My Story – 2003 to June 2009

by John Horning

Okay – I thought it was time to tell my story – well not all of it, but some of the highlights (and low-lights) from the past several years.  I am not including a lot of  details about my divorce or my love life since the divorce.   I’ll save that for another time and place.

Let’s start in 2003.  I had a successful telephone business – Acction Communications (the company was actually started in 1993 as Akron Canton Connection – maybe I’ll write more about that sometime, here’s an article that was published in a business magazine about me some time ago).  Anyway, I was happy with my career, but there was deep trouble in my marriage.  We had been in counseling on and off since 1996 (or was it 1995).  I had been thinking about moving out for at least 3 or 4 years.  We began openly talking about a separation in 2003, but it took me about 6 months to actually do it.  This was partially due to the time required to find and close on a house.  I was able to pay cash for a fairly nice house that was just a couple miles away.  The official move took place on Christmas day – not a happy day.

Being away from my children was the worst part of separation.  I remember a moment when I had a near panic attack when I realized what I was doing.  But the loneliness and depression resulting from separation were only the beginning. It would get a lot worse.

Looking back, 2004 was actually a good year.  I had plenty of time and money.  The business grossed over $2,000,000 – the best ever.  I was able to do some things with my children that were a lot of fun.  In March, I took Andrew and Emily to Salt Fork State Park for a couple days.  We stayed in the lodge, and rented a motor-boat to scoot around in on the lake.  In June, I took Emily to Tennessee to visit Mary and her family for a few days.  That was a lot of fun, too.  Then at the end of July, Andrew, Emily, and I drove to Idaho to visit my oldest daughter, Sarah, at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.  That trip lasted about a week and a half and we were able to see a number of things including Salt Lake, Mt. Rushmore, and we visited some of Therese’s family in Iowa.  Wall Drug was something we happened to run into that I found particularly interesting.  These trips were somewhat empty because it only included part of my family, but still, it was more than we had done during most years prior to that.

The divorce was moving along very slowly – too slowly.  In early 2005, I became convinced that we had to sell the business for a couple of reasons.  One was that there was a ruling by the FCC that was going to result in a large increase in our costs in early 2006.  The other issue was that of dividing assets for the divorce.  I didn’t really see how we could do it without selling the business.  There was another reason as well – I was getting burned out.  I had often felt I had no business being in the telephone business.   I never felt I was really on top of it, and was constantly worried about being put out of business – either due to excessive competition, high cost, or governmental regulation.  We had survived a number of scares over the years, and had even thrived, but I was ready for a change.

I began investigating some new business opportunities.  I spent a fair amount of time and money investigating the possibility of building a hotel in Hartville, and was finally advised by a consultant that it probably wouldn’t work.  I had always felt that it would be a good idea to own income property so I contacted realtor, Glenn Appel, about purchasing an apartment building or office building.  Instead, he steered me into a condominium project and developer, Dale Jones.  The project looked very promising so I agreed to invest $150,000.

The condo project wouldn’t provide steady income nor would it take up my time, so I looked for something else to help with those issues.  I’m not sure why, but I found the idea of owning a shipping and copy store intriguing.  I investigated franchises, but settled on hiring a consultant who helped people set up “business centers”.  There seemed to be so many ways to make money, I figured I couldn’t lose, and there were no franchise or national advertising fees so I felt this was a wise move.  I even considered opening two stores, thinking I would have assistant managers at each location, while I just paid regular visits and managed the whole operation.  Eventually I decided I’d better just start with one.

For a while, I thought maybe two businesses was not enough and considered getting involved in a log home business, which would involve building and living in a log home, and being a sales agent at the same time.  Eventually I decided that wasn’t for me although it sounded like a fun idea.

My share of the condo project was supposed to be worth over $500,000 within 3 years, and the store was projected to be profitable the first year.  I felt these were both safe investments.  Little did I know what I was in for.

We had a fire due to lightening at Acction Communications in early June, 2005.  At first the damage appeared to be minor, but then the fire department decided they needed to turn power off in the building – and couldn’t tell me when it would be restored.  I almost panicked, but then realized we could go on if we could simply divert calls to a new location that also had Internet access.  Fortunately, we already had negotiated a deal with First Communications to sell the business to them.  I made a quick call, and they offered to provide a room in their building for us.  We were able to move essential equipment to the new location the very same day.  Some employees were able to work from home while others worked at the First Comm office in Fairlawn.

I signed a 5 year lease for the store on my birthday (Aug. 2nd) 2005, and that seems to be when things started going down hill.  I didn’t have enough money to get into both of these businesses without borrowing so the first thing I did was put a mortgage on my house.  Then I thought I could get a small business loan for the store, but found out I couldn’t qualify because of inadequate income.  However, after looking at how much money I could borrow with credit cards, I plowed forward anyway.  That was the beginning of a disaster.

After some delays, the store opened in November, 2005.  It wasn’t long before I wondered what I was thinking when I decided to start this business.  I didn’t enjoy being a clerk.  I knew that going in, but was hoping we’d be busy enough that I wouldn’t have to be on the front lines.  But we weren’t busy.  Things did pick up as Christmas drew near, but I was finding we were doing too many things for free or at least not charging enough.  January was very slow.  In February, I gave serious thought to closing down, but decided I shouldn’t bail that quickly.  I figured I could put something like $150,000 on credit cards, if necessary.  Plus I had over $50,000 in my IRA.  The money drain was sickening – nearly $4000/month on average, but I was like a drunken sailor and didn’t feel I had much of a choice – I was already so far into debt, what was a few more thousand dollars?

Even though I couldn’t afford it, I needed to hire some help.  I found Jim who had previously owned a printing company.  His knowledge was invaluable.  Later, I hired Becky, who was excellent with customers, a quick learner and full of ideas.  I relied on her a lot.

One of the reasons I wanted a store was because I thought the marketing would be relatively simple.  Sales and marketing are the things I’ve always dreaded as a small business owner.  If you have an attractive and visible  store-front, customers will find you, right?  They did, but it was just a trickle.  I tried handing out flyers to businesses up and down the street.  I joined the Chamber and started attending Chamber and other networking meetings.  I also had them distribute flyers to members.  I did a direct mailing to all residents in the area.  Nothing seemed to work, and I was about to have a nervous breakdown.

By the end of June, I was really ready to bail, but found relief in Rick Mirenzi, one of my customers.  He had owned a couple of similar stores in the past, and was an excellent salesman with a lot of energy.  He agreed to take over the store, stopping my losses or least most of them.  He took over at the end of July (2006) and was full of ideas.  For a while he looked like my savior, but by the end of the year, he too gave up, having lost over $15,000.  Sadly, I had to close the store for good and begin the process of liquidating the stock and fixtures.

I got some more relief in August 2006, when Ladd Kopp hired me to do some technical writing for one of his clients.  More about that later.

Meanwhile, the condo project was moving along, although there were endless delays.  I figured that even with large losses incurred by the store, I would be okay because of the condo project.  But the money for the project was running out.  The first unit was completed in the Fall of 2006 (don’t remember exactly when, but it was several months behind schedule).  The money had run out at the same time – actually I believe a couple contactors had not gotten paid.  But at least we had something to sell – things were going to start looking up, so I thought.  Our realtor and my partner tried unsuccessfully to sell the unit over the next several months.  It was a bad time of year; the housing market was not doing well, and no one wanted to be the first to purchase a unit (there were 23 duplexes planned).  But, without a sale, we didn’t have the cash to build the next unit.  The stage was set for failure.

Dale asked me if I knew of anyone who could invest some money into the project to keep it moving.  I came up with my nephew Ed and his partner, my friend David Eid, and Rick Mirenzi who was also helping with the store.  Dale had his own contacts.  But we couldn’t come up with a partner.  Gradually it became clear that the condo project was not going to save me.  At the time of this writing, Dale has worked with numerous prospective partners and potential buyers – all without success.  The unit we completed over 2 1/2 years ago still sits vacant (in fact I have never even seen it! – it’s in Salem).  We are now awaiting a sheriff’s sale forced by the county to cover back taxes.

I was finally forced to file bankruptcy in Feb. 2008.   I was, and still am, hoping to keep my house.

I tried various ways of getting back on my feet.  I went through cycles of seeking employment, getting discouraged, then focusing on self-employment.

I forgot to mention that in the Fall of 2006, I was asked to partner with a woman who was trying to get a call center off the ground.  At first I felt that this was going to be my ticket to success.  At this point, I was desperate.  I was deeply in debt, but still had more resources – I could put a second mortgage on my house – I wanted to get into something profitable before my lines of credit were gone.  Melissa Mussina was an excellent telemarketer.  She just didn’t have much business sense.  I thought I could partner with her and make it work.  She just needed a few hundred dollars here and there to make payroll, so she said.  She had an office in Canton, and lots of clients.  The only problem was, the more clients she had, the more money she lost.  I tried to find other ways we could use her telemarketers, including selling home security systems.  For a while I thought that could work, but ran into various problems.  I quit after about 3 months, having lost over $30,000, although it took several more months to disentangle myself from Melissa.  She wrote bad checks that I was forced to cover since my name was on the account.  It was a scary time.  After that, I vowed to stop the crazy spending.

During all of this, I was plagued with depression.  I was mourning the loss of my former businesses.  In addition to the loss of the telephone business, I had given up the office building to Therese in the divorce.  I had constant reminders of what I had given up in my basement where much of the old records were stored.  I wondered how I could have been so stupid.  I had lost my marriage, my business, and my whole career with it.  I often felt I had no value to anyone, but I kept going anyway.

As I said, I periodically looked for a real job, but without success.  The poor economy, my lack of well-defined skills, and my age seemed to combine against me.  My resume didn’t help.  All I knew was small business ownership, which didn’t seem to match up with the needs of employers.  I had held executive positions, but they were all in very small companies.  My technical skills were mediocre, to my dismay and sadness.

The job that Ladd Kopp gave me started out part-time in August 2007, but there didn’t seem to be more than a few hours of work a week, and could be done from home.  I also took a part-time job managing a vacant apartment building that was undergoing renovation for an owner in Utah, but the pay was negligible.  By the end of 2007, I was desperate to find something else.  In the newspaper I noted an ad for workers at a plastics company in Hartville.  I walked in and was hired on the spot for $7/hr.  That offered a small relief, but I couldn’t live off of it.

After a week or so I had an idea.  Ladd had been telling me all along that I was authorized to work 40 hours a week even though there didn’t seem to be any work.  I decided to force the issue by asking him if I could start coming into his new office and work 8 hours a day.  He agreed.  Since he was marking up my hourly rate and charging his client, this was good business for him.  Just by being there, he and his client were forced to give me more work.  Before long they decided to have me create database reports that were part of the project.  This was new to me, but they were willing to pay me while I learned so I went to work.  I enjoyed it, too, and worked nearly full-time throughout 2007.  The pay was not enough for me to keep up with my credit card payments, but it was enough to cover my mortgage and other living expenses.  It was a break I sorely needed.

On the side, I was working on an Internet project.  I had been wanting to find a way to make money online since 1997.  I won’t go into everything here, but I blew a large sum (probably around $200,000) during the late 1990’s trying to get a couple projects off the ground without success.  I had money to blow back then.  In early 2007, I started working on a site named Biz-Tips.org.  This was through a company called Site-Sell.  I liked what they offered.  I worked on that project off and on for a year as I recall.  Eventually, however, I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere, and gave up.

In May, 2008, my hours for the Saturn project (Ladd’s client) were cut drastically.  I’m not sure how I managed to keep up with my bills between then and the end of the year, but somehow I limped along for several months.  I also got a short contract job from IVR Systems for work that was very similar to what I had been doing for Saturn.

I may be forgetting some things, but I think my next project was Rivul.com (I should call this Rivul One since I am currently re-using that domain for an unrelated project).  The idea there was to create a site for business associations, like Chambers of Commerce, that would help them get the most out of their membership.  This was a huge undertaking, in retrospect.  I was trying to incorporate “Web 2.0” ideas, that would allow the group members to interact better with each other, and be more efficient at helping them promote their businesses.  I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I was motivated enough to spend a huge number of hours on this throughout the spring and summer of 2008.  I used the Drupal content management system and there was a big learning curve.  I felt that even if I couldn’t make money from Rivul that the skills I developed during that time might help make me more employable.  I literally spent hundreds of hours on this project, often feeling overwhelmed, wondering if I had taken on too much.  I was able to maintain focus on this project just long enough to create a good demo site for the Lake Township Chamber of Commerce.  Perhaps the project could have become a profitable business, but I didn’t know how to market it.  The Lake people showed some interest, but not enough, and the project is dead now.

It seemed that the moment I got the rivul.com project to a point where it was ready to market, I lost interest in it, and I got the idea that I should try to market my “report development” skills.  I reasoned that since I’d had two clients (Saturn and IVR Systems) hire me for this work, there must be more.  So I created ReportGuy.com.  I got Bill Jelen (MrExcel.com) to run a banner ad for me on his site for free, and I experimented with running Google ads to get some leads.  I did get interest from one person, but that didn’t pan out and I lost my nerve with spending money on the advertising so it was on to the next project.

For some time, I had been thinking that an accounting/bookkeeping business was the ideal kind of business for me – recurring income, a lot of potential customers, and after some investigation, I found ways that I felt could offer this service at very affordable prices.  Thus was born Horning Business Services.  I spent a good part of the Fall of 2008 on the website, marketing materials, and putting the system in place.  I tried a few different marketing methods, including sending flyers to chamber members, cold-calling, attending a networking meeting, and hired a telemarketing company to set appointments for me.  I’m probably not nearly as patient as I need to be in order to make a business like this a success, but when I had not customers – in fact no one even willing to meet with me to discuss – I lost interest.

This brought me to the end of 2008, and by now I urgently needed to reduce my expenses.  I could not keep up with my house payments.  It took me a long time to finally take the step of putting my house on the market, but being in the middle of a serious down-turn in the economy, I was not optimistic about getting a reasonable offer.  I listed the house in early November.  In late December, I got a call from someone who wanted to rent the house.  Since I didn’t think I could make enough money on a sale, and because I didn’t really want to sell it anyway, I decided to take them up on their offer, despite the fact that the rent ($1000/mo.) was not enough to cover my mortgage payment.  The renters are Marc and Lorie Cumo.  I moved out at the end of January, and in with my mother.

This has all been a very humbling experience, as you might imagine.  For a time, it seemed like maybe I had finally reached bottom and was now going to move in a positive direction.  I was looking hard of a job and managed to get a few interviews, but never received an offer.  Fortunately, the work from Saturn was still trickling in and I was keeping up with my bills for the first time in a long time.  When my search for work turned up nothing, I repeated what I have done over and over – looked for a way to be self-employed.  Of course, this meant turning to the Internet.  I investigated several options and made some false starts.  I purchased a “Niche Blueprint” from Andy Williams (not the singer lol) and began work on diy-solar-power.net.  I wrote and distributed a couple articles, and even made one sale, but I could see this wasn’t going to work too well.  For one thing, I was trying to make money off of affiliate products that were of low quality.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, make much effort to sell these, but didn’t seem to have an alternative.

I shifted my attention next to selling other affiliate products using Google ads, but this looked too risky.  I purchased a promising-looking product that would show me how to build an online store for niche products.  Once again – not for me – fortunately they were good with offering a refund.  Then I purchased software for building a niche social network site.  This looked like a great product, but I couldn’t see myself marketing this well enough to make money.  I received a refund on that one as well.

Then things changed when I got a call from Ladd one day telling me to stop all work for Saturn.  Evidently they were unhappy about something and did not want to pay for my work.  That threw me into a panic.  I once again went to the job boards.  This time I tried LDSJobs.com where I found several possibilities – one being a job to work for a collection agency locating people who have disappeared.  Something about that sounded interesting even thought the pay was low – and the job was in Utah!  I applied on Saturday, and on Monday received an email from them asking me to come in for an interview the following day!  I told them I didn’t really think that was practical, but then the lady said they also needed someone in IT.  That was enough.  To make a long story short, I was there the next day, but was greatly disappointed that the other job was just imaginary.  I felt pretty foolish.  Of course I had been wanting an excuse to go to Utah for some time – I have few friends there, plus there was this woman I’d met months earlier on one of the singles sites.  Before the visit was over, I had one more job interview, and met with two recruiters, but the net result was zero.

Getting home from that trip was quite an adventure, but I might share that some other time.  While I was out there, I’d been communicating with a company (Elevate Communications) that was looking for people to start sales offices all over the country to sell VoIP telephone service.  This is something that intrigued me.  When I got back here, they told me that training was to start that Saturday, and with not enough thought, but feeling that this was something I couldn’t afford to miss, I decided to return for the training.  Too bad I just didn’t stay out there (lol).  I ended up missing the Saturday meeting, but took in the real training which went the entire following week.

I knew I couldn’t just start up a sales office here in Ohio.  The marketing method was primarily door-to-door sales, which I thought I could handle, but only with a lot of support.  They had an office starting up in MN, run by a guy very familiar with the process and I decided to go there for a month to learn the system.

During all of this, I had also been investigating the possibility of selling my own brand of VoIP.  Alliance Solutions had what appeared to be a great resale program.  After some more soul-searching, and looking at the possible cash flow, I decided to take another chance and skip the Elevate opportunity and try to do my own thing instead.  Check out Rivul.com.

So that’s about where things stand at the moment.  I’ve been investigating various ways to market the product.  I considered trying to work with distributors, but realized I can’t provide the kind of support they would need.  So at this point, I’m planning to create a landing page that primarily sells the referral program, but will also have links for other providers (I’m an affiliate for the other companies so I can receive a commission for those sales as well).

To be continued…

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