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Profile: From Bankruptcy to Blog to Successful E-Biz
By Frank Fortunato
December 29, 2008
If you’re suffering from a financial holiday hang-over, or are just reeling from a year of monetary troubles, or simply need some tips from someone who successfully launched a service-oriented e-commerce site, hopefully you’ll get some solace — and inspiration — in our profile of one man who overcame some hardships. Robert Friedman is a case study on how to find a silver lining in economic catastrophe. Here is one person’s journey from bankruptcy to successful e-commerce entrepreneurship and how his hard work and passion made it happen.
Ostensibly, Freidman had a picture-perfect life. Married with two children and a suburban home in Connecticut, Friedman, an MBA and registered stock broker, had worked for Paine Webber, Jackson Curtis and Thomson McKinnon Securities before going solo as an investment broker in the 1980s. Making a decent living in the investment profession, his one problem was an unhappy marriage. Not believing in divorce, he stuck with the marriage, trying to blot out his misery by drinking and overspending, until 1994 when he found himself in a triple dilemma: a messy divorce, a foreclosure, and finally, feeling he had no other choice, filing for bankruptcy.
Near broke, Friedman acted as his own lawyer following the bankruptcy. Teaching himself how to file motions, argue points and file answers to motions; he was such a frequent visitor to the courthouse the police personnel greeted him by name.
Despite the declaration of bankruptcy, collection agencies continued to call and write, often being abusive and threatening action that was illegal, for instance, threatening garnishments, jail, or bogus lawsuits. At this point Friedman’s knowledge of the law and civil court procedure came in handy. By developing a series of ‘cease and desist’ letters, which he copied to the attorney general’s offices in his state and the state where the collection agency was located, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, he succeeded in stopping the debt collectors from calling and writing.
But Friedman discovered that bankruptcy comes with a long-term cost to your credit rating: “I can tell you there is no such thing as ‘credit repair.’ The law is the law. You may be able to coerce or back down a credit bureau by threatening a lawsuit or just inducing them to get rid of you, but generally speaking, it is 7.5 years on judgments and 10 years before the negatives of bankruptcy disappear from your credit report.”
By 2004 Friedman’s credit reports were pretty much clean, and soon after he was again able to acquire a ‘real’ non-secured credit card, and began selling supplemental insurance. In July 2007, Friedman and a tech-savvy friend, Rob Bronson, co-founder of Bestwebpresence.com, started Sundownnetworking.com, LLC., a business -networking and marketing site for the New Haven, Conn. area; eventually planning to monetize the site, it is currently used for networking and self promotion: “Most everyone in the New Haven area knows us.”
Simultaneously, a friend was lamenting how he was receiving threats from collection agencies due to the malfeasance of his business partner. Dredging up his letters and notes off his hard drive, Friedman was able to help his friend get the collection agencies off his back.
In early 2008, Friedman was in a weekly ‘Sundowner’ brainstorming session with a group of several friends all interested in Web marketing, when his buddy mentioned how Friedman had helped him with creditors. Someone else in the group suggested Friedman should use his skill set to create a business helping people deal with debt collectors and collection agency lawsuits. Hearing this from a peer came to Friedman like a shaft of clear light from the heavens.
The timing certainly seemed right. The worsening economy and statistics seemed to bear out the viability of the business. According to the Better Business Bureau, there are an estimated 6,500 collection agencies in the United States, complaints against them rose 26 percent to a total of 71,000 people who filed harassment and abuse complaints with the Federal Trade Commission in 2007. According to the FTC, for the past three years debt collectors have been the subject of more complaints than any other industry.
A Service E-Commerce Site is Born
Articulate, and with the energy of someone half his age, Friedman had long wanted to carve out a piece of the e-commerce pie. His first move was to brush-up on current laws. Next, he began to edit, update and expand to a total of six the letters he had created and used with the debt collectors years earlier. After that, he wrote a 36-page manual explaining the basic tenants of consumer law regarding collection agencies in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Fair Credit Reporting Act and Federal Trade Commission regulations.
Further, his product spelled out how a debtor can determine if they can be legally sued or not, all written in a style that could be understood by people who had little or no familiarity with the credit laws. With the addition of an audio CD version of the manual, getting his tech-savvy friend Bronson on board as a partner, and buying his domain name, Stopthecallsfast.com was born.
Then came the daunting task of marketing the service online. Bronson helped him structure the Web site, and more importantly, taught him how to blog. In their opinions, building a blog is the key to a business being interactive with today’s Internet buyer. Rather than a blog being a justification for a Web site, Friedman believes that a service-oriented Web venture should become a blog:
“Your regular Web site should be a blog Web site, and the ‘normal’ Web site pages are where you showcase your products and services as a display after they have read the messages about it from your blog.”
From Bankruptcy to Blog to Successful E-Biz
Friedman launched his blog in early July of 2008, and while it didn’t take off until after Labor Day, it has recently come in ‘above the fold’ on Google. He attributes his successful ranking to the posting of high-quality content and the use of many relevant key words in the tag section — and the fact that in the sour economy his services are currently in demand.
Beyond relevant key words and phrases, Friedman feels he’s achieved a top spot on Google by keeping his content relevant and constantly updated: “Freshness,” in Friedman’s opinion, is the key to e-commerce success.
“Old news, outdated offers and discontinued listings do not give your visitor the feeling that they are given the highest thought from your Web site,” he said. “Blogs give you incredible flexibility and the ability to pace your content by time, date, delivery of your messages, thus freeing you up from having to keep updating your Web site.”
A daily blog ensures that content is timely. As a bonus, Freidman said, “It also allows visitors to engage you as to how you can best serve them or offer products or services they are looking for. In short, they tell you what they want to see you offering, and if you provide it, it follows that they’ll buy it from you. Where else can you get that kind of feedback and rapport with your potential client?”
Friedman’s blog is garnering 25 hits a day and growing, as are visitor conversions. When several of his earlier customers experienced difficulty in downloading the product, he added a CD version of the manual, which he mails out along with a DVD of a credit-related workshop he hosted. Currently, his blog links to his Web site order page, and he is working on placing a shopping cart and checkout page on his blog so that visitors do not have to leave in order to purchase.
Friedman tried the pay-per-click model for pulling in traffic but believes it’s a “sucker’s game” for a start-up “where you are just shooting in the dark.” He said, “Right now on the blog I can see where my traffic is coming from, i.e., where in the United States and from what search engines and Web sites.”
Stopthecallsfast.com is Friedman’s first venture into e-commerce and it was accomplished, at least in terms of cash, on the cheap. His cash expenditures include $90 a year for his domain name, and the cost of CDs and DVDs. Using solid content and “hot” key words and phrases rather than PPC to attract traffic, and thanks to the Web site-building and blogging skills of Bronson, and his own expertise in credit laws and copy writing, Friedman’s biggest expense now is in “gray matter,” the time it takes to run and update the site, answer questions and fill orders.
Admittedly a workaholic, Friedman believes his own rise from the financial ashes can be accomplished by anyone with a solid idea and the will to put in the work. “The bottom line is you need to do a lot of reading and learn how to use the right tools.”
Tips and Resources for Handling Collection Agencies
By law collection agents can contact you by mail, telephone, telegram, fax or in person, take honest legal action against you, discuss debt resolution and report unpaid debts to the three credit reporting agencies. But they cannot do any of the following:
Call you at anytime other than between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
If you have an attorney, they must contact the attorney instead of you; if you do not have an attorney the collector can contact other people, typically only once, to determine where you live or work or to get your phone number. They cannot tell anyone besides your attorney that you owe money.
Discussion of legal action must be completely truthful. Agents cannot threaten to sue you if they have no intention or legal right to do so.
Try to collect more than they are owed or extra fees such as late fees or court costs; (unless state law allows it.)
Call you at your place of work if you have forbidden them to do so.
Debt collectors can not threaten you with jail, salary garnishment or use abusive language with you even if you have been abusive with them.
“Zombie debts,” or those that you did not incur, are sometimes charged by collection agencies that buy old debt records, including those far beyond the statue of limitations, and then they illegally threaten to sue for the money. Never agree to pay a debt if you are unsure you incurred it. Demand a written record of the debt and check your credit record.
While paying an old debt may be morally correct, making a partial or complete payment might actually harm your credit rating. One reason for this is that every state has a statue of limitations limiting the time a creditor has to sue you for a delinquent account. This can range from three to 15 years, but most states set it at five or six years.
However, it is possible to accidentally extend the statue of limitations just by calling a creditor to inquire about an old debt or by acknowledging the debt is yours. Partial or even complete payments do not erase records from your credit report but rather are simply additions until the issue is ‘timed out.’ These rules vary by state to state so it is important to know your own state’s laws regarding this matter.
You can sue debt collectors who you believe have broken the law in pursuing you, up to one year from the violation. Claimants can recover damages, attorney and court fees and up to an additional $1,000.
For more information, or help, contact the National Association of Consumer Advocates , which has over 1,000 lawyers affiliated with them who can assist in cases of debt collection abuse.
Frank Fortunato is a seasoned online bookseller and frequent contributor to Ecommerce-Guide.com.