A few months back, I received a rather unusual voice memo via email. I’m the host of a business leadership podcast called Curveball where we talk to leaders and entrepreneurs about those moments they just couldn’t see coming, the highs and the lows of running a company, and how they thrive in challenging times.
We’ve talked to Kate Morris about her ride from garage to IPO float for the multi-million dollar online retailer Adore Beauty. We’ve discovered how Justin Dry pulled himself back from the financial brink not once, but twice before building wine retailer VinoMofo. And we caught Paul Scurrah right as his then company Virgin Australia nose-dived into administration off the back of the global pandemic.
So this voice message, from a leader I hadn’t known about, took my breath away.
“My name is Rob and I think our Curveball story is possibly a little bit different to many you’ve heard. You see, as I’m recording this, my wife and I are sitting down to crack a bottle of champagne to celebrate a year since our successful 13-year-old business went from a $6 million turnover to….”
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There was a moment of silence in the message, not caused by the dodgy mobile reception, but by a noticeable gasp for air.
“…It’s zero. Zero in turnover. And to top that off, we’re currently sitting in a trailer park on the opposite side of Australia to where we started. So possibly not the indicators of success that most of your listeners would expect.”
Wow. As someone who is now running a fledgling business myself, the message really hit home.
So many of Australia’s incredible entrepreneurs start out with a dream, usually operating from their garages or their kitchens. And at some point, most of them have been through the ringer. They’ve either seen their profits tumble, or their entire industry affected by an unexpected market event. But through a combination of guts and strategy, they somehow bring it back from the brink.
But what if choosing not to claw your way back from the brink is actually the bravest thing you can do? What if a graceful exit to stage left is the only answer?
Rob Malicki and his business partner and wife Marine Hautemont made one of the hardest decisions of their lives, but the results have been surprising. Until 2020, they ran student travel service AIM Overseas. But as borders shut and the pandemic began to look like a long-term prospect, the pair started war-gaming possible outcomes.
Malicki was overseas in early March, too busy drumming up business to understand the catastrophe his wife back in Australia was already convinced might wipe them out.
“By the time Rob flew in from the US on the 6th of March I said to him, ‘we’ve got to sit down and we’ve got to look at numbers and we’ve got to make some decisions because I don’t think July is happening’,” Hautemont recalls.
But Malicki — the more optimistic of the pair — wasn’t convinced.
“I flew in and we’d been talking throughout that week and I was sort of thinking to myself, Marine’s really worried about this, this bug thing going around, but we’ve seen it before when Swine Flu happened.”
“And I’ve also read all those classic books, like The Lean Startup and The Hard Thing About Hard Things where businesses get smacked in the face with something massive and then turn around and everything is all right and you save the day with some heroic action,” he laughs.
“I flew in on the red eye from LA. Marine and I go to have a coffee and Marine pretty much looked at me and said something to the effect of: It’s done.”
The pair considered alternatives: Could we drop some student programs? What if we retained just a handful of staff? Could we move the office back home and work from our living room? But they also wanted to ensure students who’d paid for travel experiences up front could be reimbursed.
“We already had about $600,000 worth of fees to reimburse to students. Then we would have to pay all our staff as well.”
It was Hautemont who made the final call to shut down the business. “We were in agreement when we made it. I voiced it and Rob very much agreed, and whilst it was a hard decision from an emotional point of view, it was an easy decision from a practical standpoint in terms of looking at numbers,” she explains.
Malicki agrees that though it took him a while to catch up with his wife, it was the right call. “You don’t get to choose the cards you’re dealt. We realised that the choice we were facing wasn’t, ‘could we save this business?’. It was, ‘could we do the right thing by everybody?’”
“We made sure $600,000 was reimbursed in three days. Some of the biggest companies in the [student travel] space left students hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars out of pocket.”
Hitting the open road
But what next? After winding down the company, paying staff their entitlements, was there any way to salvage the bin fire of 2020?
Despite running a travel company for years, the pair hadn’t been indulging their own passion for travel. So they packed up their two kids and hit the open road on an adventure around Australia which they had long been talking about, but had never had the time to take.
And it was on that trip, looking out at the dusty brown landscape of remote Australia as the hazy pink sun dropped down, that the pair finally allowed themselves to toast what they’d done. Maybe they hadn’t failed. Maybe taking control of a terrible situation and doing the best job possible to wind back a company before it became truly insolvent was the ultimate definition of success.
“I guess when we sat down to open that bottle of champagne, we were looking at what this planned road trip would have been like had AIM Overseas still been open. It would have been a very, very different trip. Initially, we’d only been planning to go for six months. But once we hit the road, we looked at each other. We were probably a month in when we thought, what are we rushing back to? We need to take this time to reset after 13 years of working every weekend and working nights and working through our holidays,” the pair admit.
“We wouldn’t have reconnected as a family the way that we have, having not had to worry about all of that stress and pressure and everything else.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from interviewing the most successful people in business, it’s that business is actually a series of really hard decisions and tough circumstances slogged out over decades that we don’t hear about, peppered with one or two really great moments which are lauded in the press and at business breakfasts.
“Of course there’s moments that you celebrate… the ones people hear more about. But people don’t necessarily see when you’re going on a family holiday, that you’re still actually working on that family holiday, that you’re taking the phone calls at 11pm,” explains Hautemont of the never-ending slog of running a business.
Malicki adds that a life-and-business partnership can take its toll.
“One of the things I don’t think people outside the business see is the dynamics between the two co-founders. Marine has the business brain and the experience doing the business of international education. I brought the network and the knowledge of the outbound mobility side of things.
“I also do stuff on YouTube and I go to the conferences. So most people see me as the person running the business, even though it’s always been a team, and Marine has made all of the biggest decisions that the company ever made,” he explains.
“But almost every time, including friends and family, people would say: ‘how’s the business going, Rob?’ But not pose any questions to Marine. And I think it’s a really difficult thing when one half of an even team, an equal team, doesn’t get the recognition that the other side does.”
And now as the pair continue their adventures on camels in Broome and splashing through the crystal-clear waters of Lake McKenzie, it’s clear to Hautemont and Malicki that they have in fact achieved what so many others on Curveball have. They’ve thrived in challenging times.
“Sometimes there’s a monstrous, demonic fire front that’s bearing down on your little town and your little team. And the only thing you can do to stay alive is to quietly and quickly make an orderly exit via stage left.”
Curveball is a production of podcast consultancy and production company Deadset Studios. Kellie Riordan is a leading podcast strategist and former head of podcasts at the ABC.