This Was the Biggest Mistake I Ever Made Running My Small Business

Gene Marks

I started my company way back in 1994. Think about that. Bill Clinton was President. Pulp Fiction had just come out. Harry Styles was born that year. Richard Nixon died that year. The Channel Tunnel was completed. Yeah, it was a long time ago. Yet, here I still am, 23 years later, running this business. I’ve made my share of mistakes. But one really sticks out. It’s something I will never forget. It happened in 1997. I lied to a client. Really, really lied.

His name was also Bill. He ran a business that cut, wound, dyed and re-wound fabrics onto rolls which were then sold to clothing manufacturers and others in the textile industry. In 1997, I was 32 and he was about twenty years older than me.

Bill was a very nice man. But he was also the most persnickety, detailed-oriented person I’d ever met. The guy knew every dollar that went through his company, from the cost of the coffee in the employee breakroom to a yard of cotton. Bill relied on an accounting system that my company had installed. But he needed more than that.

One day, Bill called me to ask whether I was interested in doing a “special project” for him. He wanted me to export a bunch of data from the accounting system and create a very detailed spreadsheet of costs for every job that went through his factory that quarter. He wanted to know exactly which jobs were profitable and which ones were not. I quoted him a fixed fee and he accepted. And so began a very important lesson that I started learning that day. I learned that although I was an accountant, I wasn’t really a great accountant. More importantly, I learned not to lie.

That I was not a good accountant became quickly evident when, a couple of weeks after I’d finished the project, I got a call from Bill. “Gene,” he squeaked (that’s how he talked – squeaking.) “I’m no accountant, but I’ve got some questions about your numbers. Some of these just don’t make sense.”

He pointed out a few things to me that seemed odd. I double-checked and, lo and behold, he was right. I had made a mistake. Actually, lots of mistakes. Bad formulas. Transposed numbers. Poorly imported data. It was a mess. In short, I did a rushed, terrible job.

So did I do the right thing and admit my fault?  Heck no!

This was a fixed price project, my company was still relatively young and cash starved and the job would turn into a big money loser if I had to go back and do the work over again. So I told Bill I’d “look into it.”

For the next few weeks, Bill tortured me. These were the days before email. So he left me messages – long-winded, squeaky-voiced missives that asked question after question. He was always very polite, very professional. He never accused or pointed fingers. But just by the nature of his questions, I could tell he knew my work was shoddy. “I’m no accountant, Gene, but this cost figure doesn’t add up to me,” he would say. Every day, it was something different. And the message always started the same: “Now Gene, I’m no accountant….”

Those two weeks were horrible. I cringed when our receptionist said, “Gene, Bill’s on the line for you,” or I got a voicemail that said “Hi Gene, it’s Bill.”

I lied to Bill. I told him the numbers were fine. I ignored his messages. I made up explanations. I hid the facts. I did everything I could not to admit fault and be forced to do it all over again.

You’ve probably figured out the end of this story. One day, the phone stopped ringing. Bill went away. Forever. I had taken this nice man’s money and delivered him a lousy product. I never owned up and I never returned payment. I vowed never again to go through that experience. And I never have. I still make lots and lots of mistakes. But I own up to them, like a grown-up. It’s just not worth it.

This year is the 20th anniversary of that nightmare episode with Bill. I haven’t seen or talked to him since. But I’ll always remember him.

Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast. You can also submit a question for Gene to answer on the podcast or leave a comment below.

40 Responses to "This Was the Biggest Mistake I Ever Made Running My Small Business"
    • J. Marie | September 24, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      As an Entrepreneur in the Story-Telling business, the comments to this story overwhelming represents 2 things:
      1. The fact that no matter what we do, we all want a reasonable resolution to a story; whether fiction or non-fiction, if the resolution does not feel authentic, then the story does not resonate as expected.

      2. Sure honesty is always the best policy, but we all make mistakes. How we rectify the mistake shows our authenticity…I’m in their camp: Call Bill/his family, apologize to him and give him his money…it is never too late to make amends-I think both of you will feel better.

      • Hannah Sullivan | September 25, 2018 at 2:21 pm

        Thank you for your feedback.

    • Madelyn C | August 22, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      Sooooo, did you pay him back? Or his family if he has passed. Maybe with interest. It is never too late to admit mistakes and show remorse. I lied to a client once, trying to protect my employer. I have always regretted it, and my employer did not thank me.

    • Karen | August 20, 2018 at 9:23 am

      Give it to his family since he owned it and new owners have no vestment in it. It would mean a lot more to them and would be the rightful owners as he spent much time and effort having to find the errors and pay for them to be fixed.

    • Phil | August 18, 2018 at 11:19 am

      Don’t send it to the new owners of the company. They have no vested interest in the circumstances of the past. I would also not donate it to charity. A donation to charity is now intended to absolve you of whatever guilt or remorse you feel and that is not the point of this exercise.

      I think you should pay it forward. Use the money to help a young entrepreneur or struggling business but make sure you pass this story on to them. I would also help them to learn those same skills that made Bill’s business a success.

      If you don’t like that suggestion, let me know and I will send you my address and you can make the check payable to me.

    • Stan | August 16, 2018 at 1:28 pm

      I think we’ve all made similar mistakes in the past professionally (and/or personally) and over-promised/under-delivered. And someone has done the same to us. None of it is OK. Like you wrote – we live and learn. If one focuses too much on trying to change the past, you lose sight on working to be a better future self. RIP Bill.

    • S.A.M. | August 16, 2018 at 8:54 am

      It’s a shame you didn’t give Bill the courtesy of a refund and an apology long ago. Thank you for attempting to look him up to do so. We all learned something from your story – so you did well 🙂

    • John Baldwin | August 15, 2018 at 10:24 pm

      Yes, at least a contribution to a charity in his name. If you’re brave, contact the current management of the company, if you did the work for his company and billed them, not him. Tell your story. Tell them you want to make amends.

      They may blow you off. They may laugh at you. They may say, “oh, that’s water under the bridge and was before our time.”

      If they say something like, “well, we never used that system (it was worthless), but we’ll accept you building XYZ for us,” then, if it’s of comparable value, do it. As a business owner, I can think of few things that would impress me more — and personally, I’d be inclined to recommend that person’s work to anyone who would listen.

      But don’t do it for the positive feedback. You may not receive any.
      Do it for the ability to honestly say to yourself: “My integrity is rock solid intact.”

    • Gene Marks | August 15, 2018 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks everyone for your comments. The best part of what I wrote wasn’t what I wrote. It’s what you wrote in the comments.

      I did some digging. Bill – the owner of the firm – passed away three years ago. His company was sold in 2006.

      Maybe a contribution to a charity in his name?

    • John | August 15, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      Gene, Your second mistake was airing what happened in private in a public forum. Folks are quick to judge and tell you what to do, but would they follow their own advise.

    • Linda | August 15, 2018 at 1:18 pm

      Gene, I am very DISAPPOINTED in you! The lessons you intended to teach are valuable. However, your story is missing a HUGE COMPONENT. You never confessed to the original VICTIM or offered restitution!!!. To lie purposely AND not make restitution reveal a lack of character and integrity!
      I pray that you contact Bill, confess to him and make restitution.

    • Ginny | August 15, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      Incredible messge!

    • Susan STL | August 15, 2018 at 12:08 pm

      I agree with another commentor… in burning that bridge, you caused damage to your reputation – much of which you may not even be aware of… If you remember it so vividly, I’m guessing your customer does as well … who knows how many times over the past 20-years he’s told the story of the non-accountant who delivered a shoddy product, took his money and then refused his calls? Imagine his frustration. Even in big cities, industry and business networks are “small” and our integrity is as important as our product or service. I agree with others, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Post an update, let us know the outcome. Thank you for sharing.

    • Christie | August 15, 2018 at 11:46 am

      At my previous job, there was a sign that stated if you make a mistake, own up to it and the customer will likely respect you. (and realize we are all just human) Just this morning, that happened here– a vendor called and profusely apologized for not sending a FedEx package when expected. Of course, you extend grace as you’ll likely be the one who will need it next time.

    • MARK L JOHNSON | August 15, 2018 at 11:09 am

      I bet when you decided to tell this story you didn’t expect the response most of the readers gave you. I would be interested in hearing your response to those comments.

    • Jade Robinson | August 15, 2018 at 11:08 am

      Thank you for sharing! I agree with the others, you are fortunate enough to be in a position to make that right. Or at least attempt to. Great life lesson and lesson in business and ethics.

    • Stephen Johnson | August 15, 2018 at 10:00 am

      I’m an accountant. I work by the hour, period. Too many contingencies exist that cannot be seen at the outset, especially when dealing with others’ data. The lesson: never, never, never accept a fixed rate job- never.

    • 118GROUP | August 15, 2018 at 9:35 am

      It’s easy to say “stick with what you are good at”… but as a cash starved young business, not everyone knows what that is right off the bat. Great article.

    • Dr. Joe | August 15, 2018 at 9:19 am

      One thing that should be noted is it didn’t just cost you future buisness with Bill. He told a minimum of 10 associates how bad and dishonest you were. If he was as good a buisnessman as you say, they believed him.

    • Jo | August 15, 2018 at 9:19 am

      Gene… You need to make things right. As everyone has said, your job is not complete. It is never too late to make things right.

    • Jason Maximovich | August 15, 2018 at 8:47 am

      I just celebrated my 10th anniversary being self-employed. My company has grown, encountered hardships, struggled, typical business stuff. I spent time prior to becoming self-employed and I laid out core tenants to follow, never to be deviated from. They are and I still adhere to them to this day: Be Honest, Be Ethical, Be Moral, Be Prompt, Be proactive, Listen to the Client, Listen to their Employees, Think outside the Box, Teamwork Wins & Do not be a Hero. What you should have done was leveled with Bill and fixed the issue. If that would have put you out of business, tough, but at the end of the day, you cheated and lied to someone that trusted you. You are the reason that companies create payment policies based upon a working product because if they pay you in full and you have already spent the money, you either become a pay Peter to pay Paul type of company or ignore the customer, a customer that by the way per your story, was probably very willing to work with you because he was already out the money and he needed what you did to work.

    • Suraj | August 15, 2018 at 8:18 am

      I have a salesman and my instructions to him are that he should be looking for the interest of the customers. If he finds flaws in what we do, he should protect the customers and do not sell the customers our flawed offerings.

    • Charles Felix Wysong, Jr. | August 15, 2018 at 8:08 am

      We have taken the Ten Commandments as the foundation to our business operations. It is broader than lying (Thou shalt not bear false witness.) it would also include stealing. I would agree with Ms Williams post that forgiveness and restitution would seem fitting. It would mean so much to you, and certainly Bill or his descendants.

    • Theresa Dowdy | August 15, 2018 at 7:40 am

      I was left with a sense of “what’s the purpose” of this short story until I read the comments. There is no lesson here unless there is a meaningful conclusion. If you have the chance to give the money back and you don’t then you have not learned anything….

    • Deb Hazama | August 15, 2018 at 7:13 am

      Gene & SBA – I have read this article twice now … once last year when first published and again now … and both times, I am left with a ‘bad taste’.

      The story is a good one, a real one; a story that many of us small business owners or leaders within companies have experienced one side or the other.

      The ‘bad taste’ comes from Gene not doing whatever he could to correct the situation, even now – years later. Gene ‘learned’ his lesson, yet his client was never made whole. Nothing in the story provides the reader with advice, suggestions, or ‘steps’ to make Gene’s client whole.

      I am with the others who have commented … set the record straight; complete the learning; make your client ‘whole’, even now.

    • Gregory | August 15, 2018 at 1:18 am

      Give Bill his money back, apologize, let him know that you learned from your mistake, and move on, regardless of what he does with the money. If Bill doesn’t want the money, donate it to his favorite charity.

    • Jeff | August 14, 2018 at 11:44 pm

      Why do these “advice” articles have to be so long-winded? I’m a small biz owner. I have about 90 seconds of free time/day, and I just wasted it reading this. The whole article could be summed up in two sentences. Do not let your ego make commitments you cannot meet. But if you do, then figure out a way to make amends. BTW: these are obvious facts.

    • Erik Otto | August 14, 2018 at 11:23 pm

      Now Gene, I’m no therapist, but I think you should track Bill down and give him a call.

    • Roberta | August 14, 2018 at 10:30 pm

      I would take it further than other commenters. You owe that client a refund, not just an apology.

    • Mike Mags | August 14, 2018 at 10:21 pm

      Karen, you are absolutely correct. I’ve been in the Plumbing business for 20 years and remember taking jobs that I shouldn’t have. It took some time to gain the confidence and have faith that there is another job right around the corner that’s a better fit. When first starting in any business, slow times make you nervous , and at the time, any job is a good job just to keep the bills paid and money flowing. Sometimes you would take 2 steps backwards with out even realizing it. Do what you do best and keep some capital aside for those slow times. A day with no work is better than a day working hard for nothing.

    • Becky | August 14, 2018 at 9:51 pm

      I was captured by your story but the end was quite different than I anticipated. Great, you learned not to lie. But have you learned how to make things right? I think the better lesson would be to return the money if it wasn’t earned. I’m not trying to be mean or harsh, I’m just saying there’s no character built from learning a lesson, but from making a wrong right.

    • We have all had these very painful lessons...Let yourself off the hook and most importantly listen to Ms Williams. You absolutely must fess up to Bill or his successors. Then you can move forward with a valuable lesson learned! | August 14, 2018 at 7:16 pm

      The painful lessons are the ones that change your methods

    • Bonnie Harvey | August 14, 2018 at 6:41 pm

      “Never waste a perfectly good mistake” is my motto. You learned from it, and shared it with others in the hope that they will not make the same mistake, but you did not confess and make amends. You are not done yet, Gene.

    • Eric M | August 14, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      This is a lesson of justice. There is still time to make up for that mistake by being sorry and paying Bill back what was due him. I was, for several years, a sloppy worker. I have learned my lesson since then. I try to practice the virtue of justice at work every single day of my life at my current job. How I wish I could make up with my previous employers but I can’t. In your case, I believe you still can.

    • Karen | October 14, 2017 at 6:22 pm

      I work with small business owners, start ups, and generational businesses. They all make mistakes! I am sure you knew that by not servicing or adjusting that sheet you would loose the client.
      Sometime we take on jobs knowing they are not a good fit for us. Yet,cash flow and time are both stagnant so we do it anyway in hopes to fill the gap thou ending just as yours did.

      The real business lesson is to Not Take those Jobs, Stick to What Works Best, and ride out the lean times canvassing a little harder for right work.
      Thank you for sharing!

      Karen Catalano

    • CBF | October 10, 2017 at 4:18 pm

      Good story…but the real lesson is found in the comments section! Larry, Joe & Ms Williams are absolutely correct!

    • Ms Williams | October 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      You have not fully learned your lesson until you contact him, express remorse and own your mistake and help him understand what he taught you. Learning is only complete when the circle meets where it started. He deserves the satisfaction of being right. If he is not around, his successors will appreciate the story.

    • Joe Black, Sr. | October 10, 2017 at 2:21 pm

      Larry is Right. Now do the Right thing and repent to Bill. He may not accept it, but your conscience will be clear. My motto in life has been “No Regrets.” Regrets turn into worse things like bitterness. God, gave us a conscience for two reasons, one, so we know and two, so we will repent. Take care of your conscience, Bill has to take care of his.

    • Larry Hanrahan | October 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm

      There is still time to pay him back…

    • Tina | October 10, 2017 at 10:59 am

      Great story, and a lesson we have all had to figure out on our own.
      Owning mistakes is hard to do when you put your heart and soul into something.

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