By Angel Djambazov
As an entrepreneur you can’t anticipate every obstacle business or life throws your way. And sometimes the curveball thrown impacts both. Which is how I found myself, on the tail end of one of the most beautiful Fall seasons I had experienced in the Pacific Northwest, on a call with the fabulous Liz Strauss. Liz and her son had just finished visiting me in Seattle after completing a successful SOBCon Portland, so I was hardly expecting serious news.
The news Liz had to share was not light. She had been diagnosed with a serious health issue late last year. Now, after connecting with her medical team and having a better sense of what she faces, Liz wanted to share the news with you; her community. What follows is a series of Q&As that I conducted with Liz to help answer your questions about her illness, how sheÂs handling the ongoing medical treatment, her plans for SOBCon 2013, and what it means to be an entrepreneur facing these challenges.
What can you tell us about your diagnosis?
I have cancer of the larynx. It’s still localized. The analogy the doctor used is that while it was at the threshold of the door it hadn’t gotten to the hallway yet.
How did you find out?
I was scheduled to speak in Hawaii. Eric, my son, went with me. I’d been bothered for quite some time with symptoms that caused me to lose my voice. The doctors said it was allergies and prescribed steroids. I would get a periodic pain in both my throat and my ear. The pain in my ear would come and go and come and go. After five hours on the plane from Honolulu back to the States it was sort of more coming than going.
So I asked a friend in LA to hook me up with her doctor who is an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT). That’s how I found myself in a strange doctor’s office. After putting a camera down my nose, he started showing me pictures and say that we needed to talk about what he’d found. It’s interesting to have pictures in front of your face of something growing on your vocal cords. It was stunning. I didn’t know how to respond.
Cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease. What information our healthcare system provides is often contradictory and rarely provides a clear roadmap.
How did you make your roadmap?
I was really lucky. The ENT in LA told me that I needed to get treatment immediately because they were worried my airway was going to close. The options were that I could get this done right there in California or I could go to Chicago and walk into the ER and tell them I can’t breathe, and I have a sore throat. So my first big decision was do I undergo surgery with these two doctors I don’t know in LA or go back to Chicago and take the luck of the draw. In the end, Chicago won out because of the support system that comes with being home.
There are plenty of hospitals. Some of which are good at this particular type of cancer and some of which are not. Finding the one that was good at what you need is important. For instance, one the best hospitals in Chicago has only one specialist in neck and throat cancer. However, the hospital I’m going to has seven people who specialize in neck and throat cancer. And that makes a big difference having access to people who live and breathe a specialty makes a big difference.
Back in LA, the ENT and the radiologist were in agreement that the situation was so serious they were going to have to take my voice box. That meant they would also have to take part of my esophagus out. I’d have to learn how to eat all over again. When I got to Chicago and picked my team they said to me you’re not nearly as far along as folks in LA, well-meaning though they were, would have you believe. We’ve seen people much further along than you are and with chemo and radiation, we’ve seen an 85% rate of success in helping them overcome their cancer. The doctors, their specialty and experience, as well as their bedside manner both make a big difference.
“I remember saying early on to my best friend and my son that I didn’t like the way the disease was progressively turning me into an introvert.”
You have this great outlook on life that everything is an adventure, full of surprises. What surprises has undergoing treatment for cancer brought?
The first thing that comes to mind is just how much the medication is affecting me personally. My body’s response to the drugs has created more mood swings than that of a pregnant elephant. But my biggest surprise was how much time it takes to attend to all the medical stuff that is now part of my routine. It’s kind of like living in a region that gets a lot of snow. You don’t think of how much time cumulatively it requires to take off your coat, put on your coat, take off your boots, put on your boots, cleaning the snow off the car, driving slower because of the weather, all of those adjustments you make in winter, until you live someplace where it doesn’t snow.
I spend a lot of time figuring out which pill to take, what time I take those pills, what pills I need to take next, taking the pills, and trying to remember whether I had taken the right pills, ordering the pills, finding a pharmacy that delivers. Not to mention the process of seeing the doctor, answering the same questions over and over again to the hospital staff. All of the medical stuff has made me focus more clearly on what else I need to get done because of all the precious time it eats up.
Right or wrong there is a stigma that comes with illness. How did you feel your diagnosis would impact your interaction with others?
I didn’t want to start talking publicly about this until I had more information. The challenge is that my work is inherently social. My natural reaction when I want to communicate with someone new about business is to invite them onto a phone call. But the process of communicating becomes clumsier and less effective if I can’t talk.
I noticed early on when I started losing my voice over the past couple of years that there were people who are willing to take the time to listen to what I had to say and those who just had no patience for the obstacle. If people care more about the obstacle than they care about who they are communicating with well that’s kind of an issue. Those people are probably not going to be your friends.
Of course, from my point of view, I didn’t want to stress or stretch people’s patience that far. I remember saying early on to my best friend and my son that I didn’t like the way the disease was progressively turning me into an introvert. I would just make the choice not to talk because trying to talk was either too hard on me or the other person. In retrospect the decision we made not to do surgery and remove my voice box first was the right one. My voice is stronger now than it has been in years.
Faced with such a daunting medical challenge how do you keep moving forward?
My son asked me how I deal with this. too. I take it from the point of view of an international traveler who’s on an extended 90-day trip for business. You can only think about two things: the adventure and what you need to do to catch the next airplane. If you start thinking too much about a whole trip, about the whole string of airports, hotels, transportation, red tape, and try to map out everything you have to do between now and the last day of the trip, you’ll wear yourself out with stress. If you can stay with the adventure mindset, it makes it easier to roll with the things life throws your way.
The first thing is to understand is that you can only do what is humanly possible and to think that you can do more is foolish. You must allow for your humanity. Give yourself room to reflect and think. Stop and do what you need to refill the well so you can keep moving forward. Reach out and to let the people around you help you do that.
“Surround yourself with people who know your goals, share your values, and who are willing to help support you in getting back on your feet again.”
That’s the way I do it. I believe in the people who won’t let me fail. That mindset for me has become really important. We’re going to do what we need to do from one day to the next and I’m going to rely on my team and my close friends to ask the questions I don’t think of.
In staying with the mantra of doing only what is humanly possible, what changes did you have to make in regards to your business?
I had two choices: don’t contribute, which to me was not an option; or, contribute in ways that are useful. If you pay attention you get really good at being efficient and contributing. That also makes it easier to step away when you’re not needed or when someone else is better suited to completing the task. Sort of learning the rule if anybody can do it then maybe anybody should do it.
What was required was a shift of the time workload so the two or three good hours I have a day are spent focused on what I can help get done. I’ve become more useful because I can focus on the strategy of what we’re doing with the business and less time attempting to touch everything. I’m more than just a little bit surprised how natural the changes we’ve implemented feel and find myself asking why weren’t we doing this before. Funny how fast we’ve adapted because necessity dictated it. It’s a new kind of risk-taking for me but everything about entrepreneurial work is about risk-taking.
How does fear impact being an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, one day you think you own the world and the next day you’re losing your house. That’s just the nature of being an entrepreneur. Fear is what makes you better, fear is what keeps you going, and if you can’t face fear every day you are probably not meant to be an entrepreneur.
If I had a job at a corporation I might be able to take time off for disability. A paycheck would still be coming. I might be worried about losing my job but I wouldn’t be worried about not having an income. At least not in the short term the way entrepreneur is.
Here’s one tip: If you are going to get sick, do it at the beginning of the year instead of the end. Because now with the New Year, the $5,000 deductible I finished paying last month needs to be paid again this year. I just want to say to the insurance company, “Oh golly, aren’t you nice.”?
Luckily I have a best friend who doesn’t mind calling on every insurance claim to say, “Tell me again why you discredited this procedure. If we coded it this way could we get it covered?” She actually works with the insurance company to make it easier for me.
Having somebody like that who can help navigate insurance company red tape is priceless. How do you find people around you that wonÂt let you fail?
I was very lucky to have many of those people around me already. My business partner Terry Starbucker took the news in stride. He not only encouraged me to take care of my health but helped find ways to keep me involved in the important aspects of the business that donÂt require me to have my feet or as it were, my voice, on the ground.
I pity the people who try to run their own business and haven’t gathered a support team around them because you need those people around you to tell you that you can’t do everything. Surround yourself with people who know your goals, share your values, and who are willing to help support you in getting back on your feet again. By bringing in those people who won’t let us fail we’re actually doing way better than simply not failing. We’re actually growing in new ways.
With all the inherent risk, why are you an entrepreneur?
I’m an entrepreneur because I can’t understand why people do stupid things. I like to watch people build things. And sometimes I find myself suggesting, if you try to do this thing this way you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money and everyone will be much happier working.
Often when you mention that to a corporation you’ll get responses like, “But we’ve always done it that way.” or “We can’t change that because the board or the CEO likes it that way.” or” It will take us 6 to 8 months to make that kind of change,” even if the change itself is a simple one.
I get frustrated because I don’t like watching people do stupid things.
Traditionally corporations are made to move and manage big groups of people. To achieve a sort of lowest common denominator, low-risk result. I think it’s way more fun to work with fewer people on a team that really wants to get things done. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur.
The risk is that you don’t get all of the benefits that come with the support infrastructure inherent to a corporation. The nine other people who know how to cover your job, the benefits program, the rules that say one of those other people who know how to do your job has to cover for you because you’re on disability for six months.
If my dad got sick and couldn’t run his saloon, well the doors still had to open and somebody had to be there to serve folks. And if that person took something from the cash register or if a fight broke out and someone got hurt my dad ultimately was still responsible. That’s the downside of being entrepreneur; you never really separate yourself from the business.
How would you like to see SOBCon evolve?
Every time you hold an event you take the model and experience you just created as a threshold for the next one. If you’re doing it right each new one is the best event you ever did.
SOBCon is more than the Liz and Terry show. It is all the businesses and ideas that started in that room. It’s all the people who have connected with each other over the years. It’s a hugely clarified network of smart, dedicated people who are serious about building the next generation of businesses online.
SOBConers (the entrepreneurs who attend SOBCon) are developing new methods and models that breakdown the barriers that corporations have built up along the way. I want to enable that. I want that process to happen faster, better, and more meaningfully.
I want to bring the ethos of true collaboration that we have at SOBCon inside the corporation so that the corporations learn to actually collaborate with their customers. Not just touch base with them when there’s a problem or a customer service issue or when there’s a sale, but to actually bring their customers into the process of building their brands. Much in the same way they might currently bring their best third-party vendors into the process. So that businesses can truly become part of all the people who help them thrive.
We’re used to seeing you at various conferences in Q1, when will we see you next?
I’m very much looking forward to SOBCon Chicago 2013. It will be our 10th event. For me itÂs going to be a sort of coming out party because I’ll be done with all my treatments by then. Hopefully I will still have all my hair. And I would love it if the folks who have taken part in SOBCon in the past or who read Successful Blog and believe in our vision come out and help me celebrate making it through the crucible.
I won’t be seeing many of you between now and then. You wonÂt see me at all the parties at SXSW this year. But I do look forward to connecting with people who want to share the SOBCon values. We can have a big opening night party in Chicago to celebrate. I think it’s going to be incredible journey for the next 10 to 12 weeks. I’m so focused on the endgame, which is a fabulous event in Chicago, with the goal of taking an unexpected curveball and turning into something good.
Like me, many of you have been helped by LizÂs business acumen and personal generosity. Now is the perfect time to show your support for the vision that is SOBCon and join us for Liz’s coming out party. SOBCon Chicago 2013 takes place at the Summit Executive Center from May 3-5. Hope to see you there; it will be the best one yet!