Finding a Silver Lining in a Tough Year

One of my favorite New Year’s traditions involves sitting down with a good friend on the first day of the year and making a list of the things we’ve accomplished over the previous 12 months.

Even in the worst years, we’re able to find some bright spots, and we have fun reminding each other of some of the little victories we might otherwise have forgotten – a clever business decision, volunteering for a charity, finally paying off that last credit card.

While most people focus on impossible resolutions (“I’m going to triple my income, lose 30 pounds and organize my whole life…all by next Tuesday”), we like to look at what we’ve already done and what we’ve learned from the past year. It’s an energizing process that makes us feel good about the future, rather than overwhelmed by all we still have to do.

At a holiday party last month, I mentioned my list-making tradition to a couple of designer friends. Their initial reaction was, “Who wants to look back on 2008? Let’s just get it over with and pray it never happens again!” When I laughingly reminded them that the point was to look at accomplishments, rather than focusing on the negatives, the conversation turned more thoughtful.

Jillian, who designs at a local firm, said, “Well, it was a crummy year, but I actually did learn a lot about selling. I’ve always viewed myself as a designer, not a salesperson, but this year I’ve had to learn how to really sell myself and my work. I used to think that creative people weren’t supposed to be focused on sales, but I feel better prepared now meeting clients, and I think my 2009 will be better because of it.”

Susan, whose disappointing 2008 led to mid-year layoffs, also took some valuable lessons out of tough times. “Before, there were things I delegated that were just being done a certain way because that’s how we always did them.

Since they weren’t on my desk, I didn’t think about them. Now that I’m taking back some of these responsibilities, I’m rethinking some old ways of doing business, and I think we’re going to be better and more efficient as a result.”

Susan is also back to designing – something she rarely did before, due to her managerial responsibilities – and said she’d almost forgotten how much she enjoyed that aspect of her job.

While admittedly it’s tough not to get discouraged in a climate of layoffs, plummeting consumer confidence, rollercoaster stock prices, and a plunging home market, this is the new reality. At best, the market is not expected to see a recovery until the middle of 2009, and many industry experts don’t expect to see major improvements until 2010 (see related Forecast coverage).

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve already had a year to come to terms with this new reality and restructure our businesses accordingly. We’ve worked our way through denial, shock, paralyzing fear and hopelessness, and learned that none of these reactions will sell more kitchens and baths.

The next step, according to Jillian, is finding the silver lining, and figuring out how to turn that into silver of another kind. That may mean exploring new profit centers – perhaps getting involved in designing closet systems, entertainment centers, laundry spaces, mud rooms or outdoor kitchens (see related Outdoor Kitchens). These not only create the opportunity for more business, but they allow you to get that business without having to find more customers.

Or it may mean rethinking your business model and budgeting strategy (see related Budgeting Your Business to its Absolute Core). It may mean getting involved with allied professionals, kicking your marketing into high gear, or offering a new line of “budget services” for more cost-conscious consumers.

Even the most difficult challenges offer opportunities for learning – and improving. Now, more than ever, we need to find those silver linings.