Success Is Not a Destination, It's a Trip
Cycle 2: Sole Proprietor (4 0f 6)
The second trip of my life as an entrepreneur began then,
when I packed Karin off for Minneapolis, and attended her wedding there.
I might as well have been the one giving away the bride.
Then began a lonely and sad time for me. I'd lost a friend and an emotional
support. We'd been good at encouraging each other when the hours got long
or the problems got tough. Now I had to go it alone, and project the right
"head of the house" image to the staff through it all. Plus,
I'd lost her creative talent. She'd been the one with the real vision,
the real genius. I couldn't afford to hire a replacement of her caliber;
I couldn't find anyone who wanted to work like a dog for half a partnership
with me, either.
Most of this "second trip" of my business was taken up with
a kind of business "dating", meeting with potential partners,
talking big, and seeing it come to nothing for one reason or another.
I couldn't recreate the happy "marriage" Karin and I had had.
But you know what? Sad and lonely as I was, the business really worked
better as a sole proprietorship. When you're not splitting the money with
a partner, you make more money. When you're not splitting every decision
with a partner, you make decisions faster. Things get done. It was amazing.
I applied myself to mastering her half of the FAMP equation, learning
to rise to the challenge of my finances, my personnel.
There was a new bank loan for another computer, and there was staff to
add–we grew to four employees in that little office, as the work load
grew. There was a lot of juggling, who got what assignment, and a lot
of worrying, did they do the creative work the way I wanted them to–training
It got strange when an employee who worked with me since almost the beginning
began to go bad. We'll call him "Jim". He was working pretty
independently, felt like he was on the partner track, was managing my
largest account–still the comic book distribution company–all on his
own, with very little input from me.
There were some rumbling of problems; other employees suggested Jim sometimes
took credit for their work; it got a little tense, and I pulled in a personnel
consultant. We did the inevitable surveys, interviews, meetings.
While this was going on, cash was coming in, I was feeling pretty positive.
I began hanging out with real estate people. Looking at new office space.
Maybe my employees squabbled because they were piled up on top of each
other in our little office. Maybe we just needed more space.
I fell in love with a new office I looked at, just off the Square. A big
beautiful box, walls of windows, 20-foot ceilings, a mezzanine balcony
running along one side, perfect for my office and the bookkeeper. Down
on the main floor the production area, conference room... It had glass
block, it had post-modern lines, it was beautiful. 2000 square feet...and
I signed a lease on it. Tripled my rent, and steep increases every year
in that 5-year lease... but we'd grow into that too, I figured.
My entire experience had been that things got better every year. Nothing
but up, baby. My accountant, my lawyer, my banker had taught me – past
performance is the best indicator of future behavior. My entire past performance
told me this was going to work out fine.
You don't see the sharks under the surface when you're sailing along like
Ever have an employee stab you in the back? Really do you a grave, personal
Shortly after the move, that's when it happened to me. It went down like
Jim, the bad employee, got worse. I began to get reports from my bookkeeper
that she was sure he was fudging his time sheets. He was logging hours
he wasn't working. She was in the office at times he claimed to be there.
She could prove he was lying.
What he had done to me, and to the client, (let’s call the client
“CCD”), was to–week by week, month by month, year by year–gradually
inflate the amount of work it took to do their projects. In their eyes
and in mine. He logged more time doing it, we billed more, they paid more–they
knew the account was growing, just like we did. Neither of us questioned
the fact that it was growing so much. It seemed reasonable.
Over a weekend I pumped myself up with anger at him, and on Monday morning
got up the nerve for a confrontation. There was a terrible scene. I told
him to leave immediately, "Empty your desk and go," I said.
" But I can't," he said, "I stopped by CCD on my way into
work this morning and picked up five new jobs." And he went back
to his desk to work.
Well, I didn't know WHAT to do, so I turned around and I left. I went
to talk to our personnel consultant who convinced me I needed to apologize
to Jim, that I had handled my concerns in a very unprofessional way. Soon
Jim and I met over at the consultant’s and made nice noises about
how we'd be honest with each other in the future, and I worked on that
for the next month or so.
And what he worked on, was an escape route. He went to CCD and said "I
can do this work for you, put me on staff, it will save you money,"
and that's what they did. They broke their contract with me, hired my
employee, pulled all the work, and there I sat.
That account was still over 50 percent of our sales. That new office space
relied on those sales.
As 1989 closed I was hemorrhaging cash at a rate of about $4000 a month.
The money I had borrowed for some improvements to the new space was disappearing.
One employee left shortly after, another left in another few months...
saving me the agony of laying them off. It got down to just two of us
in that giant box. I installed an inflatable 6 foot Godzilla just to help
fill up the scene. I sat on the phone day after day, cold-calling, "do
you need any graphic design services today?"
I looked around me and every single thing that had been "Abraxas"
was gone. The partner, the accounts, the office, the staff–all gone.
I decided it was time to recognize that.
No more clinging to memories of the old, charismatic, party times with
Karin... Time for a clean sweep, or more precisely, a recognition of the
clean sweep that had come. I decided to change the name of the business
to "White Space".
Now why would I do that? What did I need right then? New business. Why
would I cut off all the leads that came from the years of recognition
built up for "Abraxas"? In a way it was a stupid thing to do.
But I'm glad I did it.
The second trip was complete: 3 years without Karin and I had basically
arrived at the place where Richard had been when he came into the office
and put his head down on his desk without turning on the lights.
If that Rotarian had asked me "was I successful" then, what
would I have said? I felt I'd learned two lessons: one about finance,
and eggs in one basket, and the other about personnel, the complexity
and difficulty of the role of supervisor. But I hardly felt successful.
I've always been one of those people who confuse "intense" with
"good". I was very aware that in six years I had been many things,
but never bored. I was in no way ready to cancel the trip.
R ead more. Cycle 3: Destination Lean and Mean»
My life stories