toe in water photo

My first “grown-up” business was in the cellular telephone industry. (We didn’t call it “wireless” back then). I got in early, opening up in 1986. It was fun to be part of an industry that was new and technical and whose products carried some cache. I went from working out of my parent’s basement, to a small office in a converted house and eventually into space in an industrial park. I needed to move to the industrial park in order to open a repair and installation shop. (Back then you got phones fixed in your home town. They were not disposable as they are now).

As the business grew so did my business opportunities. I partnered with other companies, making them re-sellers using our agent number. We started advertising more and more heavily in the local newspapers. We had 6 full time and several part time sales people as well as clerical staff working from our office and had three technicians in the shop. We bought the latest and greatest diagnostic equipment and began repairing and installing phones and other consumer electronics for many of the biggest retailers in the Portland, Oregon area. Business was good.

All of this success came within a fairly short time period. I was young and excited and thought I had the world by the tail. I got a nicer car and bought my wife a loaded Jeep Cherokee in which we installed all kinds of electronic gadgets. We bought a larger home and began taking a few little trips. I even bought a set of custom golf clubs and I don’t even like to golf. Yes, things were really going well. Then one day I was invited to a meeting at the corporate offices of the cellular carrier. They spent some time telling us about how the market was changing, how technology growth was exploding and about their expansion plans. It all sounded great. Then they dropped the bomb. They would be fundamentally changing the way they paid for new client enrollment (read-how they paid commissions). The new plan made it virtually impossible for a company organized as I was to maintain consistent cash flow. As a matter of fact, their new commission plan was aimed at attracting “Big Box” stores that would, within a few months, start using cell phones as loss leaders in their advertising programs. “Come in and buy a new couch and get a free cellular phone!”

My head was spinning. I didn’t know what to do. But we were debt free and had some money in the bank and had lines of credit and I figured I could adapt. While many other companies similar to mine were closing their doors, I was trying to get cheaper prices on phones by committing to larger volume orders. I was hiring more people for the shop in hopes of fixing all the broken “free” phones that a furniture store would have no way of handling. As sales revenue shrunk I began borrowing from my credit lines to manage cash flow. Then I started to use personal cash and credit to cover payables. I couldn’t afford to compete on price with the big chains and so I couldn’t move the phones accumulating in my warehouse. Before long I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and was sinking fast. My wife and I turned in the keys to the Jeep to the bank and eventually sold the service shop to a competitor. I was broke, in debt and feeling hopeless. Finally we closed up shop for good.

There is no specific happy ending to this chapter of my life. I had made rookie mistakes and ended up paying a high price for them and it took effort to clean up the financial mess I had made. So why do I tell this story? I want you know that it is OK to struggle. It is alright to take chances. It is understandable to set your mind on a goal only to find that it was the wrong goal to reach for. In short, it is OK to fail. Why? Because each attempt, including the failed ones, brings invaluable insights and education. You won’t catch me making the same mistakes twice because I have learned through my experience what works and what doesn’t and that is worth a lot.

If you choose to go into business for yourself, you have to do it with gusto. You can’t afford to go after your dream half heartedly. No matter that you won’t always be right. The point is to keep dreaming and reasoning and striving to build something. You must be willing to do the hard work. These characteristics make you different from others around you. You are a pioneer. That means you will have to leave the comfort of the masses and make serious sacrifices to reach your “Promised Land”, but at the end of the journey you will gain the rewards earned by taking risks. Don’t let set backs get you down. One of the best things I have learned along my life’s path is this, when things go wrong, as they often will, always make sure that when you fail, you fail forward.

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