An Entrepreneurial Journey – Peaks And Valleys

An Underlying Message Of P’s
Passion, Persistence, Patience

And Everlasting Courage And Optimism To Face And Conquer The Hurdles Along The Journey

Mercia Tapping, Chemist And Grocer: My Entrepreneurial Start In Life

People often ask how I started out as an entrepreneur and I laughingly tell them that my father sowed the seeds by his Christmas present to me when I was only 5 years old. He was working at Unilever at the time and had been collecting dummy packages. He placed these packages into a store that he built for me “Mercia Tapping: Chemist and Grocer”. What a thrill for a five year old! Even better was when I got to play storekeeper with my parents dinner guests. They got to buy something from my store before dinner for a penny or two. But after dinner, I needed my inventory replacing, so I would ask for their purchases back, but kept the donations to my store! When my father was dying in hospital a number of years ago with Parkinson’s, I showed him an old photo of my store. The memory made him smile.

Washing Machines-Saving For A Ski Trip

Fast forward over to the early 1970s to when I was in graduate school. My fiancé, Eric and I were avid skiers but lacked the funds to go on a European ski trip. We put our enterprising heads together and in six weeks had enough money saved to go skiing in style. Here is what we did.
an entrepreneurial journey - peaks and valeys

There was an auction house at the bottom of the hill that held auctions of household goods, largely from estates, every Friday night. We were always scouring the auction house for bargains to furnish our condo. One night we spied a Bendix washing machine and my fiancé whipped out his AVO meter and could tell that it was in fact working. Nobody else at the auction without the aide of an AVO meter wanted to take the chance bidding. We got it for €5, wheeled it up the road uphill for a mile and lifted it up the stairs to our condo. By the next week, it was up for sale in the local newspaper for €35.

In those days, Bendix machines needed to bolted to the floor. I insisted on washing at least round of clothes ( we did not own a machine) before selling the Bendix. In order to stabilize the machine at the spin cycle, I needed to sit on the machine to stop it bouncing around the kitchen. In the quest for clean clothes, I bounced around on top of the machine., It must have been quite the sight! By some strange stroke of luck, we managed to find 2 more Bendix machines within a few weeks and repeated the process with great monetary success and I avoided the laundromat!

We also bought a very beautiful locked standalone wardrobe for €3. None wanted it because it was locked. But the auctioneers lent us their rings of several hundred spare keys, and yes miraculously one worked, and on opening the wardrobe, out fell two fur coats in beautiful condition! After prancing around in fur coats tor a few days, my mother was dispatched to sell these coats in a very refined magazine called “The Lady” In those days, there was quite a market for second hand fur coats, and a few weeks later the fur coats were sold for € several hundred.

Triumphantly, we went skiing and we were proud that our own ingenuity had created the money for that trip out of thin air. You will not be surprised to learn that a few years later we founded a company together. Sad to say, we made better business than marriage partners.

The Morning Headaches And Founding Of ABC

Fast forward again a number of years to the mid 1990s. I was a successful management consultant but I suffered from severe morning headaches and had to take some heavy duty medication to get going each day. It was really no way to live. I had trailed around 18 different doctors over the course of nearly 10 years, all of whom had given me a different diagnosis. The last one told me that I was depressed and wanted to put me on Prozac. I told him that he was mistaken.

I was at a very happy because I was engaged to a wonderful man after many years of living alone. Herman, my fiancé and also a doctor told me that whenever I was away from my beautiful Victorian house at the beach or mountains, that I did not wake up with a headache. His theory was that I was allergic to the house.

In those days very little was known about environmental allergies, but I finally found a specialist and sure enough, I was allergic to anything you could think of including my beloved Siamese cats. I refused medication and to give up my cats, and set about altering my environment to reduce the allergens in it. After researching I ended up with a list of over 70 actions I could potentially take, but when I was about halfway down executing the list, we moved house to a more modern one with central air conditioning. My headaches disappeared within 30 days. I was astonished.

When I visited clients and found them suffering visibly from allergies and sinus issues, I shared with them the knowledge I had garnered from my research. Several clients were so grateful for the advice that they casually remarked that since I was a walking research text book on this subject, that I should start a company and reach more people. They told me that it would be a great contribution to people’s health.

Strangely enough, I had been wondering what I might do next in my career but knew that I wanted to make a contribution to people’s health, and I also knew that to make my new marriage work, it would be better if I wasn’t on a plane visiting clients out of state each week.

Long story short, that is how was born. The internet appealed to me because of its reach and my chance to educate a larger audience.

One of the things that I had found in my research and by trial and error was that no product was perfect. They all had their pluses and minuses. I thought it would be immensely satisfying if I opened an Internet store, but would be honest about what I had found to be any products strong and weakest points. We tested products and published ratings on the goods that we sold. I remembered the honest storekeepers of my childhood and wanted to recreate that on the Internet. Incidentally, this was before Amazon had customer reviews.

MIT Enterprise Group And Investment Bankers

The company had a very wobbly start. In 1999 I presented my web site and ideas to the rather intimidating group at The MIT Enterprise Forum. They poured cold water all over me and told me that being honest about products and selling them at the same time would never work. I was immensely deflated, but a lawyer came up to me afterwards and told me to keep going, and warned me that this MIT group loved to look smart and impress each other.

Two months later an investment banking group had agreed to raise $1M in exchange for what finally turned out to be a majority stake in the company. It had not been an easy negotiation. They subscribed to the salami theory of negotiating; every time I thought we had come to an agreement they would come to the table and take a bit more equity away from me. I hated the process, and by the time the deal was signed, I did not think I would be able to enjoy being under their thumb for very long. But I was running out of money. I had used up my savings, my credit cards were maxed out, and my house was mortgaged up to the hilt. At least this deal would give me a salary, and I went on vacation and heaved a big sigh of relief.

Not so fast. When I returned from vacation, I was called into a meeting where the bankers told me that they were going to rescind on the deal. They did not believe in my business model and did not think I was CEO material, and if they had proceeded with the deal the first thing they were going to do was fire me. But now instead, they proposed that give the company back to me and take 1% of the company shares for their time and trouble.

By this time, I was thoroughly demoralized and on the ropes financially. But I still believed in my vision of what this company could do, and my business plan said that I could break even in six months. By some good fortune, I had figured out how to get to the top of the search engines, before there were any experts on the topic. I could see a sales trend. In January of 2000 we had $2K in sales and were doubling every month to $14K in April. I just needed a survival strategy.

I was still friendly with Eric, albeit in a distant way, but had helped him out a couple of times with his business. I asked if he needed a website built and one which got to the top of the search engines. He readily agreed and I delivered as promised for $22,500. I worked 18 hours, 7 days a week and my husband Herman was rapidly losing patience with my entrepreneurial ventures. I promised him that I would break even by October 2000 and he would get his wife back. I was as good as my word and by December of 2000, our run rate was $100k a month and growth was phenomenal. We were off to the races and in time I would become one of the top 20 women entrepreneurs in MA and winning all sorts of national awards.

The Flood And The Christmas Humidifier Customer

In the early days the company and its employees were housed in the basement of my condo. We were all squeezed in there, six people before we moved out and despite the rapid growth had our share of lumps and bumps amongst a great deal of laughter. In the fall of 2001 just before Thanksgiving, the hoses to my washing machine broke and flooded the basement. I awoke on Thanksgiving to the sound of water and waded thigh high through the water to turn off the washing machine intake water. The place lay in ruins. Almost nothing was salvageable, except the computers which were desk top and managed to dry out.

Nothing loath while insurance paid for the basement to be rebuilt, a 3 month process, we ran wires all around the house, stacked up the living room furniture in a corner and set up temporary desks on fold up tables and employees came in on shifts. My husband shook his head. But none was more surprised than the man who knocked on the door one evening that Christmas looking to buy a humidifier. We were not a retail store, but cheerfully sold him a humidifier along with a garbled explanation of the heaped furniture and piles of office records on the floor.

The Garage And Drop Ship

We were a band of basement warriors, proud of our mission and were garnering a reputation of a honest Internet retailer amongst a bunch of “sell and run” vendors. We practiced “Just In Time” inventory control. UPS would deliver our inventory in the morning, up rolled our garage doors to receive it, and UPS came late the same afternoon as we had by that time put shipping labels on outgoing sold items. We turned over 100% of our inventory every day! Our “warehouse” in winter was of course a little chilly, but we were brave soldiers. And we laughed a lot, and it was the start of a very loyal team, some of whom are with the company to this day.

Miele Vacuum And Herman With An Eye Patch

By this time, my husband Herman was fully on board with with my venture. Every morning he used to come down down to the basement, dressed in his suit before he left for work and boom out his morning greeting to us all. He loved to make us laugh.

One day he came down and greeted us, hoping for a laugh, but was faced with dead silence and a look of horror by my team. A few days before, Herman had suffered from an attack of Bells Palsy. One eye needed protection from the eye, we had tried swimming goggles the prior weekend and he had even tried golfing in the goggles but that was no solution. He opted for an eye patch.

But this Monday morning, resplendent in blue suit and tie, he boomed out his morning greeting. Silence and looks of horror was our response. What Herman did not know was that a VP from Miele vacuum cleaner was paying us a visit. We were trying to convince him that Miele should allow us to become a dealer even though we were not a store front. As my staff looked at me wondering how I was going to handle the situation, I asked Herman to step into the room and meet our corporate visitor.

I told the Miele VP “Meet my husband, Herman. He is suffering from Bells Palsy.”In every marriage there is a comedian and his straight side kick. I think you can figure which one is which in our relationship “Herman shook Leo’s hand politely, pushed back his goggles and said “I suppose you would like me to leave now honey” I bit my lip nodding in assent, hardly able to contain my laughter.

We got our dealership and when Leo left we all howled with laughter. Leo as it turned out many years later, told me that he thought Herman was a great guy and enjoyed the incident.

Miele Vacuum And Our Product Reviews

As it turned out Leo became a great ally. Miele corporate loved the publicity that we gave their vacuum cleaners and I was credited for launching the brand on the Internet. But in headquarters in Germany, they did not appreciate it when this upstart Internet company was impertinent enough to criticize their products and threatened to pull my dealership. I wrote a passionate defense of my critique and told them if they fixed what I saw were flaws, I would give the new machine a 5 star rating, meanwhile I needed to to sleep at night, knowing that I had been honest with my customers.

I was allowed to keep my dealership. Many years later Leo told me that Miele were so stung by my critique that he had attended a meeting where the engineers were challenged to design a revolutionary new vacuum cleaner. Two years later I saw this new machine before anyone else. It made me smile, they had been listening!

Keeping It Light And Fun – Hunting For Dollars

As I said before, everyone at the company worked hard, but we believed in having fun along the way. We got an award as being one of the top 20 best places to work in Boston in the small business category. Every month, we tried to do something which would make people smile. From Halloween costumes, Yankee swaps, food events, hunts around for gas cards or bonus $100 bills, or the ever popular raffling off returned goods. We were always thinking of some way to bring fun into the workplace. Those were our glory days. We were riding high.The leading environmental products company, deeply respected by our manufacturers, trusted by our customers, and reaching millions with our education and carefully screened products. Our sales were about $18 M a year.

The End Of The Road – Herman’s Illness, Corporate Fraud, Breast Cancer

In 2009 the tide turned in a terrifying manner. I entered a period of my life when I would be tested and then tested some more in ways which I could never have imagined. I came home one day to find my husband suffering from a seizure. It turned out to be terminal brain cancer, Glioblastoma. He lasted 2.4 years but not before my heart was broken into a million pieces watching the man I love slowly lose all cognitive and physical functioning and die a death as a near vegetable.

During the time he was sick, unbeknownst to me me, my trusted CFO cooked the books, having me believe the company was profitable, when it was struggling through a recession. When I finally tumbled to the fraud, a whole story unto itself, I discovered my company was deeply in debt and I emptied my retirement accounts to pay vendors and reimburse customers for returns.

There were those who advised me to declare bankruptcy. It took months to unravel this tortuous, tangled financial web of deceit. But finally in October of 2013, I finally could see the light of day again. In December of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 3 B breast cancer. Now I was fighting for my own life. I appointed an interim CEO who drove the company further into debt in 2014 while telling me a very different and more optimistic story.

My journey through breast cancer was a very challenging time and I wrote a book “Only One Life: Don’t Waste It” where it chronicled my journey and reflections on life. I knew that this was all supposed to be teaching me something. I noticed all the daily miracles that occurred in my life while a whole community, 40 women strong rose up to help me. I never felt so loved and by so many.

One day my staff got in touch with me directly and told me that the company was broke. The interim CEO abruptly resigned and I struggled into the office on December 22 2014. I was only 10 days out from a second operation with tubes sticking out of me and really in no shape to be driving. Chemo and radiation had done a real number on my brain. When I heard the reality of the company’s financial situation, I knew the company had to be sold as soon as possible or this time bankruptcy was really the only other option. I was terrified because I had not run the company for a whole year and my brain was compromised. And yet I knew founders had to take the lead when a company was sold. And how could I sell a company in 60 days, a process which usually takes a year?

I remember standing looking out of my living room windows at the golf course where I live, knowing that this time, I was facing the worst financial crisis of my life. I was so tired and wondered whether I had the strength to fight yet again. It was one of those times when I had to say to myself, just like when investors had pulled out in 2000, that I had to make an effort, beyond what was reasonable, or what I thought I was capable of, so I would never look back with any regret.

How I managed to sell the company in just over 30 days is a story worthy of a soap opera and too long to tell today. Suffice to say it was a roller coaster. My staff helped me through my chemo brain blur, and I faked being well when the vulture buyers came calling. The company who eventually bought us initially turned us down, and I got the bad news as I was sitting at MGH waiting for my next infusion.

So picture me, sitting on a hospital bed, with meds being pumped into me, fighting for my company, my employees and its customers. It was surreal. But with some luck and help from others, I prevailed. No staff were laid off, customers were reimbursed for returns, and most vendors got paid off. I sold the company. I was not a rich woman from the transaction but I held my head up high.

I have just finished a transition employment contract with the company. My baby is alive and thriving.

As for me, the last 2 years gave me the opportunity to reclaim my health and that is priceless. Today I play doubles tennis, golf and do ballroom dancing. The road back to health has not been easy but now my life is joyful again. I walk proud and tall, and share my heart and wisdom with the world. And I know down to my toes that you only have one life and not to waste it.

Posted in Inspiration, Life


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