The Day I Nearly Lost My Business: A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

by Marcus Sheridan

This post is going to be a little different than most of the sales and marketing 2.0 themes that I’ve written so much about here on The Sales Lion, but notwithstanding I do hope it does, at least in some way, inspire a few of you as it is certainly an experience that has had an incredibly profound influence on my life.

A Forgettable and Cold Meeting

I can remember the meeting like it was yesterday. A very plain and unemotional lady was coming to meet with me and my two business partners. Our anticipation and anxiety was extremely high, as this lady was from the IRS and nothing from our previous conversations with her on the phone indicated that she had an emotional bone in her body.

small business climbBut finally the lady showed up. She asked a few questions about our predicament and then proceeded to tell us something that would change our lives for many years to come. Simply stated, the IRS was putting leans on our 3 houses and we had a zero tolerance policy. This meant that if by any chance we were late on any of our normal tax payments, they would come in and shut down our business. And along with shutting us down, they’d take everything they possibly could other than the clothes on our back so as to ‘get their money’.

As I heard these profound words and threats leave this lady’s unemotional face, I turned to my dear friend and business partner Jason. He did not look well. In fact, he looked rather ill. I’d later come to find out that he almost passed out when he heard such debilitating news.

A Blaring Weakness

Now I’m sure you are wondering how we managed, as a small business, to get to such a point with our company. Well believe it or not, we were asking ourselves the same question that unfortunate day.

It all started a few years previously when my two business partners and I decided to go into business and open a swimming pool construction company. We had many qualities going for us—hard work, dedication, sales and management skills, construction skills, moral values, shared integrity, etc. But despite the fact that there were many positive attributes to our little group, we had one terrible weakness.

You see, none of us three really knew anything at all about accounting. Heck, we barely knew how to balance our check books and so the idea of running a business and dealing with all the laws and regulations that come with such a career path were utterly beyond our realm of scope.

A New Employee

After about 18 months of floundering around as well as outsourcing much of our bookkeeping needs, we decided to hire a full-time bookkeeper. With hopes high, we were thrilled with the idea that we would now be able to solely focus on the business without worry about all of the accounting variables that put each of us in such a foggy state of mind.

Shortly after we started the hiring process, we decided to go with a gal we’ll call ‘Janet’. And after Janet started, we were not at all regretful of our decision. In fact, Janet was as hard working of an employee as we ever had. With unbelievable dedication, she proved to us that she was a team player and willing to do whatever it took so that our business could achieve success.

It was also during this time that our business was growing by leaps and bounds. Typical for guys that don’t really understand how to ‘own’ a business, we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Sales were strong. Money was flowing in. We thought everything was great.

Reality Sets In

But in life, reality has a strange way of hitting you in the face sometimes. It hit me in the face about 8 months after Janet had been with us. One of my field employees called me up on a Friday evening and told me his paycheck had bounced.  Obviously, I was shocked, perplexed, and embarrassed with such a call. I then immediately called Janet and she told me she had made an accounting error and that she would get it straight right away. But notwithstanding, neither me, nor my business partners, had a good feeling about such an embarrassing event.

Over the next few months, more and more financial red flags started popping up. Vendors were calling about past due accounts. Janet kept saying she needed more money and naturally our solution as business owners was to work harder. In fact, it was during this time that my partners and I were working 65-75 hours a week. Because we weren’t smart enough to see what was going on around us, we simply sold more pools, worked longer hours, and hoped it would be enough.

But things weren’t getting better. It was almost as if we were hamsters on a wheel—running as fast as we possibly could but making no progress whatsoever. The stress, the frustration, and the bills only mounted.

The Moment of Truth

And roughly about 12 months after Janet started working with us, the moment of truth and reality finally came one day when I was sitting in my store, pondering all of the problems we were having. Janet was also there, sitting at her desk, looking focused and diligent as always. My cell phone rang.  I saw it was the bank. A nervous feeling entered my gut as calls from the bank were never good in those days. Here’s the conversation as I remember it:

Bank Manager: Hi Marcus. I need to talk with you privately for a minute. Are you alone?

Me: (feeling like I wanted to barf in trepidation of what bad news might be coming next) Ok, sure. (and I walked outside in front of my store)

Bank Manager: Marcus, you’re not going to believe this, but a company out of Canada has been funneling thousands of dollars out of your account.

Me: What? Are you kidding me? What’s going on?

Bank Manager: Well, I’ve had my suspicions for some time now, but now I know of everything for certain. Marcus, Janet has been stealing money from your account. I’m not sure as to how much, but I think it’s a lot and I think it’s been going on for quite some time now.

Me: Janet? Seriously? I’m stunned?

Bank Manager: Well it’s true. Now I need you to invite her to leave immediately. The police have been notified. We’ve got a big mess here to clean up.

It was in that moment that I clearly recall looking through the large glass windows of the front of my store and seeing Janet at her desk. Still working diligently. Still ‘dedicated’ as ever.

For the sake of time, allow me to simply sum up this story in a few sentences—

Damage Done

After piecing the entire puzzle together, my business partners and I soon found out that our financial situation was much, much worse than we had initially understood or anticipated. It turns out that Janet had a record of embezzlement and had stolen from other companies in the past. In our case, she had attempted to literally but our company out of business, hoping that if we had to close our doors, the trail of debt and money mismanagement would never lead back to her. Luckily, the bank realized what was going on before she could complete her mission. But let me assure you, Janet got about 99% there.

In fact, it turned out that Janet had an on-line gambling addiction. She used a company out of Canada to handle her ‘gaming’ and gave them complete access to our banking accounts. So during the course of 12 months, we eventually learned that she had literally blown about $150,000-$200,000 on this awful vice. And not only had she blown all of this money, but she hadn’t paid any state or federal taxes either (She actually filed them each week but never paid them, crazy huh?). These debts alone to the State and the Feds added up to about $250,000.

So there we were—Debts that accumulated to about $450,000 and no recourse to get any of it back. 12 months of grueling work, barely seeing our families, and sleepless nights—all for nothing. It was utterly depressing and unbelievable.

Yes, We Were Dumb

Now I know many of you readers and business owners are asking, “How could you guys have been so stupid? Don’t you look at your bank statements?? What a bunch of dummies!”

And if you’re making such statements and judgments, you’re likely quite accurate with your words. You see, the problem that my partners and I had was two-fold:

  • We knew nothing of accounting
  • We trusted people implicitly

In hind-sight we should never have even hired Janet. But did we have the common sense to run a background check? Nope. And should we have picked up on all the signs within a few months of her employment? Yep. But we didn’t. Thus, we paid a terrible price, as did Janet.

End Results

When it was all said and done, Janet, a mother of two little girls, went to jail for about 2 years. As for us, we found ourselves in this meeting with the IRS lady. And after she finished with her cold assessment of our situation, we literally felt like we were at the bottom of Mt. Everest. Except in our case, we were going to try and climb it in a wheel chair.

No doubt, the cards were incredibly stacked against us. In fact, we went to financial advisers who pleaded with us to close our doors and cut our losses. Anywhere we turned for professional help, everyone recommended the same thing—

Just Quit

As you’re likely well aware by this point, we did not quit. We did not give up. And in a future article, I’m going to fully explain how we managed to eventually get out of debt as well as the joys we felt after no longer having the IRS in our lives, with their name attached to our homes and properties.

But for now, and to close this little story, I want to discuss something completely different than how our business survived. I want to talk about acceptance, forgiveness, and the incredible lessons of this thing we call life.

Powerful Lessons Learned

Despite the fact that our business was set back years due to the actions of Janet, as well as the fact that she put major strains on our lives and families, I do not harbor negative feelings towards this lady. In fact, I only feel sad for a woman who obviously has some serious issues. I also feel a compassion for her two young girls that for all intents and purposes, did not have a ‘Mommy’ to turn to for two years when they needed one most.

Because of the urgency of our situation, my business partners and I were forced to learn and embrace certain strategies that have now lead to the successful business we have today. Our reaction to this problem in many ways has become the foundation of who I am as an entrepreneur and marketer. I’ve also been blessed to travel around the country and share our story with others. Frankly, the entire experience is one long roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, despair and elation, as well as tragedy and triumph.

Perspective

Having such a perspective allows me, as I sit down here at my kitchen table this morning, to actually feel a gratitude that I was chosen to go through such a series of events. I have no doubt that as my writing and speaking career grows, and as I’m able to touch more and more businesses, the trials and struggles that I’ve passed through will always be a foundation of reflection and advice as I’m able to bless others to get through similar valleys in their lives and businesses.
Well that just about does it for now. If you’ve managed to make it through this long post :-) , I’d be very grateful if you shared your thoughts and comments below. I receive tremendous joy hearing from you all and hope that this experience has had, in some way, a positive influence on each of you. 

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Dad April 4, 2010 at

Great article Marcus!!!!!!…Happy Easter and too bad about those Mounties….what a loss hope to see you more next time we are down….

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Jim April 5, 2010 at

Oh how I remember those days, and I remember how the lady from the IRS made it clear how she did not care about us, our employees or our families. I do remember how we felt that if we filed bankruptcy it would be like stealing from our creditors and we refuse to do that. We had no plan B so we made plan A work for the time. But now times have changed, good job Marc.

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Marcus Sheridan April 5, 2010 at

Those were tough days Jim, no doubt. Undying faith and undeterred resiliency pays off.

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Marcus Sheridan April 5, 2010 at

Thanks Pops…Happy Easter to you as well :-)

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Jason April 5, 2010 at

The whole time I’m reading this I’m thinking….gosh we were idiots! I, along with you buddy, am grateful for the experience. As we have discussed many times before, the things that transpired during that period really tempered our resolve, skills, and character. When confronted with such a situation one is presented with two options: anger and bitterness that inevitably lead to a higher degree of pain, or forgiveness through which peace will follow. In my mind, one of the greatest miracles of this experience is that between the three of us there is not a shred of animosity toward her, in fact we wish the best for their entire family as you’ve stated. Hopefully some young, naive entrepreneur will read of our experience and be all the wiser.

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Lee marcontel April 5, 2010 at

been there done that. 22 year old sec. stole 80,000 from us.
oops
problem is, we see the world from our own point of view,
honest people don’t have a suspicious nature. Easy marks.

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Marcus Sheridan April 5, 2010 at

You bring up a good point Lee. In fact, embezzlement is a HUGE problem in our society. It’s amazing how many companies told me, after they heard our story, that they’d gone through a similar situation. Thanks for stopping by!

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Nancy February 9, 2011 at

As I read your story I couldn’t help but review the things that have transpired in our lives that just about ruined us as well. Betrayal, trusting employees too much etc. etc. I can relate to your story (with the exception of the IRS). I am two years into the process of rebuilding after losing just about everything. Your story was a good reminder that I can make it, forgiveness is key, and there is hope.

Thanks for sharing. Sometimes you hear of the incredible things people accomplish and don’t realize they have had their trials as well.

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Marcus Sheridan February 12, 2011 at

So kind of you to stop by Nancy and share your thoughts.

I hope you make a full recovery and you find peace as well…which can be difficult when something like this happens but is incredibly important.

Best

Marcus

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Marcia Hoeck April 17, 2011 at

I think more of us learn this lesson the hard way than are willing to admit, and it helps us all as a whole when one of us (you, this time!) lays out their story for the rest of us to learn from.

In my own case, it didn’t get this far. When I noticed that I was bringing money in but it seemed to be slipping through the cracks, I hired a consultant to figure out why. There was no embezzlement, just very sloppy bookkeeping and crazy unauthorized purchases. When the person was let go and I told her I felt she had taken advantage of my good nature, she looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you’re pretty easy to take advantage of.” OUCH. Lesson learned!

Thanks for your transparency, Marcus.
M

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Marcus Sheridan April 18, 2011 at

Hey Marcia, thanks so much for sharing this experience of yours and it’s a lesson that so many of us have to learn— that being trusting when it comes to finances in our business is a bad idea. You learned it, I learned it, and many more will continue to find this out– the hard way.

But I’m so grateful you took the time to comment Marcia and am thrilled we’ve made this recent connection. :-)

Marcus

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Tom Denk February 7, 2013 at

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for sharing this story. I got to it by clicking your ‘embezzlements’ link on pg. 298 of ‘Inbound and Content Marketing Made Easy’. Your perspective on this is refreshing, and healthy.

I finished the book, by the way (99% of which was read on the train on my commute to and from downtown Chicago every day!), and copied & pasted tons of tips, notes, to-do’s, not to-do’s, etc. into a Wordpad document I can refer to later. Thanks.

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Marcus Sheridan February 7, 2013 at

It’s comments like this Tom that make it all worth it. :-) Thank you sir

Marcus

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MaryAnn Thompson December 9, 2013 at

I just stumbled across your article and wanted to sincerely Thank you for sharing it. I have a very similar story, but I ended up losing my company and everything I own. I owe the IRS more than I could earn in 4 lifetimes. I had an employee commit suicide. The roller coaster hasn’t really stopped yet. My resentment and despair have really gotten the best of me these days.

After reading your beautiful article, I just had to stop and exhale. Then I smiled. And then a wonderful thing happened; The 2 ton cinder block that has been pushing on my chest making it hard to breathe for the past 2 years, lifted.

In short, my situation has really destroyed me, and I’m not just referring to the economic losses. It has changed my character, my trust, etc. It has made me into someone I am not. I have become a bitter, jaded, suspicious, angry, and unemployed woman that is one French fry away from a heart attack or worse .

Your perspective/ lesson has made a huge impact on me. I’m so grateful to have found your article. I wish you many more years of prosperity and success.
Thanks for sharing!
MaryAnn Thompson

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Marcus Sheridan December 12, 2013 at

Thrills me to read your words MaryAnn. I’m cheering you on, I really am. :)

Smiles,

Marcus

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