Success, Euphoria, and a Very Bad Decision

How I ruined everything just when I had it made

When I was 19, I admitted my first major defeat. Two years earlier I’d opened — and subsequently closed — a small grocery store. I’d burned through an inheritance of $18,000 and put myself equally far in debt. Things got so bad, the woman I was dating had to pick me up from the police station when my car was impounded while I was driving to see her. Later, I was arrested during a job interview when a warrant for my arrest surfaced in a background check.

After the grocery store closed, it took eight years to regain my footing. During that time, I started the VGKids print shop. We were self-financed and always about to run out of money. We were in technical bankruptcy the whole time and I didn’t even know it — running that close to broke was the only thing I knew.

And so I was caught by surprise when we suddenly had enough money. We could pay our bills when they were due, instead of after service had been shutoff. Payroll wasn’t a burden I dreaded anymore. I didn’t have to plead with vendors to keep sending us product. Things just flowed.

It lasted two months before I ruined everything.

I felt like I’d just unlocked the secret to success. I had an urgent, internal pressure to make the most of the opportunity. In my mind, it was irresponsible not to grow as fast as we could. And, let’s be honest, my ego wanted the business to grow.

I opened a storefront across town, and we made the investment back in three weeks. Bolstered by this success, I opened a new factory across the country: VGKids West. I lost more money in the next six months than I’d ever seen before.

As I’ve learned since, it’s a thing that happens. You work hard in the beginning, pushing your boulder up the hill. When it starts to get easier, it feels like you mastered whatever it was that was holding you back. Armed with that skill and extra cash for the first time, you feel like you can do anything you set your mind to. You feel invincible. It’s euphoric.

What actually happened was three things:

  1. We had grown the business to a point where we could afford our fixed costs like rent, equipment leases, and salaries.
  2. We had an unusually dedicated team that operated profitably despite major process flaws.
  3. It was mid-2007, and the economy was booming.

As VGKids West opened, all three of those conditions evaporated. The new fixed costs were too much to carry. The team felt abused that we were expanding instead of fixing issues they suffered through daily. And as if on cue, the economy fell off a cliff right when we were over-extended.

VGKids survived, but the new factory did not. It took us another two years to get solvent again.

I’m coining this phenomenon Success Panic. Upon arrival at a positive plateau, we feel pressured to act bolder than previously to take advantage of what feels like a once-in-a-lifetime moment. We change our focus from what made us successful in the first place, and everything falls apart.

My message to my former self? Chill. Out. Ride the wave and stockpile some cash. If you’re in as good a position as you think you are, you’ll be able to invest out of those reserves. If you aren’t in as good of a position as you thought, it’s a damn good thing you learned that now. Now, instead of after putting the deposit down on your next big disaster.

I married the girl that picked me up from jail, and I got the job I was arrested interviewing for. I still don’t exactly know how I pulled that off, but I do know we all get lucky sometimes.