Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Story

Some of you know this story. Some of you know parts of this story.

I had a conversation with someone last week. It's someone who in the next year or so wants to start their own business.

I wanted to share my story.

In 2004, I left, without warning, the job I was at. I mean, I gave them notice, but I didn't have another job lined up. Mr. Tea was a stay at home dad. We didn't have money in savings. We were not living extravagantly on one income. We both believed that one person should stay at home with our kids. That meant that we gave up a lot of THINGS and instead focused on DOING activities.

I'd had it at my previous job. I left.

Mr. Tea, of course, kept asking me when I was going to look for another job. What was I going to do? We had nothing. We had no health insurance, and kids who required major allergy medication.

Yet, I couldn't go back to work. At the time, I had repeatedly told Mr. Tea that his dad needs a website for his business.

Repeatedly, I was told, "You can't sell this type of thing on the internet."

I started building the website on my own. I didn't know anything about building a retail website. I didn't know anything about the product. I knew nothing.

This first attempt was a failure. By 2005, I took the website down. I had nothing. I couldn't go back to doing what I had been doing.

All I had was desperation.

In 2006, Mr. Tea came to me. At this point, he had gotten an hourly job. We were surviving on his hourly wage. He agreed that we should look into the website again. We used a credit card and had a web developer build the site.

We launched in Aug 2006. From August to December, we did $6000 in business. For the most part, I did everything (all the behind the scenes stuff). Mr. Tea said, "This will be a nice little part time job for you."

I said, "This isn't going to be a part time job. This is going to be a $20 million dollar company."

Part desperation. Part drive.

In 2007, we did around $120,000 in business. In 2007, I registered for IM CDA for 2008. We were not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. At least money was coming in, we could pay for our goods. We couldn't really pull paychecks, but we were making ends meet.

In 2007, small businesses started feeling the oncoming recession. Although we were still growing at a small percentage, we saw the clues.

And it was terrifying.

We had a credit line with American express of $25,000. I sent them a check for $20,000, and they promptly cut our credit line to $5000.

I didn't have the credit, and I didn't have the cash. In one swoop, we lost $20,000. $20,000 for a business that was doing $120,000 in business.

I called them and asked why they did this. They told me that they were afraid we were going to declare bankruptcy.

WHY?! I asked. We've never been late. We'd been customers of AMEX for over 10 years.

The following week the same thing happened with Discover, for a much smaller amount.

The week after that, we lost our line of credit with another company.

We had just sent payments to these companies. Now, we were out the cash AND the credit.

We went from just getting by to being at a level of desperation that we'd never been in. We had vendors to pay and no way to pay for them.

We had kids medication to pay for. We had a mortgage to pay for. All the normal personal stuff plus business expenses and no way to pay for them. I had an IM race coming up. (We'd paid for the hotel and air in 2007 before our lines were cut, but now we would have no way to pay for food while we were there).

We started selling everything that wasn't nailed down: furniture, electronics, books. You named it, we sold it. I told Mr. Tea that I didn't care how late we were on anything, but that I was going to give priority to our mortgage. We had two kids, a dog, a house that is probably average size. If we left the house, anyway, we'd end up paying more in rent.

We sold everything. We had one vehicle a 1978 Bronco. I had to schedule my trips to the grocery store to try to not use gas. For 4 years, I didn't even get a haircut.

We were down to below basic survival.

I applied for financial help. We were put on the low income plan to cover our electric bill. Mr. Tea went in and applied for food stamps. Three  months later and after having toast for breakfast every day and spaghetti and ragu every night for dinner, we were approved for food stamps. Stamps doesn't cover everything. In fact, for a family of 4, it gave us more than we had, but we certainly couldn't afford to buy much meat....other than the cheapest hot dogs and bologna.

We were approved for the stamps for a certain period of time. I had reapplied but wasn't approved. To this day, I have no idea why we weren't approved for the second time, and I could never get an answer.

Meanwhile, Colorado was hit with the 2nd or 3rd worst winters ever. We had 6 blizzards in SIX straight weeks. (The snow didn't melt until June). This forced our already struggling business and cash flow into an even worst position: Merchandise couldn't GET to us, and we couldn't GET it to our customers....and it was the holiday season. Watching the news, we saw a story of Fedex and UPS trucks stuck at the airport and unable to move.....for weeks.

One day, we needed groceries. I had $50 of food stamps left. I had a purse full of coupons. I got to the register. I was going through the coupons.....when the woman behind the register saw my EBT card in my hand. She looked at me and said, "I'm sure you have all this stuff, let's just use all the coupons." I almost couldn't hold back the tears. When she subtracted all the coupons, she saved me $30. $30 was a huge amount of money.

It meant another two weeks of groceries. After that, we went back to the 10 for $10 sale of ragu and spagetti noodles. For $2, I could feed a family of four, dinner.

I got to the car. I didn't feel entitled. I cried for the kindness of a complete stranger. I didn't want to be in this situation. American Dream? FUCK the American Dream. Pull myself up by my bootstraps? FUCK it. WE wouldn't BE in this situation if it weren't for the power of financial institutions.

As a parent, anyone who has been in this situation knows, that you will always give to your kids before you do anything for yourself. Mr. Tea and I would go without dinner or breakfast or anything to make sure our kids had food. We also made the decision to not let them know what was going on at the time. We didn't want to scare them. (Later we told them. The first thing they said was, "That's why we ate so much ragu and spaghetti).

Two months later, I don't know why I did this. But, I went on to check my EBT account. IT HAD BEEN FUNDED WITH 6 MONTHS OF food stamps.

We had been denied for no reason. Now, we had money to get food again. I can't tell you the weight this lifted off my shoulders. Paying the mortgage was still tough, but we had food. We also had heat through a record breaking winter. Then our master cyclinder on the Bronco went out. The truck was worth $700. The repairs would cost $1500.

As hard as this was, I think the hardest part was going to visit family for the holidays. If we were invited someplace, we went. It meant free food. But, we had to deal with comments. These people knew nothing about us, but repeatedly we silently listened to family talk about how much MONEY WE HAD. US! The family on 4 living on every type of public assistance out there, driving a 1978 Bronco....because we had our business, everyone believed we had money coming out our pores. It got better....we listened to discussions, over and over about people on food stamps, people on welfare, taking advantage of system.

We listened in silence because we got free food. On some many occasions, our families made such hurtful comments. Yet, on even more occasions, total strangers helped us. There was the family that mysteriously paid for us to go out for dinner. We don't know who they were or why they did it....or even if they knew our situation. There was the woman at the store who took all my coupons. There was the person who paid for my cart of groceries.

The kindness of total strangers.

WE got to a point where we couldn't hold on anymore. After losing the credit lines and cash, we had no way to pay our bills. We tried. As well as I manage money. The money just wasn't there.

We went from from being able to make ends meet to having financial institutions taking everything away, being on public assistance and being a half a step from being homeless. And we were lucky because other small businesses didn't even get that far.

This is, now, 2008. Did you know me in 2008? Did you have any idea of what I was going through? Probably not because we didn't ask for help.

"Well," I said to Mr. Tea one day, "If they thought we were going to declare bankruptcy, it was a self fulfilling prophecy. It's a business decision for them. It's now a business decision for us. It no longer makes sense for us to pay these bills."

We declared bankruptcy and didn't feel bad about it for a second.

That was the day I stopped giving so many FUCKS.

Once we made that decision, life changed. When you're in a really bad financial situation, it takes a LONG time to recover. We were still negotiating how often and when to drive because of gas. WE couldn't pay for electricity. When the food stamps ended, we were able to pay for food at a much lower amount than the stamps, but we were able to pay for food.

Over time, we were able to get back to a normal food budget. Then, I didn't have to reapply for the low income heating. WE could pay for it. Then we bought a car to replace the Bronco. Then we bought a 2nd car.

More importantly, I'm thankful we went through those years because it changed me as a person, for the better, I think.

I'm free. In a way, not unlike the movie The Matrix.

To this day, I don't think about the people who put me down.  I remember the total strangers that helped me. When I buy groceries, I will secretly pay for another family's groceries. I've paid off lay-aways at Walmart. I've paid for gas for people who were stranded. I will continue to do it and continue to do it anonymously because it's not about me. It's about helping people when they might be afraid to ask for help.

Things are very different for us now. Our sons are both in college. We still don't live extravagantly. I don't think we ever will. We have always appreciated doing things together as opposed to owning things. We still have 3 rooms that have absolutely no furniture, but we're now looking at changing that. Our house, that has fallen apart over the years, is finally going to start getting repairs done.

We still have the business. We have a warehouse. We have employees. We are at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without the stress of figure out how to pay for food.

When we didn't have money, we were criticized. Now that we have money, we're criticized.

The one BIG lesson that I learned from 2006-2011 is about not being afraid, not being afraid.  I'm not afraid of YOUR opinion of me changing because of what I've written. I'm not afraid of big scary corporations. I'm not afraid of any of that shit anymore. You know what's scary? Having a family of 4 and being homeless. THAT's scary.  All that other shit? It's just noise to make us fall in line.

And I'm not the type to fall in line.