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.

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