For a while, Matt Coffin's last name seemed appropriate. A death knell seemed to ring at his first two businesses. Well, the first, a storage facility that he started running in college in 1988, wasn't truly a failure. He wanted to earn money to put himself through school, and he did; making $20,000 over two years only working part time. But that was a veritable hit compared to his second enterprise, Fashion Reporter, a magazine he launched in 1997 and proudly described as "Entertainment Weekly meets Women's Wear Daily." It lasted nine issues.
"The last six months were an emotional roller coaster," says Coffin, 33, who had spent more than a year in preparation for the first issue. "I kept wondering: Should I shut it down? Should I not? And it put a lot of stress on my relationship with my wife."
Coffin couldn't find interested buyers, so he shut down the magazine, let his employees go and surveyed the mess. His last issue had broken even, but Coffin was just plain broke. He had lost $50,000 on the venture. And so he went to work for a publishing firm and tried to pay off his debts. It was 1998, and, for now, he was through with owning a business. For now.
Not Alone, Part
"I am quite familiar with the flavor of dirt in my mouth, having landed face-first in the small-business arena on several occasions," Lisa Johnson, 34, says matter-of-factly. "One of the things I've learned is to just dust myself off and keep going."
In the mid-'90s, Johnson's first business-a computer parts retailer that made more than $2 million per year-had been successful, except that her colleagues were running a dishonest operation. Reticent about the details, Johnson says she was "fearing jail time," so she bargained her way out of the business and struck out on her own. The Harvard graduate went from a business that paid her $120,000 per year to working for $8 an hour as a personal trainer at a gym.
Later, Johnson started a second business as a personal trainer, visiting clients throughout Massachusetts, sometimes traveling more than 200 miles in a day. Says Johnson, "I wasn't very successful, but I was in fabulous shape."
And Part III
Coffin and Johnson, of course, were paying their dues-just as Patrick Brandt did in the aftermath of his 1996 creation, Cyberpix, an e-commerce service photographers could use to catalog and distribute images.
But soon after he started the company with a business partner, it was in enough trouble that Brandt couldn't draw a salary. Meanwhile, the business had put him deep in debt. Brandt had 10 credit cards-with an average balance of $5,000 to $7,000 on them. So he left the company; his wife, Natalie, went to law school; and they traded in their condo by the lake for a 600-square-foot apartment.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.