The Second Act: Learning From Your Initial Success and Failures

08/22/2011 10:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011
  • Don McNay Best selling lottery and structured settlement expert

And once you're gone, you can never come back.
Neil Young

George Bernard Shaw said there are two tragedies in life: One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.

I learned during my first few years in business exactly what Shaw was talking about.

I hit it big at an early age. I started my business at 23, and by 29 I was one of the top producers nationally of mutual funds, annuity, and bond sales for the New York broker with whom I was affiliated.

I had achieved the highest levels in the Million Dollar Round Table. I had a huge house in an upscale, gated neighborhood, a red Mercedes Benz convertible, and a big, penthouse-style office on the top floor of one of Lexington's taller towers. I was featured in Forbes and Financial Planning.

One year later both my lawyer and accountant recommended that I file for bankruptcy. My net worth had plummeted far into the red, and banks were breathing down my neck. My business was still going strong, but I had gotten into a real estate deal that I didn't truly understand with people I didn't know well. And, it happened at a time when the real estate market suddenly turned south.

Initially, I had grown my business by reinvesting profits and being frugal. I had lived modestly and had no debt. I knew my business backward and forward and spent a ton of money educating myself and my staff.

Suddenly, my cash was drained by a sideline investment and the expensive lifestyle I had decided to adopt. I didn't have the money to properly reinvest in my business and in continuing education. My focus went from a long-term view to just getting through the day.

I made the classic mistake of a successful entrepreneur. I thought my first success meant that I would be successful at everything. I got away from the things that had gotten me to the top.

If you study the history of entrepreneurs, you'll see that many do what I did. Their initial idea works. They become successful but then get distracted with outside interests and start to lose the single-mindedness that made them a success. Some recognize their mistakes and regain their focus. Others do not and their businesses fail.

I was lucky. I was able to see what I did wrong and make corrections.

The year was painful, but I learned lessons I will never forget. The experience was as valuable as a Harvard MBA, and I paid more than the school's tuition to achieve it.

In order to get back on track, I had to go back to my roots like Rocky did in the movie Rocky III. I had to regain the "eye of the tiger."

I thought long and hard about what I needed, what I wanted, and the mistakes I had made. I sat near the lighted, uphill waterfall in my massive house, looked at my beautiful car, and realized the house and car weren't important. The only creature comforts I needed were an ice maker, cable television (this was pre-Internet), a recliner, and air-conditioning.

What I really valued was financial independence and the challenge to be the best at what I did. I couldn't be independent if banks, creditors, and a fancy lifestyle controlled my life. A line in Bill Hybels' book, Christians in the Marketplace: Making Your Faith Work on the Job, hit me. It essentially said "if you spend all your time making money to support a material possession like a car, the car has replaced God in your life." Or as the band Zoe Speaks said several years after Hybels, "If money's our God, I want a new religion."

My religion had become keeping up my lifestyle and managing debt. Once I realized what I really valued -- financial independence -- it was easy to implement a different plan.

I ditched the big house and traded in the Mercedes for a Buick. I relocated my panoramic office to a small one on a ground floor. I sold most of the furniture in my home, except for the bed and recliner, and moved to a modest apartment that had air-conditioning, an ice maker, and cable.

I read and reread Pizza Tiger, the biography of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza.

Monaghan's career path had the same sudden boom and sudden bust before he finally broke through to an international level. I couldn't afford to buy the book so I kept checking it out of the public library. (I own two copies of it now.) Monaghan's story gave me hope and inspiration.

I eventually knocked out my debt as I reinvested in my business and education. I got a second master's degree in financial services and my fourth professional designation.

Going back to the original formula got me on a growth path again. Four years after I ignored the advice to file bankruptcy, I was out of debt and my business was bigger than ever.

"Stick to what you know" seems like common-sense advice, but I have watched many business people make the same mistake I did. Once things start to go well, entrepreneurs think success will last forever. They often get into ventures outside of their expertise and start spending too much money and time on a fancy lifestyle.

When they crash, they do one of two things. They give up and quit or they "double down," to use a gambling term, and focus harder on the original business. Like Monaghan did with Domino's Pizza. After he doubled down, his company reached success beyond his wildest dreams. He made millions, enough for him to buy the Detroit Tigers baseball team.

As I made my comeback, I used to play an obscure Jim Croce song, Age, every single day. Two lines were my mantra. "And now I'm in my second circle and I'm headed for the top, I've learned a lot of things along the way. I'll be careful while I'm climbing because it hurts a lot to drop."

Some of the lessons I teach throughout my new book, Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money, such as moving your money to a local bank and not having a boatload of debt, were learned through hard and painful experiences. Experiences I want others to avoid.

When people hit it big, they need to stick to what they know, live below their means, avoid credit cards and loans, and put some money away for a rainy day.

Otherwise the first act can be a final act.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC of Richmond Kentucky is an award-winning financial columnist. He is the author of the book, Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money, which is currently available on the Kindle. The hardback copy will be released on September 20.

McNay founded McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement and financial consulting firm, in 1983, and Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC in 2000.

McNay has Master's Degrees from Vanderbilt and the American College and is in the Hall of Distinguished Alumni of Eastern Kentucky University. McNay is a Quarter Century member of the Million Dollar Round Table and has four professional designations in the financial services.