Rolling with the Punches

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In talking to other founders and CEOs of fast moving companies, you quickly understand that rapid growth is often caused by the luck of being at the right place at the right time. Many successful entrepreneurs share an ability to seize opportunity when and where it presents itself, even if it comes in a way that was not part of their original plan.

I first realized that seizing opportunities was paramount to being a business owner when I sought to purchase my first business. After I had spent several months trying to strike a deal using traditional venture fundraising and business planning, my plans crashed, and I embarked on a journey that would be completely different than what I had anticipated.

In the Beginning
Before AnswerNet Network’s (www.answernet.com) inception, my journey to business ownership began with weekly breakfast meetings with a friend of mine to discuss start-up ideas a year before my first transaction crashed. Like many entrepreneurs, I was in a job that just didn’t fit me right—I was vice president and general counsel for a specialty real estate leasing company—and I knew that I wanted to work for someone I really liked and respected: me!

In early January of 1998, I had executed a term sheet to buy a business in the functional music business, which wasn’t a huge stretch for me since I had run a similar business, Muzak in Washington, D.C., for five and a half years. Within a week of signing the term sheet and separating from my job, the transaction fell through. The seller had claimed to have a special contract with his primary supplier that would guarantee certain revenues even if the business failed to meet specific criteria. On the day we started due diligence, we discovered this wasn’t the case: The seller had failed to meet the criteria and had only been paid a small percentage of the projected revenue.

Thus, by mid January, I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and no job or company. At that point, my wife and I agreed that I would work on starting my business through the end of July 1998. If not successful, I would become an employee again. But until then, my focus would be starting my own business. With the first transaction dead, I went back to my list of things I wanted and didn’t want in a business. Primarily, my goal was to run any kind of business and have some ownership stake in the enterprise. I hit the Internet businesses-for-sale websites to search for another opportunity, and within two weeks I was actively working on raising capital to acquire my first telephone answering service business. We started due diligence and fund raising in late March. In addition to finalizing the business plan and meeting with potential investors, I also started learning everything I could about the telephone answering service industry.

One of the most important things I did was read the trade publications related to the industry. In a spring edition of a leading industry publication was an article about an established owner of multiple answering services, Bill Robertshaw, who liked entrepreneurial people and situations. What’s more, his office was right around the corner from the headquarters of the company I was trying to acquire.

I had my investment banker set up a meeting with Bill and the two of us hit it off like old friends. We talked about running multiple locations and how to ensure each one ran profitably. In fact, we talked about all aspects of running and building businesses.

Over the next three months, I had completed raising the $2 million I needed for my first transaction. At the same time, I met with Bill again. I attempted to convince him to invest in my transaction. It was the classic venture capital pitch: You give me most of the money, and I’ll give you very little of the company. He said no thank you, but he also told me to call him when I finished the transaction to see if there was some way we might be able to work together.

As July rolled around, we began the home stretch on due diligence. I was also very cognizant of my promise to my wife that we would be up and running by August 1. At the end of the second week of July, the accountant completed the due diligence report, and the results were not what we had hoped for. Though the company was clearly profitable, the seller’s accounting was a bit fuzzy, and we couldn’t prove out the numbers to investors. No one was going to fund the business based on what we were able to show. So once again, my dream of being my own boss using other people’s money fell through.

Changing Directions
My accountant then suggested I call Bill again. I called Bill, told him my transaction was on its last legs and asked him if he had something we could work on together. We agreed to meet the following week. I arrived at his office late in the day, and I explained to him what happened. We talked about how the transaction was going to be funded and how much—actually how little—of my own funds I was willing to invest.

At that point, he asked me if I would prefer to purchase half of one of his companies and form a partnership with he and his family. After talking about some opportunities he could offer, we settled on an Allentown, Penn., opportunity, Tel-A-Talk TAS, Inc., an answering service business. We agreed to exchange information and meet again that Saturday to see if we could put a deal together ourselves. The following day he faxed me the financials of this business, and I spent most of Friday reviewing the financials and talking to my advisers. Saturday arrived and I told my wife that I was going to do this transaction if the price was right. It was now July 25, and I was going to keep my promise of being in business by August 1. Bill and I met at his office, and after some quick small talk we agreed on a price. When he told me how much he wanted I said, “That’s a high price.” He responded, “That’s your price of admission.”

We agreed that Bill’s family would sell the Tel-A-Talk assets to AnswerNet, Inc., which I had incorporated before my previous deal fell through. AnswerNet issued the Robertshaws an amount of stock equal to what I had. I gave them a personal check for my life savings (three times what I originally had planned to invest) and a note for more in exchange for them giving AnswerNet the assets of Tel-A-Talk. This provided Tel-A-Talk with assets and a clean balance sheet with no debt (the debt was all personal). We handwrote the agreement on two pages of lined yellow paper and, effective midnight on the following Monday, I was the co-owner and president of AnswerNet. Monday’s date was July 27, 1998, just four days before my August 1, deadline.

From There to Here
Realizing my dream of business ownership certainly wasn’t a smooth process. It taught me that sometimes, in order to get what you want, you have to change your idea of what you want and how to get it. For me, my perception of how I would ultimately fund and own a business had to change dramatically. Funding the business through a traditional venture capital setup—complete with an investor-worthy business plan and frequent meetings with hungry venture capitalists—wasn’t in the cards. Instead, I had to invest my life’s savings to purchase a business.

Today, the willingness to remain flexible and open to possibilities has fueled the growth that has allowed us to achieve Inc. 500 status on three separate occasions. Whether it is being open to new acquisitions (we now have over 50 companies in our network) or being willing to push ourselves to deliver our services in new and unique ways, the spirit of flexibility and seizing opportunity is inextricably woven into the personality of this company.

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