How one Edmonton entrepreneur overhauled her 7-figure businesses to create a life of happiness
By ATB Financial 20 October 2020 7 min read
On April 19, 2017 around 9 am Susie Sykes, owner of Edmonton-based Catapult Marketing, realized her life was not what she thought it was. Sykes’ company shared an office space and resources with her then-husband’s company and that fateful morning they sat in an annual meeting with their accountant. “He started showing slides with my ex’s financials and got to one with his $100,000 line of credit. And my jaw hit the floor. I said, wait a second...that’s money he has access to, right? And the account said no, that’s money he has spent,” recalls Sykes.
By the end of that meeting she had decided everything was going to change. Being blindsided by her husband’s debt helped Sykes recognize the rapid growth of Catapult Marketing was a source of massive anxiety and, ultimately, she wasn’t living the life she wanted. Not only would Sykes go on to end her marriage, she would overhaul Catapult Marketing to be more in line with her vision for her life and create space for an exciting new entrepreneurial opportunity.
The rise and rightsizing of Catapult Marketing
Sykes started Catapult Marketing about 10 years ago from her basement after the birth of her son. “It had always been my dream to own and operate my own boutique marketing agency. When I had a year of maternity leave, I thought okay I've got a bit of a runway here, now's the time to do it,” she says. The company grew rapidly and much bigger than Sykes had ever imagined. Within three years, she had eight employees, pulling in seven figures in revenue a year and working with clients like the City of Edmonton.
By the time Sykes was sharing the office with her ex-husband, she says there were very few warning signs that his company was running into financial trouble. Plus, she was so focused on the high growth of Catapult Marketing, she had no time to check in on his business. After the meeting with the accountant, they both stayed in the same office, which made things extra challenging. As she battled feelings of shame and embarrassment, Sykes says one of her first priorities was securing a new location for her and her staff.
Then one day an email landed in her inbox. “I was blessed with a travel deal. A cheap flight to Auckland, New Zealand. I booked it immediately. I gave myself the time to think things through because I didn't even have the time or space in my day-to-day life. I can’t think of a better place to clear my head — the absolute opposite end of the world. Part of it was just to work up the nerve to be able to come back and make the changes I knew I had to make,” she says. While there, Sykes did a five-day off the grid trek and on one particular hike got a little lost wandering off path. She found herself ugly-crying in the middle of the jungle getting the emotional release she needed to move forward.
When Sykes came back to Edmonton, she had a plan to rightsize Catapult Marketing. She wanted to drastically reduce her $45,000 a month in overhead, the number of clients and the number of staff with the company.
Then over the course of three months, Sykes began slowing letting her employees go. Every conversation was hard. “The staff were like family, so I wouldn’t sleep the night before and I would be very prepared for the conversation. I always doubled their severance package at a minimum and provided great references,” she says. Some staff found new roles, some took on clients from Catapult and some chose to stay as freelancers with the company.
Finding gratitude for rock bottom
During this stressful time, Sykes was still working on client projects for Catapult. At an event for a client that represented half of her company’s revenue and a lot of her personal time, she found herself picking up dog poop so things would be perfect. Hours later, the client fired Sykes.
“That was rock bottom,” she says. “They said you're too distracted. We're worried about your divorce, so we're gonna let you go. At that point, I remember going home and taking a bath and acknowledging that the only thing that is going to get me through this is following my instincts. Be kind. Be open. Be honest. Be transparent. And I’m going to survive,” she says.
Shortly after she wrote a blog post for Catapult updating everyone on the status of the company. There was an outpouring of support from her clients. “A lot of my clients are family-owned and operated. They get how closely tied things are,” she says.
Despite this understanding, cutting back the number of clients Catapult worked with was still tough exercise. “Some of my clients had been with us for a number of years and I didn’t want to let people down, but I knew that I had to make these changes to take care of myself, my mental health and my kids,” Sykes says. She worked out what clients would continue with Catapult and, for those who would not, she made sure they had another option for their marketing and communication needs.
While getting fired from her biggest client was a nightmare come to life, Sykes says she is glad they did it. “I don’t think I would have been able to walk away from them. I needed that door closed. I would have tried to keep it open and it wouldn’t have been good for anyone,” she says.
Creating a balance of priorities
Today, Catapult is still a wildly successful — if not smaller — company and precisely what Sykes envisioned it to be. The extra time she got back has allowed her to co-found a new business in the employee benefits space.
From her time at Catapult, Sykes felt employee benefits plans were so antiquated and rigid in their support for modern employee needs. Timber Benefits aims to help businesses create healthy and happy workplaces with low-cost, flexible alternatives that give employees access to a greater mix of services be it through newer technologies, like telemedicine, or a wider mix of coverage, like mental health services.
Re-imagining Catapult and starting a new business were not the only changes Sykes made during this tumultuous period. “I started taking way better care of myself. I prioritized my kids. I was a chronic insomniac for four to five years. When I shifted that, I started to do much better work and generally be a better human,” she says.
"Don’t think putting time and energy into other priorities besides work won’t make the business better — it will absolutely make you and your work better"
Lindsay Davies, community manager for ATB’s, Alberta South Entrepreneur Centres agrees that entrepreneurs can often find it hard to step away from the business and take time for themselves. “It’s important in challenging times to look for opportunities for self-care. Set aside designated time to work on yourself and your resilience strategies,” advises Davies.
Taking time to step back from the business can give you a fresh perspective too. Davies says an inspiring part of Sykes story is that she is living proof that when something goes wrong in a business failure is not the only option. “There are different avenues entrepreneurs can explore before walking away from their business,” she says adding that banks can be helpful partners in exploring options for not only finances, but coaching, strategy and mentoring.
For any business owners dealing with tremendous upheaval, Sykes has a few pieces of advice too. First, try to envision what you want your end goal to be. Picture it clearly in your mind. Then when you have you make those really big decisions, you can ask yourself: Does it get me closer to that goal? If so, make it. If not, don’t, she says.
Second, don’t kid yourself that the challenges you’re going through won’t come to work with you in some way. “It is impossible to keep it out of the workplace. So focus on protecting your staff. Reassure them. Communicate with them. Don’t pretend it’s not happening,” she says.
Lastly, focus on what matters. “These things are a really quick lesson in what actually matters in your life. For me, my foundation is all that mattered. The health and happiness of my kids. And my happiness with myself too. Once I recognized that, I knew I was going to be fine,” she says.