Living in Fear to Find Success

Three years ago I walked down my driveway to get the mail. We had recently moved to an affluent area, upgraded my wife’s car, and joined a pool and tennis club. While not the pinnacle of success, our financial life was improving.

Opening the mail box, I reached in to find a stack of envelopes. Curiously, one was a certified letter that had been placed in the mailbox with the signature portion still intact. Pausing, I noticed it was from the Internal Revenue Service.

A little nervous, I opened the letter. Scanning the first page, I saw the words 2013 next to a very large number. After closer inspection it appeared I miscalculated our income for that year and now owed a large sum. Fear encircled my body as ever muscle tensed.

The walk into the house was painful. My wife had just left her job to start a private practice and mine was the sole income. “We owe the IRS from 2013,” I explained to the kitchen, not seeing anyone else around. My wife has selective hearing that alerts to all things financial. “We what, owe the IRS,” she asked walking downstairs.

In the haste of the moment, I made a plan. Working as a Lead Engineer for a small company meant getting paid below the current market rate. I could earn an extra $20,000 per year by switching employers. Thus, I began my search.

After two months of interviews, I was invited to a secret meeting with the CEO of a start-up who just received $1,000,000 in seed funding. He was needing a Senior Developer to convert their service operation into a software provider. The pay was a step-up and the team very motivated.

Giving my two-week notice came with a dreaded sense of regret. This was a company I had built every system for — even designing the office layout. Attending social events with the CEO, bike riding with the CMO, and being friends with all of the employees made it feel like leaving a family.

My last day was on a Thursday. The next Friday, I arrived for lunch with my new employer. Upon arrival, the CEO presented me with a new MacBook Pro. He then lead me to lunch where I met my direct supervisor. It was not as glamorous as my hedge fund days, but exciting.

Over burgers we discussed stock option, the challenges ahead, and the company culture. My direct supervisor was a former Microsoft Executive who had already built and sold a successful company. He outlined the technical roadmap and was eager for my start the following Monday.

After only a few months, my employer got spoked by their investors. Turns out, a million dollars does not go as far as they thought. They needed to cut costs fast. Being the highest paid employee, I was let go first and replaced by two contractors.

The drive home was an exercise in self-doubt. Even with a bonus and extra months pay, the rest of the day felt dark. Holding my phone, nervous energy percolated through my fingers. Just then it rang. Actually, it buzzed as the ringer was turned off.

“Hello”, I said without looking to see who was calling. It was a recruiter. Normally I hate calls from recruiters but this was a welcome relief. We talked for the entire duration of the drive home. However, once I explained about just getting let go, I never heard back.

My wife seemed numb to the news. We had just upgraded our home which took allot of savings, lost both of our incomes, and had a large mortgage that needed paid each month. On top of this were private school expenses for our two boys, healthcare costs, and now the bill from the IRS.

Being near the end of July, my boys were finishing up their summer. We eliminated summer camp from our monthly expenditures and I became a stay-at-home dad. If only for a few weeks.

Early one morning, just before heading on a bike ride, I checked for jobs online. There it was, a start-up near my home and in my favorite industry was needing a Senior Engineer. I immediately applied and within a few minutes got a call. A few days later took the interview and within two-weeks started working there.

My first day was a little concerning as I had my pick of many empty cubicles. It seemed the entire tech team had left the company at one time. However, I was ensured the product was almost complete and the sales team had already made a few sales.

During the first week, I was assigned a few stories from the backlog. In agile development, stories are high level features. They start with words like, “as a user I would like to…” These stories are used by developers to formulate tasks. The backlog is a list of stories that have not been placed into active development.

To start slow, the CTO gave me two tasks and 1-week to complete them. Each story was estimated to take 2-days, giving me an extra day to become familiar with the system.

At home, things were stressful. We learned that once you owe the IRS for federal taxes, there is additional tax due from the state. It seems they freely share information with each other. Now we had a new bill with a large amount due before even being able to pay the first.

My wife and I became debt free many years earlier. Paying cash for cars, closing all credit accounts, and paying off student loans. However, I figured owing a bank was far less scary than the IRS. Therefore I took out a credit card and immediately maxed it out with an online tax payment.

That helped but still left a large amount due. Therefore, I applied for another credit card and once it arrived, did the same thing. There was still a few thousand due but I could write a check for that. I now had some time to pay off the debt and overall, things felt better.

At work, life was beginning to worsen. Those user stories I was assigned and given 5 days to complete were not as easy as anticipated. After finding where the features were suppose to be, it turns out they had never been completed. The CTO was nervously upset.

Enquiring further, I discovered that the CTO went on vacation during the last development cycle. The Engineers were all leaving and either lied or alluded to more being accomplished than what was reality. Without checking, the CTO alerted sales and they begun selling the product.

Now, there are deliveries scheduled with paying clients and no working product. This meant panic time for all involved. My schedule changed from 8:00am to 5:00pm to 24/7. In actuality, it was 8:00am to 6:00pm, come home and eat dinner, then 8:00pm to 3:00am then sleep until 6:30am, then report back to the office by 8:00am.

Due to stress and misunderstanding, all of the extra work was not meet with gratitude. Instead, every morning was the interrogation. “Why is this not done,” the CTO would demand. “What about that,” the CEO would bark. “How much longer until we can ship,” the CMO yelled.

After months of this, I was done. I asked my wife, “Do you mind if I leave this job?” She agreed due to great concern over my health, even though we needed the paycheck. After all, finding an engineering job is not difficult.

Walking out of that office for the last time, a feeling of freedom hit like a spring breeze. I was elated and looked forward to my next opportunity. The only issue was I needed a paycheck pretty soon as bills were coming due.

This has happened before, I kept thinking, as bills were coming due with no income to pay them. Now unable to find a job due to having two positions in a row that do not even cover a year. I look like a flake to potential employer.

Just 5 years prior, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. I worked for a hedge fund, had plenty in savings, and was even living in a mansion for free while we waited on our house to sell a state away. Now, I am 41 years old and broke. My wife is depressed and does not want to come home. Even my children are getting in trouble at school.

However, perhaps there is hope. A few potential clients are asking me to build them software applications. So I accepted the first client and began work on their software. Getting paid a few thousand upfront with more due on a schedule of deliverables.

Wanting to ensure a continued stream of income, I accepted two other clients. Again, getting a few thousand upfront with mode scheduled as their projects neared completion. However, it was still not enough. Unlike a salary, the money from the clients were never on-time. Once a delivery was made it would take another week or two before getting a check.

In addition, there were meetings that lasted for hours where I did not get paid. It was not the client’s fault. It is was mine for not specifying an hourly rate for meetings. In my haste, the contracts only required payment for development hours. However, those cut into my ability to generate income.

It’s funny how things never seem to happen at the right time. In the midst of the most trying time of our marriage, the scout training that was scheduled a year earlier was coming near. I would be gone for 3 days one weekend and another 3 days two-weeks later.

During this time, I was driving an old car given to us by my in-laws. We had planned to use it for a few months while saving for a another car, but due to our financial perfect storm, it was all I had. The passenger door would not open and the brakes worked only about 90% of the time.

The training I had been looking forward to since becoming an adult leader was starting and my car could not be trusted to make the two-hour drive. My Father-In-Law offered to loan me his prized 1973 Corvette. I happily accepted.

Boy Scouts is a passion of mine. It has been since I was a child — starting in Cub Scouts and making it all the way to Eagle, the highest honor. Since home was such a mess, the three days away were a welcomed distraction.

Arriving Friday morning at 7:00am, it was still dark. There was coffee and introductions from course staff along with other participants. At 7:30am the first class started. The whole weekend was a condensed version of business school in the woods. My big takeaways were accept change, take responsibility for the result, and never hold a meeting without an agenda.

The training was held at a Boy Scout Camp where mobile phones reception was nonexistent. It was not until about thirty-minutes into the drive home that my phone started vibrating with messages. There were voicemails, missed calls, emails, and text messages. Hundreds of them.

Unable to check the messages, I called my wife. She was very angry. While I was away she got the mail and for the first time made the realization that bills due at the beginning of the month have yet to be paid sixteen-days later. “We need to have a serious discussion,” she said, followed by the instructions, “you need to give my dad back his car.”

During the past three days I had little sleep, needed a shower, and was exhausted. It did not matter, she was done with the situation and equated it with me. Later that night, she explained that this had to stop. She could not take it any longer.

While explaining the feelings and concern she was having, tears flowed from her eyes. I prayed silently while listening. Then a revelation. It was my fault. All of it. I was the one that miscalculated the taxes and I was the one that left my job for extra money. Everything that is occurring at that moment was a culmination of my past actions. Thus my only response was, “I am sorry, this is all my fault.”

Not long after the revelation, my year of 1099 income came to a head. Earning just enough to barely pay the bills, the quarterly taxes had not been paid. This time the tax bill was larger than before and the all the work due to clients was late. In short, there was no income to pay it.

The same evening of getting the news from our accountant, my wife and I sat down to discuss our financial hell. The only conclusion we had was to sell the house and rent something very inexpensive. I hated it. It ate at my pride and my self-worth. However, it had to be done.

During the same time, I was coming to the realization that my consulting business was quickly becoming a disaster. Therefore, my focus became more on finding employment and less on making deliverables.

This did not mean clients were ignored. I struggled to complete the work in the midst of selling a home and interviewing several times a week. To help, I hired a Software Engineer who was recently laid off from work. The word hired here is used rather loosely. I begged this man to help me complete the work, offering to split all remaining monies due equally.

At first, this was promising. We split up the work and started completing tasks. However, it turns out, he was contacting the clients directly and working to take the accounts for himself. Too tired to deal with it, I did not fight and relieved myself of the burden. All without pay.

This meant more time to devout to finding employment. As my pride had been destroyed by the chain of events, I was calling every professional contact and asking if they had open positions. No one did and all were surprised I was looking. “If they only knew,” I thought.

With no job in sight, we had an offer on the home. It was not great, but would be enough to get us out of the financial hole. However, we would need to find a place to live.

Looking at condominiums to rent, we found one just a few miles from our house. It was half the size of our current home and had not been updated in years. The appliances were older, the carpets stained, and none of the amenities we had grown accustomed to. However, the price was low and the location was convient.

One evening shortly after singing the lease for the condo, my family went to the park behind our house. My wife walked around the gravel trail alone while I watched my youngest son swing. Feeling my phone ring from my pocket, I pulled it near to see a number I did not recognize.

“Hello”, I said, curious as to who was calling. “Is this Todd,” the voice asked. “It is,” I confirmed. “This is Pete Peranzo, CEO of Imaginovation” the caller explained. Trying to place the name and the company I paused. “Is this a good time to talk,” he asked. That is when things changed.

No longer concerned about saying the right thing or what type of job was available, I accepted a 7:30am interview the very next day. And that is how I became the Director of Engineering for Imaginovation.

It was strange in that a few days after I accepted the position with Imaginovation, two other companies offered me second interviews. One for a senior management position and the other for a very highly paid senior developer. Both were politely declined.

Today, my wife and I are still together. We no longer fight about money. Instead, we take walks and go on dates. Professionally, I am getting invited to speak on Artificial Intelligence and becoming well respected in the Financial Technology community.