OtherWalking the Crooked Line

Contributed by Jill Viggiano

On Saturday, February 23, OEN’s Angel Oregon hosted its third Upstart Day for the 2013 Angel Oregon Concept Stage semi-finalists. To kick off the daylong event that brings entrepreneurs together with angel investors and mentors for intensive feedback, Jill and Gordon Viggiano shared their family’s entrepreneurial journey and the inspirational story of Gordon’s recovery from a massive stroke. Here is their story and many insightful words of wisdom for entrepreneurs everywhere. To find out more, visit: www.mybrainhasaholeinit.com

Gordon and Jill Viggiano, who recently spoke to OEN Angel Oregon’s Concept Stage entrepreneurs

Our entrepreneur story began many years ago when Gordon began a telemarketing company in the 1980s. In 2001, he sold his business in California and we moved to Oregon, ready to begin a new life. I was looking forward to a less risky, more stable life in Oregon. Gordon took a JOB! I looked forward to a regular paycheck, vacation time, spending time with my husband nights and weekends — more of a “straight line” life. But the company that hired him had been less than forthcoming about their real stability and, 6 months later, the company folded. Being new to the area and knowing nobody, the ever resourceful Gordon immediately began cold calling Portland companies, lining up interviews. As luck would have it, September 11 happened 3 weeks later, and the bottom dropped out of the job market. So much for that stable, straight line.

With zero contacts and no reputation, Gordon began his sales consulting practice. We had some very lean years while Gordon got the business going, but we stuck to our plan and we faced the challenges. Gordon set short term, medium term and long term goals and stuck to his discipline of of cold calling, networking, filling his pipeline, strategizing and fulfilling contracts.

At home, we had a clear division of labor — Gordon earned money and I did everything else. It worked for us. We were a team. We appreciated each other and our efforts. At our wedding, the minister had prayed for us to have the kind of marriage that made people say “I want that.” And that is exactly what we had. We were in lock step together. Over time, Gordon developed a thriving practice. We were paying ourselves back for the startup years, we were saving for the kids’ college, saving for retirement, donating to our favorite charities. I was starting to breathe normally again, after some very stressful years.

Our lives rarely go in a straight line, especially for entrepreneurs, such as yourselves. For you risk takers, perhaps that is the allure. For non-risk takers like me, the detours along my beloved straight line are the cause of many sleepless nights. We had already maneuvered through some big detours but our biggest detour came March, 2008 when, out of nowhere, Gordon suffered a massive stroke. It started with a vision problem in his left eye in the middle of the night. Over the next 9 hours, we went from a happy, healthy family enjoying Spring Break, to a vision problem, to a 911 call, to the Emergency Room of a hospital that had never been a part of our health plan, to me having a frank discussion with the Organ Donation Lady. In 9 short hours, I was facing the loss of my husband, financial ruin, and the possibility of raising our 2 children alone.

Gordon survived, but not without severe consequences. The stroke had taken away the use of the entire right side of his body, his ability to speak, and his memory. This detour sent us over a cliff, and our lives will never be the same.

So why am I speaking to you today? If you are like we were, you are thinking “nothing like that could ever happen to me.” I hope you are right. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anybody. But things happen, not just stroke, but other life changing events. There is no way to be fully prepared, but there are things you might consider now that can make a difference in how you face your challenges down the road:

  1. The skills Gordon developed as a successful sales professional, business owner, and entrepreneur were the same skills he has employed in his recovery. When he came out of his coma, he didn’t know who he was, who I was, what year it was, or what he did for a living, but his work ethic was intact. His recovery has required strategy, discipline, repetition and goal setting. Nothing has come back on its own. Every success has been earned. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, we have relied on those skills bring us to this point in his recovery. We tend to think of these as professional skills used to further our careers. These are also life skills and I invite you to learn them well.
  2. The person you are in your climb to success will have a direct impact on your experience through the rough patches. Gordon was honest, ethical, caring, hard working, and he was involved in the community — a good man. When the stroke happened, the quality of his person was reflected by everyone he had touched. Our community banded together to help us. Business people agreed to meet with us to try and help Gordon learn to talk again. Even when he could only string 2 or 3 words together, a few hired him to help with their sales teams. Character matters, in good times and bad.
  3. Marry wisely. Nurture your relationships. The rehab therapists told us that they watch relationships fall apart all the time. How could anyone abandon someone at such a vulnerable time in their lives? Was it that they made a poor choice of a partner or was it that the relationship just wasn’t that good to begin with? I can tell you from experience, being the wife of an entrepreneur isn’t easy, but being the caregiver is even harder. How are your relationships? Would your special someone stick around for you? Would you stick around for them?
  4. On a practical note: do you have disability insurance? Did you know that 1 in 4 will have a disability claim during their professional life? If your employer provides disability insurance, do you know what you will receive? The likely scenario is that you will receive no more that 65% of your regular income. Can you survive on that? Gordon did have disability insurance, and it is the reason I have been able to stay with him and help him in his recovery. Without that coverage, we would be in a very different place right now. I know, it will never happen to you, but what if it does?

We are 5 years into recovery and we like to think that the worst is behind us. We still face challenges — will Gordon ever be able to support our family again? Will his disabilities always cast a shadow over his abilities? Getting along without the use of his right arm is doable, but not being able to communicate freely? How do we work around that? If I go back to work, what does that mean for Gordon and his continuing recovery?

There are no easy answers. We do not know where all this is going to take us. I will never have my beloved straight line life, but who really does? Twists and turns come for all of us. All we know is that we are in it together. We will do our best with what we are given. We count our blessings and we are thankful for each day, no matter what it brings. And all of us in this room: we can be there for each other. We all have something we need, and we all have something to give. Our character matters. Our relationships matter. Great things are built on strong foundations. Our foundation has always been our Christian faith, and it did not disappoint. As you begin to develop and build your great thing, I invite you to examine your foundation. Is it ready for the weight and stress that is coming?

I am proud of you all for believing in yourselves, and taking the heroic step of entrepreneurship. I hope you remember to celebrate the small victories and approach each challenge with a plan and the discipline to follow that plan. I am confident you will navigate the twists and turns that will come your way and I look forward to reading about your successful endeavor in the Business Journal.

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