessons rather than growth," Giacomazzi says. She found that delegating authority to employees allowed them to rise to the occasion and perform beyond her expectations. The latex debacle taught her to ask more questions about customer needs and taboos. And, of course, the exercise in cost-cutting made her realize how resourceful she could be in cutting expenses, if cash flow crunches arise in the future.
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Today, Giacomazzi remains cancer-free -- and more confident than ever in her business. CastCoverz has grown to 10 branded products and the "mid six-figures" in annual revenue. Giacomazzi also acquired a small crutch supplier in February 2012 and plans to add two or three staff members over the next few months. But it all started with first slowing down to take care of her health.
"There's nothing wrong with pressing 'pause' when you have responsibilities or challenges that are weighing on you," she says. "Surround yourself with good people, get your health and good energy back, and then keep moving forward."