20 Years Later: Lessons Learned from My First Business Failure

first business failure

This is a post that’s been 20 years in the making.

20 years ago TODAY (September 17, 2001), I turned the key and locked the door for the very last time on the grocery store that I poured into for two and a half years.

For those that haven’t read the first part, make sure to go back and read the post I wrote a while back called “Tales from the Grocery Store: Part 1”

September 17th, 2001, just 6 days after the world was shocked by the events of 9/11 in the United States, I was dealing with a personal situation, that at the time, seemed catastrophic.

After 2 1/2 years of running a little grocery store, when I was just 21 years old, I was forced to close because I had run out of money.

If I were to be totally honest with myself, I knew this day was coming for quite some time. Actually, about 8 months into owning the store, I knew deep down inside, that things just weren’t sustainable.

But that didn’t stop me from borrowing more and more money, trying to improve the store. I borrowed far too much just to keep going until I couldn’t borrow any more.

No bank manager would lend any more money to me.

I was broke. I was beyond broke.

For about 6 or 8 months leading up to that day, I was losing every single day that I stayed open. I tried all kinds of things to turn it around, but it just wasn’t working.

I stayed opened later. Opened on Sundays. Had my own weekly flyer.

Nothing worked.

Some of it was my doing; My inexperience. And some of it was just the way that it was.

People were transitioning from supporting small local businesses, and Oil Springs was dying.

I don’t want to offend people who still live there – but it’s a seriously dead town.

The bank had closed down a year or 2 before I bought the store. Other stores had closed and it was just a matter of time for mine too.

But I can’t blame it all on external forces because there was just so much that I didn’t know that also contributed to things going the way they did.

I didn’t know much about the grocery business; Actually, I knew NOTHING about the grocery business.

I didn’t know much about cash flow and profit margins.

I didn’t know much about human resources.

I didn’t know much about people.

And most importantly, I didn’t know much about myself.

But, I loved it.

I loved the customers.

I loved the vendors.

I loved the business.

I loved the appearance that I was “successful”.

Getting up at 6:30AM, to be at the store for 7:30AM, 6 days a week was what I had signed up for, and I was okay with that.

At 21 years old, while my friends were having fun in university or college, or they were working in more conventional jobs, I was doing very different things.

Meeting with grocery company reps, dealing with employee issues and meeting with the bank manager occasionally to go over the financials was my new reality.

I got to deal with people calling in sick, wrong products being delivered, cashflow problems, customer problems, leaks in the roof and problems with freezers and coolers…all the time.

Who knew that a compressor on a deli cooler cost so much??? It was constant.

The day the store closed, I was heartbroken but relieved in a sense. A big weight had been lifted off my shoulders…but it wouldn’t be long before even bigger weights were added.

The closing of the store was likely much bigger in the mind of me and my family than it was to anyone else, but I didn’t know that.

And I ran…

I felt like a failure. I felt like all eyes were on me and that everyone was looking at how spectacularly I failed and so I quickly moved to London, Ontario.

Joy and I were dating at the time and she was in university in London. I had met a lot of great people there so it was quite easy for me to just pick up and move.

I shared an apartment with a new friend I had met through one of Joy’s friends and I got a job selling insurance, which was actually the first “real” job I had ever had.

You read that right. I had NEVER worked in a normal job up until that time.

Before that, I was always finding ways to make money. 

The only thing I had done that resembled a real job was working as a contract bookkeeper for an accountant while I was in college.

Getting my mind around working a normal job was difficult, although I still had a pretty flexible schedule, it didn’t last long.

I needed a job that wasn’t commission-based so after about a year of trying out life in London, I moved home to my parent’s basement.

That was a depressing time, to be honest.

It was after I left the store that I realized that I might need a college diploma. You see, I had gone to college for 3 years, but was 1 credit short of the diploma.

My solution – I contacted the Dean at the college, showed him that I had satisfied all the requirements of a 2-year diploma during my 3-year stint, and guess what?

They mailed me a diploma for the 2-year program. Good enough to put on my resume!

Of course, in the midst of the grocery store debacle, I got engaged to Joy.

Then, we got married.

Kind of a big deal.

We settled into a cheap basement apartment in Petrolia. I found a low-paying job. Joy had a minimum wage job. We had so little I still can’t even believe it. Every cent we made went to pay debt and our meagre living expenses.

Some days all we had was Joy’s tip money from working at a coffee shop that would buy us dinner. $2 pre-made grocery store pizzas were dinner many nights.

Of course, our parents both helped out quite a bit – otherwise, we would have been homeless and starving, but we didn’t always tell them the extent of our financial woes.

There were so many times that we would be invited to a family gathering in those early years of marriage, and we were barely able to scrape together $20 for gas to get us there.

My parents in particular were still on the hook for a lot of debt associated with the store. It actually took YEARS for that debt to finally get paid off.

And 6 months after we got married, we moved back to London where I was able to find work that paid better.

Where does the time go?

I won’t bore you with my spotty resume from 2004 until 2011 because of something I learned about myself. I AM NOT A GOOD EMPLOYEE!

It’s not that I’m insubordinate or anything like that.

It’s just that a normal job didn’t allow for creative expression. I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about using skills and knowledge acquired in the past to look at situations differently.

The regular jobs didn’t want that from me. They wanted me to sit in a cubicle for 7.5 hours a day and just do the thing they asked me to do.

It’s just not for me.

In every job I’ve worked, I’ve felt like a prisoner in a jail cell.

So Jonny – How do you make money now?

Since 2011, I’ve owned a small digital marketing agency that I started with one client. Our first business meeting was at 7AM in a Mcdonald’s.

Ever since that time, this has provided my full-time income, but somewhere in there, we also bought a cafe that we ran for a few years. 

The digital agency business has grown consistently over the years and while we’re not rolling in cash, it’s doing pretty well overall.

I’m all about having multiple streams of income, so I do have some other income-producing assets as well that I won’t go into too much detail on right now. And I’m in the process of acquiring others – which I also won’t talk about.

And Joy and I have a little project on the go too, that might turn into something larger.

I like to keep things interesting. 🙂

I could go on and on about the grocery store, but what really matters is what I learned from all of it and how I used that to move on.

So, here are 11 things I learned about life, myself and business in the past 20 years.

  1. Due diligence is important. Just because something looks like a good deal doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. 🙂
  2. I had my priorities wrong. I was in love with money and in love with the idea of having money.  I thought that’s what I needed for people to respect me.
  3. You might be going through something that’s HUGE in your mind. You think because you’re thinking about it 24-7, other people are too – and they’re looking at you or judging you. They are not; People have their own lives and their own concerns to be thinking about.
  4. I’m so glad that social media didn’t exist back then. Looking at everyone’s “wins” on Facebook or Instagram all day long would have been hard. In general, I think Facebook and Instagram are fun entertainment and to keep up with old friends, but you do know that IT’S NOT REAL. Right?
  5. I’m a terrible employee. See above.
  6. Post-secondary education will not teach you how to be successful. Just go there to learn how to think critically and then keep investing in yourself by reading and constantly learning. If you think your learning is done when you finish school, your own success will be limited.
  7. Being self-employed and owning your own business are different things. To go from one to the other, you have to delegate and have competent people to delegate to, and still make a profit.
  8. Being broke doesn’t have to ruin a marriage. I know they say not to marry someone who’s in debt (and if you’re a parent out there with kids close to marriage age, you will hate this advice). Getting married while broke was “fun”. We became very resourceful together and learned how to solve problems together. We made it work and it brought us closer together as a team. I’m not sure how our marriage would look if we just started things off conventionally with money and secure jobs.
  9. Blaming is useless and unhelpful. Don’t blame the economy, your life situation, your spouse, God, your boss or anyone else for where you are today. You can’t control what happens to you, but you CAN control your next steps forward. Take control over the things you have control over and move on. This took me several years to figure out, unfortunately.
  10. I’m not into regrets. Spending too much time looking in the rearview mirror, over-analyzing what went wrong and what you could have done differently can be helpful for a short time. But you have to move on. I don’t regret owning that business because I learned far too much to consider it a regret.
  11. God is faithful. Likely the biggest thing I’ve learned throughout all of this is that the Lord is faithful. When you don’t know how, when or even if you’re going to make your way out of your difficult situation, God knows. He cares and he will walk beside you throughout. You might be waiting for God to pick you up and move you out of your circumstance – and maybe He will. But, while you’re waiting…look for God’s faithfulness.

The irony of singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” during our wedding ceremony is something I still think about from time to time. We chose the song because we liked it and we sort of understood it.

But now, we get it so much more.

At that time, I thought I had come through the most difficult circumstances that I would ever face. And yes, it was difficult.

But harder things have managed to come along since then. Difficult seasons of life have occurred in the past 20 years and yet one thing has remained the same and always will.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  ~ Lamentations 3:22-23


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