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My Business 'Divorce' Led to a New, Award-Winning Company Culture

My Business 'Divorce' Led to a New, Award-Winning Company Culture Credit: Red Caffeine Marketing + Technology

The following piece was contributed as part of Business News Daily's byline series:

On New Year's Day in 2013, after running a business together for ten years, my business partner asked for a "divorce."

There are moments in life that blindside you and leave you scrambling to pick up the pieces. You never know when that moment might strike. I certainly didn't. I was shocked and devastated.

Like any long-term personal or professional relationship, we had our ups and downs, but I never expected to be served with papers to dissolve our business. It forced me to think about my vision for my new business and what was important to me as a leader.

One of the hardest things I had to do was face my employees. In hindsight, I'm sure all of the employees had known something wasn't right, but they weren't expecting the divorce any more than I was.  I assured them, even as I worked to reassure myself, that we would get through this and come out of it better than ever.

Fortunately, seven of them decided to join me as I built a new business.

During the dismantling of my former company, my team and I had been meeting regularly, commiserating over the toxic office antics but also talking about the new company, reading "Good to Great," (HarperBusiness, 2011), envisioning new way of doing business and a better future.

Little did I realize that by holding these sessions I was becoming a more authentic, vulnerable and transparent leader. These meetings were coined "Culture Club" — a gathering of our team to talk about the future and share lunch or a craft beer.

This ritual became a cornerstone of our new company.

As I focused my attention on building a new culture, I met a group of business people who shared our values — the Small Giants Community. They helped me build a framework to reset the table and do things differently.

This community of liked-minded professionals taught me the importance of culture, company values, and the Return-On-Values business model, which measures the impact that a great business culture has on profit.

The Small Giants Community introduced me to the Great Game of Business (GGOB), also referred to as open-book management. Since transparency was key, I knew I wanted to run my business with open-book financials. Following the GGOB model, our entire team was educated on what it takes to run a profitable business and how being transparent builds the environment of trust.

We officially began doing business as Red Caffeine Marketing + Technology on November 1, 2013. But businesses need money to start, so I also had to prepare the financial piece. We were in a tough spot with fixed expenses and debt to repay. We had two months of cash and no guaranteed sales pipeline. So I invested my own money and took out a small line of credit to get the business up and running.

Recently we've been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Illinois. Notable distinctions include open-book financial management, quarterly bonuses, celebratory outings, Thirsty Thursdays, weekly Culture Club lunches, and our entertaining (but not so competitive) softball team — the Brew Crew.

What have I learned from all this? Transparency is crucial, especially if you want to build a company culture based on trust. What I once thought would be a sign of personal failure turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for my career and my team, and allowed me to build the kind of business I always dreamed of owning.

About the author: Kathy Steele is the founder and president of Red Caffeine Marketing + Technology in Chicago. Kathy loves the crazy ride of being an entrepreneur, building brands, simple user experiences and happy employees.

Edited for length and clarity by Shannon Gausepohl. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Shannon at sgausepohl@purch.com to learn more about our contributed content program.