From Employee to Enemy

Article by:

Karen Conroy
EO Central Florida
Karen Conroy, EO Central Florida

Karen Conroy is the owner and CEO of Fundraising for a Cause, the world’s largest supplier of cause merchandise. Fun fact: When you see major league sports teams wearing cause merchandise like pink ribbons for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it most likely came from Karen’s company. Contact Karen at [email protected].

It’s amazing how an opportunity can arrive on the heels of a crisis. In 2007, I was dealt a personal blow when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Feeling helpless, I signed up for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day to lend my support. As I began training for the 60-mile walk, I noticed how people were struggling to raise the US$2,300 needed to participate. So, I created Fundraising for a Cause, a company that designs and manufactures cause-related products that can be resold or used for awareness. I was excited for the chance to give back on a bigger scale, but as I quickly found out, starting a company comes with its share of surprises.

Early on in the business, I learned a significant lesson in trust. As I was going to work one morning, my unemployed neighbor approached me and inquired about a job. I happened to have an opening in the shipping department, and feeling bad for the guy, decided to interview him. He was pleasant enough, so I offered him the position. He worked for me a total of three months— and was one of the laziest employees I have ever seen. He called in sick all of the time, was constantly negative and never carried his own weight. My company was growing and I needed dedicated employees, so we parted ways. I thought that was the end of it. I was wrong.

Six months after I let my neighbor go, one of my vendors in China informed me that my neighbor had contacted their factory about getting my products reproduced. I immediately felt violated. How could someone do such a thing? My attorney promptly served my neighbor with a cease-and-desist letter, which I thought would stop things. But a few weeks later, another large client called and told me that my neighbor had reached out to them. He had shown my client photos he had taken of my product invoices while working in my warehouse, and informed them that he could sell them my items at a lower price.

Apparently, my neighbor had incorporated a company while “working” in my business, and he had also started a website to get things going. It seems he had no intention of ever having a career in my business— he just wanted to steal information. The choice now was whether or not to file a lawsuit. I debated for days, but ultimately decided not to move forward. Did I want to spend US$50,000 on attorney fees or use that money to grow my business? I knew that the lawsuit would eat up my valuable time, so, I made the difficult decision to just let it go.

Since this crisis, I’ve changed the way I approach my business. For example, I learned to keep my emotions in check, and I got in the habit of thinking logically about what was most important to the company long-term. I also put a number of tactics in place to ensure that something like this will never happen again: We made every new employee go through an extensive application process —including a background check—regardless of their position;  we developed an employee handbook; we had an attorney draft  a non-compete and confidentiality agreement, and then had everyone sign it; we updated all of our trademarks; we installed security cameras throughout the warehouse; and we purchased  a dedicated IP address so that no one can access important  company information from home.

This entire experience sounds like a made-for-television movie, I know. At the time, I wish it had been. But looking back, I’m actually glad it happened. It was a lesson in trust that helped me create the foundation for my company. All in all, this traumatic experience opened my eyes to the myriad issues that come with running your own business. It’s not the first time I’ve faced a business challenge, and it definitely won’t be the last. The next time it happens, though, I’ll be prepared.

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