In 2001 I resigned my Vice President/Creative Director position at a large Pittsburgh ad agency, walked a few blocks away and started what I hoped would be a successful business venture. My own creative focused agency, a state-of-the-art house that would be run by creatives and not account service. I had zero clients and very little money. I had a phone, a new computer, and office space rented from two friends who happened to be starting their own video production company around the same time.
Within 18 months I had two floors of a building in downtown Pittsburgh and was employing 18 full-time employees. Our clients included a national cable company, sports teams, charities, and a wide spectrum of industries around the country. Business was booming. We were a trend setter in the advertising industry, the tip of a new wave of agencies that were shaking up the status-quo. We didn't bill for time, a fact that got written up in the New York Times. I made sure that at least 25% of our clients were charities and non-profits. I gave back to my employees a minimum of 10% of agency profits in the form of bonuses. And for the first three years we paid 100% of our employees health care costs. (Sadly that one became unsustainable with the annual costs rising so fast. Even so, we continued to cover a large proportion.)
We survived our largest client, Adelphia Communications, going bankrupt in the largest corporate bankruptcy case in American history. In fact, we managed to stay on as their agency and even opened a Denver office when the company moved to Colorado. In another 18 months Adelphia was successfully sold to Time Warner and Comcast. We helped make that happen.
By 2008 we had become one of the largest agencies in the region. Our clients came from all over the world. We worked with clients from Russia, Spain, England, Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other countries. We helped build companies, helped companies grow, and gave back to local and national charities. Wired Magazine once called us, "the good agency". I won the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award along with a Microsoft Business Success award. I was the youngest person ever inducted into the Pittsburgh Advertising Hall of Achievement. You can actually watch my induction in this video:
2008 was our best year. 2008 was the year my divorce became final. As well as my career was going, my personal life was a mess and always had been. I freely admit to hiding in my work for years and years. Working 80 hour weeks, weekends, and generally avoiding my wife. All of my free time was spent with my Son. Eventually, in 2006, he was old enough and I was successful enough to file for a long anticipated divorce.
Here is where the story starts to get extremely complicated. Complicated by politics, both national and local. Complicated by divorce. Complicated by employees, both old and new. Complicated by a school that forced us out of our building in 45 days. Complicated by an $85,000 mistake that my employee made on a State contract. Complicated by a media buyer that cared more about his commission than his client. Complicated by a new business director that sat on his ass for a whole year and then took clients with him when it was discovered. Complicated by over zealous lawyers. By a national mortgage crisis. By a client that refused to pay a contract. By the loss of all my savings to divorce. Complicated by a lot of little things, like a con-man that bilked the agency out of $25,000. (And who just recently, finally, got the justice he deserved.)
2009 to 2011 was a rough patch. I did all the things we had done during the Adelphia bankruptcy. And we hung in there. In 2011 we finally started to come out of it and we had nine months in a row of profitable earnings. It had been a struggle of epic proportions. By now I had a new family, a new wife, and a new life. My desire to work 80-90hrs a week was tempered. And then it all came home and I had some very big decisions to make.
Normally in that situation a business owner like myself would infuse cash back into the business to help see it thru. But the divorce had taken all my savings. Building a new life had taken all my cash. The debts pilled up around us. A client broke a contract and refused to pay us. A bunch of smaller clients did the same. Once large clients stopped investing in marketing during the economic downturn. Our new office space had cost us and the rent continued every single month.
In January 2012 I made the decision to cease business operations and close the agency. I helped our remaining employees find work, two businesses sprang up out of our ruins and continue today. I personally gathered up all the equipment, computers, tables, chairs, and office equipment and sold it all off to raise cash to help pay our bills. That took two months. I was sued for what would eventually end up being over $1 million dollars. I was personally on the hook for over half a million in additional debts. I was protected from the business debts, but not from the personal ones. I took a consulting position with another agency and for awhile it looked like we might make it.
And then the legal problems with the divorce really started. Eventually we had no choice but to seek bankruptcy protection. It was our last ditch decision and we tried to avoid it. That process took a year.
In 2008, during our best year, I signed a divorce settlement that took three years to reach. I endured seven "discoveries" each of which personally cost me about $4,500 each. I endured a court-ordered business evaluation that cost me $25,000. Nearly $100k in legal expenses and three years of paying full freight on alimony. I was ready to sign anything. Sadly, the settlement included a small two paragraph section regarding the on-going operation of the agency. This section, poorly written, would come back to haunt me. At the time it seemed only fair that my ex-wife should get some compensation for the business enduring into the future. But that didn't happen. The business closed in early 2012. So I believed that section no longer pertained.
After the divorce was final, actually the very day it ended, I received a court summons. And so began yet another chapter in my legal problems. The court, in their infinite wisdom, decided that section still pertained. And since that decision has continued to add to the amount. I've been threatened with jail seven times. They are currently threatening to take my driver's license. The judgment against me, which resides on my credit report, is keeping me from gainful employment. I can't even get a job at Home Depot.
The basis of the agencies eventually collapse was the economic downturn of 2008-2009. Two of our largest clients were tied into the mortgage industry. For example, one client spent $4.5 million with us in 2008, and spent $50,000 with us in 2009. And that is just the obvious. Dozens of smaller clients cut back on advertising. Marketing is the easy cut in a companies budget and usually the first to suffer. This formed the basis, the foundation, of our undoing. But there are a thousand other reasons. It is impossible to blame one thing.
I know these things to be true. If I had cash to re-invest back into the business, it would probably still be going. But I didn't. My ex-wife doesn't deserve to benefit from a non-existent business. Anymore than anyone else does. Bringing the business down cost a lot of people, it harmed friends, it broke partnerships, it left people holding empty bags. For whatever reasons, and there is ample justification to go around, I still feel personally responsible for everything. That is the kind of guy I am. I was in charge, so everything that happened is ultimately my responsibility.
My professional career has been ruined. And now, close to fifty, I'm trying to re-invent myself. Meeting new people, helping those that need help, working on new projects, being a part of a great and awesome community of people here in Eve. Trying to find my way. Networking, starting new business ventures, exploring new works, making wallpapers, trying to get CCP to grant me a license to sell you posters. lolz.
Having said all of that, I want to leave you with something. Right now my life is the best it has EVER been. And I wouldn't trade what I have right now for anything. I spent my entire adult life regretting a decision I made when I was 23 years old during a very difficult period in my life. And now I have found the love of my life, I am finally free of that decision in every way that counts. I will pay any price, any charge, any decision, to keep that. If that means going to jail, then so be it. If that means giving up a career that I never really wanted in the first place, then so be it.
My wife and I have worked our asses off the past four years to re-build a new life from the ruins of both our old ones. We've endured hardships that you can only imagine. And we've both not only survived, but thrived. And nothing, no one, no court, no lawyer, no legal machine, no hater, no wanker, no comment troll, no one, can take that away from us.
Keep the courage my friends.