It’s Okay to Freak Out…Then Keep Moving Forward

By Wendy Quesinberry

My husband Todd and I were out of town when the pandemic began to pummel Seattle. As we flew back on March 4, we were heading back to what seemed to be the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US. But still, it seemed that our daily life would go on as is. On Monday, March 9, five of us (including Todd) met for our weekly status meeting. We wondered what our action plan should be if we were affected. None of us knew what to say. As a small design studio (always at four, often at five, sometimes up to seven) it never occurred to me to create a crisis plan. That was for big corporations and businesses that cater to the public at large.

That Monday night Todd started to feel sick. On Wednesday a team member left halfway through the day after she found out that she may have been exposed to COVID-19. Friday March 13 was my last day in the office. After spending a weekend with a very sick spouse, I didn’t want to potentially expose anyone in my office or building. The week of March 16, I told the remaining two that they could work from home if they wanted. By Thursday it was down to one, and on Friday I told him to gather whatever he needed to work from home.

“This must be easy for you.” 

A few people have said, “You can work anywhere right?” Well. Yes. But also no. The Q&A office is an open floor plan and rarely quiet. It’s petri dish swimming with ideas and discussions. And lots of singing to Spotify lists. The entire team meets regularly to brainstorm, work through concepts, critique work, and celebrate. I have oodles of books, magazines, and other objects I’ve collected to inspire me as I work. Besides that, I’m a business owner. I’m responsible for the livelihood of my team and producing our best for clients. And with impeccable timing, I had leased a second space in February—anticipating growth.

WFH felt a bit clunky at first, but we quickly adapted and found a rhythm. Work-life balance became a new thing, as all of us needed the leeway to address personal needs while prioritizing workflow. We worked into the night during the first several weeks, helping clients communicate with their audience immediately about their pandemic response and adapting materials that were initially developed for person-to-person contact delivery. 

In those first weeks, it seemed like the quarantine would be short-lived. We tackled projects the same way we would at any time, thinking through the audience, timing of delivery, and the “shelf-life” of the piece. As the weeks continued, projects that we thought were getting pushed a couple of weeks went on a full stop.

And now here we are, eight weeks later. 

I’ve spent years attending lectures, reading business and design books, and asking advice from peers—looking for that one thing that makes everything fall perfectly into place. What I’ve learned is there’s no magic pill to save the day. What we’re confronting is like a riptide. You can’t fight it; you have to swim parallel to shore until you find the point that lets you angle back in. And I say this as someone who has been stuck in a riptide. It’s not easy to put that into practice when you’re terrified.

First and foremost, I’ve been extremely fortunate that no one in my family, on my team, or my client contacts have contracted COVID-19 (who knows what Todd had, but he got better). The health and well-being of those closest to me supersede everything else. With that comfort, I can take my past experiences and look at today’s situation more strategically.

In 2008, I was in a much more precarious position. I had walked away from a partnership the year prior and had been rebuilding Q&A starting with just one hospitality client.* I’d had a long history in the hospitality sector and decided to take creative industry advice and specialize. I was growing a stellar roster consisting exclusively of hotels and restaurants. Then “the Great Recession” happened. A majority of our clients were down 60%–80%, which meant we were an expenditure they couldn’t sustain.**

I had no savings and, after being siloed in hospitality, no prospects. It was time to start over again. And I was exhausted.

So now I’m going to really bring you down, but I promise I’ll bring you back up. 

When the recession hit, I was keeping it all together with the thinnest of threads. In 2000 the dot-bomb had started to rear its ugly head, and my biggest client defaulted on $30,000 of invoices (with the help of an attorney, I recouped about $20,000). In 2001 my sister died. Five weeks later we had an earthquake, and my office became a tossed salad. I joined forces with another studio in 2004 and built a new design firm. In 2005 my dad died. In 2007 my grandmother died, and a few weeks later I walked away from my partnership due to irreconcilable differences. By 2008 my adrenaline was all used up. No matter how unpleasant the situation, I just had to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. 

I spent a lot of time with my bookkeeper trying to figure out how to stagger my bills since all the money was spent before I ever got paid. I learned that tax collectors were willing to cut you some slack if you asked for help. And I remember feeling like something was wrong with me because my peers would brag about how their businesses were booming. To get through each day, I would envision constructing the Empire State Building. It must have seemed daunting at the time, but each day a little bit more was accomplished. And I got a mentor who had seen the ups and downs after decades in business. He provided some much needed perspective.

Still working on bringing you back up.

One thing that has always stuck in my mind is that if the year ends in a “1,” it’s probably a recession year.1 And then there might be a few financial crises in between. I’ve spent many years that end in a “1” (and one that ended in an “8”) thinking that I should’ve been better prepared. Each time, I made a plan to make the next one less painful. It’s taken 20 years of preparation, but when the pandemic hit, I was able to meet it with a clear head and a determination to get through it stronger.

My number one priority these days is caring for my team. That began with setting expectations. Because we had just delivered several big jobs, and Q2–Q3 is historically not as busy as the rest of the year, I knew that we would see the effects of the pandemic quickly. We had enough work for a couple of weeks, but new projects were put on hold. We had to be clear with everyone on what we thought workflow would look like for the short, medium, and long term. And we could no longer maintain two full-time freelance positions. We had to drop down to our three salaried employees and one part-time freelancer.

Three of us still hold twice-weekly calls. We discuss active projects as well as what’s happening in our collective surreal worlds. I try to listen for cues that tells me someone is in need. Even if it’s just a binge-watching recommendation.

I have an incredible support system outside of Q&A: an accountant that has talked me off a few ledges over the years; a bookkeeper that not only knows our finances, but understands what will freak me out; and an IT consultant who can tell you exactly what everyone on the team needs to work their best day. I worked with all of them immediately to find out how I could protect the business and help all of us set up a WFH system. 

I’m not a frontline worker who worries daily about losing my life. I’m not a restaurateur that has little hope because every day of the quarantine means lost revenue that may never be made up. My office can be rearranged to allow for a safer workplace. There’s no way I could’ve prepared for a global pandemic. But what each of my personal riptides has prepared me for was to stay calm, and keep a lookout for the best angle back to shore.

*Thank you, Brian.

**One client kept things “business as usual” and I’m so thankful for them—and specifically the marketing director whom I now work with in an entirely different industry. Thank you, Colleen.

  1. Tom Huddleston Jr., “How many recessions you’ve actually lived through and what happened in every one,” CNBC Make It.

Published May 14, 2020