The Really Short Version
There was a wedding, a honeymoon, a hiring freeze, a leap of faith, a flood, a cancer diagnosis, and a floundering economy. In between there was new team members, a home office, a commercial office, a lot of personal and professional growth, a company rebrand and direction shift, and the daily adventure of being an entrepreneur.
The Short Version
My path has been long and winding, and has not gone even close to how I planned. But the journey has been wonderful, despite its challenges. In a few words:
- I started dating the love of my life, Dana Janssen, at 18.
- I graduated from the University of Alberta in 2006 and worked for the Alberta government for 3 years.
- In 2009, on our honeymoon, I learned that due to a hiring freeze my contract with the Government would not be moved to a full-time position as planned.
- Dana and I decided to take it as an opportunity to work together and build AgileStyle.
- In 2010, our basement suite flooded and we lived with my in-laws for several months until we could buy a home.
- This home gave us the space to add people and grow our team.
- In 2012, Dana was diagnosed with cancer and went through 13 months of treatment.
- This led to many changes in our operations and roles, as well as the decision to move into proper office space.
- Going through such a life-altering experience together pushed us both to reflect, grow, and embrace our best value to the company.
- I have learned first-hand what it is like to suffer from impostor syndrome, and have pushed myself to grow, learn and (most days) move past it.
- Since Dana’s recovery, we have invested significant time in clarifying our vision and optimizing company operations, putting ourselves in a position to take on whatever the coming years bring.
- Our company is transitioning after 10 years of AgileStyle to operate under a new name, Code and Effect. We are bringing on a new partner and, in addition to software consulting and development, we are building our own suite of SaaS products.
The Long Version
My entrepreneurial journey started with my wedding and was then marked by a hiring freeze, a flood, and my husband being diagnosed with cancer. Looking back, I tend to split my life into ‘before cancer’ and ‘after cancer.’ Strangely enough, it is after cancer when I think I actually became a true entrepreneur.
I have been lucky enough to be with Dana Janssen since October 2002, which was about 3 months after we graduated high school. We have enjoyed countless adventures together over the years; University, backpacking Europe, moving from crappy apartment to crappy apartment, figuring out our career paths, adopting cats…overall we had pretty smooth sailing.
Marriage, looming unemployment and a leap of faith
In 2009, after our lovely wedding, we went on our honeymoon to Mazatlan, Mexico, and were suddenly presented with a new direction. I was reading CBC news on the computer in the condo we were staying in and came across an article headlined “Alberta government imposes hiring freeze.” At the time I was nearing the end of a contract with the GOA that was supposed to roll into a full-time, permanent position come October. And then it wasn’t.
There were tears. We had just spent a bunch of money on our wedding. I had been the stable income while Dana worked on building his web development freelancing business. Now I was going to be unemployed and OMG what were we going to do? Well, after many discussions, we decided that this was an opportunity. Dana was at a point in AgileStyle where he was overwhelmed with balancing the business/client management with the actual development work. We had just entered into a permanent personal partnership, why not give a business partnership a try too?
As you can imagine, the first year was challenging. Our income changed significantly and we had a lot to learn as Dana adjusted to sharing his company and I adjusted to the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of running a business. We figured things out as we went.
Flooding, displacement, and (eventually) a lovely home/office
In August of 2010, we had just sort of got our feet under us when one day we were sitting in our little basement suite and Dana heard a sloshing sound as he got up from his desk. It turned out the heavy rain we’d had for the week previous had flooded our suite and there were several inches of water between the subfloor and concrete. Our landlord said they would take care of it, so we packed up some overnight bags and our cats and headed to my in-laws. After a few days, we got a phone call from our landlord saying that we needed to pack everything and get out within the next 24 hours because the rain had not let up, things were getting moldy, and the water was rising.
We packed everything, while fielding calls and emails from clients, and moved most of our stuff into storage. My in-laws were kind enough to let us stay with them until we figured out what we were going to do. We still had a business to run so we pulled out a six-foot foldout table and set up our computers side-by-side.
In the meantime, we realized that we had to decide if we were going to try to buy a place sooner than anticipated, or find a new place to rent. We called a mortgage broker and tried to find out if we even qualified for a mortgage, given that we were both self-employed and I had only been part of the company for one year. Over the next two months we looked at a mix of properties to either purchase or rent, and eventually bought the beautiful townhouse we live in now. We didn’t know it yet, but it was this townhouse that gave us space we needed to grow.We hired our first employee in February 2011 and continued to add more people over the months that followed. While we work in an industry where remote workers are common, we felt that having people in-house was better for communication and culture. We eventually had two people in each of the two offices upstairs, and two more people in our kitchen.
A cancer diagnosis and the aftermath
On September 14, 2012, after several weeks of scans and a biopsy on a lump he found in his leg, Dana was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. Nine days later, after a whirlwind of scans, blood work, and a surgery to implant a port, Dana started treatment. Over the next 13 months we would go through 17 chemo treatments, 28 days of radiation, four emergency room visits, 29 doctor appointments, surgery to remove the tumor, and a total of 76 days admitted to either a hospital or the Cross Cancer Institute.
Life changed pretty dramatically as we adjusted to a three-week chemo cycle. We had to decide what we were going to tell our clients, how this would impact our team, what roles needed to be shifted off Dana. We quickly experienced where our operational deficiencies existed without Dana and me in the office all the time.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we would need to make some significant changes to keep things running. It became an exercise in determination because we had worked too hard, and had too many people relying on us, to fail.
The continued aftermath and reclaiming our home
As we soldiered into a new year, we got better at making the best of each day and whatever circumstance came our way. We wrote email on our laptops while Dana was hooked up to chemo, I took conference calls in the sitting rooms at the Cross, we had management meetings while walking laps with his IV pole to keep his circulation going, and everyone on our team picked up some slack. We created an operations manual to transfer as much of the knowledge out of our heads as possible. Each day we just figured it out (whatever IT was) as best we could and kept moving forward.
With the cumulative effects of chemo requiring more recovery time after each of Dana’s treatments, we knew that it wasn’t sustainable to continue to run the business out of our house. We both needed to reclaim our home as a place of refuge. It was time for office space.
Since Dana was not really able to be involved, I took on the responsibility of finding us an appropriate space that we could afford and grow in. It was challenging figuring out what we needed, wanted, and could actually get. It was hard not having Dana always available to do walkthroughs and discuss lease terms. It was a long process but in May 2013, we moved into our current office in Garneau and took back our home.
Over the course of the 13 months that Dana was in treatment, I took on as much of his work as I could. I was regularly pushed outside of my comfort zone as I did more and more on my own when normally we would have done most things together. I constantly battled with my confidence in my ability to run our business, but Dana was relying on me and I would not let him down.
All the mentorship
As the end of 2013 neared, and Dana finished treatment, we made the decision to clarify our roles and invest in as much mentorship as we could get. Given our natural skills and knowledge, we divided our roles into internal and external leadership. Dana would focus on internal operations and I would focus on business development and strategy. We were also accepted into the Entrepreneurs Organization Accelerator, the Alberta Women Entrepreneurs Excelerator, and the Venture Mentoring Service.
Each group was key in developing us as leaders, giving us tools to improve operations and to create processes around strategic planning and implementation. We met and developed relationships with amazing people and found a sense of community that we didn’t know we were missing. It was after a few months in these groups that we started to feel like we were an actual business.
Imposter Syndrome, a role shift, constant reflection, and continual improvement
As you can imagine, our experiences in the previous 2 years led to a lot of personal reflection, growth, and change. My role shifted significantly to the point where my main focus was business development and strategy. If you had asked me 5 years ago if I would be the one in our company going to all the events (usually on my own) and evangelizing our business, I would have responded with something along the lines of “HELLS NO.” It was outside my comfort zone, in direct contrast with my natural introversion, and made my impostor syndrome flare up. But I kept pushing myself, building myself, learning about myself, and figured out my best value to our company.
While I still have the occasional moments of worrying about whether I am doing a good enough job in my role, and anxiety when attending an event, it has gotten easier over time. I heard someone speak of it like a muscle you have to strengthen; it hurts at first, but slowly gets stronger and can handle more.
For much of 2015, we focussed on clarifying both our personal and professional vision and optimizing our operations. All of these were challenging processes and required a significant amount of reflection on who are, who we want to be, and how we are going to get there. This is still a work in progress but we have made leaps forward.
A hard year, a company rebrand, and a direction shift
2016 was a tough year for us. We had to shrink down our team and work very hard to stabilize the business. We were successful and emerged in the last quarter of 2016 in the best position we have ever been in. We were given many opportunities to reflect on the business as it had been, as it was, and what we wanted for the future. We came to the decision that we wanted to shift into some new directions, which includes rebranding from AgileStyle to Code and Effect. This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been forced to take a hard look at ourselves and what we wanted out of our business. It is only looking back at all the challenges we faced, decisions we made, and sacrifices we made that I can really appreciate the path that led us to where we are today.
2017 is looking to be a great year. Dana is healthy, we have an all-star team for Code and Effect, and amazing opportunities ahead. I can’t wait.