"What seems like the end is often the beginning."
– Ivy Baker Smith
It was 2009. The world was being thrown into a 'downturn', and my 9-year old visual design firm was starting to feel it. I was focused on my work and burning the candle at both ends. That was of course, until I was admitted to emergency and received a stage IV cancer diagnosis. My doctors advised me to get my will in order. 10 days later I'd lost 60lbs, was skeletal, and struggled to remain conscious while suffering in excruciating pain.
On that 10th day, a man I'd recently met through my business visited me in hospital. As I lay suffering in my hospital bed, he pulled up a chair next to it and put his hand on my shoulder. Almost immediately I felt heat - as if he'd put a hot water bottle on it. He sat with his hand on my shoulder for what I imagine was around 6 hours. The heat steady and strong. Each time I moved or tried to mumble a few words, he advised me to lay still and keep quiet. He was giving me energy.
While he sat there, I felt myself drift - downward. Certainly not a direction one would wish in that state. At roughly half way through, the pain disappeared. For the first time since being admitted my mind clear - became sharp almost - and everything went silent. I heard a voice – my own – boom into that silence, "I haven't accomplished enough yet.”
I agreed, and with that I began to drift back upwards. Back into the pain and into a resolute battle for my life. Upon surfacing, my visitor abruptly lifted his hand off of my shoulder and simply stated, “Well I’m done. I’d better get back and help the wife with the renovation."
Many long months of chemotherapy, cold rooms, and endless hours spent staring at the second hand of the clock on the wall, I was released and sent home. Emaciated from my battle, and unable to climb the stairs to my bedroom, I spent day and night on a recliner in my living room while my family tended to me, fed me, helped me to the washroom, kept the fevers down and the room warm. And I got a new puppy who loved to climb up and wrap himself over my shoulders, keeping my neck delightfully warm.
With time, I became strong enough to leave the recliner. I studied. (A lot.) I was determined to return to work (forever an entrepreneur) and rebuild. Over the next 18 months, I slowly improved my strength, greatly expanded my knowledge of all things online, and began planning to make something of the new opportunity I had promised myself.
Not a gym-goer, I sought out alternate exercise options. Sure I could walk and even hike, which was a good start to improving my health, while unfortunately doing almost nothing for my upper body fitness. Being on the water in canoes and kayaks as a youth in BC, it wasn't long before I spied and purchased a pair of kayaks. Yes, a pair. I was determined to encourage others to join me. To this day, I encourage and extend invitations to family, colleagues, neighbours and even strangers to join me for a paddle. When on the water, I find we are all filled with peace and calm, and it is an incredible way to recharge.
I late 2010, was able to return to work, a few hours at first. My colleague and I formulated a plan to earn new business by self-referral. Within a couple weeks, we took on a dozen new visual design clients, which gave us an opportunity to get back on track. It paid the bills but didn’t change anything. I didn’t see anything in those projects that would present opportunities to accomplish ‘more’, as had motivated me to survive the Cancer. What would change things I believed, was a concept that was swirling around in my mind. One of how I might combine my twitter account with my portfolio and blogging to attract new clients. I then happened by a Forrester study that talked about Paid, Owned and Earned media. And everything clicked. I would focus on attracting new business in a downturn by sharing.
A Google Adwords coupon arrived in the mail. $20 would get my $50 worth of bonus Adwords. It was the final incentive I needed. So I beefed up my website, started tweeting, and wrote about the new business we’d recently earned on my blog. A week or so later, we earned $12,000 in new business, for a return on my $20 investment of 600x.
Acutely aware of the unsellable position I'd put my small design business in by making it about ‘me', and on the strength of that initial success, I made the hard decided to close my now 13-year old visual design firm, to open Kayak Creative Services Inc. (KAYAK). I then reinvested the $12,000 into hiring a University of Saskatchewan B.Com grad, started writing new content, eliminated Adwords, and quickly earned close to $300,000 over the following months, once again generating an incredible return – this time at roughly 25x.
In late 2011, I was introduced to HubSpot via an article I read. The company co-founders, having coined the term “Inbound", had developed a methodology that expanded on my own concept. I was an instant fan and sign on. At the same time, I began telling people about my online journey, observed that SEO and online content were merging, and in 2013, wrote my first book “Findability: Why Search Engine Optimization is Dying + 21 New Rules of Content Marketing”, which was the subject of a very complimentary article on Forbes.com by Jason DeMers. Three months later, Google released their Hummingbird algorithm, revealing that I’d been perfectly correct in my insights on the subject. The book briefly saw position number one in Amazon's Canadian and US stores, number 3 in Japan, and is available in roughly 10 languages via Kindle.
KAYAK was nominated for the 2013 Calgary Chamber of Commerce Small Business Awards, in the Breakout Business and Small Business of the Year categories. We went on to become a finalist for both 2013 Small Business of the Year and 2013 Breakout Business, receiving coverage by the Calgary Herald, Financial Post and numerous smaller media outlets. Following that success, I’ve gone on to write countless articles on topics surrounding marketing, business, social, seo, and creating premium lead capture websites that help our clients open real opportunities for business growth.
Now three and a half years old, KAYAK is focused on a lead generation, content marketing, and search optimization niche. We've swiftly rising from unknown and passing local competitors, to become an internationally-recognized player in our field, taking top rankings in search engine results across North America and beyond.
The next time I face my maker, I'm determined to look back over the wide range of successful ventures, careers launched and paddles enjoyed, thankful for my second chance and knowing I made the most of it. And, in case you're curious about my hospital room visitor, I did manage to corner him one day many months later. He offered this explanation, "Somebody did it for me."