In 2005, I started my own small company. At the time I had no idea how successful it would become, nor the challenges it would bring. I couldn’t forsee the leader I would one day be.

Building a successful team that thrives while working together, is no easy feat. It took me a few years and a couple of very bad hiring decisions before I began to look at a potential employee a whole person, their cultural background, how they make decisions, what his/her concept of teamwork entails and how the candidate deals with rejection. I also like to hear about his/her family, with regard to both the dynamics and health of their relationships.

Once I had the right team together, my business really took off. I had engaged, motivated employees who loved the company because of our why. We reached out into the community, built relationships and helped pet owners find healthy foods, treats and supplements, to insure their pets lived long, happy lives.

In the process we touched thousands of families as people began to take more of an interest in their own health as we educated them about the health of their pets. It was an environment I thrived in, one in which my employees grew and gained fulfillment through helping each other and our customers.

Challenges of growth

The natural pet food industry between 2005–2015 underwent DRAMATIC change. There were pet food recalls, many of them due to tainted ingredients coming out of China. Luckily, our core product standards were so high, we weren’t impacted negatively. We saw huge growth spurts instead. A positive problem, but a big issue when you aren’t staffed for 50% growth in a 3 month period.

Our growth caused a massive influx of new employees for my then tiny company. Personalities clashed, my first employees began to take and give away damaged products that I couldn’t get credit for unless they were returned to the distributor. In short, I had employee theft.

One of my employees, my first, left my company to help a rival startup. Unbeknownst to me, she was working for them while she was still working for me. She had access to all my customer information, purchase history, inventory, pricing, the works. I was devastated. In that situation, I learned trust must go both ways for a company to survive and thrive.

As we grew, the natural pet food industry grew faster. Distributors began buying distributors, food shortages became common as manufacturers struggled to keep up with the increasing demand. Distribution centers had the same problem, how much inventory to stock as they grew rapidly. Good problems to have, but problems nonetheless.

After a few years of struggling through the messy growth process, we settled into a more steady growth curve. My employees were amazing. We had a good team and I wanted to keep them. At the time I had one retail store location. My employees were a mixed group of adults and teenagers.

My retention rate was to me, shocking. Over 90% of my teenage employees stayed with the company through high school. 50% stayed through their college years. Many of them held this one job until they graduated or began internships. I hired teens with no job experience. There were hiccups, but the vast majority were NOT “typical” Milleninials.

I had adult employees as well. The age range of my team was the youngest at 15 1/2 to the oldest, 74. I paid them well and asked a lot of them. No matter the age, they were expected to learn our vast range of products, the computer system, checking in and stocking orders and of course, provided the outstanding customer service we were known for.

I knew and understood the value of my team. When the recession hit in 2008, I was worried. Like every other trend in the U.S., the impact of the recession in my midwestern city wasn’t fully felt for over a year after it began. It was at this point I learned why “leaders eat last.”

In his book, “Leaders Eat Last,” Simon Sinek shares a story he witnessed while working with the U.S. Marine Corps. When chow time comes, the most junior Marines eat first, then others behind them. The officers eat last. The reason? Because the Marines in their command are their most important resource. They are taken care of first. Leadership understands the value of the people junior to them.

Like the Marines in the story, the people who worked for me depended on their jobs for their livelihood, just as with any other company. I was determined to keep everyone employed and working the same amount of hours they were used to, as much as possible. As business slowed, I saw only one way to insure their security.

I quit drawing a paycheck.

It’s a radical concept, I know. But I was the leader of the company, and the people who worked for me trusted me to take care of them. I did, to the best of my ability. It was very difficult at the time, but everyone kept their jobs.

It was a decision I never regretted.

We faced more challenges as time went on. I eventually sold the company to build something new. Today it is owned by my former manager and her husband. It is now 12-years-old and thriving. The new owners and I have a wonderful relationship. When I’m in town, I always stop by to buy my own dog food.

They’ve kept the standards, even though they moved into a bigger location. It still feels like home to me when I walk in. I can see what I built in what Liz and Quincy, the new owners, have created. It’s a good feeling, to leave a legacy like continues to touch and change lives.

Robin Aldrich is the author of Bootstrapped! Creating a Small Business on a Budget. You can find her book on Amazon. Robin founded the Boomerang Business Project in 2015 to help other small businesses thrive. Our new website is currently under construction.

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