Life after bankruptcy

Written by Emily Leeming
February 14, 2019

I met up with Simon Waterfall, COO of Spoon Cereals, to hear about how he became a better version of himself after filing for bankruptcy for his own business several years ago.

It’s not often that you meet an entrepreneur who’s so open about such a raw period in their career. The harsh reality is that 66% of businesses fail in their first 10 years. Being a food entrepreneur is a tough gig, and though we all know not everyone ‘makes it’ you have to believe that your business will. Sometimes life takes a turn. And that business that you’ve poured your heart, blood and soul into doesn’t work out. And you know what? That’s OK. Ultimately you could be a much better entrepreneur (and a happier person) because of it.

 Simon Waterfall is the COO of Spoon Cereals, a granola business based at the start-up hub, the Food Exchange. Seven years ago Simon was forced to file for bankruptcy after his sandwich manufacturing company Monty’s went bust: ‘We produced about 5,000 paninis, wraps and salads a day, employed 40 people and turned over 2 million pounds. I grew it over 13 years. It was an incredible period of my life, full of lots of lows, but ultimately some extreme highs as well.’

I get the sense that Simon’s done a lot of reflection on this period of his life, especially towards the end of Monty’s. Simon says: ‘I think of the inexperience I had with running a business and coping with the growth of that business. It’s isolating being an entrepreneur, it’s a very lonely place. And for me, you know you try to protect your family from what's really happening in the business and so you internalize all the struggles that you’ve been having’. The food and drink industry is notoriously hard to enter, and even harder to survive. Every day forty-five new food and drink products are launched on the market with only five estimated to remain on the shelves two years later. Yet so little is known about the common struggles that small and medium food businesses face. Three of the biggest challenges for food businesses are funding, cash-flow and getting distribution – in essence, money.

I ask Simon, what was his lowest point? ‘Standing there and telling all my staff [that the business had folded]. Knowing that all of these guys were relying on me for their livelihoods and mortgages. Yeah. It was the feeling that you let down the people who were relying on you financially, but also that I let down my wife, my son, my parents. I cried. When I was telling all the staff I broke down. That was one of the toughest things I've ever done.’

Simon quietly moves on to what happened in the aftermath, what he remembers the most in the month that followed: ‘My phone stopped ringing. I remember driving back home one day and feeling numb because suddenly the world that used contact me on regular basis, had suddenly stopped. My personality, my brand, who I was as a person - was my company.’ We pause in the conversation. There’s a flicker in the back of my mind querying how someone picks themselves back up when their own identity was so defined by their business.

But he did.

‘I went to volunteer for a disabled charity for a year. I did some really cool stuff and it really reset me as a person. It made me realise who I was as a leader and that I was able to pull those skills into any other business or sector. The essence of the skills that I had weren’t just about making a sandwich or running a sandwich factory, they're applicable to lots of other things. And so I guess over that year I restored my mojo into who I am as a person.’

I’m curious about what Simon thinks might have happened if he hadn’t taken that year away from industry. He tells me: ‘I think if I'd gone straight back into work and been a bit bruised and broken… if you equate it to relationship terms, I probably would have been on the rebound.’

Simon explains how much that year helped him to re-centre and move forward in a positive way: ‘I'm more balanced and constructive in my approach to life because of having that experience. And because of the company going, I've got a business degree that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do before. I turned two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of charitable earnings for a great cause. And ultimately I'm working for a really cool brand [Spoon Cereals] being able to offer them a set of skills that I think is quite unique. So yes, I would love to be lying on a beach and have a Ferrari outside, but that hasn't happened. But I think I'm rich in lots of other ways because of these experiences.’

There’s a quiet assuredness to Simon’s voice. ‘When I went bankrupt, I ended up almost mentally broke as an individual, as a person. So you almost have to start again. And I thought ok, how am I going to create the best version of myself? And for me to be able to do that I needed to listen more, learn more, speak to other people and grow as an individual both personally and professionally.’ Sometimes you need to step out the box, try something new, and invest in yourself - your whole self, not just your career. And to remember when the chips are down, it could be the making of you.

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