Homeless, broke and suffering from severe pain, Charlie Ercan was at her lowest. Now the co-owner of a multimillion-dollar enterprise, she is living proof that a business – and a life – can be carved out of the grip of chronic illness.
Queenslander Charlie Ercan (pictured) admits that she has always had painful periods. But it wasn’t until a decade later at age 24 that she found out what was causing them.
In 2013, while working as an immigration lawyer, Charlie was rushed to hospital with unusually severe abdominal pains. It was the discovery of an orange-sized cyst that confirmed she had stage four endometriosis.
“At age 24, that was basically when I was in the thick of it, wanting to grow my career and that sort of thing. When I had to keep taking time off, that’s what made me realise that this isn’t going to work for me,” Charlie told My Business.
“As a lawyer, you have all these running files that have deadlines and you have to keep constant attention of, so you can’t just take off a couple of hours or days off when the pain hits on a daily or weekly basis.
“I feel like it would be a problem in any occupation really, but especially in law, it’s just not feasible that you would take so much time off.”
Believing that “if I didn’t, I probably would’ve been fired anyway”, Charlie quit her job, and soon after found herself penniless and homeless.
“I’d say I probably took around six to eight months off, not really knowing what I was going to do, having a bit of a depressed period, feeling quite down and I had a lot of fatigue, and the fatigue made me really angry as well, because I was sort of really disappointed in my body and the fact that it was working against me,” she recalled.
“I was lucky that my grandma actually had a spare room and she was willing to take me in. But that was temporary – I knew I couldn’t live with her forever, and she can’t support me because she’s just on a pension, so I couldn’t keep being a burden on her.
“So it was a really tough time for me because I had this pain, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no idea of what my future was going to look like, and I was there bumming off my grandmother basically.
“I was at my lowest – my absolute lowest.”
Down but not out
It was at this point that Charlie met Daniel Papanikolaou. Like Charlie, Daniel was homeless, overweight and had walked away from a series of troubled family businesses.
The pair decided that the only ones who could help them out of their despair was themselves. At the same time, Charlie had been researching potential dietary triggers for inflammation in the body. It was from here that the pair created their business Unique Muscle.
“I honestly had no expectation of the business, I didn’t think it would get this far to be honest,” Charlie said.
“But I also felt like I really didn’t have a choice at that point – I had to do something for my health. So because I had all this time on my hands, I basically just started looking at what I can do for my health … and see what my body is reacting to.
“I felt helpless, so I thought ‘I’ve got to do something for myself or this is the rest of my life. I didn’t start the business [thinking] this is going to earn me millions of dollars and this is going to be great, it was just natural progression.
“I just really wanted a healthy product that wasn’t already being sold in the marketplace.”
Unique Muscle manufactures a range of vegan foods, tonics and weight loss products, all of which are designed to be gentle on the body. The business has grown steadily since its launch in 2014 to become a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Making the business work for you, not you for it
Of course, there just as many if not more pressures running a business as working long hours in a law firm. So how does Charlie manage the running and growth of a business with her ongoing health issues?
“[Daniel] and I started the business at our local library … they had these awesome giant beanbags that you could kind of loll into, and I had these stick-on heat pads that would last 12 hours,” Charlie said of the business beginnings.
“On the days that I couldn’t work, I didn’t, which for me was very frustrating, and it did mean that business did grow at a slower rate than I would have hoped. But having said that, I started the business with my [business] partner, so in times when I just genuinely couldn’t work, I had someone who could hold the fort and help me through those times.
“So basically for me, having my own business, I was able to navigate working from my bed, working from the couch, being able to basically make it work for me.”
Charlie admitted that things still don’t always go to plan. She said she has learned that her health and body has to come first, and so she “navigates my plain from the bed, from the couch”.
“You want to grow so fast and you want to scale, but it also has taught me to trust the process and be a bit more patient. I wasn’t so kind to myself, I think, in the beginning because I was always so frustrated with myself getting in the way of my own success,” she said.
“But now I’ve learnt to be a bit kinder, trust the process and take the time that I need. And now that I have staff, I’m able to … delegate to the right people.”
However, she admits it can be a difficult balancing act, and sometimes there is simply no option but to step up and do what the business desperately needs.
“For example with my most recent surgery, the surgery came at the craziest time for us – we were having record, record revenue growth, we were doubling our revenue month-on-month. And I had this emergency surgery,” Charlie explained.
“I had another cyst the size of an orange – this was about a year ago – and I had to go in for surgery which was completely unexpected. I went into emergency and then the next day I was in surgery.
“[Two weeks later] I had to leave the house and go scout new office locations because we had to get into a new office. So I was there in pain, with stitches, barely able to walk, having to look at new offices [and] signing new leases. That’s the sort of stuff that you have to do for your business; you pretty much don’t have a choice.”
Charlie’s advice for other business leaders struggling with serious health concerns is simple and to the point:
“Really try and understand your body,” she said.
“You should really try and take the time to figure out what works for you as a person and what might not work, and not be so hard on yourself, because I feel the added stress can’t help any situation.
“Which is obviously easier said than done, but don’t be too hard on yourself and just do what you can; push yourself to your limits, but within reason.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.
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