Most people who know me tell me they’ve always thought of me as being a good businesswoman. What they always saw was the duck sitting in the middle of the pond, basking in the sun and looking pretty; what they never saw, was that that duck was paddling like hell beneath the surface.
Merriam Webster describes success as “a degree or measure of succeeding” or a “favorable or desired outcome” and “the attainment of wealth or favor.” There are many paths that can lead you down that road to success. And success means something different to each of us. It could mean wealth, happiness, recognition and/or financial freedom….
In my lifetime, I’ve taken turns down roads that didn’t lead me to any of these.
When the recession hit in 2008, we lost over half our home remodeling business income overnight. Then it seemed the next month we lost another half, and believe me, that didn’t leave us with much to work with. But I was younger then, and giving up was never an option.
When I was asked to write this chapter for The Habits Code, the idea was to share one habit that helped make me successful. As I made copious notes, I realized there was never just one habit, but many that kept me going.
The first one was perseverance. Even when I was at my lowest, I woke each morning and forced myself to put one foot in front of the other. I did my hair and make-up, just like every other day, and drove to our office, knowing I had my work cut out for me. I thought of myself as a movie star, ‘always on’ and I maintained a positive attitude, had a smile on my face, was cheerful when a prospective client called or came through the door, and I underscored our value so someone would hire us.
I gave great customer service, like my parents had before me, and even when we were almost broke, we stood behind our work and took care of any issues a customer might have with us. “The customer was always right,” when sometimes it seemed we’d spent our last dime fixing a problem. Even if a sub-contractor wouldn’t stand behind their work, we stood behind ours and made the customer happy.
I knew if I believed I could, I could. I said to myself, “I can do this. I can face the day, and I can be the change.” I didn’t always start the day this way, but I acted the part, and I found I eventually my attitude changed. I felt better.
I always tried to remember I had two choices; one was to give up, and one was to carry on. (I think I invented the sign ‘Keep Calm and Carry On!’) I’d taken a Dale Carnegie course years before and the one thing I came away with from that was, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you continue and fail, can you live with the consequences? Can you find a job at Home Depot if you have to? If you can accept the worst, then choose that direction.”
Now don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing unfitting about working anywhere in retail. It’s just that I’d spent thirty years in remodeling, and was overqualified, and untrained, to work in most of their departments. Hey, maybe I could have become Vice President of something if I’d gone there!
I was always passionate about my work. I laid awake nights thinking of ways I could promote our business, and sometimes, I made some terribly expensive (aka bad) choices. I committed five thousand dollars to my local newspaper’s new end all to be all plan of advertising. It was called pay per click; it made sense, but this was almost twenty years ago, and this type of advertising was just in its infancy. We got some clicks, but no new business; not even one new person walked through the doors from that. The other dumb thing I did was let another newspaper talk me into doing an ad with a phone number tied directly to it. I knew we couldn’t lose on that one; they’d record the call to prove its efficacy and to justify billing us (after all, their job was to get someone to make the call, and our job was to persuade them to come in and buy something). What they didn’t tell me was that the ad used an area code almost twenty miles from our showroom, and when people called and found out where we were, they weren’t willing to travel that far to come in to see what we had to offer.
Even when money was tight, we constantly tried to personalize our business, and we always gave back. When the economy started improving, we began hosting fundraisers to find new customers and to help our community. There were a number of charities in our area, and they were all looking for ways to raise money. We provided a venue complete with food and drinks, and sometimes even a boutique or car show. All we asked of them was to provide the people. They charged anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five dollars per person, and they got to keep the money.
In 2014, we received the Americana Award, presented by Cypress College for all the charity work we did. We never kept track of it, but I once figured we helped raise over a hundred thousand dollars for our local charities.
And in 2021, I had an email from a local realtor wanting me to know she was getting ready to decorate her Christmas tree, and she came across an ornament we’d
given out one year at a holiday party. It was dated 2012!
I constantly reinvented myself. Our core values never changed, but as the economy changed, our business model changed. We always stayed service oriented, but we opened a retail store to generate traffic. Years later, we changed again.
We subdivided. We bought our first piece of property knowing we’d have to have tenants in order to make the payments affordable. When we sold that property and upgraded to a larger building in a better neighborhood, we rented half of it out to the owner who wasn’t ready to fully retire. When we moved to a retail location, we put up chain link fencing in the old building’s large warehouse and rented spaces to six or seven small businesses who needed storage. By selling a four unit property, we were able to buy the retail location we’d been renting, and only charged ourselves enough rent to cover our expenses. When the property across the drive from us went up for sale, we sold the building we’d subdivided and bought it. We found three tenants to rent the smaller of the two buildings. You get the drift.
We’ve always been great landlords (or land persons as I’ve called us), and we always treated our tenants like they were customers. We were conservative in raising our rents, believing we wanted long-term tenants rather than being focused on making a quick buck. (Some of our tenants have been with us for over ten years). I got that philosophy from my parents. Happy tenants helped us make the payments.
My father always tried to surround himself with people who were smarter than he was. I’ve always tried to do that too, but he had an advantage over me. When he came to this country from Greece, he didn’t speak English and only went to the 6th grade because he had to work. So, continue to learn from talking with people, from listening to seminars, and from reading.
I used to think that everything had to work out exactly as I’d planned it. Often I’d have so many working parts, if something dropped off, I’d be upset. It took me many years to realize this, but if something you’ve planned doesn’t work out like you thought it would, remember; no one knew what you were thinking. Plan B usually works out just as well as Plan A.
I never thought I’d like being retired. It took a while to get used to not having to get up early, or to only be somewhere I wanted to be. That’s when I decided to get out my rusty notebooks and start writing books. I felt I had enough good summers left to get them written and published, so I got to it. I penned first drafts of five novels, then I had to figure out what to do with them. I started listening to webinars about the writing and publishing processes, and found myself in a state of overwhelm; I was going to have to re-invent myself again, and I was in an entirely new industry than remodeling.
Around this time, my husband and I decided it was time to figure out what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. He was seventy-four, and I was sixty-eight. I don’t know how to do a computer spreadsheet, so I laid out our finances the old-fashioned way, (on a piece of lined paper), and we came up with a plan. We’d sell the properties that were not making us money per month, including our second home in Lake Arrowhead, which was costing us money. But we’d just finished decorating it and loved everything in it, so we decided to merge that house with our home in Long Beach by buying a larger home in South Orange County. Now generally, people who retire, downsize, but we’ve never considered ourselves conventional.
We finally found the perfect house, and I packed for months. We moved, then came Covid-19. You’d have thought the “stay at home” time would have been perfect for me to work on my books, but I was paralysed. I didn’t know what to do first. So I did what all rational people do. I did nothing; I played video games while thinking I was writing.
I finally decided self-publishing was for me, and once I found a publisher, I had a path—a road. It took a year and a half to get the first book published, then I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Of course, I spent hours on Mr. Google, and decided I was going to die since it’s one of the most undetected types of cancer out there. But my doctor told me I wasn’t circling the drain yet, and that I needed to see a gynecologist to have the ovary removed. Indeed, it was cancer, he said, but the good news was that the cancer hadn’t spread.
In the meantime, I set my writing aside and spent several weeks working on detailed lists of what exactly I did with my bookkeeping. I knew my husband couldn’t do the paperwork, but my bookkeeper could, so the notes were for him.
I did three rounds of chemotherapy (as a precautionary procedure), then had a hysterectomy. More good news, the cancer hadn’t spread to any of my other lady parts. I finished the last three rounds of chemo, knowing I wasn’t going to leave this earth anytime soon, and finished the publishing process for book one.
Books two and three are following right behind.
A few weeks ago, I uncovered the manuscript for book four, and have finished the first major edit before it goes to my editor and readers, and I’m on a roll.
Now I admit, this last road traveled didn’t have anything to do with planning. But it did have something to do with perseverance, putting one foot in front of another (especially when I felt exhausted from the chemo), putting on a good face (for my wonderful husband), maintaining a positive attitude (even when I thought I might die), always having two choices (one to give up or one to carry on), to remain passionate (about my writing), and to behave like that damned duck in the pond. To look calm and beautiful on top of the water, and to paddle like hell beneath it.
The last thing I need to remember while I’m waiting for my hair to grow back in is that if you get knocked down by God, come back stronger and better.
Chrysteen Braun is a California native, born and raised in Long Beach.
The mountains, where she and her husband had a second home, were the inspiration for her first three books, The Guest House Trilogy. These fictional restored cabins from the late 1920s all had their own stories to tell.
Her writing crosses genres of Women’s Fiction with relationships, and a little mystery and intrigue. She’s published articles about her field of interior design and remodeling, both for trade publications and her local newspaper.
She lives in Coto de Caza, with her husband Larry and two Siamese cats.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org