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I will never forget the day I purchased my first pair of Nike basketball shoes. The design, quality, and the joy I had by simply wearing them created a special symbiotic relationship. This brand has become a part of who I am. To me, it is not just a brand. It represents stubbornness, breaking the rules, pushing new boundaries, and above all, a passion for creating and moving forward. This is one man's faith in his biggest dream.
“Hey, sleepyhead, get up, and let’s go!”
“I'm going. I'm going...” I replied as I slowly sat up on the edge of the couch and tried to get used to the early morning. Outside the window, the sun had just begun to rise; it was only six o'clock in the morning.
My former classmate Minde and I rented a two-room apartment in a suburban neighborhood. It was too expensive for us to rent separate apartments, and I was tired of living in my office. I wanted to have a place to relax after work. The apartment was in a grey nine-story block style apartment building and was completely student-like with a dated, dark brown patio door which had been drawn on, a light brown linoleum floor, and walls covered in brown wallpaper. Minde had brought his own bed, and I was content with sleeping on the squeaky sofa that had been left in the apartment, although to me, it felt like a bed made for a king. Finally, I had a place to call home, and I no longer needed to worry about early morning customers catching me asleep.
“Andrius, you're getting up, aren't you?!” I could hear my roommate preparing for his workday while incessantly urging me to get ready for our morning swim.
“I said I was working on it!” I replied in annoyance as I stood up in no particular hurry. I had only gotten a few hours of sleep.
Two points! Two points and a foul! Dunk! After watching an NBA basketball game on my computer all night, I had tried to imitate the players in my small room. I had even put on my sneakers, so it felt more real, like flying, like a real basketball superstar. I kept this up until the very end of the game, when I sat down on the couch and started feeling emotional. A real star has his own basketball shoes. The one thing I knew for sure was that my signature shoes will be in bright colors and visible from every inch of the arena. I didn’t even really care about the style of the shoes. One night, I found myself drawing futuristic sneakers, and the next, I tried to draw the retro style shoes with long-forgotten details. Sneakers were my passion, a passion that allowed my thoughts to flow freely and gave me hope that what I drew on paper would one day be laced up on my feet.
With my mind on other things, I reluctantly got ready and headed off to the big quarry outside the city. We stopped at the main beach, near a small pier. During the daytime, this quarry was full of people, but in the early morning, we were alone.
“Well, come on!” Dropping his clothes on a tree near the water, Minde jumped into the water and immediately headed to the other side of the quarry. In the car, the heat had been on as high as it would go, and I had enjoyed the sauna-like conditions, but now on the shore, I felt frozen to the bone.
I slowly stepped into the water and splashed around a bit until I finally summoned the courage to dive in. The refreshing cold surrounded my body as I began to swim. As I got away from the shore, the trees no longer shaded the quarry, so the water wasn’t quite as cold, and I became more comfortable. It was always so hard to get up in the morning, come all the way here, and get in the water, but swimming in the quarry just after sunrise was almost miraculous. After the first few slow strokes, I began to speed up and was quickly more than half-way to the other shore. I easily swam the half a kilometer to catch up to Minde. We both like to compete, and neither of us were happy with second place. Usually, he was the faster swimmer but not today. I felt an indescribable surge of energy. I started to swim even faster. With every stroke, I became lighter and found an even more perfect rhythm. I kept that pace and was the first to make it back to shore.
“Who’s sleeping now?! Do I need to give you a hand, so you don't get too tired?” As I laughed, I felt myself wanting to keep my momentum going.
“Wow, Andrius, you really took off in the second half of the swim today,” Minde complimented me as he climbed out of the water with a big smile.
“The water woke me up,” I smiled. “I don't know where it came from, but I felt full of energy. I could probably even do another lap,” I replied while drying off. “By the way, Slava is coming today to talk about merging our businesses. I’m nervous but excited to see where it leads.”
“Just don't be in a rush to agree to anything.” Minde warned. “Figure out what’s best for you, and then decide if you want to work with him.”
“That is the point of our meeting. I want to know more about him,” I smiled.
As Minde left, I decided to linger for a walk down the shore. Today will be an important day, and I was anxious. Slava and I both sold sport and leisure goods, we both started about the same time four years ago, and we both worked alone.
Slava had lived in the US for several years and had seen older generations stand in line right alongside teens to buy sneakers on release dates. He thought it had seemed totally absurd at first. Why stand in a huge line for some sneakers when you could go to another store and buy something similar with the same brand’s label? It had seemed even crazier that particular colors of a model would attract more interest and be gone in a matter of seconds while the same model in a different color would end up collecting dust on a store’s shelves. “Stupid Americans!” Slava had thought while watching people stand in those lines until he began to realize that the shoes people stood in line for were more than just sneakers. That realization had become a door to a whole new world, a world filled with different people. Those shoes ended up changing him.
Slava grew in time when Lithuania was regaining its independence in the 1990s. During that time, it was common for businessmen to buy cheaper goods from the Polish market and transport them to various places within Lithuania and Moscow. It was a difficult period. More than once, Slava had his goods stolen. Frustrated, Slava decided to change all that.
Looking for a happiness, he flew to the US. When he left Lithuania, he looked like a true Eastern European, the kind you see in Hollywood films: Slava wore a long, black leather coat, polished black, business shoes, and slicked-back, black hair.
In the United States, he had a few different jobs but spent most of his time driving a minibus and transporting goods. As he interacted with Americans more regularly, he became more comfortable and eventually let go of many of his prejudices. His first step towards fitting in had been throwing away all the “cool” clothes and even the gleaming, black shoes he brought with him. As he got rid of his sophisticated business shoes, sneakers began to fill his closets. He no longer saw sneakers as just practical, casual shoes for kids or simply athletic footwear relegated to the gym. He began looking into the history of various models, how they were designed, and why there was such a large interest in them in the stores. Gradually, he discovered the world of sneakers and decided to take this fashion statement back to Lithuania. Because of the popularity of football (or what Americans call soccer), Europe had already had some interest in sneakers as fashion, but Eastern Europe was a bit different. In the 1990s, after Soviet occupation, Eastern Europe was just becoming introduced to both independence and capitalism. After having to line up for bread and toilet paper, the idea of lining up for sneakers may have seemed absurd. Perhaps even more importantly, unlike the general European obsession with soccer, Lithuania was (and is) primarily a basketball nation. In fact, Lithuanians are fond of saying that their national religion is basketball. Nevertheless, viewing basketball sneakers as high-end fashion statements was new for even basketball-obsessed Lithuanians. So, he went to a local sports store, asked to speak with the manager and said he wanted to make a large order. That “large” order had been just six pairs of shoes, but it became the start of his online business.
What about me? What about Andrius from Kaunas? Well, there was never a time of enlightenment or really any change in my attitude toward sneakers. Sneakers had been more than just shoes to me since childhood.
I purchased my first basketball shoes twelve years ago when I was fourteen years old. I would often visit stores selling Nike shoes. Although there were very few options, I always looked for the latest models, but I never tried them on. I rarely even picked them up. I didn’t want to get them dirty or damage them in some way. After I finally saved up enough allowance, I bought myself a pair of pristine, white basketball sneakers. They were my pride and joy. I admired them at home for a few days before I dared to venture outside with them. After that first trip outside, I’m not sure I took them off at all for several years. I washed and cleaned them with a toothbrush until they finally tore to the point where it was impossible to repair them.
My fascination with sneakers had only continued to intensify since then. For me, they were not just shoes or merchandise for me to sell. To me, they were works of art with their own history, lines, and details. Just over four years ago, I discovered online stores in other parts of the world and was amazed at how many different models of shoes they carried. The opportunity to choose from just a few models at a local store was no longer enough for me, and I decided to bring these treasures to my country. Since I didn’t have enough money to buy a bigger quantity of sneakers and stock it for resell, I decided to create a large online catalog of shoes. When customers would order shoes from me, I would buy them from one of those other online stores and ship them straight to my customer. This method made it possible for me to understand the market and see what buyers really wanted without buying a large number of shoes and filling a warehouse with merchandise.
Although we both were in the business of selling sneakers, I had been chatting with Slava for some time as a friend, and, in truth, we felt more like partners than competitors, but you wouldn’t have guessed that would have happened from our first conversation.
“Listen, your prices are too low," I could clearly recall hearing his bitter voice on the telephone several years ago. “As soon as my merchandise arrived, you lowered your prices. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. It’s up to you, but if you don’t take care of this, I will pay you a visit, so we can talk about how you’ll fix it face to face,” Slava threatened.
I had a special notebook where I wrote down any information I could find about my competitors. On an internet forum, I had been able to gather that he was ten years older than me and living near the Baltic sea, a couple hundred kilometers from me, but I hadn’t been able to find out anything else about him.
Even though his tone had been bitter during the conversation, from his voice, I could tell he wasn’t the type of person that would actually get in a car, drive somewhere to talk about prices, and tell me how I should sell my merchandise. I knew if I gave in at that point, he would know that he could push me around, and, in the end, I would have to cater to his every whim. Also, I did not understand the benefits of getting along with a competitor. I did not call him a competitor in vain but because I could not see us forming a partnership? Why would I need that? We are both selling the same type of shoes to the same small market. Who are we but competitors? My edge is underselling him. I ended the conversation by telling him I would think about it.
Since I did not really know him and didn’t even have much information about him, I was left feeling a little anxious. His age didn’t help matters. As he was older than me, he would probably have more experience, more knowledge, and more power. Maybe he actually would come and try to do something? As what had been common in the nineties, maybe he’d set my warehouse on fire at night? After all, my store’s address was readily available on the internet, and he wouldn’t have known that I was living there as well. If he decided to throw a Molotov cocktail through the window, to burn all of my shoes, I too would roast like grandma’s chicken dinner.
I spent the next few days imagining every possible scenario, but I concluded that my “business” was too small for anyone to waste their time burning down. Maybe Slava would come and I’d be forced to “talk” with him, but I had decided that if he did come, his tough voice wasn’t going to bully me into changing my prices. I had lowered the prices of all the shoes we both carried by at least a few euros. My answer to him was clear⸻I didn’t need competitors for partners.
I didn’t get any more calls from him, and he never showed up to meet me face to face. We then began battling one another through prices, but Slava soon reached his limit when it came to lowering prices. While I, on the other hand, didn’t have any limits. Because of that phone call, I was desperate to beat him and to prove that I could sell for less than the prime cost, even half as much when needed—though, fortunately, I rarely had to go that low. Once Slava understood that there was no way he can change my prices or my stubbornness, he stopped fighting, and I was able to keep the upper hand on the prices. Seeing no point in competing with me like that, Slava began to order fewer models than I was selling, so the shoes we stocked became different, and we were able to share the market.
After that first price fight, things calmed down. We became got to know one another better, and it was no longer crucial that I have lower prices. I used the same formula to calculate all of my prices, and only when I saw Slava offer some item for a lower price than I, I reduced my prices to his level, but I no longer felt the need to reduce my prices lower than Slava’s.
After quite a while of not hearing from Slava, I received another call. Hearing his voice, I worried about another battle, but this time, his tone wasn’t bitter. Eventually, everyone learns that competition can make you better, and I was feeling rather grateful to Slava at that point. I had a feeling that he felt the same way. As it turns out, he was calling about the fact that my internet store, SportClothes, no longer carried thousands of items like it once had. Slava thought my store was on its last leg.
And it could have been . . . all because of my ignorance of tax laws . . . and procrastinating until the last minute . . . and my fear of tax inspections.
I had exceeded the amount of turnover that required me to register VAT taxes and put off the problem until the very last day. As a result, my debt had only grown and resulted in six thousand euros of unpaid taxes. I didn’t have that kind of money and had no way of coming up with that much. It no longer made sense for me to keep selling shoes. I felt frustrated and wanted to call it quits. I hated myself for being so ignorant. I removed all the items I was ordering from other stores and left up only the items I had in my warehouse. After deleting almost everything, I planned to sell off what was left in the office and quietly closed the shop, but I received hundreds of messages from customers who had noticed. After getting several messages a day, I began to feel like what I had been doing was important to other people—not just me and my obsession with sneakers.
I began to realize that I wasn’t alone, and my store wasn’t just a store. Selling sneakers was my passion, and it was bringing together a community of people who were similarly passionate. I had never felt so close to my customers. The store couldn’t close!
I agreed with the tax office to pay off all of my debt in a year. After figuring out my tax issues, I understood that I would no longer be able to buy single items from stores in other countries and decided to take a risk by ordering shoes in larger quantities from a seller in Germany. By buying larger quantities, I was able to negotiate better purchase prices, but large purchases meant even higher upfront costs and a lack of money for everyday needs. Despite the risk, I had no other choice, and I started all over by almost not spending a cent for myself and living in an office surrounded by sneakers.
This was my way to save as much money as I could for sneaker orders. I knew that I had to sacrifice a couple of years for a better future. Since I no longer needed to wait weeks for items to be shipped from other countries, I committed to the goal of continuing to provide the same quantity of sneakers to customers at a much faster rate.
When Slava called, he was expecting me to tell him the story of why SportClothes was closing, but my excitement for the future had shocked him. I felt the need to tell him everything, and our conversation continued for several hours. After that conversation, we talked almost every day. We had a lot in common. It felt like we were the same age; we even had the same taste in music. I began wondering if competitors had to be enemies? Could we work together? He even started buying shoes from me. We shared knowledge, achievements, and struggles. We actually started recommending each other's shops to our customers if we knew that the other one might have an item they wanted. Naturally, this led to talks of combining businesses. The competition between us was becoming narrower by the day.
It sounds strange, but my biggest issue with having a steady growth in sales was my fear of needing to hire strangers to help with the work. Each year, my business was more than doubling in size. I had been able to handle things alone this year, but in the coming year, I would need to work at an even quicker pace. If I kept on growing at this pace, the following year I wouldn’t be able to do it all by myself. It would be impossible for me to do alone. I could overwork and begin hating everything, or I could find a partner to share the burdens. The only partner I could imagine agreeing to work with was my competitor, Slava.
I watched the sunrise higher and higher in the sky at the quarry as I weighed the pros and cons of working the Slava. With not a cloud to be found, it was a beautiful summer day, and holiday goers were taking full advantage. I have never been a fan of large crowds, so I sat in my old light blue VW Golf and headed to my office in the center of Kaunas.
Since childhood, I had always been fascinated with this city. There are no skyscrapers, little traffic, and dozens of entryways surrounding the main street of the city, Freedom Avenue. Built in the 19th century and running East to West, Freedom Avenue is a picturesque pedestrian street connecting the older to the newer parts of the city that you can walk for 1.7 km. Freedom Avenue boasts a central promenade lined with trees down its middle, and on either side of the trees, there are parallel pedestrian streets which are, themselves, framed by clothing stores, bakeries, restaurants, pubs, a post office, banks, and an array of shops. Freedom Avenue has always been a popular place for both locals and tourists because of this wide range of shops and services.
I rented office space in an apartment building on Kesto Street near the main promenade. This building, like most of the surrounding area, was built more than half a century ago, with large wooden front doors, wide staircases, and ornamental stair railings.
Half of the building was housing, and the other half was commercial. The second floor of the business section housed my shoe paradise. My office was only about thirty square meters and had bright yellow walls. In the center of the room and around the walls, I had set up a small labyrinth of shoe boxes. There was a table in the corner next to a black couch that customers used for trying on shoes. It was my office, warehouse, and even home until recently.
As I walked into my office on the day of my meeting with Slava, I turned on my computer and started in on my daily work, but I began to catch myself anxiously pacing between the boxes of shoes. I would nervously pick them up and move them or open a box and inspect the shoes inside until I finally settled on watching the cars pass by out the window. Waiting is always unpleasant. No matter how scary something may be, the wait is always worse than the thing itself. My thoughts were interrupted by a long-awaited call and Slava’s voice:
“Hey buddy, I'm running a little late. I’ll be there in about ten minutes. Where are we meeting?” He asked energetically.
“I'll meet you outside, and we can take a walk around the city,” I said a bit nervously.
I didn’t want to invite him to my office. No matter how well we got along or agreed on various topics, no contract had been signed, and I wasn’t willing to show my fortress to just anyone. I wasn’t ashamed by my hesitance. Recently, another business owner, who sold designer clothes, next to my office, had shown up at my office with a bruised and beaten face.
“I stayed late at work last night and shortly after ten o'clock, three masked thugs came to my office,” the store owner began. “I heard them say to each other, ‘Hey, there are no sneakers here.’ I don't remember anything else. They beat me with a baseball bat, took all of my money, and left. I think they were looking for you, but they ended up in my store by accident ...”
It was obvious from the bruises and his gait that something bad had happened to him, but I didn't know if I could believe what he was saying. He wasn’t a very peaceful person, and it was hard to believe that guys like that would have just mixed up the doors. Even I couldn’t believe that someone just mixed up the doors and would have, otherwise, robbed me, but to be safe, I called a security company and set up an alarm system that same day. I set specific working hours and after those hours were over, I started locking the door. This time, maybe I wasn’t the target, but ignoring a threat like that would have been unwise. I also started watching my customers more closely, to see if they really came to try out sneakers or if they just wanted to case my office.
Why take the risk and invite Slava in, when we could meet outside and take a stroll around the city? He had also mentioned that it had been a long time since he last visited Kaunas. I could be a bit of a guide and show him around the area.
I walked outside and, after couple of moments noticed arriving about fifteen years old, long like a limo, all black Chrysler. I had no doubt that was him. Slava had lived in the US for many years, so I had always imagined him driving an American car. I pointed for him to drive through the gate into a small parking lot but immediately felt sorry about that. The parking lot was tiny and always full of cars. Even with my city car, turning around was no easy task, and with the length of his car, I wasn’t sure he would ever get out. Although it was difficult, he was able to park the car under a tree.
Both doors opened, and Slava got out of the driver's side. Slava and I had been in contact with one another for a long time, but we had never met, and although I been right in predicting what kind of car he would drive, the man climbing out of the driver’s side door was not at all what I expected. Since we were working with sporting and leisure goods, I had imagined a sporty, bright, confident, American-looking man, but I was a little surprised by what I saw. A short, stocky, black-haired, timid-looking guy dressed all in black walked towards me.
“Hey buddy! It’s nice to finally meet you in person after all these years!” We both said and shook hands.
Jurate, a tall woman with blond hair that looked to be the same age as Slava, slowly got out of the passenger’s side door. As she walked towards me, I was a bit hypnotized and froze for a moment. I couldn't stop staring at her. I had never seen such brightly drawn black eyebrows. I couldn’t see anything other than the two huge lines drawn across her forehead. I felt uncomfortable, lowered my eyes down, and shyly greeting her.
I was surprised to see that Slava had brought someone with him. I'm not a fan of talking in general, but even more so when strangers are around. Thankfully, we broke the ice pretty quickly. Our years of daily conversations had us quickly feeling like old friends. Slava and Jurate told a story that they had met when Jurate came to Slava’s home, where he was holding all of his items, to buy sportswear. Since that meeting, they had lived together for several years. I found out that Slava has a son who had already graduated from high school and Jurate had a daughter who was in her final year of high school. It was obvious that they had not been adults themselves when they had kids. But hey! One had already graduated, and the other was in twelfth grade?! I still felt like a teenager myself, and here were a couple of “real” adults with teenaged kids, while I have plans to build a business together with people who could be my parents. It’s good that we have a long history of conversations because without it, I would have started using words like “Sir, yes, sir.”
“How have sales been this summer?” Slava slowly began to push us on topic.
“They have varied...” I smiled as I mulled over how open I should be. “I sell mostly basketball items, so until it is off-season, sales are down, but when the basketball season kicks off, sales will grow.” My answer was sly but honest.
We walked along a shadow-covered side road off of Freedom Avenue. Slava walked between Jurate and me. With Jurate on the other side of Slava, it became easier for me to talk as I was able to focus on Slava.
“Throughout the last few days, I had thought a lot about the possible benefits of combining our businesses and how it could work.” I began the conversation, “I see the benefit of not having to advertise two separate online stores and putting money in a common pot would allow us to open up a storefront. We would be able to expand the product range and share responsibilities to help resolve various issues that arise. But I see a problem with the name. I don’t think either one of us wants to give up our store name, and since I patented the SportClothes logo and name a few years ago, it would be extremely difficult for me to say goodbye to it. We are also from different cities, so it is important to think about where we would store goods, how we would ship them, and how we would share duties and responsibilities. If we partner, I want us to think carefully about how we do it, so neither of us are disappointed with something later.”
“I [kamplitli] (completely) agree,” Slava responded patiently after listening to my speech. Even though Slava lived in the US for several years, I felt a strong Russian accent. “As for the name, I think, there is no [prablem] (problem). We can come up with a new one. In a year, no one will remember the old ones. It’s better to change the name now than to wait until everyone knows our new name. The only important thing is a grow. The name doesn’t matter.”
“The name is important to me, but I'm happy to hear that you want to grow,” I agreed in part. “For example, I expect to sell at least fifty pairs of sneakers a day.”
“Are you serious?” Slava wondered. “I still have days that I don't sell a single item, and you're talking about numbers like that!”
“Those types of sales are way ahead of me, too,” I laughed, “but that could be our goal.”
“Of course, I agree with that; I like this kind of goal!”
“But before we worry about increasing our sales, I want to open a store,” I continued to explain how I saw things. “Because for now I have to accept packages from couriers, pack orders, serve clients, etc. If we have a store, we will not have to worry about packing orders and serving customers at the same time. Our customers will have a place to visit and our trained shop assistants will provide them with excellent service.”
“It would be [avesam] (awesome) to have a store!” Slava agreed. “My set up is similar to yours as I keep everything at my home, and my customers don’t even have the option of coming to see items they are interested in, so the store could clean up my home, and I could show the items I have.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m talking about! We could finally show what we have!” I started to talk more and more passionately. “Customers could visit our store any time and get a great shopping experience instead of visiting my tiny office or meeting you somewhere on a street to buy the sneakers you sell. We need to show what we have to everyone, and I believe that the first priority could be to open a store in Kaunas and, later, one near the seaside, Palanga or Klaipeda, or even in the capital, Vilnius. In the future, we could expand to other countries⸻ Germany, France, Spain—and after conquering Europe, we go overseas, to the USA, Australia, Russia, and so on.” I could hardly believe that I was telling someone my biggest dreams.
“Are you kidding or seriously planning that?” Slava asked confused.
“It is a serious dream!” I smiled. “My goal is to be able to compete with all of the best European stores and to become a strong competitor to sellers around the world. But I know it will take many years to achieve all this, so these are my long-term plans.”
“I like you! You make plans as big as Napoleon himself!” laughed Slava. “I'd like to do that too, but do you actually see a way for us to get there?”
“I can't even figure out how to register a company and open one small store,” I was talking with a smile, “but if I could do it alone, we wouldn't be talking now. Our problem is that we are doing everything without any help or know-how. I already messed up with the taxes, and I know this is just the start of a long road. I do not doubt that there will be hundreds of other issues more. So, if we were to divide up the work, we could pay more attention to the laws, the opening of a company, and we could start to look into other areas,” I replied with some seriousness.
“Andrius, you could handle [basketbal] (basketball), and I would take care of all the leisure merchandise,” Slava started dividing out jobs. “You would also need to be responsible for the suppliers in the Europe, and since I was in the Shtaty (US) I would be responsible for the suppliers there. So that we would both be happy, I suggest stocking everything 50:50, if I can match your stock and money. I'm afraid that you may have more of both,” he looked at me questioningly.
“I think that no matter how much money we contribute now, we will obviously not grow like this on our own, so we will need to bring everything we have to the table. After all, it is quite expensive to open a store. Also, we will have to order more and more sneakers at the same time. Of course, this will take almost all of our turnover but even that may not be enough to get us by.”
“With such big plans in the works, I am happy to contribute as much as I can. I have an empty house by the Baltic sea; if need be, I will sell it and put the money in our company!”
“Buddy, don’t sell your house just yet,” I replied smiling at seeing him so caught up in the moment.
“I'm serious. I really want to be a part of all of this,” Slava insisted as he paused. “But how do you feel? Are you in or do you still have doubts?”
“We are both used to operating on our own, and I’m afraid that we might not fit. Because of this, I oscillate between really wanting to do it and being hesitant. But here we are now, talking through it all. I want to get to know you better; I want to understand your point of view. I don't think we need to decide everything today. We need to move forward slowly, but I know for sure that I will not get what I want by myself. I will need help to reach my goals.”
After an intense conversation, we turned to other topics so we could relax, reflect on what had been said, and think about what was yet to be discussed. Slava and Jurate talked about how much Kaunas had changed since their last visit. They noticed that a lot had been done to make the city more attractive. They also noticed the up-to-date, fashionable styles of those walking by us. Stereotypes had Slava expecting a bunch of bald punks to be running around everywhere. So much so that he had even been a little afraid of coming to the city. Kaunas was quite different than the city he had expected to find. We stopped at a café, and although I looked relaxed, I felt a whole storm of emotions inside myself. I didn't even want to think about food and wouldn’t have gotten anything if I hadn’t been with Slava and Jurate. I ordered a salad with mozzarella cheese and a glass of orange juice. They each ordered a small steak and coffee. As we sat on the outdoor patio, I noticed Slava intently watching each person that passed.
“Work habit?” I asked smiling.
“Oh…yea. I always watch how people dress. Sometimes, I go to the beach and sit on a bench to watch vacationers from different parts of the country to see shoes I haven’t seen since the Soviet Occupation twenty years ago!” He laughed loudly. “Does it happen for you that the first thing you notice when you meet someone is the shoes they wear?”
“Oh yeah! Always!” I replied with a laugh. “First, I see shoes, then I look at faces. I am much more likely to remember people by what they wear rather than what they look like.”
All three of us laughed.
“Andrius, I want to tell you something, so we don’t have any misunderstandings later,” Slava said seriously while eating his steak. “I have a [prablem] (problem) when it comes to my salary. I owe a bailiff a lot of [maney] (money); any salary I make will be seized, and as for the items I sell, I guess you could say I work individually...”
“Slava, I work for myself too. I don't have a business. I am a freelancer.”
“No, I don’t work as a freelancer either. I sell all of my goods without invoices and buy everything through Jurate, my son, or my [mama] (mom). Since any salary I make would be seized, I think it would be possible for me to rent a car to the [kampany] (company) for a higher sum. There may be some other ways we could work around the [sistema] (system) to make sure I got paid,” continued Slava.
“I don't know...” I was lost. I hadn’t expected anything like this. “I don’t know anything about these sorts of things. I think you should talk to an accountant about how to handle it. We just talked about you being the CEO, but how would that work if you can’t even be paid a salary?”
“As far as I understand, I can officially work a couple of hours a week, and about my items, I could sell them out and I will bring [maney] (money) to the [kampany] (company) after that.” Slava lowered his eyes.
“Why can’t you just take care of everything with the bailiffs? And as for your merchandise... If it takes you a year to sell it all, when will you bring money to the company?” I asked, not trusting my potential new partner.
“It wouldn't take a year. I may not be able to sell every single pair of shoes fast, but I would try to get it all turned over as soon as possible. As for the bailiffs, it's a pretty large amount, so I pay a few euros every month, but it’s not going away anytime soon.”
“Slava, you had never mentioned any of these issues before, and I do not know what to think...”
As we continued eating, we all tried to act like nothing had changed, but it had changed. This was a difference of opinion. I figured out a way to pay the tax inspectors my fine. I didn’t run away or hide from them. I could work illegally like Slava, but I didn't want to. I wanted to reach my goals the right way. Slava was an adult man who wasn’t even officially employed and had been in debt for years. I had been expecting wisdom, experience, peace of mind, and responsibility from an older partner. I was looking for someone that could help me, but also someone I could learn from, who would be the CEO of the company, and whom I could trust to lead the company forward. I had doubts. I knew too little about this man to connect all of my life goals to him.
We spent another hour together. We repeated what we had already discussed and talked about other goals we would like to pursue, but for me, it was just idle chat. My thoughts were in a completely different place. I wanted Slava and Jurate to leave. I needed to figure out whether this was really a good idea. Even I had no backup plan.
Over the last few weeks, Slava and I had been talking more than usual, but the more we talked, the more I got the impression that it wouldn’t be good to partner with him and that everything I had hoped to gain by working with him wouldn’t happen. In my eyes, he became like a flea market stall owner who hides all of his incomes without even knowing the laws and because his business is so small and insignificant, no one cares. My goal was to be big and that would require a solid foundation. Combining businesses would help Slava more than me. The benefits for me would have been that I wouldn’t have a competitor (although Slava had been buying from me for quite a while, so he wasn’t really a competitor anymore), I would have someone to talk to about merchandise, and we could expand our assortment to eventually open a real shop. It could be useful, but would I eventually feel like a steam engine that had been overloaded? He was from a different city, so how would we deal with the warehouse situation? My warehouse was in Kaunas and his was a few hundred kilometers away. What would happen if we combined everything into one online store and a customer came to me wanting to try on something that was in Slava’s warehouse? The most logical thing would be for me to keep all the goods, his and mine, until we had a store. But I didn’t want that! The purpose of merging would be to distribute the work, not give me more inventory to manage alone in my warehouse. And that didn’t even include all of his other issues! I thought about it every free second I had, and, after a few weeks, I felt it was time to tell Slava how I saw the situation:
“Slava, I hope you understand, but I think it is too early for us to partner and commit ourselves to one another so fully. Maybe you could find a solution to all of your problems, but I honestly believe that six months to a year from now we will have major disagreements. We are both accustomed to doing things how we want and would both need to make a lot of compromises. After a while, I think we will begin to resent one another, and everything will bubble up inside until one of us burst from all the tension. I understand that this is not nice to hear, especially after we have already started dividing responsibilities, but I don’t think this set up will work for me later. I want to get to know you better, I want to see how you handle your problems, and then maybe partnering would become the next natural step. I think we can create a new online store, add all of our merchandise to it, work together, and see how it goes, but also keep our personal online stores.
“Hmmm ...” Slava, surprised, paused for a bit. “It's a pity that you feel that way. I don’t feel like that at all. I think our separation of work and responsibilities would help prevent disagreements. After all, we would be working towards the same goal, so why would we be angry? And if my [prablems] (problems) with the bailiffs are scaring you, I'll try to find ways to fix that. Don't cancel the whole deal because of that; after all, everything can be fixed.”
“It’s not just because of your bailiff problems. I just don't feel that partnering would be helpful to my future goals at this point. This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, and because of that, I can’t do something like this when it doesn’t feel completely right. I can't force myself to be ok with it when I am not.
“Of course...” Slava paused again. “I’m a person who tends to compromise. Letting go or forgiving is not a [prablem] (problem) for me, I want to work together, and it is a pity that you have changed your mind. I really believed that we could create something amazing.”
Slava was disappointed. And after our short conversation, I felt let down. A shared online store was not very enticing, but maybe it would give us a chance to work together and see how things could go. We could always revisit this conversation later.
I canceled the merger, but my main problems were still nowhere near resolved. I did not intend to slow down, and if sales continued to grow, I would not be able to handle everything in a year. There wasn’t much time left before the start of the basketball season, and I had to get things figured out before it got here. Working as a freelancer when my business was growing, no longer seemed like the best option. I didn’t feel like an actual market player yet. Individual customers who purchased items from me were not bothered by my name being on an invoice, but I was getting more and more inquiries from basketball teams, sports schools, or companies that, sometimes, found it strange to buy from a self-employed merchant.
During a meeting with an adidas representative, I realized that freelancing did not inspire trust in this industry, especially with large companies. adidas had never been my favorite brand, and I saw at it as a competitor to Nike (and, at the same time, me) rather than a brand whose products I should be selling. This manufacturer seemed old, without innovation, and only capable of treating sporting goods like shoes or clothes that only performed a function. The same dark colors, the same standard shapes, and no variety in their product catalogs. But they had changed recently. It was such a big change that I forgot about my protective feelings for Nike and did not want to miss the opportunity to sell adidas products. adidas had discovered colors, design elements, and technologies that challenged even Nike in the field of basketball. At less than three hundred grams, adidas had even created the lightest basketball shoes on the market. I had to have them!
I hadn’t grown up with this manufacturer, nor did I feel a lot of sentiment towards them, but it was one of the biggest companies in the world, and when I got to their office, I felt a huge amount of excitement. Rita, a short-haired, athletic spokeswoman for adidas, greeted me. She walked around in a basketball player’s gait and showed me the various adidas items they had on display. It was one large space separated into smaller spaces where items were arranged by category. There was a small corner for basketball merchandise, which made it easy to memorize, look at, and even touch each item.
Talking to Rita was easy but superficial. It was obvious that she was repeating her lines for the hundredth time. There were no special terms, and we agreed to sign a contract, but when she understood that I was self-employed and didn’t have a company, she gave me information for one of their partners who could fill my orders as adidas didn’t sign contracts with freelancers. It became clear that those partners were not working for free, so the price would be slightly higher than if I had been working directly with adidas. adidas wouldn’t see my order history, and if the size of my orders went up, adidas’ partner’s account would look better, not mine. I couldn’t change anything; it was their way or no way.
It was obvious that I would not be able to continue as a freelancer for much longer. Sooner or later, I would have to open a company. None of my acquaintances, parents, or relatives owned a business. The major issue I had with opening a business was dealing with all of the accounting issues. That meant I would have to give a stranger a lot of information about what I do, where I buy, who I sell to, how much I buy, or how much I sell. What would happen if that person passed on any of that information to my competitors? What if they found ways to steal the company’s money? I had read many stories about accountants emptying corporate accounts. If I opened a business, my work would change. I would spend more time filing documents and recruiting people. Learning all of this would take a lot of time. Did I really want to do it?
After registering my company name and trying to figure out what to do next, I got a lot of sales as the new basketball season started, so I put the company issue to the side and once again focused solely on sneakers.
After my last conversation with Slava, I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks. I wasn’t expecting such a long silent from him, but I didn't want to write first, so I left it up to him to decide if he wanted to do a joint online shop to try and work together, or if we would forget everything and continue on as we had before. After few weeks passed though, Slava eventually wrote back, and we started a new brand.
The principle was clear. Create a new online store and add all of our products. It took us a while to pick a name. Although I have always used the name SportClothes, the name seemed too difficult to pronounce at first, so someone suggested using SAL, which was the acronym for the slogan “Sport and Lifestyle”. Even I didn’t like this abbreviation much, but I took the advice and when I advertised the store, I used that acronym. Over time, those letters became more popular than the main name, and I began to hear the name SAL, more and more. We took the second part of the name, ART from Slava’s online store, SportArt, and combined the two acronyms to give it a new name, Sport and Lifestyle Art, Salart.
“What is this shit you sold me?!” A forty-year-old man brusquely stepped into my office and slammed his shoes on my desk.
“What happened? What's wrong with them?” I asked, embarrassed, as soon as I was able get my bearings.
“This shit was made in China! These lookalikes you are peddling caused me to mess up my ankle yesterday! I have always bought my Nike shoes in other Western Europe countries, and this is what happens the first time I buy a pair in Eastern Europe. You sold me that shit, so give me my fucking money back!” he exclaimed.
“Those sneakers are real. Injuries can happen with any type of shoe and any location. Where you buy it doesn’t matter because the quality everywhere is the same...” I began defending myself.
“Don't you even try to tell me these fucking fakes are real! Take this Chinese shit and give me my fucking money back!”
Less than a year ago, my customers had pushed me to keep going and offered a ton support, but this season something had changed. The customer community had changed. As the number of customers had expanded, there seemed to be more buyers who thought they were doing me a great favor by buying my merchandise and felt like they had a great deal of power over me. Because of this feeling of power, they were throwing items on the desk, on the ground, or even directly at me.
This customer who was now screaming, cursing, threatening, and trying to humiliate me had just bought these shoes a few days ago, and I had given him an extra discount because he had been nice and working with him had been a pleasure. Now, here was the same customer in the same place, with saliva dripping down his face like a raging pit bull. It felt like I was in a movie, where everything around me slowed down. Everything went silent, and I began wondering “What the Hell am I doing here?” and “Why do I have to listen to his screaming?”
This wasn’t going to end until I gave him his money back. No matter how good the quality was, it wasn’t worth my time to prove the truth, and I was afraid that another customer might walk in while he was fuming. What would that customer think? If they heard what this man screamed, they may also begin to question my credibility.
When situations like that occurred and emotions got high, I agreed to return the money, provided that the customer didn’t buy anything else from me. Everyone agrees. Everyone takes the money and leaves. I suggested the same to this customer with a hope that at least in that way I will be able to create a community I like to work with.
The door finally shut and the ordeal was over. I shuddered in my chair. Even though the whole thing hadn’t lasted more than ten minutes, I felt bad for the rest of the day. I constantly checked comments on the internet for a few days, fearing that the same customer would slander my brand’s name somewhere. I was perpetually anxious. After events like that, it was increasingly difficult for me to interact with even well-meaning customers. I struggled to smile, offer sincere advice, or explain the features of items. This customer may be smiling now, but in a few days, that very same customer could be trying to bust down my door.
It wasn’t professional, and maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I had been working for someone else; I would probably have accepted it as part of the job. But when I worked for myself and I gave all my heart and believing that I was creating something important, I took such challenges personally, and I couldn’t just let it go.
Half an hour after that customer’s visit, my thoughts were still scrambled, and I couldn’t concentrate. My heart rate had returned to normal, and I wasn’t as tense, but I couldn’t pull it together. I slid so far down in my chair that I was almost laying down; my head was at the same level as the table and my hands were hanging down on the ground. I had plenty of work to do, but I just couldn’t concentrate.
Sales hadn’t slowed down, and they had more than doubled compared to the previous year. More sales mean more to stock. To keep everything running, I started spending every day at work. The difference between the time when I lived in the office and now was one thing: freedom. In the past, I had had a lot of freedom when I was living here. I had time to think of ways to improve things, how to make things better, or make them more interesting, but now, I was beginning to find boundaries and limits. I no longer had any leisure time, I didn’t go anywhere to relax, and I spent most of my time working from morning until midnight. On days when I got home at eight or nine o'clock in the evening, I no longer knew what to do with myself; inevitably, I would feel overwhelmed by the feeling that I had forgotten to do something and wasn’t able to relax.
“How the fuck did I let this happen to my life!!?”
I screamed at myself as I grabbed the shoes that were still sitting on my desk from the angry customer. I threw the shoes, as hard as I could, and they ended up hitting the towers of shoe boxes which sent row after row tumbling down like dominoes. That throw had caused even more chaos, and there was no one but me to fix things. There was no one I could tell to straighten it up. Another minute of my life was gone. I had been shortening my life by sitting in this office trying to do something good, when a customer who didn't like an item he bought came in, released all of his stress on to me, took the money, and left. I stayed seated. I should let it go; it was just a part of the job. But if it's the job, why was I subjecting myself to this? For what? For the buyers like this? Screw them!
When a business grows, there will be more and more customers like this. Even I get a small percent of complaints, but like a fly in the ointment, they created new rules which caused me to have a different attitude towards my new customers. I distrusted everyone new. How many new businesses have closed due to customers like that? Hundreds, no thousands, dammit! If I keep doing the same things, it will only get worse in a year, and there will be even more days like this. I didn’t sign up for this shit.
I love sneakers.
I want to create something huge. But I don’t’ want to be boxed in like this. Salespeople are slaves. They are nothing. After all, the customer is always right—yeah, right! That’s the worst phrase in existence.
All summer, I thought about merging my business with Slava’s, but now, these ideas were gone too. We didn't end up creating the Salart site together.
However, at the end of the summer, one of our competitor’s announced that they were selling their site. Slava and I quickly decided to have a joint business. Just a few hours after seeing the ad, I had the login information and was able to analyze how it worked, how many orders there were, and how many people were visiting the site. The amount spent on the site paid off in under four months, and we no longer had a competitor, but working with Slava proved to be difficult. I noticed that he says a lot more than he does.
Almost every morning began with a message from Slava:
“We need to get together! Let’s open a couple of stores, raise sales on the websites, and find more customers in other countries!”
The more he wrote, the more distrustful I became, and he always answered my questions about his legal problems the same way:
“I can sell the merchandise I have now on my own and after that I will bring the [maney] (money) to the [kampany] (company). It would take a lot of work and expense to get me into the ‘clear,’ but we could open a real store even tomorrow! I have even visited the perfect place near the seaside. And as for the US, I'm afraid to get anything from there ‘above the table’ because there will be additional taxes which will make prices much higher. I think for now it is best to buy everything from Europe. Drive is the most important thing to have, and I have it in spades!”
“Drive is drive, but you haven’t taken care of anything!” I said, immediately annoyed after every single message like that. “I want you to get rid of your debt with the bailiffs. You have never even shipped one item that was ‘legal,’ and now you say you want to buy everything from Europe. Well, okay, but that makes no sense because the suppliers in Europe are mine, and in the case of a merger, our strength would be that you have suppliers in the US, and we balance it all on equal footing. You talk about opening a store. You say you looked around the premises, and you can open it. Sorry but looking at premises is not the most important thing for us right now. I want clarity on what you are bringing to the table. I have already stated that I lack knowledge about taxes, about the law, about company operations, what the costs will be, and how much we would each contribute. There would be a lot of turnover right away and even the smallest mistake could result in heavy fines. Not only you do not see this, but you also have your own problems that you haven’t dealt with or tried to solve.”
“I am working on it. I want to figure it out, and I understand that the number of [prablems] (problems) I have is ridiculous. I [pramis] (promise) you, I will go to the bailiffs in the next few days and take care of everything.”
Each conversation ended the same way, with promises to do it all, but nothing ever changed. It wasn’t what I needed. I needed someone with business experience, who can be a mentor I could talk to, and who could help me grow. I needed someone who knew business and the law. I needed someone who has a team, which I could trust. I needed help to set up my business.
There were quite a few rich people who were investing in Lithuania, but how would I choose a partner and what criteria would I need to look for? I knew the merchandise, e-commerce, and I heard and met customer needs. Those strengths helped my sales grow, and I wanted to go further, but I would never become big without the help of a true businessman, a mentor.
Every spare moment I had was dedicated to finding a potential partner. I tried not to stray far from the basketball circle. I was interested in respectful current or former basketball players who had set up their own businesses. The person who met those requirements was Arvydas Sabonis, a basketball player who had changed basketball in Lithuania. He had turned basketball into a second religion in Lithuania, and after completing his career as a basketball player, he established his own business, became president of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, and was still closely associated with the sport. After a successful career in the NBA, I believed he would have money to invest, but would he be the right person to help build an international business? Would his team be capable of doing that? If I had questions, could I ask him for advice and receive a credible answer? He was a great basketball player, but business is quite different than basketball, and businesses in Lithuania are not the same as businesses around the world.
I may have dreamed of calling Sabonis a business partner, but I needed a lot of comprehensive experience, and to get that, I needed someone with a bigger team. Each time I started thinking about this, I ran into a brick wall. I didn’t want an entrepreneur who was working in the construction industry or some other unrelated business. I didn’t want someone to give me money and tell me to go take care of it. I didn’t want someone who was arrogant and made themselves superior to everyone else. I definitely didn’t want anyone to muddy the SportClothes reputation. I needed an entrepreneur who knew basketball, was honest, and had businesses in Lithuania as well as other countries. I needed someone I could talk to and ask for opinions. I wanted a partner.
I had a lot of demands and time was running out. I'd reviewed many businesses and read many articles about their founders but hadn’t found anyone that felt trustworthy, except for one man. He had been in the media and on television for years. He was particularly visible on basketball portals and in basketball-related news. I had known about him forever, but it wasn’t until now that I noticed him. He had saved the Lithuanian basketball team a year ago by providing the support the team needed to make it to the FIBA World Basketball Championship, where they won third place! He was a basketball sponsor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Antanas Guoga.
How had I seen him almost every day but never noticed over him? I wanted to know everything possible about him.
He made millions playing poker under the pseudonym Tony G. He had lived in Australia for several years and was increasingly spending more and more time in Lithuania. He had businesses in Lithuania, Germany, England, the USA, and Australia. In addition to supporting Lithuanian basketball, he also sponsored a TV project which helped struggling people. On television and in the press, he seemed to talk sincerely and didn’t act like he had anything to hide. This was a man who, in my opinion, behaved like a true Westerner, a Westerner, who believes that helping each other makes the world a better place for living.
I read all of his interviews, watched every video about him, and began to believe that I might have found a possible partner whose values were fully in line with mine and could help me expand a footwear business to the rest of the world. I believed he had a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of experience, and a carefully selected team. There was no negative news related to him, so I was convinced that he had earned his millions honestly. I had never played poker, but just like with any other professional sport, I did not doubt that it required extraordinary preparation and great effort to become one of the best in the world. Making money is one thing, but the fact that he supported those who were struggling showed that his business was stable and he had a big heart. Surely, he wouldn't try to fool someone stuck in a tiny office space with dreams of the world. His acquaintances in the basketball world would allow us to enter Lithuanian basketball arenas as well as arenas around the world. He was someone whose opinion I could trust to mentor me. I believed I could learn an immense amount from him.
While living in my office, I had grown accustomed to walking around the city late at night when there were only a few people out on the streets. While walking along the quiet streets, I was able to concentrate and relax, which is why those kinds of walks were great for brainstorming. When I moved to the suburbs, I no longer had the opportunity to walk the beautiful downtown streets, but my habit of nightly walks had remained, so instead of just loitering around my apartment building, I started carrying SportClothes flyers and tossing them in the mailboxes of the surrounding building. While leaving flyers, I thought hard about what bringing on Antanas would mean and whether or not it can be a good choice, but at the end of every walk, I came to the conclusion that having an experienced businessman as a partner couldn’t be a mistake and certainly wouldn’t make things any worse than they were. After all, how could someone who helps others make things worse? Isn’t it better to regret what you have done rather than what you have not done? I would regret it if I didn't at least try.
I hadn’t written to any potential investors yet. Previous conversations with Slava had been no more than child’s play. We were at the same level, but now I was trying to jump straight to the top. I couldn’t even imagine writing to such an accomplished person. I did not doubt that he received dozens of emails, so he may never even see mine, but I had to give it a chance. I had to try.
After a brief internet search, I found his contacts and started writing. I didn’t want to write a long email because he probably wouldn't read it, but if it were too short, it might not catch his interest. I decided I would introduce myself, explain what I am doing, as well as my strengths, and what I lacked. I wanted him to at least know a little bit about me, even if he decided he didn't want to work with me. Maybe someday, some basketball player would need shoes, and Antanas would remember that some guy had written to him once, and he would suggest my store to them. Even that would have been a success.
At the beginning of the letter, I provided a brief history of SportClothes, how I started selling five years ago after I bought my first items with a down payment of just over a thousand euros and now I have a turnover of three hundred thousand euros a year which was steadily increasing. I explained that I mainly sell basketball items, but I am expanding into other categories. I also mentioned that my goal is to expand beyond Lithuania, and I had already shipped goods to over sixty countries around the world.
Later, I listed my aspirations. I wanted the letter to be shorter, but as I read it for the fiftieth time, I did not know how I could shorten it while keeping everything that was important. While I had been writing, a cold sweat covered me, making my hands and feet feel cold and icy. My heart was beating like crazy. This was my chance to venture out into the deep waters, and I only had once shot at getting it right.
“What’s meant to be, will be,” with a left-click, I sent the email and immediately felt at ease.
After sending the email, I had relaxed a little more than usual and ended up drinking a few too many cocktails. Today, Minde and I felt the effects of yesterday’s party. As students, we both had done this at least once every couple of weeks. Now at work, I no longer felt intoxicated, but it was hard to keep my eyes open, and my joints were achy. At age twenty-six, I was feeling really old. I wasn’t feeling old because I hadn’t gone out as much as I used to, but rather, as I got older, I started to feel like I was closing myself in a box, and I could no longer completely let loose. What was the point of going to work, if I feel lazy? I wouldn't get anything done, but I knew there was a chance that someone could come in to buy something, and if someone ordered something off the internet, I would need to get it shipped, so that it would arrive on time. My promises to my customers always came first. If I stated that you would receive an item the next day, I had to make sure that happened—no matter what. With this attitude, I ensured that my clients would be happy and my sales would continue to grow, but I found myself stuck somewhere I didn’t wanted to be.
“Hello Andrius,” wrote my main Nike supplier from Germany, waking me up. The supplier and I had often chatted with each other about how sales were going. We talked about the similarities and differences between the Lithuanian and German markets so much that I had a pretty good understanding of the customers there. His official greeting was not looked optimistic. “I am having problems with Nike. I was selling shoes at a lower price to local basketball teams, and some of the teams reported it to Nike. It was a breach of my contract with a brand. I've been talking with them for a few weeks now, but it seems very likely that they will cancel my discount or even stop my new orders altogether.”
“Damn, man! Sounds pretty scary!” I replied, as all of my sleepiness instantly disappeared. I had not expected this. Of course, there is always a chance that the well will run dry when you are buying from a reseller, but we had had a long and successful relationship and I forgot about a possibility of situation like this, so I never searched for a second supplier as a backup plan. “What do you plan to do if they cancel the discount or cancel all the orders?” I asked, hoping to hear something helpful.
“Either way, I don’t think I will be able to continue selling. Even if they allow me to continue buying without the discount, the purchase price will be too high for me. I'll let you know when it's official, but I’m not very hopeful. I have a few other businesses, so I still have something to fall back on, but I don’t have any advice for you right now.”
Both the supplier in Germany and Slava had separate businesses to fall back on, in the event of a failure with sneakers, so they mitigated the risk. I didn’t have that option. I couldn’t imagine giving some other field my attention. Whatever I did, it would be something to do with shoes. I didn't have a plan B, but not having a backup plan also has benefits. When problems arise and you don’t have anywhere to go, you are required to keep working to find a solution. In this case, however, a plan B would have given me more room to breathe.
The night before, I had sent Antanas an email and things had already changed so much. If I could no longer buy Nike merchandise, I didn’t know if I could even continue selling at all. I could still buy other brands, but selling sneakers and not having Nike would be the same as McDonald's not having burgers.
I had felt such optimism the day before, but it now felt like the world had turned upside down. I expected a smooth, straight road to my goals, but instead found myself on this roller coaster that was changing every day. Every hour.
After gathering my thoughts for a few minutes, I was able to remind myself that this was just another bump in the road. “I'll have to look for a new supplier. I found this one, so I will find another one,” I thought. “What if I couldn’t?” I hesitated. “I'll figure it out...”
Sometimes, I find myself stuck on little things that have very little impact on the big picture because I worry that they could endanger something in the future. This situation had the potential to determine the end of everything, but it was no skin off my back, and I calmly returned to my daily routine.
At the end of the business day, I received a call from an unfamiliar phone number:
“Hi, my name is Vytas, and I am calling about the email you sent to Antanas Guoga yesterday.”
“Yes...” I replied, surprised. I hadn’t expected such a quick response. I thought it would take at least a couple of weeks for me to hear anything, but in less than 24 hours, I had a call from Antanas!
“Antanas is in Australia right now and won’t be back for a few months, but I am authorized to meet you and discuss everything. Do you have some free time tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course...” I replied, still unsure whether I was dreaming or not.
After a few more questions, we ended the conversation. Engulfed in emotions, I held up the phone and screamed, “Yeah! Antanas read my email!” I couldn’t stop repeating that to myself as I paced around the shoe boxes in my office while smiling like an idiot. “He saw me! He saw me!” I repeated over and over again.
That night, I thought I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep due to my emotional high, but I’m not sure I have ever felt so calm or relaxed. I wasn’t stressed or anxious about the coming meeting. Vytas had agreed to come to my office. It would give him a chance to see how I worked and how much merchandise I had. Over the years, I had accumulated quite a stash of items and after doing a quick inventory, I calculated that I had more than one and a half thousand pairs of shoes. I had decided not to mention my issues with Nike until I was certain what the situation was, and if I found that I could no longer buy from my supplier or find others, then I would put an end to our conversations, but at least I would know how Antanas' team worked.
I did not dress up or do anything I wouldn’t do on any other day. I had noticed that more and more successful people in the world were not donning suits and expensive accessories when they were conducting business. They dressed in ways that made them feel good, which gave an accurate view of their daily routine and created a distinctive image. I decided that if I was creating my own business, I wouldn’t push myself into an image that would make me look different than who I was, even if it was a meeting that had the potential to change my whole life. If it was a life-changing meeting, that was all the more reason for him to see me as I truly was. I worked in a warehouse every day, so my outfits were casual.
A few minutes later, someone knocked on the door and a man, just a few years older than me, walked into my office. I had looked him up online, so I knew what he would look like: dark hair, round face, a shadow of a beard, and a slightly larger than average physique.
“Hello, I assume you are Andrius? I'm Vytas,” he said in a steady step as he reached his hand out to greet me with a handshake. His smile broke the ice and conversation quickly ensued. Although I felt him soaking in every detail of my office and every word I said to report to Antanas, the conversation was easy, and I wasn’t stressed. Just like with my customers, I didn’t try to sell anything. I wanted customers to decide if they needed something, so I chose the same tactic with Vytas. I explained how I worked, how orders worked, what the problems were, and what I enjoyed about the job.
“How do you envision Antanas’ resources helping?” Vytas asked from the other side of the desk with his chin resting on his hand.
“I have no idea how partnering works,” I smiled. “My strength is knowing the merchandise and understanding what catches people’s interest. As a result, I am able to find new areas of interest and attract new clients, but as I mentioned in my email, there are a lot of things on the business side that I just don’t know. I’m not sure how to run the business itself. I can't coordinate the work, I'm afraid to hire anyone, and even if hire someone, I don't even have a proper place for them to work. I don’t have the knowledge or money to expand abroad or open stores in Lithuania. I don’t know much about laws. I need someone who can give advice, help, and teach me. That is why I contacted Antanas.”
“Antanas has a lot of businesses, so he has a wealth of experience that I think he could share with you. But knowledge aside, do you have any idea how much additional investment would be required? Are we are talking about thousands or hundreds of thousands?” Vytas turned his head towards the stacks of merchandise, sizing them up.
“This year's turnover will be three hundred thousand euros. Next year, it should be more than six or seven hundred thousand euros, so if we talk about an investment, I think we should talk about hundreds of thousands, but I do not have a business plan, and I don’t have the slightest clue how to tell you an amount. My main point is to have a mentor, and I don't need money right now. I pay my bills on time, so the actual amount of investment may change based on what we do in the future,” I continued talking while watching Vytas. “I imagine Antanas as the backbone that would help solve various problems not only with money but also with his experience and knowledge of expanding businesses to other countries.”
“Antanas could really help with Germany and Australia. He has businesses there. It should be simple in these places, and I don’t think other countries would be a problem either, but you should talk with him about that. As for the store in Kaunas, how do you imagine it, what size, and where?”
“I think anything would be better than having customers come to this tiny office,” I laughed, “but, of course, I would prefer a storefront on Freedom Avenue. I don't need something huge; I imagine a small boutique that is around a hundred square meters.”
“What about the streets near Freedom Avenue? Putvis street, for example? It runs parallel to Freedom avenue, just two streets away. Antanas has free space in a building on that street, so you could possibly set up your store there.”
“I think it would be worth checking out...” I replied with a smile.
“According to your email, you started with a thousand euros in capital and now have a turnover of three hundred thousand euros a year? Did I understand correctly?” Vytas asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes,” I nodded. “I received a loan from my university for living costs, and I wanted to buy myself some sneakers from a US store, but shipping made it too expensive to send just one pair, so I created a website where I could list merchandise and bought a few pairs of shoes for my first order. Little by little, I began ordering more and more...”
“Instead of using the money to live, you chose to spend everything on shoes?”
“That’s exactly what I did,” I smiled, “and, at that point, I didn't even know about import taxes, so I ended up selling my first few orders at a much lower price than what I paid for them.”
We both laughed.
“Why do people buy from you, in general, especially foreigners? After all, the options are limitless in other countries, and most Lithuanians go to other countries to shop since there are lower prices and more options outside of Lithuania?” An even greater amount of curiosity flashed across Vytas’ face.
“It is just a myth that everywhere else has more options. Markets are different; collections are different; even Americans don't have everything we have here in Lithuania. I get my merchandise at good prices and try to order as many models as possible. I am interested in trends, I know the history, and I like the products myself. I order what I would order for myself and look for customers that are similar to me. I also sell at lower prices than manufacturers recommend, but I try to sell larger quantities to get a fast turnover. I advertise on various forums and social networks. I sell on eBay, which helped me find more customers in other countries but also increased my sales in Lithuania. I have no specific answer as to why people buy from me, but I always try to give the best service possible. I read customer’s comments, I try to fulfill wants, and do everything I promise. Then, customers recommend my store to one another. I have never asked why customers buy from me, but when they do, it shows me they believe in me, and to me, that is the most important thing.”
“OK and why do you say that eBay helped increase your sales locally if eBay customers are from other countries?”
I smiled and rolled up my sleeves as I continued explaining.
“Most dealers who sell exclusively in small local markets are reluctant to take risks, and they place orders based on the history of their best-selling models. Why take the risk of buying something new when you can sell what you know works? Customers around the world have different wants and tastes, and you won't get anywhere with boring models. If you want to increase sales, whether you like it or not, you have to follow the latest trends. While following global trends, I have also been able to provide local customers with models that aren’t available in local stores. By selling to other countries, I created exclusivity in the local market, which allowed me to reach more customers.”
We spent several hours talking. I tried to explain everything as clearly and with as much sincerity as possible, so that when he left, I would feel that I had done my best to interest him and show Antanas a genuine view of my business. It was easy for me to get caught up in talking about my business, but at the same time, I was afraid that I would tell too much and end up with a new competitor. However, in this case, I thought showing my cards would be more useful.
As I sat alone in my office, I felt so good that I couldn’t sit still. I felt like everything inside of me was boiling out. After sharing my excitement with all of my close family and friends, I tried to let it go for now. After all, nothing had happened; it was just the first meeting.
I remembered Slava. Although we hadn’t made any commitments due to his problems, he was buying more and more merchandise from me, and we were talking to one another more often than ever before. We decided which models were selling well or poorly and followed the trends. Aside from our disagreements about why we couldn’t partner, our frequent conversations made him feel that merging our businesses was only a matter of when. It would be a big hit when he found out that I had chosen Antanas as a possible partner. We always talked straight, so I thought it was best to let him know now what my plans were for the future.
“Slava, maybe I shouldn't be telling you this, but I want you to know that I am looking for a potential business partner and one of them meet with me today,” I started the conversation.
“I see...” after a long pause, he continued. “This is big news. It’s a shame and not that great for me...”
“It was just a meeting. Nothing has been decided...”
We both had a hard time choosing words, and there was more silence. Even though I knew he would be surprised, I had hoped he would pretend and say something like: "Oh, man, how cool. Congratulations!"
“I feel hurt. I fully understand where you are coming from, but what about our talks of merging businesses?” He asked frantically.
“You haven’t taken care of any of your problems!” I said raising my voice. “I need people who want to make things happen. I want a real business, not something I run out of this tiny office. I'm tired of making mistakes and trying to squeeze by while risking all of my money. I love working with sneakers, but I hate all the paperwork. I don't want to even think about company bylaws, hiring people, documents, or only God knows what else. I'm not good at that stuff, but I can’t grow without those things.”
“Well dammit, make me your partner! I'll do anything, even become an accountant, if that’s what you need!” Slava started pleading. “Don't make any final decision yet. I'll sign my house on the beach over to you, so you can sell it and invest the [maney] (money) however you want!”
“What are you talking about…” I said trying to stop him.
“I'm being serious! I'll hire an accountant to handle everything for you! I have a cousin in Russia, and he can help us open a store there! I will come to Kaunas anytime you need, so you can get a break. Don’t jump into a deal, wait a few months, and think it over carefully. I have been doing everything with the idea that we were working towards partnering. Giving away a big part of a successful business in exchange for knowledge seems strange to me, and I, personally, would never do it.”
“I’m in no hurry,” I replied, "and I offered you a partnership a long time ago, but you have been all talk and, even after all this time, nothing has come from it. I don’t need money. I need help and knowledge, and for that knowledge, I will give away the whole business! You are full of wisdom and quick to give tips, but when push comes to shove, you can’t even take care of your own problems!”
“Well, I know it sounds bad, but in the next few days I’m planning...”
“I don't know what I'm going to do,” I continued cutting him off, “but working more than twelve hours a day, seven days a week without any days off or a vacation is too much for me. I’m just so fucking tired. I want someone who can help me get organized and get out of this. I’m not going to let you make me feel like I am wronging you and guilty of ruining your expectations of a partnership.”
“No, man, I don't blame you. I know we work differently, but I just don't know any companies that work so ‘officially.’ I don’t see the point in doing all that if there is an option where you don’t need to worry about it. One of my friends didn’t issue a receipt, was fined one hundred euros, paid the fine, and didn’t have any more [prablems] (problems). It seemed like it was better for him to pay the fine than to declare everything he sold. You are under so much stress and that is why even a successful business no longer makes you happy. Of course, you know more clearly what you need, but wait a bit and don't rush into any decisions. I'll try to get my mess resolved. This makes me feel like I'm selling my business! I feel like I am more torn up about it than you! Who knows what will happen with those partners? You could fight about something and end up left with nothing.”
“Yeah, you don't know how much I have worried about it...”
“I'm just trying to get you to hold off. I feel like we are in this together.”
Our conversation lasted a good half hour and left me feeling frustrated and upset. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Was it fair to give some of what I had created to a stranger, even if it was Antanas? Did I have any other options? What was most important to me and what did I want? For me, the most important thing was to be creative and happy. Now, I didn’t feel like I was being either. I did technical work every day, leaving me with very little time to devote to my dreams. I no longer had hobbies. In the summer, I had gone swimming with Minde or went to the gym, but just a few months later, all I had time for was sleep and work. I was tired of that life.
Although I had not yet received a definitive answer from my Nike supplier in Germany, I had been looking for a new supplier over the last few weeks. I'd sent hundreds of emails, but no one had offered a similar contract. Of course, it was a little naive to expect someone to offer good terms right away, but the only way to find what you want is to look. Luck was smiling down on me.
From childhood, one of my biggest dreams had been to work with Nike, and more than three years ago, I had been so excited to be invited to see their new collections for the first time. I imagined the presentations would be just like the snippets I had seen in various magazines over the years. I had the impression that it was going to be a party with gorgeous guests climbing out of luxurious cars onto a red carpet.
Not wanting to stand out, I dressed in a black suit and white shirt. Although I wore sneakers every day, I didn’t dare wear them for this occasion, so I instead chose a pair of classic black shoes. I took my sister Kriste, who is five years younger than me. She couldn’t miss something like this. She had gone with a freer style—a light summer jacket, a pair of slightly rolled up pants, and a pair of crisp, white Nike shoes. We looked like a couple ready for a fashion show.
But something was wrong. We thought we weren’t in the right place at first. There were no cars, no music, no one walking by, or any other sign that an event was about to take place. In the distance, we noticed Nike posters in the windows, and upon entering, we realized that we had greatly overestimated the event.
There was no show.
It was an exposition for people who sold their merchandise. It was a lot like meeting the adidas spokeswoman. The new collection was on the shelves, and I was walking around dressed in a formal suit with formal shoes. I have never been fan of dressing in such a manner, and my legs felt like buckling out from underneath me. I felt even more embarrassed as a light-haired man, a few centimeters taller than me, dressed from head to toe in Nike apparel, approached us. Skirma, the Nike representative, was smiling and my face became all red. I apologized under my breath for my choice of outfits as I felt increasingly embarrassed. Why on earth would I show up to an exposition by my favorite brand without wearing anything with their logo? It had been a mistake, and Kriste turned out to be my savior, as she had at least worn Nike sneakers.
My choice of clothes had been way off, and it was hard for me to relax, but, as it was my first time at a place like this, I did not want to miss the opportunity to try on and touch as many different models as possible. I forgot all about my insecurities. This place made me feel like Homer Simpson in a world made of donuts. I moved from one item to another until it was time to talk about prices and the possibilities of buying directly from the manufacturer's representative in this region. However, my sales weren’t impressive enough, so Skirma wouldn’t give me a discount, which made it too expensive to buy from him. On my way home, Kriste tried to reassure me and tell me that I needed to be happy, that I had been noticed, and that I had the opportunity to attend the exposition, but I just felt like a door had slammed in my face. It felt like Skirma had underestimated me and that dry figures had determined everything. My passion and dedication to the manufacturer meant nothing. It seemed unfair until I finally decided to let it go. I realized this wasn’t a decision from Nike, but rather one employee. This was not Nike's answer—it was Skirma's answer. “If getting a contract is all about sales, I'll give them that,” I promised myself. That motivated me day in and day out. Every day, I strove to do something new and better than everyone else. I wanted Nike to notice me as often as possible and to make it impossible for them to forget me. And then, more than three years later, when the time came for me to look for a new supplier, I received an email from Skirma.
This email prompted me to visit the capital, Vilnius, and in less than half an hour, we were going to watch a match between the two best Lithuanian basketball teams, Zalgiris Kaunas and Rytas Vilnius. Even something as big as seeing a battle between these two teams didn’t compare to the importance of my meeting with Skirma before the game.
By the time I arrived at the café, Skirma was already waiting for me. Just like our first meeting, he had the same energy and smile.
We ordered snacks and after brief introductions, we hit the main point of our meeting.
“After seeing your low prices, I don't think I will be able to offer anything better than you have now, but Nike is interested in working with you. Not only would you get the maximum discount available, but you could also apply for delayed payments, receive free shipping, and have the opportunity to receive various promotional accessories like bags or pens,” Skirma didn’t beat around the bush as he laid the offer on the table.
“Working with Nike is one of my biggest dreams.” After our first meeting and not receiving a contract, it was hard for me to hide the ever-increasing smile on my face. “My only issue is that since you are working with other stores, it might be possible for them to start pressing you to terminate or change our agreement. If we sign a contract, I would prefer something long-term, not just a year or two.”
“Andrius, I am only looking for long-term contracts and others cannot influence anything we decide,” Skirma asserted.
After a few more questions, there was no point in even pretending that I was still thinking about whether or not to sign. I was waiting for the perfect opportunity to confirm, “Of course, I agree to work with Nike!”
After eating our snacks, we headed to the arena to watch the game. We missed the national anthem, but we sat down just a few seconds before the match started. A representative from Nike had invited me to the match—I was on top of the world! Details like that make you feel important and valued.
Skirma was a little tense during the match. He was working and probably met with clients in places like that often. However, I was soaking in everything going on around me. This was a huge celebration for me, and Kaunas Zalgiris, my city’s team, winning was the icing on the cake.
I didn’t know how realistic my dream of having a contract with Nike had been, but I had been chasing it every single day for three years. Every single day, I had tried to increase sales. Every single day, I wanted Nike to see the SportClothes logo more and more frequently and then be drawn to me and what I was creating. Three years ago, after the door had slammed in my face, I thought I would be pressing Skirma for the best possible conditions, but at this moment, the past was forgotten, and I was enjoying the moment. From now on, I was going to work with Nike and, finally, they trusted me.
In the last month, my supplier from Germany had resolved his problems with Nike. Although his discount decreased by a few percent, the prices he was giving me were still good. No matter how happy I was with my Nike contract, first and foremost, it was a company, and they had their own interests. I was still uncertain about how much they want to work with me and how much to control me. Hence, the additional option of being able to work with a middle man just like before interested me just as much as a contract with Nike. From now on, I would no longer be tied to one vendor.
But this day wasn’t about suppliers. Every time a customer leaves, I mop the floor and straighten up the boxes. More than two months after my visit with Vytas, Antanas would be meeting me for the first time. I felt so nervous that if I was a smoker, I would finish my tenth pack of cigarettes. I didn’t even know why I was so worried. Antanas and I had already talked on the phone, and he knew the whole situation, so I shouldn’t have been worried. If he was coming, it was because he was interested, and if he was interested, it meant he was thinking of partnering.
Although I felt confident that there would be a possible deal, the excitement overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t concentrate or get anything done, so I didn’t attempt to do anything other than welcome customers and send out items that had been ordered. Everything else could wait for a calmer day. However, trying to fill my time by browsing websites only added to my unease.
“Andrius, we're near and should there in just a few minutes,” Antanas informed me by telephone.
My adrenaline levels soared even higher. It became more and more difficult to calm down. I tried to do some of the relaxation exercises I knew—inhale, exhale. It calmed me down a bit, but my hands still trembled. I went down to the street to meet Antanas, so he wouldn't have to wander around the building looking for my office.
There wasn’t a ton of snow, and it was a nice evening for February, so I stood at the edge of the street and put my hands in my pockets. I had no idea what kind of car he would be in, but I assumed that it would be luxurious and stand out, so I closely watched each car pass by, especially distinctive or newer models.
I saw a newer Lexus slowly approaching, but as it passed by, I realized that it was not him. Trembling and getting colder, a few more cars passed that I thought would fit Antanas, before I noticed a black Mercedes. It probably wouldn't have caught my attention because I was expecting something more exclusive, but the license plate gave him away. Even from a distance, it was easy to read the bright ‘TONYG’ on the front of the car.
Standing in the cold had calmed my nerves, but now a whole new wave hit me. To avoid having him miss me, I raised my hand as you would to hail a taxi. The car pulled up on the sidewalk, the back door opened, and out stepped Antanas. “I imagined he would be shorter,” was my first thought. He was my height, just huskier, and dressed very warmly. As usual, I immediately turned my attention to his, maybe a bit disproportionately large, shoes. I estimated the size of his winter boots to be three sizes larger than mine.
Antanas' wife stepped out of the door on the other side of the car. She was tall, slender, and dressed in a long, brown coat. After a brief greeting, she locked arms with Antanas, and we climbed up the stairs. Antanas’ driver followed a few feet behind us. As I showed them the way to my office, I noticed them looking around as if trying to figure out where in the world I was taking them. I concluded that the driver was probably also a bodyguard, as he was very closely watching where I led. He was probably memorizing the fastest route out of the building in the case of an emergency. The mistrust and fear I felt from them helped me easily calm my nerves. After entering the office and closing the door, I did not wait for Antanas to start the conversation. I took the initiative, and after a brief introduction, I moved the conversation to my merchandise. I always loved talking about sneakers, so I felt it was the perfect time for me to show him most of the shoes while explaining why each pair was special and why I had purchased them. After listening to my speeches, Antanas’ driver wanted to buy a pair of brown shoes. That gave me even more confidence.
Antanas walked around the office with his wife and ended up silently standing a few steps away from the door smiling as I finished explaining every single piece of merchandise. I continued to talk, but my self-confidence was beginning to fade. Antanas didn’t ask me any questions and didn’t showed any reaction, so I had no idea what he was thinking or how all of this looked to him. Perhaps, he had imagined me with some huge business, but instead found some kid trying to play store? But at the same time, I reminded myself that my enthusiasm and passion for my goals would allow him to see and remember that all businesses, even the biggest ones, start from nothing more than the faith of the people who create them. Besides, he’s Tony G.; of course, he must have a good Poker face. Not wanting any awkward silences, I continued talking and waited for Antanas to ask a question or show some kind of reaction, but all I got were a smile and fleeting emotions. I continued speaking, but the lack of reaction pushed me to start looking for new topics that could interest Antanas. I felt myself becoming increasingly desperate and confusing. I hadn’t been ready for such a long speech, and I didn't know what else to say.
After a good fifteen or twenty minutes, Antanas offered to go to a restaurant. I thought it was over, that I had lost his interest, and that he was looking for an excuse to leave my office and put a stop to my efforts of trying to interest him. The fact that I hadn’t thought about a café or restaurant in advance also made me cringe inside. I had no idea what he liked to eat or what place to visit. After a few moments and thinking of all the eateries around, I suggested the nearest pizzeria, which I sometimes visited in the evenings to eat spaghetti Bolognese.
As we prepared to go outside, Antanas carefully put on his long coat, a big Russian-style winter hat, and dark brown leather gloves. After noticing my staring at how he was dressing like an Eskimo when it wasn’t that cold out, he explained that he normally stays in Australia during the winter and returns to Lithuania when the weather is warmer. He wasn’t used to Lithuanian winters.
The sidewalk wasn’t wide, and it was only convenient for two people to walk side by side, so our group split. I walked ahead showing the way, Antanas followed behind me with his wife, and the driver walked behind them. Although the pizzeria was just five minutes away, we walked in silence, and my mind raced the entire walk. I no longer felt as confident as I had before the meeting. I had been energetic and talked about what I loved, but Antanas’ lack of reaction and silence prevented me from being able to read him. It felt like I had bitten off too much, and that my business might have been too small for him to be interested.
In front of the pizzeria, Antanas assured me that this restaurant was fine with him, so we went inside. We went from extreme silence to extreme noise. Almost every seat was taken, and there were intense discussions and even a few chants coming from the tables. These were excited Zalgiris fans gearing up for the match against the Barcelona Basketball Club. The energy fit Antanas, as he had plans to watch the match at the nearby arena after our meeting.
As the waiters escorted us to a free table on the lower level, everyone recognized Antanas, and Antanas seemed to enjoy it. It was as if he was checking to see if people still recognized him after a few months in Australia.
In this pizzeria surrounded by people, Antanas came to life. It seemed like this was where he belonged. While drinking coffee, he was the exact opposite of what had taken place in my warehouse. He was no longer some silent statue standing near the door. He was a man who knew how to talk and didn’t have a lack of words. He told me about what he was doing, how he conducted business, how he had helped the Lithuanian national team fly to the FIBA World Basketball Championship, and finally, he rounded back to me and why we were meeting.
“Andrius, I am very interested in what you are doing, and I think I can help a lot. For example, I have a business in Germany that has even received investments from the government. So, it would be easy to start up a new business there, and I have a big e-commerce business in Australia. I have a lot of experience with online stores and search engine optimization.”
“That's why I reached out to you!” I was delighted to hear that Antanas was interested and have confirmation that this was the man who had the potential to help me with a business. “This is what I want. I want to be able to go out into the world and to set up a system that works because now I am doing everything alone. I think I have reached the point at which I have to have help if I want to continue growing. I want to have an advisor who will help me grow and arrange everything so that it becomes a real business.”
“Of course, a business should work for you, not you for the business. If it would help, you could use my name to create a separate online store with the “Tony” name attached. We could even agree with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation to have it advertised everywhere.”
“That would be amazing!” I was even more excited to hear him talk about the Lithuanian Basketball Federation. “And your name would help, but I don’t think we need to create a new store. We could just change the name of my current website. That would prevent us from needing to find someone to build it and supervise it,” I replied emotionally, no longer feeling my past attachment to my store’s name.
“Don’t worry about the work and people you need. It won’t be an issue to have a separate online store or find someone to oversee it,” confirmed Antanas.
“Antanas, you can't imagine how excited I am to hear all of this! This is exactly what I need. I need someone who can do the technical side of things. Managing documents, searching for staff, and other daily tasks are preventing me from growing. This is why I wrote to you. I have been looking for help from an experienced entrepreneur who would not only help me get the business going but I also believe that everything what is connected with e-commerce and basketball is interested for you either.”
“Do not doubt that I am very interested! I think I can help a lot,” Antanas repeated. “Are you valuing everything at one hundred and fifty thousand euros?”
“Yes, with the merchandise. Customers know the SportClothes name, a lot of basketball players and basketball teams are buying from me, I have a user-friendly online shop, five years of experience, I do well on eBay, more and more foreign customers are coming in, I have a contract with adidas, and I recently signed one with Nike.”
“That’s great. How do you imagine a deal between us?”
“I imagine opening a company and sharing the shares. I am not attached to the shares, but I would like to have at least fifty-one percent.”
“So, if we did this together and took it worldwide, would you be ok at forty percent?” Antanas looked at me questioningly.
“Well, I don't want to give away the majority,” I said after a long pause. “I'd like fifty-one percent, but I don’t want to be the CEO. A person you designate could be the company’s CEO.”
“Hmm ...” Antanas continued after a pause. “I almost never do anything unless I have fifty-one percent because it never turns into anything. When I have the majority, it's very good. I do not know how things will go, but I am very interested, and I can help a lot, but you should be at forty percent since I am bringing money, knowledge, and a wide range of opportunities to the table.”
I was lost. I wanted the controlling stake, but worldwide was tempting. I was convinced that the two of us could create something grand, which was the most important thing at the end of the day. I would give away all of my shares, work for free, and even pay for the opportunity to fulfill my dreams. What were a few shares anyways? They were only future payouts. I also understood Antanas’ position. He didn’t know me, and he had seen a tiny warehouse. If he were able to help me reach the whole world with his knowledge and money, he would feel bad having minority shares because he would have helped me build a huge business out of almost nothing, so a forty percent stake didn’t sound so bad compared to all the opportunities.
“You know, I could make forty work for me,” I affirmed. “The most important thing is that we invest everything we earn back into the company and move things forward.”
“Of course, but this company isn’t just going to move. We will make it fly,” Antanas promised with a big smile.
“My biggest desire is to see how big this business can grow. I already have enough items in stock, and if I didn't want to expand, I could live quite well, but that isn’t what I want. I want more. When I was a teenager, I played basketball every day with dreams of getting into the NBA. Obviously, that didn’t happen,” I smiled, “but through sneakers, I discovered a new dream, a more exciting dream, albeit possibly even a harder dream to reach than going to the NBA. The NBA All-Star weekend usually falls on my birthday, and I hope to hear that announcer say: ‘This match is brought to you by the world's largest sporting goods store, SportClothes.’ That is the ultimate goal I want to work towards.”
“Those are big goals, and it would be marvelous to achieve them all!” Antanas smiled in surprise.
“Antanas, becoming the biggest and reaching the NBA is the long-term. I don't think it is possible to do it in less than, for example, fifty years, so we could even set ourselves a target of fifty years: fifty stores in fifty countries. Most foreign customers buy from the US, Australia, Russia, or Germany, so after Lithuania, these countries may be our most important targets.” Looking at Antanas sitting next to me, I continued to belt out all of my expectations.
“That would be huge!” Antanas responded without hiding his amazement. “I agree that we have to strive for what seems impossible if we want to succeed. I could help you a lot. We can start with Lithuania. I have a place for you in Kaunas and Vilnius.”
“I'm glad we see things similarly,” I smiled, “and I have already gone to see the place on Putvis street. I really liked it.”
“There is also space to set up an office there. We can move all the merchandise to that location, and your office would be right above the store. Also, in Australia, we buy a lot of goods directly from China because it is much cheaper. So, I think we should buy merchandise from there without the middle man. We could even make our own brand. You get the highest margins when you are selling your own stuff instead of someone else’s.”
“Major manufacturers will not allow direct purchase from China or other countries. Each region has its own representatives, and merchandise can only be purchased through them. In other cases, it is possible to buy through intermediaries like I do with a German supplier. But if we want to buy directly from a brand, we need a worldwide expansion and when we will have a company in some other countries, we will be able to sign a contract with the manufacturer's representatives there. And as for our own brand, that would be amazing!” I felt like I was in some story where Antanas was pushing more and more buttons to make me happier and happier, buttons that I didn’t even know existed until that point. “I want to make my own sneakers; I have different sketches. It is one of my guilty pleasures, and I had put that dream on the shelf. However, it would be very expensive but very interesting!
“Andrius, stop worrying about money. The company will have plenty, and you will earn it. Even my line workers in Australia earn sixty thousand euros a year, so your efforts will be well compensated. Don't worry about that. When you were telling me about the shoes, I saw your burning passion, and I truly believe that kind of passion can achieve anything,” he smiled as he looked at me.
There was no doubt that I made the right choice. This was the person who would help me scale mountains. He didn’t even know me yet, so I would make it my goal to prove that he hadn’t made a mistake choosing me. Once again, here was proof that working hard pays off. All of those days without seeing the light of day are well worth it when someone appreciates what you have built.
“So, Andrius, do we have a deal?”
“Yes, of course, it all works for me!” I struggled to reply through my joy.
We sealed the agreement with a handshake. Antanas and his wife left for the basketball arena, and their driver went to move their car, which was parked near my office. While walking with the driver, we exchanged a few words, but I hurried back to my office. I hadn’t felt any stress when I had been talking to Antanas, but now I was feeling exhausted. After sitting quietly for a few minutes, I decided I needed to call my sister and share the news with her. Everything was like a fairytale. Even my dreams at night weren’t this good.
“Kriste, tell each applicant a little about the company, about the job, and offer them some water while they wait in line,” I reminded my sister as I headed to the second floor, where I would interview selected candidates for positions as shop assistants in our new sporting goods store TonySports.
It hadn’t been difficult to come up with the name TonySports. It was a great honor to be part of the Tony group which included a restaurant and hotel, betting shops, a band, and now sporting goods. I had been a little worried about how we would manage the new online store that was using his name, so Antanas decided to hire Zygis, who reminded him of himself when he had been younger.
I had met Zygis and Lukas for the first time about a month ago in a café on Freedom Avenue. I noticed them from afar—from very far. They looked like two huge bears and seemed like twins. I felt like every step they took shook the earth a little. They both had to be at least two meters tall and weigh at least one hundred and fifty kilograms (over 300 pounds) apiece. I felt like I was standing in a shadow near them. Although I met new clients every day, I had never seen anyone like them. Maybe if there had only been one of them, I wouldn’t have been so surprised.
This was a job interview, but everything had already been taken care by Antanas, and this was just a chance for us to get to know one another. Lukas was a programmer who would design and develop the website, while Zygis was a marketing expert who knew everyone in the basketball world. Both talked non-stop about their love for basketball and how dedicated they were to the job. As they talked, I understood that they were close friends, but Zygis was the head and Lukas always agreed with him. Lukas would even change his opinion to fit Zygis’ opinion.
As much they talked, I felt like we were polar opposites; we had no similarities, and I felt like they were only saying things they thought I wanted to hear. They talked a lot without almost a pause and after just a couple of minutes of conversation, I decided that I wouldn't need both of them. Their chatter was too much for me. However, these were people that Antanas had chosen. What would it look like if I refused them? He found staff, but I was refusing to work with them. A marketing specialist, especially one with a background in basketball, was much more beneficial than a programmer. Also, Lukas seemed to be a bigger yes-man than Zygis, and I needed someone who would be honest, especially when it was coming from someone who may be seeing the world from a completely different angle than me. Maybe I would miss things that were completely obvious to him.
“Lukas,” I started the unpleasant sentence. “I already have someone setting up the online store. So, I don't have a place for you to work right now. The company is still on the ground floor, so paying salaries will be complicated. Due to this, I think Zygis is the only one I can take. In a few months, we can see how things go, and if everything goes well, maybe you will be able to join us.”
“Don’t worry about the salary. Antanas has already agreed to take care of everything. He has even set aside a spot above the store on Putvis street for me to work. Antanas said that he will move out a company which is there, and we would set up the office.” Lukas replied as if he could see no issue.
It was good that another company is still there because it gave me an excuse to put off working with him for the time. I promised to employ him when the office was ready, and in the meantime, I would get to know Zygis better. Lukas was disappointed, though he continued to try to smile and act like it wasn’t a big deal. For both of them, this had just been a formality, and they hadn’t expected to hear that I didn’t want to work with one of them. I wasn't worried about them, but how would Antanas react?
Antanas didn’t react at all, and Zygis began working just days after our meeting. His main tasks were to find a bigger warehouse and take care of all marketing issues related to TonySports, the most important of which was that we had become sponsors of the European and World Youth Basketball Championships in Lithuania. In addition to normal advertisements, the biggest benefit I saw in our sponsorship was the possibility to introduce ourselves to young basketball talents from many different countries. I wanted everyone who participated in those championships to know about us, and, to stand out more, we would conduct interviews with the players about the shoes they wore and then place them on our site. We could even add statistics about which shoes and brands were the most popular. These statistics may attract readers and could be reprinted by news portals around the world that follow these types of championships. It was also possible that some of these young basketball players could become famous in the future, and in a few years, fans that searched for information about them could come across our store through their interviews. I had done this with the SportClothes website when young talented Lithuanian basketball players had left reviews about sneakers they wear, but this time the opportunities were much higher.
No matter how much of my everyday energy it took to prepare for those championships, today I had more important matters at hand. Our store was opening in a few weeks, and I hoped to select some shop assistants for it. The store would be on the ground floor in a space that had formerly been a garage, and we had replaced the garage doors with stained glass windows. On the second and third floors were one of Antanas’ other companies, but they had plans to move to another city. The CEO of that company, Gedas, had helped me with questions I had about starting a company, and he even became the first employee of the SportClothes company. After my meeting with Antanas in the winter, I transferred the trademarked SportClothes name and patented logo to Antanas. He, then, opened a company under that name and hired Gedas as the CEO. When I transferred all of my merchandise to the company and became a shareholder, Antanas named me CEO in place of Gedas. I had hoped that Gedas would continue to run things and handle all the paperwork, but he was also in charge of his own company, and he didn't want to be the CEO of another company, so I had no choice. Until we could find someone else, I would have to be the CEO.
Large windows lit the stairs to the second floor with sunlight. Although Gedas employed about twenty people in this building, I felt like I was entering the peace and warmth of someone’s home and not entering an office. There was no craziness inside; everyone was quietly working on their computers. Right next to the stairs, there was a cozy kitchen on the left with a large balcony facing the woods. On the right, there was a large reception room with massive antique furniture. Hanging on the white walls were paintings that Antanas had bought at auctions. There were two smaller offices in the back, and Gedas worked in one of them. Gedas was a few years older than me. Friendly, helpful and looked like any other average individual you’d meet walking down the streets of Lithuania.
“Hey, buddy! Are you ready for today?” I asked as I entered his office. Even though he mumbled, ‘I have a lot of work, but I will be there soon,’ I knew he was just as excited as I was about the opportunity to find shop assistants. He mumbled frequently, mostly when he was trying to hide his excitement about helping create something new. He ran a programming company and his staff was mostly men. I was only looking for women though. As a student, I worked as a shop assistant for a sporting goods store. I had both women and men colleagues while I was there. In my experience, I found that women did a much better job. Women provided better customer service and made it much easier to resolve issues. Guys have a stronger instinct to protect themselves and were not always helpful with more demanding customers. They were more likely to use the wrong tone of voice and exacerbate problems. Of course, that wasn’t always true, but after working with customers for so long, I knew what I wanted my team to look like. The most important things were a nice smile, a gentle voice, and a pleasant demeanor. Can you find men like that? No doubt, but in a small store, having same-sex employees would possibly help everyone feel more at ease with each other and make it more likely that they had things in common.
My biggest fear was leaving employees alone in the store. How would I know how they took care of customers, whether they rang items up correctly, or if they dressed appropriately? That's why I hired my sister Kriste as the store manager. She had worked in a clothing store for several summers, so she was familiar with customer service. It would be much easier to let go of things knowing that my sister would be there to help make sure things ran smoothly.
“Get ready! The first one is coming in,” Kriste warned.
This was the very first candidate I had ever interviewed, and after just a few questions, it became clear that I would not hire her. It was only out of courtesy and my willingness to gain some experience that I kept asking questions with Gedas. Although she had a lot of good work experience, she never smiled or even turned her lips slightly upwards. Throughout the interview, she answered questions like it was an exam. She might have been the best saleswoman in the world, but a smile was a must for me. Everything else can be taught, but a person either smiles or they don’t, and a fake smile is even worse than no smile. I put a minus next to her name and waited for the next candidate.
We heard the next candidate before she even walked through the door. She was carrying four bags so large that she could barely walk. She was sweaty and sank into the chair before us. She explained that she was changing a living place and had taken all of her belongings by bus. Maybe she would be the hardest worker we could hire, and it was great to know she wasn’t afraid of hard work (after all she was carrying all of those bags), but did she need to demonstrate that in the interview? Kriste had suggested that she leave her bags downstairs, but she refused. If she was trying to prove that she knew how to make things more complicated, she had succeeded, but that wasn’t what I needed.
Since I sell shoes, the first thing I noticed about the candidates was what they wear. I don't know if flats are comfortable or not, but I see so many women wearing them. To me, even beautiful women look like grey mice while wearing flats. Before we had even started the interviews, I had mentioned this issue and had thought to myself that I would not hire someone that came in wearing them. The further down the list we got, I realized that I was probably demanding too much and would need to drop that requirement. I could be picky about what my shop assistants wore later.
After a few more candidates, I started lowering my expectations even further and found a few more options that might have worked. Then, Karolina showed up. She had a gentle voice, a smile, thoughtful answers, was well dressed, and she was self-confident. She was exactly what I was looking for. While I was trying to leave things vague and tell her goodbye with the same response we had given to the others of: “If we decide to hire you, we will give you a call,” Gedas laughed right away and corrected me saying that we would definitely be calling her. We finally had our first suitable employee, two more to go.
At the beginning of the day, I had imagined recruiting would be fun, but after talking to all of the candidates, I felt like I did after a busy day at work. However, not wanting to postpone making my decisions, while I remembered them, I wanted to pick my future employees on same day. After I called Karolina and told her she had the job, we easily chose a second hire. We all agreed that Raima, a very cheerful, positive, and artistic soul, would fit into our team. After calling her and hearing her joy, there was no doubt that we had made the right choice. The third hire would be Ieva, a black-haired girl with some oriental looking features, but her position would only be part-time. Ieva wasn’t okay with working part-time, so we agreed that if another position became available, I would call her. The last position was the hardest to fill because all of the other candidates were missing something—no smile, unwilling to talk, no confidence, too much confidence, and so on. However, this was only a part-time position and even if we didn’t make the perfect selection, we could always find someone else. So, after we weighed all the pros and cons, we chose the candidate with the least number of minuses and called a tall, cheerful blonde named Kristina.
Less than half a year ago, I had felt that I was drowning and no longer enjoyed my job. I was tired and pissed off. But now, I was feeling alive again. I was pursuing my dreams. I was out of the box, and my business was growing. Antanas had planned to open our first store outside of Lithuania in Minsk, Belarus. So, when I was placing new preorders of sneakers. I made certain to order enough for both of the stores—the one in Kaunas we just opened and the other in Minsk, which would open in about half of a year.
Antanas even organized a meeting with the Secretary of the Basketball Federation, Mindaugas Balciunas. He was one of the most important persons in Lithuanian basketball and was in control of the future of the sport in our country. As we sat together at a café on Freedom Avenue, chatting about Federation matters and listening to Mindaugas sing praises about SportClothes while expressing a willingness to help us, I became emotional.
The emotions were good. When I had been sacrificing my living money to buy shoes, I had never really believed in a future like this. Although I had sold quite a few items each month, I often didn’t have two pennies to rub together and had to survive for weeks at a time on just a few euros. I paid myself very little and instead used any incoming revenue to increase the amount of merchandise I had. Sometimes my lack of funds forced me to find other jobs, which ultimately took away from my concentration on the business. I had a job at a school and had been taking care of the computers there for the last few years. In the evenings, I also took various design orders for things such as postcards, banners, or other simple work, but now I felt that those extra jobs were no longer necessary and that it was time to stop. I had my own store, and I started to meet with important people. It was time to focus on sneakers and dive deeper into SportClothes and TonySports.
The opening of the TonySports store became a symbol of Antanas’ connection to me. For me, it was more than just a store. I no longer needed to serve customers. Customers would no longer have to wait outside when I went to send a package or make a delivery. Now, I had four shop assistants who could solely focus on providing quality customer service.
The store was small, barely seventy square meters. Fifty of that was for merchandise and sales, and the remaining space was used as a warehouse for other items. The only problem was that the store had a low ceiling, which is not the greatest choice for a store that was frequented by tall basketball players. However, it was Antanas’ space, and you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I had never remodeled anything other than wallpapering my childhood bedroom, but setting up a store was something new and exciting. I did not want a standard shop with simple shelves for holding merchandise. I wanted the aura in the store to be representative of our business. Only days after shaking hands with Antanas, I began drawing sketches and thinking about possible layouts. I thought the store should reflect not only the owners and the merchandise sold there but also the environment around the store. So, I moved my evening walking route to Putvis street and walked back and forth looking at the surrounding buildings, which were as old or even older than the ones where my office had been located. They were similar but also different. They were not that tall and had various details on them. Some buildings had columns or even sculptures. Although our building did not have these extras or any antique elements, the aura encompassed the whole street. It was a quiet, narrow street at the foot of a hill that had a small forest on top of it. The first idea I had was to do a retro-style shop with massive furniture, maybe even use cupboards to display exclusive items, put down carpets, and have big chairs that would make customers feel like kings when they tried on shoes. However, a small room with massive furniture would be overwhelming, so I quickly abandoned this idea. I was thinking of keywords like basketball, website, new technology, and a quiet street. I made various sketches that I later sent to Antanas. Finally, after noticing that I was becoming overwhelmed and overstretching myself, he suggested hiring a designer and discussing it with them.
Working with a designer made everything clear, and from the very first sketch, we created the first shop exclusively for basketball in the Baltic States. We used lightly colored wooden flooring, so the floor would look like a basketball court. From the same material, we created a shoe wall that was also similar to our online store’s background and would give the room a warmer feel. In the middle of the store, we stacked white hexagons and placed our most exclusive items inside of them. We hung a few tablets around the store so that customers could see the full range of products we had to offer and hung a framed, signed basketball jersey behind the cash registers. With no experience, I had estimated that the price of materials and set up for such a small shop would not exceed ten thousand euros, but it took nearly three times that amount.
Exclusivity comes at a cost, and setting up a store is the simple and quick part. The real creation began when the shop assistants start working with customers. The walls conveyed an image, but the most important part of the experience would be how our shop assistants treated customers. Smiles, helpfulness, courtesy, and orderliness were the things I had paid attention to when hiring, but also I wanted them to understand the merchandise, as well as the principles on which I had created the store, what the story behind it was, and what our goals were. After questioning the girls about the merchandise, its names, materials, and technologies, I began my monologue:
“Your job is to serve, not sell. I don't care how many items you ring up; I am responsible for sales. If I don’t order the right items or if I advertise badly, the lack of sales will be my fault not yours. Low sale numbers will never be blamed on you, and you will not be rewarded based on how much you sell. You will be rewarded because of good customer feedback and quality service. I have been doing this job for many years and know all the challenges ahead of you. Not all clients will be easy, and you will not always be able to solve problems, but if you are open and honest, I will be on your side and support you. Our customers are our partners. They help us, and we help them. Even if you cannot find a compromise with a customer, always act professionally as a polite hostess of this store. In any unpleasant situation, try not to take anything personally and never raise the tone of the voice, no matter what the customer says to you. I am sure you will encounter all sorts of situations, but being nice to customers will always pay off. Pleasant customers will give you energy, make you feel good, and help you serve other customers even better. Give them an extra discount of at least a few euros as a thank you. Customers will thank you, and their happiness will make you feel inspired and happier while at the same time making them loyal customers. If a customer doesn’t like something, do not try to sell it to them. Talk to customers honestly, ask if a product really fits, or if it feels uncomfortable somewhere. It is much better not to sell an item than to sell something that doesn’t fit and will only frustrate them later. If you are honest, customers will come back and buy something, and when they buy something, be sure to always tell them, “Enjoy your kicks!” When there are no customers, you can do whatever you like, Facebook, dancing, singing, or anything else, but when a customer comes in, you have to throw everything aside and focus solely on them. I want to trust in you, and I expect that this job will not be an obligation for you. Feel free to let me know if you have any ideas on how you can contribute to the growth of the company beyond being a shop assistant. We are a team!”
Even though I had never given a speech before, I wanted to share everything I believed in with my new team. These were the people that would interact the most with customers, and I wanted them to be able to convey the vision of the company. I wanted our store to have its own face, its own story, and to make sure that all of us could contribute to its creation. I wanted to be a team rather than separate everyone based on their duties. I was the CEO today, but maybe I wouldn’t be tomorrow. Today they may be shop assistants, but if they proved that they could do more, maybe tomorrow they would be CEOs. It’s just a position in a company, and I had no desire to link salaries based on positions. If they become good, trustworthy shop assistants, they would be much more important to me than any manager that I could ever try to headhunt.
The most important thing you can have in a business is employees you can count on. And I was relying rather heavily on the specialist that was responsible for the marketing of the new store.
“Zygis, make sure you are keeping track of everything we have going on with the championship. Right now, the championship is the most important thing we have going. We spent a lot of money to support it. So, make sure everything is ready.”
“Don’t worry, mate. Worry about your stuff. There is no need to waste your time on this.”
This was how almost every new day started. The calmer he felt, the more anxious I felt. I wanted to believe the novelty of working with others caused my anxiety and that I was just having trouble letting go of control. But if we are different and see the world from a different perspective, it is not necessarily useful for a common purpose. He had discussed all of the details of his employment with Antanas. I would be lying if I said I felt ok about paying him a salary that was a third more than mine. I didn’t argue because I knew professionals came with a price tag. At the end of the day, he was a salaried employee, and I was an owner of a growing company. I put high hopes in him and every day I waited for him to shine in some spotlight so that I could understand why Antanas held him so highly.
The time was flying, but I didn’t see any tricks from him. He tried to be nice, he was talkative, and fit into our small team, but every day he grew more distant from us all. For some reason, he felt that it was important for him to start every morning in the store by complaining to the shop assistants about the crazy amount of work he had to do while they stood around doing nothing. I had never understood the purpose of complaints like those. I needed someone with fire, not someone who wanted sympathy for doing the job they had been hired to do. While Zygis was always talking about how much he loved basketball, dropping names, and spouting off stats for various basketball players, I felt there was a huge disconnect between the way he talked and how he performed his job. It was as if work was one thing, while his talk was something completely different, and there was a wide river separating the two. Increasingly, I began to feel that I was doing the work I had entrusted to him because it was simply easier. I didn't have to explain step-by-step what I wanted, and I didn't have to hear five hundred reasons why something couldn’t be done how I wanted.
As a result, everything ended as you would expect, when two completely different individuals are trying to work together. I couldn’t trust him, and he thought I wanted too much from him without good reason. He didn’t attend any team meetings, where we discussed sneakers, including new products, features, and history. He said he already knew all this information from our website.
I hoped he would interview the youngsters who played at the basketball championship, but that didn’t happened. The championship ended, and we didn’t gain any value for the business. Also, I hoped he would solve our warehouse problem: we started receiving increasingly larger deliveries, so storing the sneakers became a huge challenge. I couldn’t fit everything into my small office. It was just a question of time when I wouldn’t be able to accept a delivery. After I noticed he was looking for a new place to a warehouse on Freedom Avenue, on the 4th floor with massive windows, I knew that that was it. We just could not work together, but I couldn’t force myself to fire him because of Antanas.
Antanas believed in him, and I was afraid that refusing Lukas and now firing Zygis would ruin the relationship between Antanas and I. So, I chose to ignore the issues. I answered his questions in as few words as possible, so we could avoid having discussions, and finally, when I no longer had tasks to give him, I decided, “Why was I packing all of the orders, when I had a worker who didn’t have anything to do?” That is how Zygis went from being head of marketing to working in the warehouse. As I sat in front of my computer, hearing that big guy stacking boxes gave me a lot of relief. That day I finally relaxed, “At least now, he was earning some of his salary,” I thought. He lasted just one day doing that before he made a request to leave the company.
His request quickly spread around all of Antanas’ other companies. Zygis was complaining to everyone. There was no other way for this to have gone. He had been complaining for a while, and this situation only intensified everything. If I would have fired him when the issues had become noticeable, I could have even given him exact reasons why I was doing so, but now he was feeling hurt and humiliated and had used the opportunity to complain. Situations like this were why I had no desire to be the CEO. I knew that I wasn’t cut out for this type of work. I'm an internet guy, not a psychologist. I was doing what I thought was best for my goals. I had achieved those goals in part, but Zygis leaving was not going to help my relationship with Antanas.
When Slava found out I had made a deal with Antanas, Slava was shocked. He lost any hope of merging businesses, as well as his desire to work in general. He was spending less and less on advertising and no longer updating his online store. His sales had plateaued; it was only a matter of time before they began to decline. A decline in sales could be a good kick in the ass, so you turn things around, but in this situation, all you could do was shake your head. I had become too big for him even to attempt to compete anymore. Not wanting to be too boastful and make things even more difficult, I reached out to him less frequently, but even our rare conversations had become superficial. Since I was in the middle of a huge upturn and was bursting with an energy that pushed me to fulfill my dreams, the loss of the opportunity for us to work together began making him more and more pessimistic about everything. To him, the glass was half empty, and for me, the glass was half full. The same glass, the same amount of water, but we had totally different views of life.
As competitors, we experienced a lot of ups and downs together and helped each other push forward. I felt the absence of my friend and colleague. The lack of someone who was like-minded, the lack of someone who lived like I did, and the lack of opportunities to talk the business side of things over with someone. His debt to the bailiffs, ignorance of the law, and uncertainty about the future prevented him from getting back up on his feet or even at least trying to change something partially. It was a pity to see him so broken. He was not a twenty-year-old trying to make a living. He was nearly forty, and if his business closed, I had no idea where he would go from there.
Knowing all of this, I felt bad for him. I knew all of his problems and his reluctance to take care of things or move forward in some other way. I wanted to make myself believe it was his choice, but I still felt bad. Although I had worked hard, I even began to think that maybe I was too lucky and was taking away something he had worked for too. I felt like a thief as I saw more and more of his customers coming to me. This was a completely normal evolution that brought me unspeakable joy as a business developer, but I saw his sadness. I had been lucky, but I couldn’t forget the past, and Slava's competition had helped me grow. I didn’t want to leave him behind.
“Hey, buddy!” Slava happily greeted as he climbed out of his black Chrysler.
“What going on Slava? How is life? Long time, no see!”
“Oh, you know, everything is the same. I buy, and I sell. I drove through Kaunas not long ago. I thought about stopping in to talk and have a look around your new store, but I thought you will not find a time to meet old buddy as you are such a big businessman,” he replied with a bit of bitterness.
“Slava, you should have stopped by, but now that you are here let's go check out the shop. I’ll tell you about everything...”
This meeting was quite different from our first. Then I had been so nervous that I had spent a long time rehearsing what and how I needed to say things. This time, however, Slava was nervous, while I felt calm and confident. As we walked towards the store, we chatted a bit and although Slava didn't want to look gloomy and tried to seem positive, I could tell he was hiding how he felt.
“Andrius, I have been thinking. I don't know if you would or even if it is possible, but is there some way you could pull me into this whirlwind with you?” Slava had a difficult time finding the right words and was hesitant to start the conversation. “Speaking frankly, I haven’t been able to take care of my [prablems] (problems), but please know, if you could find any way to help get me out of the vicious circle I'm in, I would be grateful to you for the rest of my life. I know we are both working in the same sector, and basketball is a lost cause for me. You are already successfully attracting customers, but I would love to work with you and be helpful somehow. I could share my site, and I could only sell leisure items. We have been working together for so long. Please do not leave me in the dust,” he shared as he sincerely looked me in the eyes.
“I understand where you are coming from,” I calmly answered putting my hand on his shoulder. “Even though Antanas is helping now and we have created a team, everything is not perfect. I don’t have anyone I can bounce ideas off or someone with whom I can trust to share my workload. I want to talk with you like we were doing before. After all, who could understand me better than a buddy?” I smiled. “Antanas hired one guy, but we couldn’t work together, and he recently quit. My workload definitely hasn’t gotten any lighter. I still sit at work day after day, just like I was doing before. The only difference is that now I am much more excited about it since Antanas is opening doors to make this a worldwide business. He is already looking for premises to open a new store in Belarus.”
“That's what I could do! I could help with Belarus, [Rossiya] (Russia), and Ukraine!” Slava responded emotionally.
“Yes, that’s why I am telling you that I think that you could not only contribute with your knowledge of the merchandise but also with the Russian-speaking countries. I am not fluent in Russian, and I could easily make huge mistakes, but since you were born in Russia, you could check everything. Your knowledge is needed, and I am ready to work together.”
“Andrius, you know that I dreamed of combining our businesses from the start, but now…there aren’t even words to express how thankful I would be if you could find a way to fit me into all of this.”
“There is no need for all of that...” I smiled.
After visiting the store and then going to the pizzeria, where I shook hands with Antanas, we couldn’t stay away from the topic of joining businesses. No matter what we talked about, the conversation always looped back to the same thing.
“And about my [prablems] (problems)... I can't be officially employed, but I think Jurate or my son could be employed instead. And as far as merchandise is concerned, I have about forty thousand euros worth of items, and I can easily sign over twenty thousand to the business, but any more than that could cause [prablems] (problems) with tax inspections.”
“I really don't know anything about these types of things, and can’t help for you to handle it,” I replied while eating pasta Bolognese. “But if you agree, you can talk to Antanas or his lawyer. I think they could figure it out. You are needed, and they have experience on a variety of issues, so those problems shouldn't be a barrier now.”
“Of course, I’m sure he can find a way around all of my mess. I'm really sorry I have so many [prablems] (problems),” he lowered his eyes. “We might have been working together sooner had I kept my promise to get things taken care of. I was so depressed about all that.”
“Don’t think about that. Let it go to the past.” I watched at him and tried to calm down.
“I’ll try,” he looked at me and smiled “But what do you think I should do about traveling? I couldn't travel more than two hundred kilometers from the seaside to Kaunas every day, and if I stayed in Kaunas and rented an apartment, it would cost a lot extra,” he said hopefully while looking to me for advice.
“Zygis was not from Kaunas either. Antanas has an apartment on the top floor of the building where store is, and he let Zygis live there. Maybe he would let you stay there also?”
“Get out of here! That would be amazing! A place to stay in Kaunas! Believe me, Andrius, I will stay up all hours of the night to make sure things are done right. I want to work and be needed. I can’t stop trembling from just talking about all of this! I am going to explode from all of these crazy emotions!”
Slava was beside himself with happiness. It was amazing to see this change in him. He arrived tired and hopeless while trying to hide it with a fake smile, and now he couldn’t sit still and was truly enjoying himself. I don't think he would have been this happy if he had won the lottery. This was something else. He was beginning to feel like he was part of a team. No longer going at it alone and not having to worry about sales, we would share everything. He wasn’t the only one happy about how our conversation was going. Help was important to me. A growth in sales could be just as disastrous as a lack of sales if you weren’t prepared for it. I hoped that Slava joining us would help me make sure I was prepared for all the challenges that I was sure would only occur more frequently.
“Slava, I think we have talked about all we can for now. We do not need to waste any more time. I will call Antanas to talk about you. If it suits him, we make a contract and start working together.”
Although I had known Antanas for more than half a year, I still felt nervous when I needed to talk with him. I never understood why I felt this way. It wasn’t the age difference as Slava was the same age as Antanas, and I had no issues talking with Slava. Maybe it was the fact that Antanas was a millionaire? I didn’t separate people by money though, and I had never even seen any of his millions. I had no idea why I was so nervous every time we needed to talk, but there was something, and I couldn’t make myself let it go. With all of the good emotions I had flowing now, I needed to use the opportunity to make myself call him before I could talk myself out of it.
“Antanas, I think we should start moving forward with opening a store in the US.” After a quick greeting, I was postponing the real reason for my call for the moment. “It would be a great step in our expansion, but it would also allow us to get contracts with US-based manufacturers who do not have representatives in Europe. We could also try to sign contracts with major brands like Nike and adidas. That would ensure a better supply of goods and a much wider assortment,” I highlighted.
“Of course, we have already talked about the US, and I am one hundred percent on board with that. I've already arranged for this to happen, and I think it won't take long.”
“That is great to hear. I'm looking forward to it. Antanas, I have another question. I mentioned merging with the SportArt site before. The owner of that site use to be my biggest competitor, but the two of us ended up working well together. I think he would have a lot to bring to the table now. Russian is also his native language, so he could help open stores in Belarus and other Russian-speaking countries. He would bring in about forty-thousand euros worth of merchandise for ten percent of the company’s shares. I would give him five percent and you would give another five. What do you think?”
“I think we should all meet and discuss everything. However, if that is what you think is best, then we will certainly do the deal and keep pushing on,” Antanas confirmed without much thought.
Slava was on the team! I couldn’t even imagine how excited he was. On his way home, he repeatedly called to share different plans he had for the future or just to share his excitement with me again and again.
The day after the meeting with me, even though he wasn’t even an official employee or shareholder yet and didn’t even know what type of conditions his contract would hold, Slava began to look for a new warehouse and to look into opening a store in Belarus. People that jump into things like that are often called fools, but are other people’s opinions a reason for holding back when you are ready to give something your all? If something makes you feel alive, take the opportunity, and think later. At that point, the conditions and money were completely irrelevant.
A few weeks later, Slava and I went to meet Antanas at the resort where Antanas lived when he was staying in Lithuania. Slava had enough fear and anxiety for both of us. So, this time I was feeling relaxed and calm about meeting with Antanas.
The resort was beautiful and located near a small lake surrounded by a pine forest. Antanas claimed the weather was always perfect there, and when we stepped out of the car, the two of us agreed. When we left Kaunas, it had been cloudy, but the sun was shining here. We were greeted with the fresh smell pine trees as the wind gently blew. The resort had been carefully landscaped, with paved sidewalks leading everywhere and a two-story hotel where guests could stay. The resort’s main building was located on a hill overlooking the lake and housed a restaurant.
We noticed Antanas sitting on the terrace of the restaurant from afar. He quickly noticed us and invited us over. He ordered a beef sirloin steak that was named after him: the “Tony G Steak.” The fresh air and the fact that the “subject” of the meeting was Slava, not me, made me feel relaxed and able to enjoy the setting. I wanted to interfere as little as possible, but Slava's nervousness was clearly getting the best of him. He was leaning forward, had his hands below his knees, was nervously moving one leg, and his increasingly rare eye contact was becoming slightly comical. I decided to give Slava a chance to breathe in hopes of him calming down a bit after a glass of wine.
“Antanas, how are things going with Belarus?” I said inserting myself in the conversation. “We will start receiving the merchandise I ordered for it in a few months, but I’m not getting any updates about that store, and I’m not sure what my next steps need to be.”
“Things have slowed a bit because we had some problems with our local partners there,” Antanas said as he shifted in his chair nervously. “Once we get it all taken care of, we will start moving again. But I also have a really good acquaintance in Canada that knows all about that region, and he has promised to help take care of stuff in Canada, and there is a person in Australia that is very excited to jump in and help us.”
“All of the Belarus stuff is unfortunate,” I sighed. “The items I ordered will all be in by the start of the new year. So, it would be ideal to have the new store opening somewhere close to that point.”
“Andrius, don't worry, everything will be fine. Things in Belarus have just paused for a bit. As I said, I found people in Canada and Australia. Have you talked to my company in Germany yet?”
“Yeah, I talked with them. They operate like eBay but for home goods. Our business didn’t seem very interesting to them, but we've already put on a dozen or so items and will see how they sell. As for Belarus, I'm not worried. I don't care which country we enter first. It doesn’t matter if it is in the US, Canada, or Australia. I will be happy for one to open. Period. However, if we are only now starting the processes, I am afraid it may be quite some time before we get another store open. If we don’t export the items I order soon after they come in, we will run into both storage and payment problems, as selling all of the extra merchandise will be difficult on our current channels.
“Don't worry about money. I can take care of that,” Antanas smiled comfortingly. “Andrius, I've seen the sales numbers, they're unreal! I hadn’t expected anything close to that. We need to go ahead and order more, expand the assortment, and increase everything. We can move out a company which works in a building were your store is. Instead of their offices, we can expand the store to the second floor and turn the next floor up into a great office for you. We need to be moving as much merchandise as possible. I still have a space in Vilnius. I think it would suit you, and we could open a new store there right away,” Antanas said enthusiastically.
“I've already been to Vilnius to see the premises, but currently, there is a betting shop there, and as I understand, you want to open the store in the space along with them?” I had been surprised to see more than a hundred square meters near one of the busiest streets of the capital on my recent visit.
“Yes, there are huge rooms that are far too big to use for betting, but the place is perfect and could benefit both you and them.”
“But you have to be eighteen or older to enter a betting shop. I think it would be tricky to set up a store in the same place as a betting shop,” I replied with hesitation.
“That’s true. We can keep thinking on it,” smiled Antanas. “For now, we could try to expand into the upper level of the store we have now in Kaunas.”
“Yes,” I gladly agreed. “Let’s set up a whole new store! It would be incredible if the whole building could become one big store in the future. We could separate the merchandise by categories on separate floors, and each floor would look very different. At the very top, we could put in an office that would let us all work in one place.
“I can give the whole building to both of you guys, and you can do there whatever you wish!” promised Antanas. “Slava, I think bringing you on will work. I agree with giving you ten percent of the shares. I'll give you five percent, and Andrius will give the other five percent. You bring all of your merchandise, your website, and know-how. Egis Rainys will handle onboarding your merchandise and help you solve your problems, but Egis has been doing everything for free up until now. I don’t get the feeling that he is motivated to work very quickly at this point. I'll give him four percent from my shares, and I think he will be willing to help more than he has. It will give him more desire to do the work we need. I think it will also help move along things abroad.”
Egis was Antanas' right-hand man. He helped him take care of all sorts of matters and legal issues in all his companies. I got to know him when I had signed the contract concerning shares. Although he was only one year older than me, when I came to see him about the contract, I felt like he was at least ten years older than me. His behavior gave me that feeling, rather than his appearance. He was confident with his actions and with various legal terms. His calm and self-confident behavior led me to believe that he was a highly qualified lawyer who readily knew the ins and outs of his work. Now, a lawyer like that would be working with me, and I would have a great opportunity to learn not only about how to open a business in other countries but also how to handle the laws here in Lithuania. If I had questions, I would have someone to ask for advice. I was beyond excited to hear that Antanas had decided to bring him into the company.
When we finished eating our insanely delicious steaks and drinking the wine that had been brought to us by a sommelier, I felt, for the first time, that I was finally getting somewhere and beginning to succeed. One of the most famous businessmen in Lithuania was sitting next to me and had been impressed with how well my company was doing.
Less than a year ago, I had been exhausted with nothing to show for it, but there I was sitting like a real gentleman. I had a glass of wine in hand, and Antanas had just let me know I had a whole building at my disposal. Things had changed so quickly! If you put in the effort, believe in what you do, do what you love, and sacrifice a few years, it isn’t hard to find someone who will appreciate what you have created. Hard work and faith had brought me to where I was, and I was looking forward to the day when I would sit at an NBA All-Star Game and see the SportClothes logo lighting up the arena. How many places would I go before I reached that goal? Perhaps in a year, I would be sitting in a restaurant in Los Angeles or Sydney eating some high dollar steak to symbolize the opening of new stores in those cities. The world was at my fingertips and Antanas’ praise was only fueling my passion for reaching for the stars.
“Dammit, Andrius. I felt so awkward around Antanas. I don't know what I was, but it was like he had me gagged. I couldn't talk. I’ve never felt like that before,” Slava told me as we headed home from the meeting.
“Those feelings are natural, but he agreed to add you to the team. You can breathe easy now. Everything is okay,” I smiled as I tried to calm his nerves.
“I don’t think I can just yet. I also got a weird feeling from him, and I’m not sure how to explain it. I know Antanas is different from others but wasn’t it a little strange to you how he started acting when he was talking about the store in Belarus? He hesitated a lot.”
“Yes, it’s not good that Belarus things paused, but where you are going with that?” I questioned.
“I just think that the Belarus thing paused after you told him that I will work with it. I’m only telling you the feeling I got from him. It was [prabably] (probably) just all the paranoia I have from the nineties when everyone was trying to scam you. After all, he is my age, so maybe that is why I felt so strange. I know he lives in Australia, and that [prabably] (probably) means he isn’t like other Eastern Europeans from nineties, but I'm just saying that something felt off when we were talking with him.”
“I feel strange too, even after knowing him for a while. I don’t ever feel comfortable around him. I doubt we will ever become friends, but I think it is probably normal to feel a little nervous when you are meeting someone as famous as him. I haven't heard anything bad about him. He travels around the world doing business, and now Egis will do more with the US, Canada, Australia, and Germany. I'm lucky to have found such a partner. A store in the tiniest town in the US is worth more to me than a store in the capital of Belarus. Antanas is the major shareholder; after all, he only benefits from expanding, networking, and contributing to growth. We have only been working together for a little while and are slowly getting to know one another. He wasn’t particularly thrilled that I didn’t hire Lukas or that Zygis quit, but now he will hire Egis. I am looking to the future, and I think it would be beneficial for everyone else to focus on expanding rather than digging around for problems.”
“Of course, I feel the same. I want to help you grow and am so thankful that you have given me this [apartunity] (opportunity). Just know, I want you to handle all [kamunikation] (communication) with Antanas. When necessary, I will go with you, but for some reason, I couldn’t calm myself today, and that wasn’t a nice feeling, or one I would like to repeat unless absolutely necessary.”
“All right, Slava, I think you will get used to it, and I bet you will come next time, so you can eat another steak like that!”
“Yes! That steak was amazing. I’m not sure I could pass up a chance to eat one of those.” he laughed.
In less than a month, Slava had been able to find the perfect warehouse space with over two hundred square meters, just three kilometers from the TonySports store. The space was on the ground floor and had its own door. It seemed nothing short of perfect. Only someone that has had to unload a pallet to hurriedly carrying merchandise up a stairwell while hoping no one stole anything while you were gone would truly appreciate the perks this space had to offer. Trucks could pull up to the front door, and we could bring the pallets straight into the warehouse. There were two large rooms, one for basketball goods and the other for leisure items, and one office with a long table that had enough room for three people.
Finally, we had a place to store merchandise and work. Kriste joined me and Slava at warehouse. My sister took over packing and shipping to customers. Karolina became the store manager, and Ieva, the girl who had only been interested in a full-time job when we were originally hiring, gladly agreed to come to work as a shop assistant. A short, round-faced woman, Vilma, who was working in a post and usually sent my packages, agreed to enter shipping numbers in the evenings and even send personal thank you notes to all the customers. In the warehouse, we even hired a warehouse keeper.
The business was no longer a one-person operation. We had become a real company with different jobs and responsibilities. Antanas allowed Slava to live in the apartment on the third floor of the building where our store was, so when he stayed in Kaunas, we started spending evenings together in the warehouse. We eventually came to see that we needed to plan our time and make the most of our workdays so that we didn't have to work nights. We needed lives outside of the warehouse. We set ourselves the goal of finishing our workdays by eight o'clock when there weren’t new items to be listed to the website.
At first, it was hard to stick to our goal. It always seemed like there was more to do, but there was one cafe we particularly loved and started spending every evening there. Slava and I had a great relationship and were able to finish one another’s sentences. We told each other stories and laughed until we were in tears. It was a good feeling to create a job for yourself, see your business grow, and feel completely at ease because you knew there was someone else who cared about it the way you did. If you were ill or needed to run an errand, you knew there was someone to take care of everything for you. That is what a team is all about. Without a team, it is impossible to grow. If you were lucky enough to meet another fool that was willing to lose himself to help your business grow, you not only doubled the force within the business, but after the work day, you also found someone you could laugh with until you couldn’t breathe.
“Today I was talking to Egis,” I said to Slava after ordering food, in an unusually serious tone. “Some shit happened ...”
“What happened? What did he say?” Slava said worriedly.
“He is the CEO of the company that owns the building where our store is located, and Antanas is the sole shareholder of that company. Get this! He is charging us for rent for the store!”
“You are fucking kidding?!” Slava surprised “Didn’t he say that you can use it as you wish and never mentioned about any rent?”
“Yeah, buddy, he did! And now he is charging us a full market price,” I went on. “I never even thought that he would charge us for unused garage about which he said “take it and express yourself”! I thought we talked straight with no hidden agenda, and now I get this shit… So why the Hell did I have to open a store in a fucking garage with a low ceilings when I was able to rent a normal place on a Freedom Avenue where I always dreamed about doing business!”
“Damn, you need to talk to him again. This is nonsense. This is a joint venture, yet here they are writing up invoices after you have already set up the store and are in the process of an expansion that Antanas himself suggested.”
“I talked to him until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t change anything. He wouldn’t even lower the price. He knows that we won’t move now that we have everything set up. He said, ‘That’s the price, and that's what you have to pay,’ but it gets worse. He is also backdating invoices for the last half a year!”
“Are you fucking serious?” said Slava in disbelief. “That’s insane!”
“He sent me the bill and wants us to pay as soon as possible.”
“I don't understand how they can do that…” Slava lowered the tone and said with a disappointment.
“You’re shocked? Imagine how I felt! Antanas told me, ‘I have unused space. Take it, use it, and open a store.’ He never mentioned rent or contracts, and now he wants me to pay.”
“Shit, you have to talk to him. That can’t be right.”
“Slava, I’ve talked. There is nothing else I can say. We don’t have any grounds to argue on. He says it is normal to pay. Of course I agree with that, but it is also normal to tell about it before store were opened. I have struggled with this all day, but I can’t think of anything else to do. If you have any suggestions, let me know, and we can go talk to him again, but I’ve already reminded him repeatedly that he promised to let us use it.”
“Andrius, I don't know, but that seems unfair! He promised to let us have the whole building!” Slava raised his tone again.
“Slava, I know, but this is what we have now,” I said quietly.
“No good man, but since we are on the subject of Antanas, a few days ago, I got to thinking…” Slava went quiet for a moment as if he were trying to find the right words. “Have you read your [kantrakt] (contract)?”
“Yeah, why do you ask?” I hadn’t been expecting a question like that and raised up my eyes to him.
“I brought in almost forty thousand euros worth of goods, but my [kantrakt] (contract) states that I brought in twenty thousand euros worth of goods.”
“Probably because you said you could not exceed more than twenty thousand euro due to taxes. The other half is surely recorded somewhere else.” I replied without seeing the problem.
“I’ve read all the documents I have received. There is nothing else. Only the same twenty thousand euros are mentioned. Exactly half of what I [kantributed] (contributed).”
“You should call Egis; he'll handle everything. I really don't think it’s gone. My documents also say less than what I actually contributed.”
“Why was less written in your [kantrakt] (contract)?” Slava was surprised.
“It’s a weird story…” I replied, not wanting to tell him what happened.
“Tell me what happened,” Slava was intrigued and wanted to know the whole story.
“It took a long time to do all of the paperwork,” I continued after a bit of persuasion. “I signed the SportClothes trademark to Antanas in February. They opened the company in March, but my contract was constantly changing. I wanted to sign as soon as possible, hand over all of my merchandise, and start working. When I came to Egis in May, there was no time to dig into the details of the contract since he was on vacation. He told me the key points, and I signed everything. Later, I noticed that everything I had contributed had been divided up along with the shares. Meaning that sixty percent of the money I brought in was attributed to Antanas. Almost eighty thousand euros.”
“Get out of here! No way?!” Slava said shocked.
“It’s true,” I admitted, lowering my head. “I trusted him and didn't read the contract carefully on that day.”
“Did you tell him about it?”
“I told him, and he assured me that he would get it corrected, but perhaps he forgot. I had also forgotten about it until you brought this stuff up.”
“But Andrius, you brought in all of the merchandise, the work, the knowledge, and it turns out that you paid Antanas to own more than half of the company’s shares, and he still receives four percent in annual interest from your [maney] (money)?” Slava couldn’t believe what I was telling him.
“Yes, Slava. That is exactly what is happening,” I replied in shame. “I trusted Antanas completely and wanted to believe that it was a mistake, but now seeing your problems, I don’t even have words…”
“It seems like that could very well be the case, but at this point, all we can do is hope that we are wrong and that he will fix the mistakes.
“I don’t believe that Antanas, being a millionaire and such a well-known person, would risk ruining his reputation by trying to deceive someone. I am annoyed that he is asking us to pay rent and will end up taking money from the business to pay for a place that he told us to move into. As for the loan, it’s whatever. We can handle that. The company is growing, and he is happy. Surely, money won’t disappear.”
“The company is growing thanks to us, but if he wanted to withdraw his money, he would leave you with nothing and you would still be in debt to him.”
“Ok, let's not think about what could happen. We need to deal with what is happening. We'll call him tomorrow and get everything sorted out. After all, he has no reason not to return our money. We should eat now.”
We tried to get back to more pleasant topics and enjoy dinner, but our skepticism and anxiety only increased. Although I had been shocked in the past, when I noticed that the money I had contributed was written down as Antanas’, I wanted to believe that it was just a simple oversight. But after hearing Slava’s situation, I no longer felt like it was a coincidence or honest mistake. It was our fault for not carefully reading the fine lines of the contracts. Everyone knows that you need to do that, but we had signed contracts with a respected public figure. Was it possible that supporting struggling families, basketball teams, and individuals were only part of an advertising plan to create a better image? No, it couldn’t be. My and Slava’s cases had to be just a coincidence.
“Andrius, Egis said that we have some misunderstandings about the loans. I want to clarify everything so that we both understand what is happening and can move past this. I am out of Lithuania at the moment, so I can’t meet with you personally, but Egis will handle everything and as far as I know, he is planning to meet with you today. He has been working hard for SportClothes and is trying to get in touch with Nike representatives in the USA and Germany as soon as possible,” Antanas said over the phone.
“There's no need to contact Nike. I have all of those contacts, but we need to establish companies in those countries because nobody will even speak to us if we don’t have a company or a store in that region. They just forward everything to the local representatives we're already working with,” I said to Antanas without even mentioning the loan issues.
“It's really easy to open a company. That is no problem at all,” Antanas assured.
“Well, it's been a while, and we haven't expanded anywhere. Since Egis is looking into the USA, make sure he is checking the tax rates of each state.”
“Don’t worry. He will handle everything, and soon we will run a company in the US. I also suggest that we start thinking about Great Britain. There are great conditions for a business in the UK, so I think it would be a great place for expansion.”
“Antanas, I don’t care what country we open a store in, it is only important that we open up something in another country. Otherwise, we can’t get another contract with Nike. Buying from local representatives is not reliable. We did not receive our full order last quarter, and we haven’t received any merchandise for over three months. It is lucky that we had a supplier in Germany and were able to get the merchandise from them. I don’t know if the mistake was from our local Nike representative or what, but there was no communication about the problem, and they wouldn’t answer our requests. I get the feeling that the representative is starting to see our store as competition since they have their own stores and have had a total monopoly until now. When we showed up, they lost that. If we got contracts in other countries, it would be a lot safer for us. So, we need to have at least one company in another country and at least one more contract with a Nike representative in another region. That is the only way we would be safe, and it would give us the freedom to expand as much as we wanted.” I have repeatedly explained the reasons for the necessary expansion of the company.
“Of course, I agree. I want the same things you do. We need to work hard to solve this issue and start getting all of our merchandise from somewhere else. It would be better not to buy anything in Lithuania at all and import everything from other countries. I am sure that Egis can take care of all of this quickly.”
“Buying in Lithuania isn’t a problem. We just need the extra security that having another contract would guarantee.” I corrected Antanas.
“Okay, I agree that security is key,” he answered superficially. “Andrius, you need to start supporting women's basketball.” Antanas changed a theme to other line “I am the president of the league, so we could get a lot of benefits for a pretty small sum.”
“Right now, I do not think that we need to be supporting anything,” I said immediately opposed. “When we supported the Youth Basketball Championship, we learned that monetary support wasn’t all there was to it. We would need to have a person that was completely responsible for that, and we don’t have anyone to spare at the moment. Not only do we not have the free hands required, but we also don’t have the money. We will soon begin receiving the merchandise we ordered to export to our stores that were already supposed to be up and running in other countries. Since we don’t have those stores yet, it will be difficult to store it in the warehouse as well as pay for it all. We will probably need a loan from you.”
“In regards to the sponsoring, I realize you know the situation better. But I think that I have already invested a lot of money in the company. I was under the impression that I had already invested sufficiently in Lithuania and that other investments would be limited to foreign markets. I am afraid that the amount of stock you have right now is the biggest issue. It is entirely too large and has already fallen in value.” Antanas said in a solid tone without emotions.
“You haven't invested anywhere near the amount your shares are worth!” I said shocked and surprised “You invested the same amount of money as me. And why do you think the biggest problem is the stock? After all, we talked about expanding and increasing orders. In my opinion, the biggest problem is that, after more than a year, the company hasn’t opened a store in another country. Orders have to be made more than half a year in advance, and much of this current stock was intended for Belarus, which you told me was well underway. If you want, I can stop increasing orders, but we need to talk seriously. You can’t tell me to start increasing everything, and then after I do so, tell me that having so much stock is a problem. Compared to our competitors, our warehouse is tiny, and we will still need a lot of merchandise to be able to match even mid-size stores in the rest of Europe,” I replied with annoyance.
“Don't take it personally. I'm just saying I'm afraid we have a lot of old stuff that is causing us to lose money and, in turn, making it difficult to pay for the new stuff. As for Belarus, Egis has found some new connections, and we are making big progress there. We should be able to open the store there soon.” In an attempt to stifle my emotions, he was trying to steer the conversation towards things I wanted to hear.
“As for the stock in the warehouse, I will repeat once more that I do not see a problem and think we still don’t have enough and will need an influx of money to increase it, so that we can widen our range of products. We will move to the top, only after we do that. As for expansion in other countries, you keep saying we are expanding to Belarus, Germany, the US, and Australia, but I still haven’t seen any progress. I don't know how to delegate tasks or how to plan for the future. If I order too little, we will not have anything to sell. If I make orders in preparation to send merchandise to other stores, it ends up stuck in our warehouse. There won’t be money to cover it.”
“Andrius, I can give you a loan. There is no need to get worked up. Just keep working. I am in Bali right now playing sports. So, I will put Egis in charge of the loan. He will handle everything and make sure that everything is great for both parties. Don’t worry. Your and Slava’s money hasn’t disappeared.”
“Okay, I'm not worried about that. We just shipped an order to Bali, today,” I replied with a softer tone.
“Wow, that’s great! If you want, we can open a store here, too.”
“Okay, Antanas,” I couldn’t even bring myself to laugh at how quickly he went back to talking setting up even more stores.
The conversation hadn’t been pleasant and left me feeling out of sorts. So far, I had seen more talk than action from Antanas. I no longer understood whether or not Antanas was seriously talking about the whole world or just paying me lip service. Why was he mentioning more and more countries every time we spoke? Why would he even bring up Bali? It is certainly not a priority that we should be talking about right now. How could we increase our range of merchandise without investing? What had we accomplished in a year? We opened one store in his building, which had only put us in debt to Antanas. Why did he think we had too much stock if he was the one of us that told to order more? How was that even a problem? I did not understand why I felt I had to beg him for a loan. After all, he had not come close to investing enough money in Lithuania, let alone other countries. Any real entrepreneur knows that nothing happens without investment. You have to work, invest, and only after there is enough expansion for the company to grow from its own revenue will you be able to stop investing and see returns, but that takes time.
At the TonySports store, we hung a basketball board on the wall outside, so that children in the neighborhood could play basketball in the evenings. There were no basketball courts close by for them to practice. I began to imagine, when we had the money, that we could move our support from leagues or teams to constructing basketball courts themselves, and maybe even build a closed basketball arena that connected to our store. Thoughts like that were the only way I was able to push past all of the issues with Antanas and make myself smile. When I pulled up to the store and found the shop assistants outside playing basketball, my heart soared.
I had always enjoyed playing H-O-R-S-E with the shop assistants, a game where after one player makes a shot, the others have to stand in the same place and try to make the same shot. I was pretty sure they liked it too. When there were no customers, they were able to spend more time outside, and when the shop assistants were outside throwing a ball around, it attracted customers who also joined in on games occasionally. Playing basketball together broke down the boundaries between work duties and helped us all get to know one another better. Everyone was able to relax and the team became stronger.
When we were not throwing a ball around outside the building, we were taking newly received items to outside areas around the store to take pictures of each other. We would later post the photos on our website or social networks. The shop assistants became so accustomed to taking pictures that they began taking them themselves. Photoshoots became more and more common, and they would upload pictures for me to publish. In this way, they gradually became more than just shop assistants. They were the faces of the store. Being an important part of a team made holidays like Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's day, or St. Patrick's Day more exciting and put greater emphasis on uniquely decorating the store and sharing that atmosphere with customers. We even started decorating a store for exclusive merchandise. We rented a snake, changed the color of the entire store to yellow, and the consultants wore snake-eye glasses to represent the black and yellow basketball shoes by Kobe Bryant (nicknamed Black Mamba). It was a celebration for our customers but also for us. First and foremost, it made each day new and interesting. The team was the perfect example of how I imagined SportClothes. Everyone was interested in their work, and work became an enjoyable activity where everyone had a chance to excel.
As a result of this, I decided to give each employee sneakers for their birthday, although my reasoning was a bit selfish. I hated seeing the staff walk around in flats. I also believed that the shop assistants needed to have a great understanding of the products they were selling. Only once that happened would they be able to advise customers on various issues. Giving them shoes also meant that whenever they walked through the city, their bright, eye-catching sneakers could also benefit the company.
After spending a couple of hours in the store, I returned to the warehouse, where Egis was supposed to arrive soon. I did and didn’t look forward to meeting with him. It would be good to find out about the loans, but I felt anxious. Meetings with him were never easy. He was a lawyer, and we were “dreamers." We tried to relax and be friendly with one another, but there was always some invisible barrier between us. He tried to help by offering a variety of his favorite brands for us to get in touch with, but those manufacturers were never in line with any of our other merchandise. We tried to help with opening businesses in other countries, but he always found shortcomings in our ideas. While talking, we would try to find common ground, but the more we talked, the less likely that goal seemed possible. It would be good to have a closer relationship with a shareholder, but the most important thing was for everyone to do their jobs and that would always be more beneficial than any friendship.
When Egis arrived, we walked around the warehouse and showed him the merchandise. After the short excursion and introductions, we returned to the office. Since we didn't have a meeting room, Egis sat down on the black couch that I had brought from my previous office while Slava and I sat in chairs at our workspaces, creating a triangle. At the end of the long table, Kriste was preparing orders while the warehouse worker packed them. It was clear from their silence that they wanted to hear our conversation.
“Slava,” began Egis. “You said we couldn't put more than twenty thousand euros in the contract, so following your wishes, that is all I added. Why is there a problem with that now?”
“I did say that, but my [prablem] (problem) is that I don’t understand why the other half just disappeared. I didn’t just give it away.”
“I wrote down exactly what you told me to. So, that was the sum entered into the system, and I cannot add numbers out of nowhere,” Egis replied in a cold but polite tone.
“Egis, I’m not asking you to make up numbers. I just want to make sure it is clear what amount of merchandise I [kantributed] (contributed) was worth. I told you my [prablems] (problems), and I said that twenty thousand euros could be recorded without a [prablem] (problem), but I never agreed to only being credited with half of what I [kantributed] contributed. Where's the other half of my [kantribution] (contribution)?” Slava asked harshly.
“We misunderstood each other somewhere. I did as you asked. I wrote down twenty thousand euros,” said Egis, holding his ground.
I got lost watching their conversation. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Did Egis just pretend to be a fool, or had he really taken half of Slava's money and said that was what Slava asked him to do? We all knew Slava’s situation. How could he look Slava in the eyes and act as if he had misunderstood him? After one signature, Slava only had half of nearly forty thousand euros. Slava thought he was getting a good deal by working with an experienced lawyer who promised to solve his problems, but in the end, he simply reduced the number of assets he had.
As their conversation began to repeat itself, it seemed that there was no opportunity for Slava to recover the nearly twenty thousand euros that had disappeared, and Slava became increasingly desperate. I began to feel responsible. After all, I brought Slava in. I put him in touch with Egis while claiming he was a specialist that could handle all his questions. Dammit, this was ridiculous. Instead of sitting down and planning the growth of the company, we were now wasting our time discussing lost money. Fifty percent of Slava’s contribution had disappeared right alongside sixty percent of mine.
“Egis,” I said stepping in. “You also wrote eighty thousand euros of my money as if Antanas contributed it. I don’t understand what you are hoping to achieve by acting as if you did not understand something and wrote off half of Slava's money while also screwing me out of my money. We cannot work like this. Get my money back, and write over Slava’s missing money from me,” I demanded.
“Andrius, you have a contract concerning the amount you contributed as well. You need to talk with Antanas. If he agrees to transfer it over to you, there will be no problem to transfer Slava’s from you,” he replied arrogantly.
“What are you talking about?” I was even more surprised. “If Antanas agrees to give me my money back?! It is my money not Antanas'!”
“I'll talk to Antanas, and we'll do whatever he says,” Egis replied, and a few minutes after finishing the conversation, he got off the couch and left.
Kriste shipped merchandise throughout the work week, and on Saturdays, Slava and I would ship everything that needed to go out over the weekend. There are two reasons we made shipments on Saturdays: to make sure that customers received items as soon as possible and to make Mondays as easy for Kriste as possible. We didn’t want her scrambling to get out three days’ worth of orders. After I would leave the packages at the post office, I would go to the store to collect the week’s money and take it to the bank. It had become a Saturday tradition, but on this particular Saturday, we were in a hurry to finish everything, as we would be heading to Belarus to see the premises of our new store for the first time.
We met Egis in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, got into his new VW Passat, and headed for Minsk. I had never been to Belarus before, and I only knew, from the newspapers, that it would probably look like we stepped back in time twenty years. I knew people's salaries were low and that the country was strictly controlled by the last European dictator.
Slava chose to sit in the back of the car, and I had to sit in the passenger seat next to Egis. Since the trip could take up to four hours, depending on how long we would have to wait in the customs line, I was jealous of Slava. He would be able to disappear in the back seat, but I would need to at least try to hold a conversation with Egis.
Almost two months had passed since our heated discussion with Egis. While we had solved the loan problems, Antanas returned my money, and I covered Slava’s lost money, I was starting to feel more and more that Antanas wasn’t as straight-shooting as I had originally thought. Did I still believe in Antanas unconditionally? No. However, I believed that it was in his best interest to help us grow and that he would be able to earn more in the future by doing so. That is why I was trying to let go of my ever-increasing mistrust, especially now that we were headed to Belarus and would hopefully be opening our first store in another country, which would classify us as an international company.
“Egis, I feel like something is separating you and Antanas from Slava and me. One of the reasons I chose to work with Antanas was his backstory and knowledge in hopes of growing and expanding together. I know we are moving into Belarus and will hopefully keep expanding abroad, but I feel like we don’t support each other, and it is starting to push the boundaries of our relationships. Between the loan issues, paying rent for the store, and a couple days ago it was the race at Antanas’ Resort, where you let a competitor put up advertisements, and also one of Antanas’ companies creating an online store for that same competitor, we can’t understand whose side you are on. That doesn’t even include other places you are supporting or backing.”
“Antanas has a lot of companies. He does not control them, just like he doesn’t interfere with your business or tell you who or how to work. Each company decides what is best for them, and if someone offers them money, it would be foolish to pass it up,” Egis answered without taking his eyes off of the road.
“I understand that there are different companies and that having work is important to everyone. However, we shouldn’t be looking solely at the present. The future should be much more important than the amount of money you currently receive for a job or sponsorship. After all, Antanas was promoting the competition himself. He was living at a resort that was flying our competitor’s flags. We weren’t even told about the event,” I kept pushing.
“Antanas offered to have you support the women's basketball league and suggested that you support basketball clubs, but you refused. Maybe he was tired of offering you opportunities like that and was able to find someone open to providing support,” he replied with a smirk.
“How can you say ‘found someone open to providing support?’” I was surprised and annoyed by his statement. “I refused those options because the company didn’t have the money. I have been doing my best not to require Antanas to invest more in the company. Right now, things are really tight. Everybody agreed that we needed to fill the warehouse with new merchandise, but now the coin has flipped, and everyone says we have much stored in the warehouse. When he asked me to support those things, we just couldn’t make jumps like that. We had to pay for the merchandise we had ordered. We don't want to ask for another loan, so Slava and I have been carrying the business as much as we can through personal funds to minimize the delays in payment for merchandise. But even with that, we were still forced to cancel some of our orders.”
“Antanas offered to give you a loan so that you could provide support.”
“We barely got a loan to help pay for just a portion of our merchandise, but he would give us a loan to support someone else? We have to re-pay interest-bearing loans at some point. If Antanas wants to advertise himself, he should do it directly and leave us out of the middle. We don’t want to pay for the luxury of making him look good.”
“Okay, Andrius. Antanas doesn't want to interfere, but he didn't like you refusing to support the women's league. On a different note, I am now looking for opportunities to open a company in Germany. I think while we don’t have a company there, one of Antanas’ companies there could sign contracts with Nike and resell everything to us. What do you think?” Egis said, changing the subject in an attempt to quench the heightened emotions.
“I don't know," I wondered. “What do you think, Slava?”
Slava leaned up to be closer to us.
“I'm afraid they might charge a high percentage for being the middleman,” Slava replied thoughtfully.
“Before I had a company, when I bought adidas merchandise from an adidas partner, the manufacturer wasn’t able to see what kind of orders I was putting in. Because of that, when we opened the company, we had to start everything from a scratch. If we buy stuff from a middleman, they will not see our order history also. However, moving forward is better than standing in a same place, so I agree with that until we will have our own company in that country. We should only do that for a year at the max. Also, Nike or adidas are global companies. They have a lot of rules, and they don't give just anyone a contract. Getting contracts with them will require a lot of effort,” I said, partially accepting his proposal.
“In Germany, Antanas’ companies are strong, so getting manufacturers to work with them shouldn’t be an issue.” Egis said confidently.
Recent conversations with Egis had been closer to arguments than conversations. It seemed that we used raised tones more often than not, but if we had problems and couldn’t let them go, we needed to talk things through. I always felt a little better after we aired our thoughts. Conversations were the only way that we could let Egis and Antanas know that we felt something was missing or not okay while also reminding them that they needed to do their jobs.
When we crossed the Belarusian border, I had expected to see immediate changes, but I couldn’t tell the difference. The roads were the same as in Lithuania, the landscape was the same, and even the houses near the roads were similar. Slava was dozing against the window. I wanted to sleep, too, but Egis kept the conversation alive, as he explained that he took his sister’s position under Antanas after she was fired. He seemed to be proud that even family had not been a barrier to his career advancement. It turned out to be a hollow and sad story that only once again confirmed our different perspectives.
It was cloudy and rainy, but I managed to keep myself awake for the entire journey to Minsk. I was still hoping to see some of the outdated villages I had heard about, but I didn't see anything remotely close to that. Minsk was easily identifiable from a distance. Tall residential buildings and the even taller cranes that were building more residential buildings filled the horizon. Minsk looked like one big construction site. Everywhere you looked, there were new things being built. I hadn’t expected anything like that, and after seeing it, I understood why so many Lithuanian entrepreneurs had startups there. It was growing and expanding, and there hadn’t been anything that made me feel like I was stepping back in time.
The mall was being built in one of the residential areas of the city and set to open in just a few months. A Lithuanian company, with whom Antanas wanted as a partner for our new business, was building the mall.
When we arrived at the mall, Antanas and one of the owners were waiting for us. The mall wasn’t big, but its large sign immediately drew my attention. The sign had a sizable logo that had words written in green, pink, and white over a brownish-gray background. I immediately associated the color combination with discounted products. The mall was located near the edge of the city and surrounded by tall, gray apartment buildings on three sides and gray fields on the other. The owner assured us that new residential buildings were going up in the empty field. I wasn’t impressed by the neighborhood. I wanted a store downtown, even if it was a tiny one. We would only properly introduce ourselves to the market if we had something in the city center. Then again, if I waited until everything was exactly how I wanted, we may never open another store. In this case, a bird in the hand was better than two in the bush.
“Nice jacket, Andrius,” said Antanas sarcastically. “You'll need to find something more suitable for tonight.”
I mumbled something quietly that Slava and I had come straight from the warehouse, but I don’t think anyone even heard. My outfit was inappropriate for a meeting. I had on a pair of black Nike basketball shoes with a bright blue Swoosh, loose navy jean shorts, and a zippered, orange Jordan sweater. I was dressed a bit retro and could have easily found something better to wear, but what did it matter? We were visiting a construction site, and no one had mentioned an evening outing.
As we entered the front door, I didn’t see anything close to magical, and everything donned a heavy layer of dust. After walking around the ground floor of the mall, we went up to the second floor and found more than a hundred square meters of space had been set aside for our store next to a future pizzeria. As we walked around the space, Antanas carried on and on about how wonderful the place was and how perfect it would be for our business. Slava and I hung back a bit and after one glance at each other, understood that this space was not our style. However, if we protested at this point, who knew if they would try to open somewhere else, and they would start accusing us trying to sabotage. So, we just nodded and tried to make sure our smiles didn’t look too fake.
“So, Andrius, are we doing it?” Antanas enthusiastically asked as he followed Slava and me outside the building.
“We need to discuss all the details, and if everything fits what we need…” I painfully glanced over at Slava and confirmed, “we can do it.”
“Of course, we will do it! There's nothing to even think about,” Antanas proclaimed loudly. “And tonight, we will go to the best nightclub to celebrate our success!”
Egis, Slava, and I went to a local grocery store to buy food and drinks for dinner after leaving the construction site. We bought a few bags full of random food and then went to rent a three-room apartment in one of the nearby apartment buildings. Finally, I encountered what I had expected the whole country to look like. When we walked into the apartment, it felt like I had stepped back in time at least a couple dozen years. The room had an interior design that had been popular in Lithuania at least twenty years ago. The walls were covered in brown wallpaper, a crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, a large fern sat next to the balcony door, a large dark brown wardrobe took up a considerable portion of the room, and a green sofa and two green armchairs were covered by tan blankets. Slava started getting the food ready on a folding table in the middle of the room. He is the best at that! When we would have a beer after work, we didn’t have a beer with a snack, but rather a dozen of snacks with some beer. On the rare occasions when we drank more than one glass but a snack, especially smoked fish, would cover the entire table. Tonight would be similar, but instead of beer, we had a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to go along with our stash of food fit for a king.
Slava and I needed to be drunk. We weren’t fans of going to nightclubs. We don't dance, socialize, or like club music, but we knew refusing to go wasn’t an option. A few minutes later, Marius, the owner of the mall, arrived, and sat on a armchair next to Egis. Slava and I sat comfortably on the sofa opposite them.
Watching Marius and Egis talk became an interesting pastime. Their actions made them look like twins. They both sat with their legs crossed, and it would have been obvious from afar that the two of them understood each other. I felt like I was at some performance, and the actors were discussing all of the world’s problems. I got the impression that they were dropping names just to impress how many influential and famous people they knew. The bragged about how they flew somewhere with a minster of some sort to talk about business, how they played tennis with another minister, and how the press clung to one politician, but not another. Money was everywhere in this conversation.
“What kind of terms will our partnership include? Who will be responsible for what and how will it all work out?” after a short pause in their conversation, I decided to change the subject and find out more about the real reason behind our visit.
“We have already agreed on all of that,” Marius replied while looking at Egis.
“Andrius, they will handle all of the documentation and backend of the business, and we will take care of all of the actual movement and work in the company,” Egis added with a smile.
“Under what terms? How much will it cost to rent the store and what are the benefits of helping them?”
“We will have a new company in Belarus, and we will all become shareholders. They agreed to fifty-one percent of the shares, so forty-nine will be left to us.”
“But Antanas said that he doesn’t make deals without the controlling stake and now you are accepting less than half?” I asked distrustfully.
“Andrius, we negotiated and agreed,” Egis replied in a calm tone. “They have been working in this market for a long time and are well versed. They will let us have the space rent-free for a year, and after that, we will rent it at market price. It is our responsibility to supply the goods, handle sales, and to train the employees. Since we are shareholders, I think it is fair that we only start paying ourselves salaries when the company becomes profitable.”
“But the only shareholders who will be ordering merchandise, training the employees, or handling sales are Slava and me?” I asked sarcastically while looking at Marius, who, like a statue, continued looking at Egis.
“Maybe...” Egis said a little frustrated. “But if any issues arise, I am sure that Antanas and I will work just as much as the two of you. Everyone will be putting in equal amounts of effort here. And if you feel you are earning too little, I think we might be able to talk about raising salaries at SportClothes so that you won’t have any qualms about working for the Belarusian company as well.”
“I think we’ll need to talk about that later.” I didn‘t want to delve into the topic and talk about personal things next to a stranger. “And how about setting up the store?”
“We will split the cost in half. That is a great deal. If we had to take care of it, the cost would be twice as much. We will also fill the store shelves with merchandise; then the company will buy more merchandise from its turnover.” Egis answered as if defending a deal immediately.
They went back to their conversation, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that so many things were not clear, and all he was actually saying is “We brought you to Minsk. You are opening a store outside of Lithuania. What more do you want?” Here was a potential partner who wouldn’t even look at Slava or me. If we said anything, his response was to look at Egis. The partners would own half of the shares and run the company, while Slava and I would have to ensure sales, select the models that would sell best, handle the transaction of sales, and train their employees… For what? Slava and I held forty-five percent of SportClothes shares, and if SportClothes didn’t own even half of the company, Slava and I would be splitting just over twenty percent between the two of us. Without even a quarter-share in the new company, we would be forced to pass on all our knowledge, all our work, and our entire selection of merchandise. Of course, if anything went wrong, the blame would fall on the two of us, and what would we have to show for it? A check-mark showing that we opened a shop on the outskirts of Minsk? After all, I had given Antanas the larger portion of my company’s shares so that he and his people would help take care of things, not so some outside company that happened to be building a mall could immediately gain control of the new company we were opening. How was Antanas even helping me? It seemed like even one percent of the company was good enough for him. After all, he wouldn’t have to do anything else. The merchandise was already in the warehouse; setting up the store would cost no more than twenty-five thousand euros; any further management would be in the hands of the new partners, and sales with orders were already mine and Slava’s concern. We already had more than enough to take care of in our own company, yet here we were about to start dealing with a whole new set of headaches for a company in another country that didn’t even feel like it was ours. Everything had been decided for us by others, and we were only the cheap labor they couldn’t even bother to look at.
I think Slava understood all of my thoughts from my facial expressions and shrugged his head as if to confirm that there was something unclear to him as well. I made another Jack Daniel’s cocktail with Pepsi. This time, I poured more whiskey. Slava drank his whiskey straight. He would take a long gulp and wash it down with a big bite of food.
After a few more rounds, a lot of warming up, and the disappearance of most of the food, Antanas’ driver showed up and gave me a change of clothes with some dark, tight-fitting jeans and a blue button-up. He told us the address to the nightclub where we would all meet and left to pick up Antanas from his hotel.
I changed into the fitted clothes, which were more suitable for the club. I felt, like I was losing myself. I know that everyone needs to change, and you can’t be the same, but for me, this experience felt like I was going backwards, rather than forwards. I had this feeling that this is the real Eastern Europe, where everything is dark and cold, where people who call themselves entrepreneurs are actually just thieves in business suits.
As we entered the club, amid the dark blue lighting and loud music, we noticed Antanas with some blonde sitting on his lap waiting at a large table full of drinks and food. When she saw us, she got off of his lap and sat near him.
After a few glasses, everyone was smiling and broke into small groups. Antanas talked with the blonde, Egis with the mall owner, and Slava was telling a black-haired girl jokes in Russian, which made her laugh out loud occasionally. I hung back from everyone and tried to figure out what they were talking about from their gestures. After drinking, all my negative feelings had become much sharper. I was stuck in an unexplainable sadness trying to figure out what I was doing there. That was not my dream. My dreams of eating an expensive steak in every city where we opened a store were flying out the window. I was like in a cheap movie with terrible actors trying to pretend that they were kings of the world.
Out of everyone sitting at the table, Marius was the most interesting for me to watch. Every move, smile, and word felt like an insult. I couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. He would be my boss when I managed the new company and hired employees. A man who wouldn’t even look at Slava and I would be taking the lead? I had created all this not only to achieve my dreams but also to be free. This situation would not be anywhere near freedom and couldn’t have been further from my dreams. For everyone else, this was just another business that could earn them some money. For me, this job was my life, my calling, and my passion. Those traits had made me a cheap commodity. They had some stupid idealist who would do all of the work in the name of dreams.
Dammit, I wasn’t going to pretend that I was okay with this deal. If that caused Antanas to stop helping me open other stores, so be it. That decision was his to make, but this deal was certainly not making me happy or helping SportClothes name, so I scooted over to talk with Marius.
Alcohol loosens the tongue and helps you find the courage to talk about things you would normally keep to yourself. As I began speaking, it was hard to get the right words, and I felt like an alcoholic telling a story to an unfamiliar bartender, but word after word, I started to feel my tongue, and I gave him a long monologue about how we wouldn’t be working together. I was committed at that point. I laid out what bothered me about everyone, and I poured all of my issues on him. He became the perfect place for me to vent. I have to admit, he was patient and listened to everything. After finishing my monologue, downing a cocktail, and slamming the empty glass on the table, I noticed Antanas staring at me with huge eyes. I didn’t know if he watched my entire speech this way, but he would have only had to hear a small portion of it to understand that there would be no deal.
I stood up and walked back to sit next to Slava and “woman of the night,” who had just mentioned the cost of her services if Slava wanted to extend the evening. Slava was surprised. He thought they were both having a good evening and that his jokes really had been funny. He told her to leave. After only half an hour, our group had become much smaller.
“Andrius, I'm sorry. We'll fix it. I want to help and keep everything positive,” Antanas said in my ear as he hugged the blonde to his waist and left the club with her and his driver. Marius left soon after him, and a little later, a taxi took the three of us home.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt like a student at university. I wasn’t sure how I should be feeling or if there was anything to regret after a hard night of drinking. I went through everything that had happened a few times in my head and felt like I was in the right. I had nothing of which to be ashamed. Maybe if I had had the conversation while I had been sober, I wouldn’t have gone on such a tangent, but what was the difference?
I didn't have to wait long to see Antanas’ reaction to my show and refusal to work with his partners. A week later, he called, and we agreed to meet and talk about everything.
“Now I am doing a lot with Facebook advertising. Did you see the promo I did for you? We got almost nine hundred likes and a crazy number of comments!” Antanas shared excitedly, as we walked from our store towards the pizzeria in Freedom Avenue. “Create more posts, and I'll sponsor them. People liked that one, so I think we could easily get a thousand likes and a few hundred comments!”
“Yes, I noticed. Next time, it would be better to pay for advertisements that link to our site,” I said in a smart tone. “Because now I am getting a lot of likes, but no redirects to the site. If you want to sponsor posts, I suggest that you do so using our shop assistants’ photos. Customers would love it.”
“That's fine, I’ll do everything that you say is good for the company. I want to help as much as possible. Dammit, you know what you are doing, and I feel very guilty about what Egis has done. I am very sorry. I am through with him. I have relieved him of most of his duties, and you won't see him anymore. He went back to Minsk to his friends. I am still shocked that he acted like that. He was a scammer, an ugly man who was trying to strategize how to get rich without doing any work. I didn't even know what the terms were, I thought it would be good for us, but when I saw that you didn't even have salaries, I understood it was unfair and dirty. They only wanted to fill their pockets with the fruit of other people’s work. They are the type of people who destroy instead of create.”
“I thought you were ok with everything?” I said reluctantly. “I thought you knew all the terms, and it all had your approval. If Egis is no longer helping, what will we do about getting into other countries? After all, he was responsible for taking care of that. Did he even do anything?”
“I really didn't know anything about it, and I don't know if he was actually doing anything in other countries. He told me that he was working on it a lot, but you see how much time has passed yet we have nothing to show for it. It’s a pity that I can’t take my anger out on him over all of this, but I promise I'll find a much better person to take his place, and we will start over. I don't want you to think I'm not in this with you. He cheated me, too. It turns out that when I gave him four percent of the shares, not only did he write the shares over to himself, he also wrote in an interest-bearing loan for over ten thousand euros which was mine. That fuckin faggot!” I turned to look at Antanas. It was the first time I had heard him curse. He seemed sincere, and I had felt sympathy for him. Maybe Antanas was a good person, and just trusted others too much? Maybe that's why I couldn't understand what he saw in Zygis and how Egis had him wrapped around his finger. They had both been capable of acting and could be a different person depending on the situation. Maybe Antanas hadn’t noticed their dark sides?
“Antanas, I saw that he was giving money to himself, but I thought you were rewarding him for his work.”
“You have to be kidding me! I've never given him a bonus! I'd much rather give you a bonus. You do all of the work for the company. He has done nothing but tangle us all up. Do not give him any information about the company; he has no rights to anything. He is a minority shareholder. If he wants to know why you won’t give him information, tell him it’s because I said so. Forgive me for bringing him in at all. He's a terrible person.”
I understood Antanas. I trusted too much sometimes, and I couldn’t change anything. Sometimes, things slip by you, and someone cheats you. A few wrong choices could waste a lot of time and create unnecessary stress. But what happened was in the past. The unpleasant trip to Belarus had some positive results. We would talk more directly now, and similar problems, hopefully, wouldn’t arise in the future. I was feeling a wave of relief.
At the same pizzeria patio where we had agreed to work together more than a year ago, we chose a small table. Antanas ordered coffee, and I got orange juice, as usual. Although I didn’t feel completely comfortable with Antanas, I had just found out that he had been taken advantage of by one of his closest people, and I felt like Antanas was less god-like than before. I told him more about the company, about the employees, about everyone's passion, and about how everyone was contributing to the company's growth. Antanas was fascinated.
“Damn, I have never seen such passion in any of my businesses. I don't know how to balance out everything. I need to give you more shares and create a plan that will allow you to take back even more. Things haven’t gone as planned, and I do not feel worthy of having so many shares in the company,” said Antanas, lowering his eyes.
“I don’t care about those shares," I said smiling. “It would better to give them to my sister. She works just as hard as I do. Or maybe the other employees? It would be good to have a plan to reward them with shares as well. Everyone works hard, and my current shares are enough for me. The most important things to me are opening new stores in other countries and paying our bills on time. After I had to cancel some of our orders, Nike lowered our discount, so now I’m afraid I will have to cancel even more. I don't even want to think about how much the discount will go down, and that’s not even talking about our reputation. The first canceled order labeled us as unreliable customers.”
“Andrius, I can transfer money next week!” Antanas offered quickly.
“Super! That would help a lot!” I was delighted.
I will never forget the day at school when teachers cancelled classes because the Kaunas Zalgiris basketball team had become the EuroLeague champions, and we spent the day singing chants. I will also never forget my first time at a Kaunas Zalgiris match in a small sporting arena. A few classmates and I arrived at the match a little late, but being late only made it more apparent why small arenas are so great. As soon as we walked in the door, we immediately entered the whirlwind of emotions from the match: the heat, the sounds, and the basketball players pacing up and down the court just a few meters away. We screamed and supported our team until we were sweaty and felt like we had contributed to the team's victory. You don’t forget moments like those.
Today, I sat in a soft chair, eating a variety of snacks and drinking apple cider in the VIP lounge of the new Kaunas Zalgiris Arena, more than three times larger than the old one. After a nice play, I would say something like, “Oh, that was good” or a quiet “yeah.” I didn't want to stand out in front of the other business people or politicians sitting around. However, even if they hadn’t been around, I wasn’t sure that I would have acted any differently. My passion for the sport was changing. It was no longer a matter of life or death. At some point, I no longer understood why I was so passionate about the sport. If I liked a player, but he moved to the opponents' team, should I continue to like him? His talent hadn’t changed, but he was playing against my beloved team. Or when a player on an opposing team moved to my team, I had just been cursing them, but now after a nice play, I would applaud them? If not the players, so who is the team?
The team’s previous owner, Vladimir Romanov, had turned the team into just another business object with under-the-table deals. I no longer knew who was right or who I should believe. I used to believe what the previous players were saying, but when they started saying it was time to close this club, I was lost. For me, the team had become a name that anyone with a lot of money could own. It was a promotional tool to put on a team jersey and stand in front of a basketball board for interviews with journalists. I no longer thought the club was still a city team. I became someone who enjoyed watching a good game, but I was no longer burned inside for my team. For me, going to a basketball game became just another way to pass time, like going to the circus just to relax after a work day. Someone had to win, and someone had to lose. My views of the teams and the game, in general, had drastically changed.
I had already been invited to the VIP lounges by a brand we were working with and was getting used to these types of luxuries, but this time I was with Antanas in the main and largest lounge in the arena. There was more food, more drinks and, of course, more famous people, but the person that Antanas had brought me here to see was not in this lounge. He had his own lounge.
I had planned to meet Arvydas Sabonis more than a year ago when I needed to sign a contract to sponsor the Youth Basketball Championship. I had worn a suit and had been very disappointed with Egis when we arrived at the Notary’s office only to find that Egis had written down the wrong time, and we were two hours late. Arvydas had already given up and left, but I had still been excited to sign my name next to Arvydas Sabonis’ signature.
Antanas walked out into the arena corridor leading to Arvydas' lounge, and I followed about five steps behind him. I kept going over what to say in my head. I wanted to act like a small child who ran up to him and hugged his leg while telling him about how exciting it was to be meeting one of my childhood idols. I wanted to tell him about how we were trying to copy his signature shot, throwing a ball as a hook, or how we were trying to make a fast pass behind a back as he did in the NBA. I wanted to tell him how I watched many of his matches well into the night. Finally, I came to my senses and began to imagine how I would propose to him becoming a business partner. I wondered how things would have turned out if I had sent my email to Arvydas instead of Antanas. There was so much I could say, but how would I appear before him? He probably heard admiration from fans every day and didn’t want to hear the same things from me. What should I say? I didn’t know, so my anxiety increased.
Antanas knocked on the door. Seconds later, I was shaking a large hand. I had seen Arvydas many times around the arena or surrounded by people, but I had never been up close to him. In this rather small dark room, his height seemed even more impressive.
I don't know how long we had been there. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, but I remained silent all the time. I remained silent when Antanas introduced me as the CEO of SportClothes. I stayed silent and was embarrassed when Antanas began suggesting Arvydas buy some sneakers. I couldn’t say anything. I just watched the basketball legend sitting in front of me while he was listened to Antanas talk. Sabonis tilted his head slightly, occasionally smiled, or briefly answered questions. Antanas was the only one who spoke. He told one story after another, about basketball, SportClothes, travel, past basketball championships, and many more topics that he had maybe thought about before coming here. After listening to everything, Arvydas turned his head slightly toward the basketball court and pointed at the ongoing match, making it clear that it was time for us to leave.
As soon as we walked out the door, the tension eased, but I felt frustrated. I had just shaken hands with a basketball legend, but I didn’t feel well. One of us chatted nonstop, and the other sat like a statue watching while almost giggling like a teenage girl. We looked like a strange couple, like door-to-door salespeople looking for new customers. We had just offered Arvydas Sabonis to buy some sneakers! I felt so ashamed that I could have died.
Back in his suite, Antanas talked about how well the conversation with Arvydas had gone and promised to one day own the Zalgiris team and surround the arena with advertisements for TonySports. “That would be unreal!” I immediately thought, but after a few moments, I looked over at Antanas who was sitting in his chair with a huge smile plastered across his face and saw the resemblance between him and the team’s previous owner.
After Belarus, nothing new happened in the company, but Antanas and I had a closer relationship, and we often talked about topics other than work. This quiet time allowed me to relax a bit and not worry about anything shady happening. Belarus was a reference point where tensions reached their peak, and although Egis was still a shareholder, I hadn’t heard or seen any more of him. I needed that break. I needed to calm down and re-find my hope that everything just took time. On journeys to greatness, there will always be people who will interfere, who will create confusion and tension, and who will not pursue anything other than their personal interests. That's life. That is business.
While watching that match, we touched on one of our biggest issues at the moment: the theft of shipped merchandise. A customer in the US had received an empty shoebox in July. At that time, I thought maybe it was a coincidence or maybe the customer was cheating us to keep the basketball shoes and get their money back. He had found the SportClothes website from my posts in a forum that I visit every day, so he first shared his experience with the members of that forum. My anger intertwined with frustration. I had spent so long trying to maintain my reputation and now some guy was writing that I sent out an empty box and was trying to cheat customers! I saw his message within minutes, even before I received a direct email from him. My attitude was never to apologize if I have done nothing wrong, and in this case, it helped. He appreciated my sincerity. It was also helpful that I was dealing with the problem quickly, and he wrote about how things had taken place in the forum where other participants noticed that I was answering messages well after midnight. I found his arguments convincing and his behavior sincere, so my emotions subsided. I returned his money and informed the post office about the missing merchandise. I completely forgot about the event until the theft happened again on a much larger scale.
The pattern was the same. Customers from all over the world started receiving empty shoe boxes, and the post office didn’t seem to pay attention to it. They carried out lengthy investigations before finally answering that all was well and that all packages had been delivered to the recipients, although the boxes were empty and missing their contents. I began to suspect that it was some system. This was not a one-man job. Since the post office wouldn’t help, I contacted the police. At first, it seemed that everything would start moving, and they would immediately go check out everything, but no one was in a hurry there either. A few weeks later, I called to ask further questions and found that during that time, the investigation had made no progress. I felt helpless, but I had Antanas, and he is a guy who should have my back in situations like this.
“It’s bullshit. If the post office cared, they could have easily caught the culprit,” Antanas frustratingly said. “I have friends in security, I will talk with them. Don’t worry, your customers will understand, and we will catch the thieves and fix everything! I can even have the media write up an article about it.”
I had seen passion like this from Antanas and knew, in time, his passion may simmer out. Hence, I had learned to take his words with a grain of salt. However, this was a situation where he could stay fired up and, with all his acquaintances, push to solve the crime at the speed of light.
“I think an article would help a lot, and I can't help but worry because customers aren’t getting the goods they order. I'm afraid we will become untrustworthy, and if our eBay account gets blocked, we will not have the money to pay for new merchandise. Although only a small percentage of shipments have been stolen, the situation frightens me. I have been so afraid of getting negative reviews that I have been unable to fall asleep. When I do, I wake up at all hours of the night to check for new messages about stolen shipments.” I confided in my business partner.
“All businesses have problems, but they are solvable, and we will solve this too. Don't take everything so personally,” Antanas tried to reassure me.
“I realize I may be overreacting, but I can’t control it. I've been doing this for so many years, and now I'm afraid that some thief might end it. Neither the post office nor the police seem to do anything at all to help me find out what is happening.”
“If the damn cops won’t do anything, we'll fix it ourselves. Maybe we need to try and insure shipments?” Antanas asked thoughtfully.
“I don’t think insurance would change anything. The issue isn’t money; it’s customer confidence. It will cost us more to insure shipments, than the amount that is being stolen, and the problem of customers receiving empty boxes would remain. A customer waits a few weeks for an item, and when they pick up an empty package, their first thought won’t be that someone stole it after we shipped it. Their first thought will be that we were trying to take advantage of them by shipping an empty box. It is good that we have a lot of positive feedback and have been able to explain the problem so far, but that won’t carry us for long. We need to solve it and find out who is stealing from us.
“I'll try to get in touch with the post office managers to find out more, and you should be contacted by a journalist soon. Be sure to tell them the whole story.”
“Great, we can do whatever is possible. I just want to catch whoever is doing this!” I said emotionally, endorsing the plan.
“Before you know, it all of this will be in the past. What’s going on with the new store?” Antanas inquired.
“We will be opening the TonyStreets store in a couple of weeks. Are you coming to the grand opening?” I looked at Antanas questioningly.
“Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the opening. I am leaving Lithuania in just a few days and won’t be back for a couple of months. A huge congrats on being able to get another store open!” he said louder and louder, trying to talk over the roar of the arena as the match grew increasingly intense.
At some point, everyone gets hit with the desire to start a family. That's what happened to Minde, and he had married the previous summer. It was a shame that my roommate had moved out, but when he met Agne, he changed for the better. He became calmer and more relaxed. I was excited for him and seeing them together made me feel that I should probably start looking, but I immediately let go of that thought because it wasn’t right time. I was too busy raising my first child, SportClothes.
After the wedding, they moved to another city, so we saw each other less frequently, but Agne didn't want to miss the grand opening festivities, so they both came to Kaunas for the evening. Well, maybe the word festivities didn’t quite fit. As soon as we finished setting up the store, we opened the doors, informed people on social networks, and waited for our first customers. It seemed to contradict the fact that we decorated for and celebrated even the smallest holidays. You would think that a grand opening should be the biggest celebration of all, but I believed that which pompously begins ends quietly.
I had dreamed about setting up a second store in the same building for a long time, even after I found out that we would need to pay rent in that building. I still had been attached to that place with my first store, so my visions about the whole building as one big shop never went away: basketball merchandise on the bottom floor, leisure items on the floor above that, and running, training, or other sporting goods on the upper floors. Not only would it be convenient for customers, but each floor would be distinct.
Outfitting this leisure goods store took us almost a year to complete. It taught us a lesson, that you should only start projects after you have the funds to finish them.
Since the store was part of the Tony group and it was selling streetwear, we named the store TonyStreets. The store was located directly above the first store and took up two rooms. The walls and ceilings were dark brown, and the floor had a brown carpet. We chose massive brown wooden furniture and used aged metal on the walls for snapbacks and accessories. The main accent was the antique fireplace in the second room with two antique chairs next to it. We wanted our customers to feel truly royal when trying on the merchandise.
At the end of our first day at work, we bought a bunch of sushi and drinks, and the four of us had a small party. We sat down at our impromptu table made from the counter displaying various accessories underneath the glass. Slava and Minde got along great, and before long they were quickly finishing off cup after cup. I started making cocktails, but this get-together wasn’t only important because we were opening a new store. I also wanted to meet with Agne as we had previously discussed the possibility of her taking my position. This sit down was especially important to me because, like never before, I hadn’t wanted to be the CEO, and I constantly dreamed of finding the right person to pass my responsibilities on to. I thought about Kriste for a long time, but she was too much like me and was already working overtime to help me as much as possible. I couldn’t give it to her and cause her to be unhappy. We needed someone with experience in a position like this, and I couldn’t even imagine anyone more fitting than Agne. She was a calm, self-confident woman who led a team of more than fifty people, had experience dealing with shareholders and various other business partners, and most importantly, I could truly trust her to handle everything professionally.
“I love these boutique-style shops. I could live here. I would sit down in one of those chairs by the fireplace at the end of the day, and shop assistants would end up waking me up the next morning when they arrived to work,” laughed Agne.
“You know you have the option of doing just that!” I immediately grabbed the bull by the horns.
“Andrius, you know that I greatly appreciate your confidence in me for such an important position, but my situation does not allow for any radical changes in the next few years.”
“I know...” I had congratulated Minde and Agne on their pregnancy but was still hoping to put in a finish line for this job, even if it were a year or two away. Later, it would all work out, and I could work on things that I enjoyed.
“Why don't you want to run your company? After all, it seems like you have achieved success after creating all of this from scratch.”
“The title ‘Success Story’ is still a long way off for me” I smiled. “And I never said I didn’t want to run the company.”
“But you said that you wanted me to be the CEO?” Agne looked at me confused.
“Yes. I would very much like for you to take the CEO responsibilities,” I smiled as I sipped on my cocktail. “I would separate the CEO's responsibilities and take on more of a General Manager’s role. We would work together but divide the work. The CEO should steer the company, divide up work, write plans, reports, and communicate with shareholders and partners.”
“But what's the difference between that and a General Manager?”
“I imagine the General Manager being someone who knows the ins and outs of the daily functions of the company. Someone who knows everyone’s duties and who is in charge of the work done each day. For example, right now I cannot ask employees to stay overtime. They need to take time off from work before they come back in the next day, but when they leave, I often find myself finishing anything that other employees left unfinished. I don’t like knowing some things should have and could have been done when I go home at night, so I find myself filling in that gap. The CEO shouldn’t be doing that. They should hire more workers, tell someone to work overtime, or let it go until the next day.
“Yeah ... But if you understand that, why don’t you do it?”
“I don't know. I don’t think that I, personally, know how to do it any differently,” I replied as I thought on it while sipping my cocktail. “I know how it should be, and I know that if I were able to devote my time to other things, I could help the company grow faster. That is why I need a CEO to steer things, someone who could see everything from a more practical side while allowing me to do what I do best.
“But you have Slava. Why don't you offer him the position?”
“He ...” I paused and looked at Slava sitting in front of me energetically talking to Minde. “I don't think it would be a good fit.”
Maybe I was expecting too much from others. Slava had been just as crazy as me, but after a rough half of a year, he was starting to slack-off. Jurate had left him a few months ago. She broke up with him through a text message, and when he returned to his home near the sea, he found nothing but an empty house. I understood it had been difficult for him and that partners should be there to pick up the slack when someone is struggling, but this couldn’t last forever. He was an adult and the world didn’t stop moving because he was down. He still had duties and responsibilities that required his attention. We had stopped going to dinner after work at the café, and he started spending more time alone watching movies. Since I had nothing else to do, I returned to my old work schedule and had started staying at work until well after midnight. Working until midnight seven days a week caused me to start feeling like a rundown steam engine. Although SportClothes website sales were growing nonstop, everything else seemed to be at a standstill. Slava had stopped putting in any effort to grow his online store TonyStreets (which we launched and redirected the traffic from his old site to a few months after he joined). He was posting more and more photos of himself enjoying wine, snacks, and TV on social media, while I was spending my time in a warehouse. Seeing those pictures pushed me to feel that I was being used which, in turn, fueled my anger. Anger became my go-to emotion when I needed to get something done. I found that no one would take me seriously when I spoke nicely, but when I got angry things happened. I had noticed that losing my temper worked on both Slava and everyone else. When a courier lost a package and did not want to reimburse me for the loss, if I spoke nicely it would take months to handle it, but if I lost my temper and raised my voice, things would happen much faster. As I realized this, I began to understand the angry customers who would come to the store and demand something right away. They probably understood that after coming all the way to the store, things would be taken care of much more quickly if they used anger, than if they came in smiling only to be pushed to the end of the line. After all, you wanted to take care of problematic customers first and foremost, before they could do any further damage to the company’s reputation. This was another reason I wanted Agne to take my place. I didn’t want to empathize with these types of views or become someone I didn’t like.
“Agne, I can’t imagine anyone other than you in the position, but I will not to try hide the fact that the company is in a tough spot at the moment. We don’t have the money to offer a high salary or any bonuses, yet I think the prospects are great. I dream of the NBA and becoming a sponsor there, but goals like that require a strong team,” I took a sip of my cocktail. “Without a CEO, we won’t go any further and will end up spinning around and around in the same circle. Every morning, I look in the mirror and decide that I will do something new that day. I have come to realize that you don't have to do a hundred different tasks. Sometimes, it's much better to do just one small task well, and that will push things forward faster. For example, it may not seem like a big deal, but make a nice picture of an item, one person shared it, then a second, and a third share, and we are visible for a more customers. Recently, even the NBA superstar Chris Paul liked one of our photos on Instagram. That may not sound like a big deal for someone, but, for me, it’s like one step closer to the NBA! I like to think up and implement new ideas, but I can only do so after business hours when the store and warehouse are empty. Only then can I concentrate and enjoy my work. Right now, I feel like I'm taking fewer and fewer steps towards my dream, and I'm spending increasing amounts of time doing things that don't suit me or my talents. A growing business should seem like a reward for all the work I am doing, but I am struggling to find motivation. I am constantly stressed and don’t feel joy in what I do on a day-to-day basis. I'm starting to think that having a big business won’t make me happy, at least not with the way I am dealing with it now. Perhaps having a small business was more pleasurable because back then I got to know every customer, I knew how to compete, and track my progress. There were stress and bad days, but with a small business, everything was much more visible, and it was more enjoyable. Now I am feeling less and less joy.”
“You shouldn’t compare now to the past. The past often looks much better than it actually was when you are looking back on it. To achieve your dreams, you can’t go back there,” Agne was trying to bring me back to reality. “You aren’t even thirty years old, and you have accomplished way more than others your age. If you keep going at this pace, you can achieve anything, but owning a business requires effort. The fact is, it is much better to do all the hard work for your own company than to give it to someone else. Believe me, I know this well. After all, I work for someone else and do not have the opportunity to create anything for myself. Fines, explanations, bonuses, layoffs, internal audits, inspections... That is my everyday work, and it creates tension. I do not have access to or even see clients, and, sometimes, I wish I could. Everything is a number that I drop into an Excel file. If there is growth, I get praise from shareholders. If I fail, I get frustrated, but at the end of the day, those numbers are what determine my pay.”
“But maybe you have an advantage since it's not your business. You can look at things less personally. This business is my life. For me, there is no difference between work and free time. Someone has been stealing from our shipped packages for a while now. You can't see how much that is affecting me. I'm dealing with it alone,” I bowed my head. “Slava hasn’t stepped in to help. He tells me he supports me but moves on. Antanas promised to fix everything, but he left Lithuania and forgot all about it. He has even started telling me that I am the CEO, so it is my job to handle it, and that he doesn’t know what more he could do. So, shareholders don’t help, the post office won’t respond, and the police won’t look into it.”
“Andrius, I don't know what I could do to help either. I have never encountered a situation like that.”
“I don’t think many people have had to deal with thieves working like this, but it’s just one example of what's going on. Sooner or later, we will figure this out, but another problem will pop up in its place, and it will be the same again. That's why I'm looking for a CEO who can respond to things.”
I felt strange telling her what was bothering me, but I didn’t know any other way to get out of doing a job that was slowly devouring me. We talked until dawn, but Agne never said yes or no. Of course, she might agree, but even if she did, she would only take the position after a year or more, and somehow, I still had to make it until then.
Neither Slava nor Minde wanted to be bested by the other and ended up drinking more than two bottles of whiskey that evening. They could barely move, but we still could hear, “Mate, if you respect me, have another drink!” They continued even when their hands were almost too heavy to lift, and they began breaking the glasses. Party was over.
The next day was a rough one for Slava.
Almost a week ago, I received a call from a post office manager who had noticed a pair of my missing shoes in an online ad. I was optimistic that maybe we had found the culprit. From the telephone number listed, we find out that this phone number belongs to a small pawnshop in the capital near the train station. We went to the shop, feeling like detectives, but unfortunately, weren’t able to find the stolen shoes. However, when I felt that we were at the end of the thread that led us there, I informed the case investigator, hoping he would be able to take it from there and solve the case. Of course, I was expecting that the police would have someone in handcuffs immediately that same night. It took much longer to find the person who had put up the ad, but even after police found him, he was quickly released after just a few hours of questioning. They released him, even though he was working for a courier company and working directly with packages loaded onto airplanes. They let him go, even though he said he purchased the shoes but had no check or proof and would not tell the police where he bought them. He got off Scot-free, even though all of his ads were for phones, shoes, and other items that could easily have come from other stolen packages. What more proof do you need to arrest a thief? The thief returned right back to work after being questioned.
“Andrius, I don't know what else to suggest. Just between us, no one at the post office cares about what happens to your packages. It is such a small percentage of all packages being shipped that nobody has even thought twice about it. You posted an article about this situation on several news portals, which got some traction for a day or two, but I don't think anyone will do anything more to find out who is to blame. You know I have tried hard to help, and it pains me to leave things this way, but there is nothing else I can do. Maybe you should try reaching out to the higher-ups. Maybe they can get something done,” the post manager suggested.
In large companies, especially ones that are state-owned, there are many people above managers who say they help while looking at numbers in an Excel file. The higher their positions, the less problematic difficulties like ours seem. However, I couldn’t wrap my mind around why they would not want to find the perpetrator, so I decided to send emails to everyone in management. The letter I received after couple of days stated something like that: “All packages were delivered, so we have done our job. If you're unhappy with our service, please send your packages through other companies.”
“This is fucking bullshit! They were damning us because they had a fucking monopoly on shipments!”
A year ago, I sent inquiries to the express delivery services to possibly transfer all of our shipments to them. Though the delivery terms were much faster, the prices offered exceeded the value of our goods. What customer would buy the product for a hundred dollars and pay another hundred for shipping? The Post Office knew what kind of prices other companies offered and knew that we have no other options. The biggest problem was that if we continued to send packages and the theft continued, our customers would complain about empty boxes. It wouldn’t take long for those complaints to end up on eBay. So, I decided I had to try again to get a contract with an express delivery service. The number of outgoing shipments we were sending had more than doubled in the last year, so I sent inquiries to everyone who offered any shipping service to other countries.
That evening, when the warehouse was empty, I called Antanas.
“I received a reply from the post office administration saying that they were not looking for the perpetrator, and the police released the suspect. Antanas, I no longer know how to deal with it. Today alone, two more customers wrote that they had received empty boxes. Every day we compensate customers who have not received items that they ordered, but we can’t continue like this. Customers want the items they ordered, not compensation. We need a real solution,” I started the conversation in a desperate tone.
“This is bad, really bad,” Antanas replied.
“Really bad,” I agreed with him. “But there are four shareholders, and I'm trying to solve all of this on my own. You promised to fix everything quickly, but I don’t have any help, and these thieves are getting away with it while we do nothing! I don't know what else to do. After all, we sell online, and a matter of days can destroy a reputation.” I passionately reminded him of his promises and our problems.
“It needs to be dealt with it as soon as possible, but did you see the articles in the news? I created them and paid a lot of money to have them published. That’s not nothing. I am doing what I can.”
“I sent that article to the news portals, and you didn't have to pay for it! The journalist you mentioned didn't even contact me!” I said harshly. His lies and unwillingness to help me had angered me.
“Whatever, Andrius. I have done everything I can, and you know, it's not easy for me either,” Antanas began to comfort himself. “Things are not going well with my hotel, and I am trying to cover those monthly losses.”
“Everyone has problems, but how we will solve things?” Feeling his reluctance to continue talking about the theft and attempting to deflect the subject, I tried again to return our conversation to the important matter at hand.
“I have told you multiple times that I am doing all I can to help!”
“What are you doing?” I asked directly without letting the tension go. “If you are doing anything, you haven’t mentioned it to me, and I haven’t seen any results. I want you to help the company by finally contributing to it. After all, you got the majority shares!”
“I trusted you and invested a lot. You are the CEO, and I do not want to interfere in the affairs of the company. You are managing yourself as best you can, so what more do you want from me?” he retorted roughly.
I took a minute to gather my thoughts.
“You gave us an interest-bearing loan. That is not an investment. You received a stake in a company, to help us grow, expand, and solve a variety of business problems! You received shares to be a mentor, a teacher who can be a role model for everyone in this company! But in more than a year, you have done nothing like that...”
“Andrius,” Antanas said interrupting me. “Let’s calm down. It is what it is, and it won't change anything. Does the company have any debts?” he attempted to change the subject of the conversation.
“If you want me to calm down, you need to keep your promise!” Feeling more and more desperate that I was not going to get help, I raised my tone even more. “You promised a lot in the beginning and promised to help with the missing items, but...”
“Does the company have any debts?” He repeated the question, paying less and less attention to what I was saying.
“I do not feel like you have made any contribution to the company,” I said finishing my incomplete thought. “And the company has no debts.”
“I’m glad there is no debt. Since there isn’t, I need to ask you to start repaying me for the loan I gave you. I think it's time to start doing that. Can you make a payment soon?”
“Are you serious?!” Antanas' request almost knocked me off my feet. “You loaned us money less than five months ago, not to mention the fact you have never had to invest in opening any stores in other countries! We just opened a store, someone is stealing from us, and now you ask about loan repayment? We don’t have the money to repay the loan,” I stopped.
“How much money do we have in the bank right now?” He wasn’t going to give up. “I don’t think those thefts are making any real impact on finances. As I understand it, sales are growing, so I really must insist that you start repaying the loans as soon as possible. I need the money,” Antanas pushed harder.
“There is no money to repay the loans. All of the incoming money pays for new merchandise, and the missing items are having a huge impact. That should worry you at least a little, but all you can talk about is the loan repayment.”
“Andrius, you said that sales are growing, so more money has to be coming in. If you don’t have the funds now, you need to figure something out soon to pay back at least a small part of the loans. This doesn’t need to be an issue.”
“Antanas, I don’t have anything else to say. I told you the situation. We are paying for the items we order. If there is money left over at the end of the year, I'll try to start repaying the loans,” I lowered my voice and wanted to end the call.
“Ok, it’s clear. I'll look elsewhere. I need funds now. Anyway, we need to open a shop in London. It would be a great move for us and a huge step forward. We need to think hard about making it happen. Also, everyone there knows who I am, so maybe we would get more attention if we tried moving forward with TonyStreets?” he said, as if we had been having a usual conversation.
I mumbled something about how could we think about opening another store if we just talked about repaying loans instead of planning business growth and ended the conversation.
“UGHHHHH!!!” I screamed as I threw my phone as hard as I could. “What the fuck?! What's happening?! What have I gotten myself into?! What have I done!??”
I shoved the tower of shoe boxes closest to me and threw the shoes that had fallen out of the boxes across the warehouse one at a time. The moment that you understand everything is one big lie cuts deep.
I had given my company to a con-artist. Why had I trusted him so much? I checked and rechecked Slava every day, but I had run to Antanas like a fucking lamb for the slaughter. I had told him about myself, all of my strengths and weaknesses, but I hadn’t asked anything about him. I believed in his abilities and underestimated all of my work. I hadn’t thought about myself. I had been too concerned with making sure he was interested in me. I had felt like I didn’t even have the right to be asking him for his help. He was an entrepreneur! A Mentor! A Philanthropist! Dammit! He is a fucking thief!
After screaming and throwing everything around, I laid down on the cold floor of the warehouse and felt an indescribable numbness in the back of my head and a pressure in my jaws that made me feel as though I was about to boil from the inside out. I stared at the ceiling trying to comprehend what I had done.
I didn’t even know if he could be called an investor, but that would probably be the closest word I could come up with to fit him. He was an investor, not an entrepreneur. The difference between those words just now made sense to me. No matter what it takes, an entrepreneur creates, looks for ways to create something bigger, better, more profitable, or just brings ideas to life through the business, but an investor invests. Investors do not create. They are not mentors. They are not supporters or teachers. Investors buy low and sell high, leaving nothing but destruction behind them. I was looking for a teacher and he had caught attention. My ideas, dreams, and aspirations were irrelevant to him. When difficulties arise, investors run away and don’t care whether or not it disrupts the business.
It was as if I was stuck in a quick credit loan trap. I would have to repay all of the loans, and I would still be stuck with the same “investor.” It was a fucked-up position. I was at an impasse. For almost two years, I had been giving him chance after chance like he was some teenager. I had believed that the people around him had taken advantage of him. I didn’t realize or want to see that the only one being taken advantage of was me. Some robbers hold a gun to your head and demand money, and there are advanced robbers like Antanas who don't even need a gun. They can buy a positive impression. Like a spider, they catch an unsuspecting victim in his web of lies. So much had been promised, so much had been expected, but it had all been imaginary—sweet little lies. There had never been a chance of me achieving NBA. There was no chance of the shoes I drew at night ending up on someone’s feet. All I had done during these years had been for nothing. It’s over.
I calmed down a bit. The words "it's over," my headache, and the sensation of my teeth popping out of my jaw were all I could think about. I couldn’t change anything now. I would have to accept the reality of it all, no matter what. So, when I felt the cold seeping into me from the floor, I got up. I picked up the shoes I had thrown and put everything back in order. I didn’t want the employees to find my mess. They would, of course, notice my stress, but if they saw a wreck like this in the warehouse, they would think I had gone crazy.
As a new summer morning dawned, a fresh breeze blew through the windows. Outside, birds could be heard singing.
“YEAAAH!” I wanted to scream out loud, but I covered my mouth to stop myself from waking up my parents and sister. I couldn’t sit still. All I could think about was Michael Jordan's six fingers raised, showing off how they had just won their sixth NBA championship title. I was jumping as if I had won with him. I had no idea anyone could, in the sixth game with your team trailing by three points, throw up a two-pointer, steal back the ball, dribble around the opponents to throw in the game-winning basket. No excitement, no anxiety—just action. I had witnessed history when I watched him wear a Chicago Bulls jersey for the last time.
So far, I had never missed the NBA Finals or an NBA All-Star Game. The matches themselves were hard to remember, but I could never forget the emotions I had during them. Those emotions were well worth waking up in the middle of the night to watch games. I would never forget how, after those games, I pick up my ball and went outside to try and replicate the plays I had watched at game. No one else was on the court, so I went over to the free-throw line and started in. Before each shot, in my mind, I would ask the basketball Gods, “If I hit this shot, will I play in the NBA?” After that question, I always hit the shot. “If I hit this shot, will I play for the Chicago Bulls?” My second question to the Gods of basketball and again, my second shot always hit the basket. I asked other questions, but those shots were never as accurate as those first two shots. I did not doubt that the NBA was my destiny.
Today, as I celebrated Christmas with my parents, I was remembering the past and felt particularly emotional. Everything around me reminded me of something and seemed to have shaped me and my future. I read books and listened to the advice, “Stay true, always be yourself, work hard, always believe in your ideas, never give up, and find a teacher.” I knew those were the most important steps to success. Nowhere was it written how to find that teacher, and I did not think that my search for one would lead to the loss of my dreams. Did my dream not matter, or was it not even a real dream? Maybe it was just a stupid whim that I had gotten stuck in my head. How many people work to make a living, to build a better home, to buy more expensive things, and to travel the world? All of those things require money, and maybe work should just be a source of income?
Even though the company didn’t count two years, just before this holiday, I made my first repayment to all of the shareholders for their loans and nearly doubled the salary I earned per all those two years. Finally, I was no longer pouring all my money into the company. I was making money from it. With all the money I got from loans, without much thought, I spent on buying Christmas presents for my family.
It took a while for me to come to terms with the bitter reality of things and move on. I bought a bright apartment and moved out of the cave I had been renting. I used all of the knowledge I had gained from working with designers to set up the stores when decorating my new apartment. I had always said that I would never take out a loan from a bank. I thought if you couldn’t make yourself save for something, you didn’t need it. I had lived by that logic for a long time, but after seeing that Antanas’ loans cost me everything, I decided that there was no point in waiting. Why pay to rent an apartment, if I could take out a loan and pay towards owning an apartment. I made a few more loan repayments to the shareholders and spent my money on remodeling my apartment and buying things I needed. I was experiencing a whole new world. Although I couldn’t afford to buy everything just yet, I wasn’t struggling with money anymore.
Working and earning money weren’t the worst things that could have happened. My dreams weren’t coming true, but I was making money. As a child, I went with my parents and my grandmother to watch an air show at one of the local airfields. I remember not being able to take my eyes off the airplanes and how much I envied those pilots flying so freely. The pilots attracted everyone’s attention with their performances. Becoming a pilot was my first dream. I colored airplane books and made models, but over the years, I forgot about that dream. I forgot about flying; I could forget my NBA dream too. It was time for me to be an adult, and for adults, standing on your own two feet is important. While you are young and living off of your parents, you can dream of anything, and you have the freedom to choose your path, but when you fall on your ass, your freedom of choice diminishes. You have a fear of choosing the wrong path. I often wondered what it would be like if things had turned out differently. If I had put all of that effort into working for a large international company, I might have understood much earlier how it felt to have money and buy food or other essentials without counting every cent in my pocket, and possibly, I would have gained a lot more experience and made better decisions.
On my way to meet Antanas at a resort where he was living, I felt good and wasn’t nervous about anything. We had worked things out. All of the cards were on the table. We had stopped planning to open stores in other countries, and I no longer expected anything from the shareholders. We had found some stability.
We managed to rent an office on the other side of the street from our store. The office was thirty square meters on the fifth floor with large windows overlooking Freedom Avenue. Freedom Avenue had always appealed to me, and I enjoyed watching people walking along the street. Seeing the passersby would encourage me occasionally to take walks myself. I didn’t take walks nearly as often as I had a few years ago, but when I was able, those walks were every bit as enjoyable and allowed me to get lost in my thoughts.
“Sir, can you spare some food?” The voice of the black, curly-haired woman brought me back to reality. Even though the sun was shining and it was warm outside, she had on the same burgundy coat I had seen her wear in the winter. I remembered feeling sorry for her a few years ago when I saw her for the first time. I hadn’t had a lot of money then, but when I would take packages to the post office, I would give her what I could. I knew even a few cents could help. I had hoped she would fix her life and get off of the streets, but that didn't happen. Now, there was money in my wallet, but I just looked at her with an indifferent glance and walked on. I was beginning to ignore everyone around me. I started distrusting myself and my decisions. I began to think that everyone was wearing a mask and looking for a way to profit. I don't want to help anyone anymore; I didn’t want to see anything anymore; I just wanted to live in my own little world. I wanted to disappear on a deserted island, so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone and could be alone.
That's one of the reasons I moved to the new office. It gave me a little island where I didn’t have to see the daily work going on in the warehouse. It helped me become a little more detached from the daily problems and communication with others. But the problems did not go away, and quite a few of them fell on Kriste’s shoulders. To ease her work in the warehouse, Vilma from a post, gradually took over shipping.
One day, Ieva unexpectedly came to see me and said that she wanted to do something else and no longer wanted to be a shop assistant. I had always tried to re-evaluate every employee and raise salaries as often as possible. At the very least, every few months, I’d add a dozen additional euros, and I wanted everyone to be comfortable asking me for things. Still, this visit impressed me. She was the first person in the company who had boldly told me what she wanted. Not only had she told me, but she came and "took it." I couldn't have refused her even if I had wanted to. She used my argument that one of the top priorities of any company should be to unlock the talents or best qualities of each employee to advocate for her working with marketing.
Marketing sounded nice, but there was a lot of work hidden behind that word that could determine the future of the company, so her desire sounded dangerous to me. Even though employees knew the history and goals of the company, they were still employees, and I was afraid to leave something as broad as the term marketing in a stranger’s hand. So, I gave her specific tasks such as social networking, communicating with partners and customers, and finding influencers to take pictures at the store in return for merchandise.
Step by step, we were becoming as a real company with more people. I was able to work with strategic questions and the largest problem was dealing with the theft of our shipped goods. Since the police had stopped the investigation and never concluded who was stealing from us, I decided the best solution was to find an alternative method of shipping. The number of shipments we were sending out had become attractive to express couriers, and I was able to choose between several companies. Once again, it didn’t happen without mistakes. We had been negotiating with UPS for a long time and had no other credible offers while doing so, but, about a month into negotiations with UPS, I received a message from another express courier company apologizing because they had just now found my request. The new company offered slightly better prices than UPS. Even though the UPS manager was extremely responsive and did his best to help, I ended up going with the lower price. After all, lower prices don't always mean worse quality, especially when I was choosing between two well-known international companies. In this case, the lower price had just been the bait to lure us in, and after a few months, even though we were sending more shipments than we had agreed upon, the price went up. With my head hanging low, I went back to UPS. I was afraid that after they realized that we didn’t have other options, they would no longer offer us the same terms. But their response demonstrated their level of professionalism and understanding. They agreed to work with us on the same terms we had previously negotiated. After shipping with UPS for almost a month, the world became much smaller for us. Our location no longer mattered. Customers would receive their orders anywhere in the world within just a few business days. Deciding to use UPS also solved our issues with the post office. When the managers at the post office understood that we had found someone to do our shipping, they quickly changed their tone. They even compensated us for any losses due to stolen goods. Hypocritical? Most definitely, but it's easy for businesses to be hypocritical. Large companies can say that the people on the bottom didn’t do their jobs and management had no idea what was going on while assuring that things would be handled appropriately. Let it be: my customers will have a chance to choose which type of shipping they need.
However, my trip to see Antanas was not just to brag about the company’s accomplishments with a shareholder. With all this in mind, I would present him with facts and make it clear that it would be easy to find someone to buy the company. I had decided that I no longer wanted to work just for money and nothing more than that. I needed meaning in my life. Without the prospect of expanding to other countries and always remaining a regional seller as a minority shareholder in my company, I would never feel content. Selling things created by others for no greater purpose made no sense to me. I was just a middleman looking for buyers. I was the intermediary between manufacturers and buyers. If I kept doing this, after ten or twenty years, I knew I would be no closer to my dreams and would only look back and dream about what could have been. I didn’t want pity. I wanted to take this experience and use it as a life lesson while finding a new path to my goals.
Antanas' aspiration to become a politician also made selling the company convenient. He would look like a politician without an agenda to push. Like many other populists. I had always associated populists seeking fame with lies. They change opinions according to circumstances, lack honor, and are easily bought. His choice did not surprise me and only confirmed my opinion of him. However, I was shocked to hear that he was using my story for his political campaign, obviously changing the narrative to make him look better. He would be like a loving uncle who trusted me and brought sunlight into my life. At a point when I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, he swooped in like a super hero. I chose him as a mentor and as my mentor, he walked right beside me through all of my hard times. I didn't want to be a politician's tool, but he argued that his intentions weren’t to only get himself elected. He was telling my company’s story, so more and more people would know the company. Don’t I want that?
After I arrived at the park, I sat in my car for a few more minutes until Eminem's song, “Kill You,” ended. Although The Marshall Mathers LP album was full of darkness and even though I listened to it while imagining what I'd like to do, it helped me keep myself together rather than dwell on everything until I exploded. It’s an album that makes me feel like I am in a small, dark, humid bunker with blood, corpses, guns, knives, and various torture tools, even when I can open the door to a summer forest with the sun shining and butterflies.
As I walked down the path to the restaurant's terrace, I looked around but didn't see Antanas, so I sat down at a table and ordered an orange juice. The view of the lake through the pine trees was phenomenal. The place was peaceful and relaxing.
“Andrius!” I heard Antanas’ inviting me.
I got up from the table, and after a fast greeting, we climbed up a set of stairs that took us to the second floor of the restaurant. We walked past desks and entered a less public area, rounded a corner, and walked down a long hallway. We passed a big poker table with a large picture hanging on the wall that depicted Antanas playing poker with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. I wanted to ask if they had played each other, but I didn't dare. The picture was hanging in a prominent place and pairing that with the knowledge that Antanas played poker with a lot of famous and influential people, I knew him playing against one of the most powerful world leaders was quite possible.
We continued on and finally ended up in a small lounge where poker players could hang out after playing. Antanas sat on a sofa by the fireplace, and I sat on a chair on the other side of a small table.
“How are you doing? How are sales?” Antanas started the conversation and was excited that things were growing. Little by little, I started telling him everything. I told him how everything was going and that sales were on the rise, but I also didn’t forget to mention some negative news. We had just received the news that adidas was terminating our contract because of their ban on selling through eBay. I had known there was a possibility of that from my partner in Germany where the ban had been in place for almost a year. I was prepared for that and had found new suppliers in advance, so this information was only relatively bad. However, when I came to the main topic, I wanted to tell him everything, even though I saw I was boring him with the details; everything was going in one ear and out the other.
I felt uncomfortable sitting in this chair straight and talking about the company against Antanas who was almost lying down on the sofa, and my eyes get stuck under his undersized shirt flashing his belly button. I kept talking, but this self-satisfied politician look wasn’t calming me. Maybe I was starting to look at him differently, starting to see him in another light, but this wasn’t the Antanas who smiled nervously at the door when he first came to meet me. I didn’t think anything had changed. I think he had always been this way, but I had finally found out what was under all the pretty packaging of an image he tried to carry. Now, I felt like he was just someone trying to act like the money-hungry politicians that try to portray themselves as innocent in the movies. Dammit. I could see he was uninterested in what I was saying, so I tried to shorten things up by hitting the real reason I had wanted to meet.
“I have been thinking about the company for some time and think it is time for us to sell it.”
“Oh!” he said as I finally caught his attention.
“The company is stable now. We don’t have any debts and or issues with suppliers. We are repaying the loans to our shareholders. The basketball merchandise is doing great, and there is potential for growth in other categories like lifestyle, running, or training. So, there is still room for growth, which could entice potential buyers. There are great prospects in other countries, but we do not have the people or knowledge of how to get there. To sum it all up, while there is steady growth, I think now would be the best time to sell everything.”
“I’m surprised to hear this from you,” Antanas replied a little flabbergasted. “And how do you imagine selling it? Do we sell only the business in Lithuania or the whole business with eBay and your overseas customers? Have you thought about a selling price?”
“We can't separate the Lithuanian market from the foreign markets. We should sell everything, and as for the price, I don't know...” I paused for a moment and thought about what I would say next. “I think it would be better for you and the professionals who would be involved in selling the business to determine that, but I estimate the amount to be around three million euros.”
“We can sell it. Egis can handle all of it,” Antanas replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
We stood up, shook hands, and I left. Antanas mentioning Egis hadn’t surprised me. When it had become no longer necessary for him to hide his cards, it became clear that he had never fired him. He had just used him for a game of Good Cop/Bad Cop. As I walked the hallway, I felt unwell. Just a few years ago, I had a goal of opening stores in fifty countries in fifty years with the dream of becoming a well-known international business. Yet, in such a brief time, I had no hope of that, and I was just looking to get out of this mess.
I liked sneakers, but I had to get out before all of my passion for life disappeared. For Antanas, selling the company would be a win-win deal. Just two years ago, we had partnered and even if a buyer pays less than the amount I had mentioned, it would still be more than a great investment for him. We could go our separate ways without either of us losing face. Even if Antanas hadn’t done what he promised, I had still learned an important lesson. I held out a little hope that whoever the buyer was might be able to share my vision and let me buy back my shares. I was open to working with a new shareholder to find a new path to my dreams. Even if I didn't buy back the shares, with all of my experience and the money in my account, I could start a new journey. I had no doubts that selling a company that made me feel trapped was the right decision.
Since I spent all of my time sitting at a desk and was no longer doing any physical work, I began to gain a weight. I had always worn baggy clothes, so it took me a while to notice the changes. However, Kriste was graduating university, and I was very glad that I had decided to try on my suit the day before. It no longer fit. The pants even wouldn’t button. Looking at myself in the mirror, I wondered how this had happened so quickly? I was working with sporting goods, yet my whole body had a thick layer of fat. I had gained more than twenty kilos. At the age of thirty, the area around my stomach had grown the most, while the top of my head was starting to shine, gray hairs were visible on the side, and all of my time spent sitting indoors had made my skin pale. I looked like someone who was gravely ill.
Right before the graduation ceremony, I went out and bought a new light gray suit. I congratulated my sister on all of her achievements and, on the same day, headed to Estonia. Once a year, there was a celebration for all the Nike retailers in the Baltics, which included a presentation of the new season’s collection and reflections on the previous year. It was the celebration that I thought Kriste and I had been invited to for a first time. It was a pity that she and a few other employees couldn’t attend since the timing of the event coincided with her graduation ceremony.
We closed the TonySports store for two days, rented a nine-seater van, and everyone available to go left for Estonia with Slava early in the morning. I left a little after lunch. I knew I wasn't going to make it in time for the show, but I hoped to make it in time for the evening events.
At the beginning of the year, we had become partners with two sporting goods stores, so I was bitter that neither of them wanted to go to a presentation where they could learn more about the brands they were selling. Both of them were buying from us and reselling in their online stores. After communicating more frequently, they saw the market changing and decided that merging our businesses would be beneficial for everyone involved.
I had begun talking with one of the new partners that sold fan gear, Arus, more than a year ago about a possible merger. I had initially had the idea that he could join on similar terms as Slava, especially since Antanas had promised to return his shares gradually. I thought some of the shares I would get back from Antanas could go to Arus, but it turned out that his company did not have any assets. He was ordering everything that he sold from other stores and having everything shipped directly to his customers; moreover, his sales were much lower than what Slava’s had been. We quickly forgot about letting him buy-in and decided to start a new company where we split the shares 50:50. The store’s most distinctive feature was that it carried merchandise for fans of different teams in the area, but until he buys everything from other local stores and resell on his website, soon or later, his store will not be able to attract customers because they would able to buy directly from other and bigger stores like us, SportClothes. To prevent him from that, I told him how I started my business and how I bought merchandise from other countries, not only to create a store carrying exclusive items but also to understand better what customers wanted. A store with all the same merchandise as everyone else in the local market isn’t attractive to customers and won’t last because there is no way to grow. Ultimately, you would end up controlled by others in the market, while also helping them see what your customers are interested in buying. Buying everything from one market is not a bad idea for a beginner, but growing requires you to look for new opportunities. In the end, we agreed that Arus would buy merchandise from us at the prices we paid, but he would also try to find new suppliers in other countries. With newfound suppliers he was trying to work only a couple of months and his conclusion was that new suppliers would only increase his sales by ten percent, so he didn’t feel that it was worth the hassle. With all of the opportunities working with us afforded him, he started selling on eBay and quickly gained momentum by selling to overseas customers. Although I found his reluctance to seek exclusivity disappointing, I was very pleased with the eBay breakthrough. Without considering the fact that he was no longer a competitor, him becoming a seller on eBay gave me a sense of freedom. eBay has a lot of rules that must be followed meticulously. The slightest issue can severely damage everything you build on the site. We had problems keeping our sizes updated, and our customers were buying items we no longer had. Our defect ratings had begun to reach a dangerous point, so Arus’ success on eBay could save us if our ratings got too low and eBay banned us from selling. If that were to happen, we would move everything over to his eBay store. He would benefit from more sales, and it would be beneficial for us to sell to him at our cost because it still would be a turnover of items. As Arus’ turnover increased, we decided to start stocking our warehouse with merchandise for fans that other local stores didn’t carry. As a result, we ordered our first shipments of soccer merchandise. Slowly, we started to planning of having a brick and mortar store that was especially for fans of various teams.
The other new partner, Laisvis, sold only basketball merchandise. The two of us had only recently met, but I had known him long enough to know that he had been a competitor who seemed to have a lot of projects going but never completed any of them. After watching him, I realized that having a lot of projects was actually more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Having unfinished projects hurts your bottom line and doesn’t add anything to the business. I wasn’t overly thrilled with the idea of merging with him because of all of that, but I was delighted that he had agreed to start a new company in which we would hold fifty-one percent. Although he also sold merchandise in the same manner as Arus (he would order items from a local seller after customers ordered from his store), he also had a stock of items worth more than five thousand euros. He agreed to the same terms that we had with Arus. I was excited about adding another growing eBay seller to our portfolio. He became so important to me that I decided to stop spending my time working with the TonySports website, and to gradually change SportClothes, which was marketed to basketball players, to a more sports and lifestyle-focused store. With Laisvis working mainly with basketball, there was room for me to come up with new ideas. We agreed that he would pay more attention to basketball clubs, schools, and lower-end items that I didn’t buy but customers wanted.
Although the distance to the Estonian capital was about six hundred kilometers, the trip was over in what felt like only minutes, and I arrived at the hotel feeling like I hadn’t driven even half of that distance.
I met my team in the hotel lobby. From far away, I noticed their happy faces and how extremely pleased I was when saw the prize they were holding.
“The Best Basketball Store in the Baltics!” they explained as they handed me a thirty-centimeter tall sculpture of the Greek goddess of victory who symbolized the history of the Nike brand name. This was the first award we had received in all of our years of operation, so it had everyone feeling like they were on cloud nine, especially me. This was the first time Nike had handed out awards, and we had not expected to win anything. Being appreciated by Nike was an overwhelming honor.
“How was the trip? How was the show? Did everyone like it?” I asked Slava as I pulled him aside. Slava, after his break up with Jurate, lost thirty kilograms in half a year and looked like a picture of success in his new black clothes.
“It was fantastic! We have to bring all of our employees to this event every year. It's fun, but most importantly, everyone can see how to combine items and see new trends. There were talented dancers, music, and lights! It was a real fashion show; we all watched it with our mouths agape!”
“Nice! I’m very excited that everyone liked it, but what about the award? How you get it?” I continued curiously.
“As soon as we arrived, I was told that I would need to go to the stage during the program. I didn't understand what was happening. I’m sure you can imagine how nervous hearing that made me!”
“I can only imagine...” I replied with a laugh as Slava had never been a guy who would like the lights of the stage.
“I immediately remembered that Karolina owed me. She hadn’t wanted to fire one of the shop assistants, so I handled the dirty work for her. I told her it was time for her to pay me back. I told her that when they called us to the stage, she would need to go.” Slava was telling with a laugh. “She was nervous but agreed to go. When the awards began, we realized we would get something. There were a ton of awards. Our category was at the end, but when they said the name SportClothes, Karolina walked up to the stage and claimed the trophy for us. It was awesome how nicely it all happened.”
“I'm so bummed that I missed seeing us win first place! This beauty will sit in the most visible place in the whole store!” I promised as I took the trophy in my hands.
The evening portion of the event took place in a theater hall with white tables like an expensive gala. We chose to sit at a table in the corner, so we could see everyone while not being forced into the middle of everything. Even though it was truly a beautiful event, it was more of a celebration for the brand and their employees. I only saw competitors from other stores around. After a few hours, I decided that I wanted to let my employees relax without having their CEO sit next to them all night, so I headed back to my hotel room.
The next morning, we met briefly outside the hotel and went to see a presentation of the newest collection. Yesterday, they had shown off the new items, but today we would be able to see the items up close and decide what we would be selling in half a year.
“Andrius, congratulations on the award!”
“Thank you, Tomas, we are excited about it,” I thanked the new Nike representative who had replaced Skirma, the person who had previously held the position. When I met Skirma, he had seemed self-confident and certain. The first time I met Tomas, I got the exact opposite impression. He was calm, helpful, listened, and was an all-around nice guy. However, since the person holding this position was our direct contact with the brand, I had been worried about changing mangers. I didn't know if anything was going to change for us and whether we would continue to receive exclusive sneakers. Not to mention the fact that Tomas was not involved with basketball and had never heard of our shop, but when we started working together, things were as smooth as ever.
“Andrius, I don’t understand your pricing,” started Tomas as we moved further away from others. His tone was much different than what it had been when we first met. “You are cheapening the brand and depreciating it as a product. You have sold newly released items at prices lower than recommended by the brand.”
“I'm cheapening Nike?! We rarely give discounts. We sell almost all of our merchandise at the starting price, though lower than the brand recommends. But I also do not advertise 50% off in huge advertisements. I think those huge discounts you use in your stores end up being a much bigger brand cheapening than our prices!” I was offended and took his accusation personally. He was insinuating that I was lessening Nike, the brand I had worshipped since childhood! My aim was the exact opposite. I wanted to make sure that as many people as possible could enjoy these products.
“Most sellers give discounts, especially if their stores are in places that require them. If your shop is in a mall, you are required to give discounts, so that is not the same.”
“I disagree, but I am not going to argue,” I countered.
“Why are you so offended? I'm just pointing out the fact that if you love this brand so much, then you should try to maintain the value of their products, rather than humiliating Nike’s reputation with lower prices.”
“I'm cheapening and humiliating Nike's reputation?”
“Just follow the recommendations, and there won’t be any issues.”
I couldn’t say anything had changed with Tomas or that he had said anything new. Similar issues had come up before that conversation. It's how business works when someone tries to bring everyone closer to their side and their business strategies. Most of the time, Tomas and I got along quite well, but every time we met, he was always pushing some agenda and, as a newbie, he didn’t always use the right words, and I often took things too personally, which made me freak out more than I probably should have.
After our conversation, I walked back over to my team. I immediately smiled at seeing everyone inspecting the merchandise and seeing the shop assistants parade around in piece after piece.
“Is something wrong, mate? Why are you just sitting here?”
“Ah, it’s nothing to worry about, Slava. Tomas just lost his mind over prices again,” I replied shortly.
“It’s not the first and definitely won’t be the last time he does that,” Slava sighed and sat down on the bench next to me, implying that nothing in this situation was new and that I shouldn’t let it bother me so much.
“Yeah, but he has never said that I was humiliating Nike.”
“Buddy, we've talked about this many times; don’t listen what he says,” he tried to calm me down.
“I know, Slava, and it’s all nonsense, but maybe there is some truth to what he said...”
“Hey, don't doubt your strategy; after all, it is what helped you get to where you are from nothing at all. If you had listened to everything those representatives said, you wouldn't have even gotten a contract with them!” Slava reassured me.
“I do not doubt my choices, but maybe we just thought we were doing something good, when, in fact, we were cheapening the brand’s reputation? After all, some manufacturers sell shoes for several hundred or thousands of euros and people buy them because they want to stand out, but here we are cheapening merchandise and making the brand boring. I don't know how logical this is, but it’s bothering me. Maybe I'm holding on to the past too tightly by remembering how hard it was for me to buy my first pair of Nike shoes. I want basketball players to be able to choose from a wide range of models and not have to save forever to be able to afford them. We now have the largest selection of sneakers in the Baltics, and, in part, have achieved great goals. We managed to create freedom of choice, and the prices should be set by the manufacturer. Over the years, we have changed the footwear market in Lithuania. We have provided descriptions of each piece of merchandise we have sold, introduced the history of the sneakers, taken photos and videos, looked for innovation, yet they are saying we are bringing shame to the brand itself. I feel like they are the ones deceiving customers while giving detrimentally large discounts which slander the name way more than anything we have done,” I said sharing my thoughts.
“Of course, they need those discounts to attract customers. The larger the discount, the more shoppers they can attract. I think none of this has anything to do with “cheapening” Nike’s reputation. They see that we are growing, and it is causing them to feel like someone is holding fire to their asses, so they are looking for ways to force us into raising our prices. They give discounts and so do we, we just do it differently than them. They give larger discounts but less frequently, and we have smaller discounts but always provide them and do not advertise the discounts. I think both of us are doing the same things in essence and will not change.”
Reluctantly, I agreed, “Probably, but all of these demands and clarifications are annoying... We have to make every effort to keep the business growing, so we can find someone to buy us out. Antanas was elected to the European Parliament, and it has been more than a month since I talked to him about wanting to sell the company. Hopefully, now that he is no longer campaigning, he will help us find a buyer.”
“Do you really still believe he will lift a finger to help this company?” Slava asked in surprise.
“What else can I do?” I sighed and paused for a moment. “I believed that selling the company would give him enough incentive to help in this at the least. We might need to start looking for a buyer as well, but when it comes to sums like that, I don't even really know where to start. We have to leave searching for a buyer to Antanas, and we need to focus on making the business look as attractive as possible to a potential buyer. I am sure a buyer will only be interested in profits, so I've been thinking about the TonyStreets store for a while,” I paused for a moment and continued looking at Slava. “I think we need to close it and open a new store in a mall somewhere.”
“Damn! Andrius, why in the world would we need to do that?” Slava was shocked by my statement. “We have been working on that store for more than half a year; it would be such a pity to close it after all of the work we put into it.”
“It's a pity, of course, but it is not making any sales. The shop assistants have nothing to do. Only a few people come in per day. To us, it's beautiful, and we love it, but no company buyer will want a store that operates at a loss. I think we need to try out a store in a mall. All of the top sellers have their stores in malls, so maybe we'll find more customers and someday be able to open a similar small shop in a better and more visible location,” I was trying to offer hope to myself and Slava.
“But we used to talk about how malls were not our style. We just wanted to be small shops in the city center, and now you are talking about changing that...” Slava said bringing up past conversations.
I paused for a moment.
“I remember all of that...” I paused again and thought for a moment, before continuing. “But I am suggesting that we do this not because it’s what I want to do, but rather because it is the way to move this company forward. We have never tried a store in a mall because we are against them, but I think now we should only be concerned with the growth of sales. A mall might be able to boost them.”
After speaking the words aloud, I felt as if I was selling myself. I didn’t feel honest about it and didn’t feel like I believed what I was saying, but I wanted something new. I wanted a new experience. I wanted a change that would allow me to move on and stop dwelling on my problems with Antanas, even if it meant closing our boutique and opening a new store in a mall.
“If you really think it would increase sales and help find a buyer, we can do it,” Slava agreed with an unsure look.
After hearing his approval, I felt a little calmer about everything that was happening. We would have a new challenge and gain some new experience. Feeling empowered by this, we got off the bench and joined the rest of the team to get a closer look at the new collection.
“How the fuck am I so fucked up? How did everything became so uninspiring? Just one more day. One more motherfuckin’ day and maybe today something will change…”
Every morning, I would stand in front of the mirror, trying to pep myself up at least a little bit for the coming day. Each morning, it was a struggle not to give up. Although every day seemed busy, and I felt like I was always in a hurry, every day was exactly the same: it was so dull that it was hard to remember what I had done the day before.
One day, I would feel full of energy and excitement, and the next, I found myself wanting to parcel everything out, sell it all, and just get out. It was even harder when I tried to keep it all to myself and pretend that everything was normal. I felt like I was in the movie Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, where no one swore, and everyone spent all of their time smiling and being positive. Everything looked beautiful, but there was also the life in the sewers where everything was dirty and missing. That life seemed a lot more real than what was going on in the light of day.
I was sitting snuggly in my comfort zone. The company was doing well, my bank account had money in it, I had started traveling, and I had purchased an American muscle car I had dreamed of since my teenage years, but every day seemed worse and worse than the day before it. I had built the jail that imprisoned me. I became irritable, angry, hurried, and unhappy. I was a pot ready to boil over. The only motivation I had left came from competing with the previous year’s sales. I did my best to make that my focus and keep life at least a little engaging.
A background of fear made things seem even grimmer—the fear of war. War had always seemed so distant. It was something that newspapers reported about in faraway places until it touched somewhere closer. After the events that took place in Independence Square in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, I wasn’t too concerned. It had been just another protest, another change in power, but that change in control caused a war to break out between Russian and Ukraine just a thousand of kilometers from our border. It seemed to be all the newspapers and television stations talked about, but we had seen the press coverage of the warfare, and we viewed the issues there as consequences of their actions. Sometimes, when I see the problems around the world per the news, it looks like those people are not real, like they have chosen to live this way. However, we had a customer living in Odesa, Ukraine, a city in the southern part of the country, with whom we talked at least once a week. The customer began telling me and sending videos of what was happening in the region. That is when I truly began to fear the war. I was no longer indifferent. When one person tells you their story, it becomes more than just an abstract event happening somewhere you have never been. Although there was no war in Odesa, there were protests, and there were reports that it would be the next city to be occupied by Russian forces. Ukraine started mobilization, and our customer was forced to hide and was only able to return to his home under the cover of night. It was no longer safe to walk the streets, so much so that when he was caught going out by some skinheads, a group broke both of his legs with a metal crowbar. I couldn’t distance myself from his stories, and they made me more fearful of what could happen at any time in any country. It doesn’t matter how comfortable we live now.
A little bit more sunshine to my life came after we had opened a new store on Freedom Avenue. I had dreamed of owning a shop on this renowned street for many years. But before opening a store on this avenue, I was trying to copy others and run for a bigger sales by opening a store in the mall, but only two days after the opening this store, I realized what a mistake I had made and wanted to close the store as soon as possible. I had been expecting sales, congestion, and high profits, but I saw nothing remotely close to that.
There were two large shopping centers in Kaunas. However, at the time, there was no vacancy in either of them, so we had to choose between the smaller ones. My sentiment about opening a store in the mall where I had worked as a shop assistant for a sporting goods store as a student eventually won out, and we decided on renting a space in that mall. The figures mentioned by the mall manager also boosted my grand ambitions. The manager said that one store, similar to us, was bringing in over ten thousand euros a day! We didn’t even need sales like that. If we could sell even two times less, it would still be great for us. We rented more than two hundred square meters of space, of which I allocated almost half to be used as a warehouse. I wanted to be sure that we would never run out of merchandise in this store.
Setting up more than one hundred square meters of retail space was a challenge. I didn’t want to hire a designer; I wanted to do it myself. Since I had not given up on the idea that our store should reflect the environment around it as well as our company, I decided that the new store should carry the feel of the nearby park.
Florists brought in birch tree trunks, which we used to create a lounging area with artificial shrubs and wooden benches where customers could sit while trying on merchandise. We covered the walls with brown bark and artificial vines. Sneakers were displayed on a wall covered in dark brown rhombuses. At the front of the store, I set up a small basketball court and used black tiles for the flooring.
I was only partially satisfied with my first interior design. I brought everything I had imagined to life but overlooked one crucial aspect. It was an indoor shop with no natural light, and the dark colors made the space feel too heavy.
I broke my previous rule of not having a pompous opening, and we went all out by having a concert and inviting a lot of people, but I didn’t dare attend myself. I spent the whole day watching the video cameras and getting bursts of emotions from Slava and the shop assistants, but the lack of sales distracted me. I tried to reassure myself that it was only the first day, but after the second with the same zeros, my illusion that the mall would bring us thousands of new customers had gone up in smoke. Customers do not fall from the sky, and you have to bring them in yourself. It wasn’t long before the shareholders started to blame me for this store: we were in a mall that was off the beaten path, the store didn’t carry enough merchandise, we weren’t running things efficiently enough, and so on. Everyone is clever to talk the day after.
The best way to see how our company changed was with Raima's quarrel with some older customers who brought back the shoelaces they bought a week ago. After a standard inspection of the item, Raima found the item to be worn and refused to return the customer’s money. The conversation quickly evolved into a long argument with raised voices.
“It was just a few euros! What were you thinking?! Accept the item, return the money, and everyone can move on! Why did you shout at a customer?! Why would you act like that?!”
As I headed to the store, I rehearsed over and over what I would say, but as I asked those questions in my head, I began to hear the answers. The company had changed. We no longer had the same face and clear direction we once had. We pretended to allow freedom and inspire creativity, but we described every situation and had service standards for every possible issue. No one could stand out. We all were expected to act like everyone else around us. We had become as free as our standards would allow. We were as free as lions in a cage.
There were thirty people on our team now, but the team had changed vastly since those first few hires. Raima was usually happy, smiling, dancing, and singing, but it had taken so little to set her off. That didn't happen for no reason. I was the team’s leader. When I had felt happy and thought that I was pursuing my dreams, I constantly told everyone about my goals. That caused them to become equally passionate about creating something extraordinary. Losing my inspiration had trickled down to them. The rot that had taken over in my head had caused our whole team to change. I no longer had a purpose, which left me spreading tension and stress to everyone. I was not giving enough time or attention to those around me, so how could I expect them to continue being the team I had hoped to create? I had found myself not wanting to go to the mall to meet with the shop assistants. I wanted to have as little communication with them as possible, and remembering that I never saw the CEO in the half-year that I had worked in the sporting goods store only reassured me. That store had done well and was still doing so. Why couldn’t it be the same or better for us? After all, I was still trying to come by at least a few times a week, but it seemed that there was a big difference between a business you see as a tool for reaching your dreams and a business that pays the bills. My visits began to bring more tension than joy. Although I didn't walk around complaining to everyone, they were able to work it out themselves, and my moods quickly passed on to others on the team.
When I arrived at the store, I was calm and had come to terms with the real issues. Instead of using anger, I talked with her, and we both promised to avoid similar situations when possible. A few months later, Raima quit. Under other circumstances, I might have tried to dissuade her from leaving, but at that point, I found myself urging her to do something she would enjoy.
The mall introduces rules that employees can’t go to cafes for lunch with mall visitors, can’t take out trash in case a customer sees them, and there were many other rules that seemed to elevate mall visitors from employees—as if they were in different social castes. Working until 9 pm on weekdays, including holidays, was also causing increasingly dissatisfying working conditions. We were all delighted on the final day of operations in that mall and overjoyed to be moving to the new store on Freedom Avenue, where freedom became more than just an avenue name for us. We had the freedom to choose when and how to work, as well as when and where to eat.
I designed the new store to look as bright as possible. It had large windows, white walls, white ceilings, shiny white shoe stands, white footboards, white clothes hangers, and light gray floors. I used some black details and decorations to prevent the shop from looking like a hospital ward. To create vitality, we hung colorful posters, placed a few decorative palms around the store, and hung an illuminated SAL logo on the wall above the counter.
Slava and I had thought up the name SAL while discussing merging so long ago. Back then, it seemed to be the preferred name for many customers. Initially, I had wanted to hold on to the name SportClothes, but, over time, SportClothes had become less well-known and less familiar than the short abbreviation SAL. We had also removed the TonySports logo from the first store and replaced it with SAL. The TonySports shop had been the weirdest of them all. Customers were calling the store SAL, our internet store was named SportClothes, and when they physically came to buy goods, they would visit a store named TonySports. Changing the store’s name to SAL had gotten rid of all of the confusion caused by the different names. With the exception of TonyStreets, the other website we were curating, there was no more hassle, but attendance to the site was declining, and neither Slava or I really cared.
Although the shop had been up and running for a few weeks, we decided that the store needed a grand opening with several musical groups. I, once again, watched it all from my computer screen. This time, I wasn’t afraid of not having sales or that the store would run at a loss. I had dreamed of opening a store on Freedom Avenue from the beginning and was every bit as excited about this opening as I had been when we opened our first store. Surveilling in solitude had become a habit, and I found it much more enjoyable to show up after the events instead of being in the party. When I was watching from the cameras, I would notice that one thing or another did not go as planned, and because I was isolating myself from the grand opening, I could finally leave the issue to responsible people to fix things, instead of trying to go into other people responsibilities myself and fixing things my way. I was learning to trust in others.
After the end of the store’s working hours, I returned to the warehouse relaxed and in a good mood. The number of trials and errors we were undergoing seemed to be decreasing. It was becoming much easier to plan everything, and even the opening of stores was becoming commonplace and well-planned. There were fewer and fewer events that might surprise. But after I came back to my office and after I spent some time on eBay, I accidently discovered a new eBay seller from my city had popped selling basketball merchandise. I was very surprised. Not only did I keep a close eye on all of my known competitors and what they were doing, but I always tried to be on the lookout for someone new. Even a low-level seller could become a strong competitor quickly. New businesses usually have a lot more ideas and flexibility than those who have been doing the same job for years, so I was always excited about finding someone new. New businesses often brought in new ideas or views, and this seller seemed to be different than others I had been competing with. They did not have an online store. I had never seen anyone in my area start selling on eBay without having at least a simple online store. Where the Hell does this seller get the items he sells? Nike will never give any of items to a retailer who did not have a local store or at least a branded website. The more I researched the seller, the stranger the situation looked. The merchandise that the seller had available had obviously been purchased from us in the last few weeks. The previous username contained the word “Ieva,” and the goods that were currently available had all been purchased by our partner’s, Laisvis’, shop.
“Were Ieva and Laisvis trying to spin off a separate business?” was my first thought. There was no way that was possible, was it? Soon after we began working together, Laisvis and I were getting angry with one another about even small things. The smallest detail, even if the solution was mutually acceptable, could spark up to an hour of anger due to the words and intonation we used with one another. Perhaps this is how we both vented, but it had become exhausting. I resigned myself to the reality that I had potentially created this problem, so I decided I no longer wanted to play this game and assigned Ieva to work with him. If Laisvis had questions, he would ask Ieva. Ieva would ask me, and she would relay my answer to Laisvis. Going through a mediator seemed to be very effective, and our anger towards one another diminished, but did that connection between Laisvis and Ieva become so strong that even Laisvis was buying items from us at wholesale prices and was Ieva selling them? Even though that was a possibility, neither of them seemed like the type of people to pull a fast one right under my nose. I doubted that Laisvis would be involved in this as he had been operating a sporting goods store himself for quite a while. Why would he need to cheat now?
“Is Ieva working for you?” I called Laisvis and after a short greeting asked him about his employee.
“Yes, why?” Laisvis replied with surprise.
“I am almost certain she is stealing shoes from you,” I said, presenting my theory. “I think she is ordering goods from us on behalf of your company and selling them in her eBay store. Your accounting program shows that these items are sold out, but there is no record of payment.”
“She couldn’t do something like that,” he replied, after pausing for a moment to think.
“Do you have any other notions about what is going on, then? Your warehouse can be seen in the background of the pictures posted in the eBay store.”
“I don't know. I will have to check out what account is posting, but there is no way she could be doing that. She's a good person. Surely, she wouldn't be dense enough to do something like that,” Laisvis couldn't bring himself to believe what I was saying about his store administrator Ieva, whose name was the same with as the Ieva who was working at me.
“The accountant said the same thing and even agreed that she was helpful and very responsible, but the facts are the facts. No one other than her could be doing anything like this. Tomorrow afternoon, I will come to you to do an inventory of an items,” I cast out any doubts, “We can only get the answer after questioning her face to face.”
It was hard to believe that employees could be stealing or otherwise cheating us. I was only glad that we had caught this quickly, and if there were losses, they wouldn’t be large enough to harm his company yet.
Since the beginning, I had only fired one employee, and right after the company began operating, Slava had fired a shop assistant. We understood from those two instances that it is tough for us to fire people. We hated doing it. On the one hand, low employee turnover within a company is a good thing, but on the other hand, it means no one new is coming into the company, and everyone becomes rooted in their positions. Employees knew their responsibilities, but the motivation to improve was lost. With people rarely leaving their jobs, opportunities for advancement disappeared, which caused employees to become neglectful of their duties. Kriste acted like the good cop, and I was the bad cop. If Kriste wasn’t able to motivate some employees in a good way, when I’d arrive as the bad cop, everything would go well for at least a couple of months. Having learned this way, we never had to fire someone. This case of theft, especially when I didn’t even know her, would be a great reminder to others that being fired was absolutely a possibility if someone couldn’t be trusted to fulfill their duties.
Laisvis rented a thirty square meter office in an old business center building in the central part of town. When I arrived, Laisvis was not there, but Ieva politely greeted me from the table, and after I let her know that I was there for the inventory question, she immediately turned to her computer screen. Under her breath, she muttered, “Aw, here you are...”
“Goddamn it, of course, it’s me, you are the fucking thief,” I thought to myself and sat down at the end of the table and stared at her.
She felt it, and it became apparent that she was nervous. She looked like an average, light-brown haired girl who wasn’t any different from many other girls. She didn’t even look like she could hurt a fly, but was she padding her salary by cheating?
Almost ten minutes later, Laisvis arrived and sat down in front of Ieva. I immediately started asking questions: “Why have eight pairs of shoes you bought from us gone on to Ieva's personal eBay account? Also, your company’s accountant program says they were sold, so why have they not been paid for?” I turned to both of them.
“My friends bought those shoes,” Ieva replied, “but the sizes weren’t right, and they decided to sell them on eBay. They planned to pay for them after they sold.”
“Why didn't they just return them? And why is your friend’s eBay account username so similar to your own?” Her excuse about her friends didn’t convince me.
“They tried the shoes, but only after wearing them did they realize the sizes weren’t right. Since they had worn them, and because we don't accept the returns for worn items...” she began telling the story, which had clearly been rehearsed after Laisvis had told her about my accusation.
“The ads stated that the shoes were new!” I said with my voice raised.
“I don't know why they marked them as new. They were definitely worn!” Ieva’s eyes were now red, and I could see tears starting to form.
“Don’t start crying or try to lie! Customers often resell items that they don’t want, but somehow when they do so, it doesn’t lead back to you!”
“I told you what happened! I have done nothing wrong! I work hard all day every day for this company. I'm exhausted!” She covered her eyes and began audibly crying.
I did not doubt that this was her work, but there was no point in continuing to press her. While watching her crying, I took the printed inventory list from her hands and began checking the merchandise with Laisvis. The office was small. There couldn’t have been more than three hundred items, but while reading off the item names, I began to wonder why it was so problematic for Laisvis to locate items. Why did it seem like I cared more than he did? After Ieva calmed down a little, she started to correct his mistakes, until she finally took over from him. When a customer came in a bit later, Ieva was the one to help them. When a courier arrived to pick up the outgoing shipments, again, Ieva was the one preparing everything. I started to realize I didn’t understand how this company worked. The CEO and founder sat at the table and had no idea how to do anything, while his administrator did all the work.
When Laisvis left for a short while, I wanted to know more about what Ieva was doing and how everything operated here.
“I do everything,” she replied shortly after a short pause. “I didn't even have a normal vacation. I had to come here, upload merchandise to the site, help with bookkeeping, prepare reports, handle customer service issues, upload news to social network, and pack items to be shipped. I do everything. I don’t even get rewarded for my effort, I only get told I’m doing this incorrectly or that incorrectly. I’m so tired of it,” she started crying again.
“And what about a salary?” I asked.
“My salary? I make just a little more than minimum wage and have never received a raise,” she replied with a frown.
I felt that she was sincere, and I no longer knew what to say. We continued working in silence, but I saw the situation very differently now. She no longer seemed as guilty as I had initially assumed. I felt uncomfortable and partially culpable for what was happening here. As the majority shareholder, I should have cared about what would motivate someone to do something as egregious as stealing, but I had come here to make an example of her. I’m not sure it is possible to justify the theft, even if the conditions were terrible. No one was forcing her to stay. She could have quit long ago, but I knew that not everyone is brave enough to speak up when they need something. Often, right after someone graduates, they find employment in a company, and if they are unable to get a higher salary, the fear of not finding another job traps them in the cage of their job. Over the years, they stop growing, accept their fate, and end up living paycheck to paycheck. She seemed like she was trying to change her circumstances, albeit not in the best way. Sometimes, you need to take a risk to claim what is yours.
I didn’t know what I would have said if I had noticed all of this only after she had kickstarted her own business, and we had substantial losses, but now I knew that she (or her mentioned friends) would absolutely pay for the items, and everything would be okay. Since we caught her so quickly, I doubted that she would ever try to take another similar risk.
We continued checking merchandise for a while, but when we reached the last few items, it no longer made sense to carry on. I didn't even want to know the exact number of items missing at this point. So, I left them to finish. While driving, I couldn't stop thinking about how difficult it was to work with people, how hard it was to understand everyone’s motivations. Maybe these were the types of problems that were only found in smaller companies, or perhaps it was only my character that was the issue. A good CEO would probably have fired her, ordered her to the pay damages, and quickly moved on with life. I did not know what was right, but I couldn’t even fire someone who was trying to steal items from the company; I was always looking for explanations for anything someone does. In such cases, even a terrible decision becomes, in my eyes, a decision with some reason.
After all, I believed in second and third chances, and I knew that working hard for such a low salary without any appreciation would only naturally lead to someone taking drastic measures. I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same if I had been in her position. I turned on some music and let the refreshing summer breeze blow through the open car window, relaxing me. There was almost no traffic in the streets, and people on the sidewalks seemed to have no worries while they enjoyed the last few weeks of summer.
“What are you still doing here?” I asked, surprised to see Slava staring at a computer in the warehouse.
“You don’t even want to know... Issues with Antanas again,” Slava said without even turning to look at me.
“What the Hell happened this time?” I was worried.
“Antanas’ assistant, or whoever she is, called me and said that I have to move out of the apartment. She also said that they were having some sort of party in the building today and didn’t want me “hanging around there” until sometime after midnight, so here I am trying to kill time.”
“Pffft, that’s just great. They don’t want you to “hang around,” I started laughing.
“It's not funny to me. We make [maney] (money) for him, and he orders me to wait around like a dog through some chick who has the audacity to tell me to go for a walk.”
“Sorry, I know it's not funny,” I calmed down. “How much time is he giving you to find a new apartment?”
“She didn’t give me a deadline. She just said as soon as possible, but I don’t know what to do. I have thought a lot about my seaside apartment. I pay a lot for it, and now the extra expense of renting a place just for sleeping in Kaunas doesn’t make sense…”
“But you have to live somewhere.”
“I am thinking that maybe I won’t come into work every day,” Slava said quietly. “Of course, if you need help with something, I will come in, but we both see that my website is not growing, there are no sales, and I don’t have anything to do. If I worked from home for a while, it would cost the company less, and I wouldn’t have to drive.”
“But what will you do all day? You will go out of your mind with nothing to do,” I said, surprised to hear these thoughts coming from Slava.
“And what do I do here? I don't have anything to do as it is. I have thought about opening a small café. Maybe that would bring me some joy. Dang it, Andrius. I am forty years old, and some chick phones me to kick me out. I have never even officially worked. I have to start thinking about retirement, yet here I sit waiting for some party to end, so I am allowed to go to sleep…”
“I understand...” I sat down in the chair next to him, but I no longer felt the relaxation I had felt while driving in my car. I now matched Slava’s feeling of meaninglessness. “Let’s go bowling!”
“I don't know… I'm not really in the mood...” Slava said.
“Listen, we haven’t done anything fun in forever. Let’s go. Get up out of that chair and come on,” I urged.
Slava reluctantly stood up, turned off his computer, and we drove to the bowling alley. Neither one of us were bowling experts, but the excitement around us sucked us in, and we quickly forgot all of our issues and geared up to play a competitive game. Both of us struggled to throw straight, but after several rounds, I held the lead. After ordering some beer and food, we decided to switch to billiards. I didn’t really like playing billiards, but Slava enjoyed it. In his youth, he had played it every day, so in this game, he was much more successful than me.
“Didn't Antanas want us to support something yet again?” Slava asked sarcastically as he knocked a ball into the corner pocket while trying to hold back a smile.
“Don’t get me started,” I laughed. “Requests like that from him might as well be a curse. As soon as he offers up sponsoring some club, he immediately offers to give us a loan.”
“Yeah, I believe…” Slava replied with a smile, “it’s like a free advertisement for him.”
“Of course! But his sponsorships are more than just free advertisements for him. That is how he makes his money! No matter how much I hate him, I have to admit that this scheme is fucking brilliant! We are like pocket money to him. He is always offering us credit to support something. He gives the loan, we pay him back with interest, and he can say, ‘Look at how much support I am giving to companies and clubs in Lithuania.’ We could get a loan from a bank, but banks don’t become charitable sponsors. He doesn't care about clubs or providing support. How can someone scrupulously help one team one year and the following year support that team’s biggest opponent? He says he just wants to see basketball thrive to smooth everything over, when, in fact, he is only buying advertisements and doing all this work to make himself seem like a messiah. To me, he is nothing more than a man with no history or conviction. He is an expert at paying lip-service to others while making himself look great.
We both smiled, and Slava continued the conversation.
“But you do not take these loans for sponsorships?” Slava asked.
“No, mate, do not worry. But he makes promises to almost every club and after I do not agree to spend money on the sponsorships, he blames me before those clubs. It’s a fucked up game. He is popular, and everyone believes what he says. Even he doesn’t earn any cent for the company; he makes promises, and I become a bad guy who doesn’t want to sponsor some club he made promises to without consulting me.”
“Damn, buddy. It’s not good” Slava looked at me with supporting glance.
“Ah, whatever,” I was trying to act like I did not care about such things.
“And what’s going on with selling the company? Anything new?” Slava asked as he leaned against the table to get ready for another shot.
“Nothing new. The company that is trying to sell it has sent out a few offers, but that’s it. I had hoped for potential buyers all over Europe, but they probably don’t have contacts like that, or they aren’t trying to sell at all. We have almost paid back all of our loans, the company is growing, and Antanas does not need to interfere. He is ok with things as they are. And I don't think Antanas himself is looking for a buyer because he recently offered to buy ten percent of my shares.”
“You have to be kidding me! I can’t believe that,” Slava said as he turned to look at me.
“Don't worry. You know, I didn't sell them to him,” I said, trying to calm his curiosity.
“How much did he offer you for them?”
“He started by asking how much I valued the whole company. Then I listened to him tell me how he valued it, and he says I think one and a half million is a very fair price.”
“Is he fucking crazy? The [kampanys] (company’s) assets alone are worth more than that. We would get more than that if we went bankrupt!” Slava was offended.
“I told him the same thing,” I smiled. “He then agreed that the amount he said was too low.”
“He had just offered a “fair” price in his [apinion] (opinion) and just seconds after that said “yeah it’s too low”? What a scam artist,” Slava laughed.
“I told him that we had all agreed more than a year ago that the company was worth three million euros, and although we had doubled since then, I would agree with the same amount. For ten percent, it would be three hundred thousand euros.”
“Of course, that sounds fair. What did he have to say about that offer?”
“He said he could give me two hundred and fifty thousand euros over half a year, but I would need to ensure that next year the company’s turnover would be at least ten percent higher.”
“It still is a good offer; why you didn’t agree?” Slava was surprised. “After all, sales will increase by much more than those ten percent.”
“They will... If all goes well, they will grow, but what happens if we don’t receive our quarterly order from Nike again, or if someone breaks into the warehouse and steals our merchandise, or really anything else that could go wrong? After all, who knows what could happen in the next year, and I don’t want to put the burden of making sure the company grows on my shoulders. I also didn’t like the principle that the major shareholder, when buying more shares, was creating the terms for me. What if he decided to change something? I would have no leverage as a small shareowner. What would happen if the company only grew by nine percent?”
“Sign a [narmal kantrakt] (normal contract) and don’t worry about it.”
“For me, it just seemed like another one of his ‘deals,’ and I didn’t trust it. I think if he wants to buy something like that, especially after being the majority shareholder for so many years and knowing all the facts and history, then he shouldn’t be able to set terms like that. Hence, I didn't agree. And even if I had sold him that ten percent stake, what would have changed for me? I would have had more cash in my bank account, but I would still be stuck in the same job. I would only be an even smaller shareholder. I don't need his money; that's not why I want to sell all my shares.”
“Maybe you are right… So where do you go from here? How do you feel about everything?”
“I don't know...” I watched as Slava hit another ball into the side pocket. “Hopeless. I don't believe I will ever sell my shares to anyone. I am trying to come to terms with being stuck here, but I’m struggling to accept it. Agne was offered even better terms in her current job, so she turned down our offer to take over as CEO. She has a stable job, a new family, and I don’t want to be too pushy, but I can’t even imagine offering that position to someone else. To be honest, I have not even looked at anyone else. Whatever, man...”
“I feel the same way. I feel like I am up to my neck in shoes, and nothing ever changes.”
“Exactly, I don't even know if I like the models of sneakers we are carrying, or if we just carry them because they are what sell. Shit! I don't even know what I like anymore. Models of shoes that I used to see as artwork are now only interesting to me if they sell well. Everything has changed. I used to be so passionate about everything we were doing, but now it is just a job.”
I drank a sip of beer and, finally, on my turn, I leaned against the table in an attempt to hit my ball.
Slava and I were becoming shorter with one another at work. Most of our issues stemmed from the same problems over and over. I thought he was lazy and went days without doing anything at all. He thought I used him as a place to let all of my frustration out. Even with those problems, we were both able to let go of our issues pretty quickly, and we would normally be back to congenial ourselves in just a couple hours. Both of us were in a state of despair and aimless work, so we understood each other. If we were offended, we “wrote it off” as stress, and after an evening away from work like this, we would be fine.
Time flew by when we played billiards. I tried to win at least one round, but I lost every game. When we played billiards, Slava knew I wasn’t even close to being able to compete with him, so he liked using the game to release some of his frustrations with me.
As we turned towards our cars, I involuntarily turned around to look at him walking away. It wasn’t midnight yet, so there was a good chance he would return to find the politicians still celebrating. He was walking slowly, with his head hung low, in an uncovered black cotton sweater that did not fasten because of his belly even though he had lost many kilos. It looked like he was going to a funeral, not home.
“Hey, buddy! Whatever happens, we will survive!” I called out, even though I wasn’t sure I believed it. He lifted two fingers in acknowledgment without turning around. I smiled.
I began going to the gym irregularly. At best, I would make it there twice a week, but usually, it was more like once, if I made it at all. I am not sure you could even call it training, but it was better than nothing. When I did go, I spent most of my time running on the treadmill. There had been a time when I hated running, but now I was starting to kind of like it. I didn’t have a phone or a computer to distract me. It was just me, rhythmically moving my feet, dreaming about life while watching people play tennis outside. Running on the treadmill was an excellent parallel for the last few years of my life. I was always in a hurry, but never actually moving forward.
“Sir, it's nice to see you here. If you need anything, just say the word,” said the SAL Sports Center director, Mindaugas Balciunas, who had noticeably aged since our first meeting on Freedom Avenue with Antanas.
“Hi, yes, of course, thank you,” I replied breathlessly.
After the European Basketball Championship in Lithuania, where Mindaugas had been responsible for everything, he was charged with bribery, fraud, document tampering, and other things. The charges had resulted in him being put in jail and having to defend himself in court. I didn’t know who was guilty or innocent, but to me, he had been one of the top basketball executives, so even if he had done something, it still seemed that he had been doing it for his love of the game. I tried to stay out of things I didn’t understand.
After he get out of a jail and left the basketball federation, he started working at the Sports University, located just a few kilometers from our store. The university is next to the largest oak forest in a European city, where many people from the city run, walk, or just spend time outdoors. The two of us started talking more and more. I liked his stories, and he wanted to know as much as possible about how I started my business. During one of our conversations, in an old-fashioned university office, he told me that he was planning to start a training center of his own and planned to rent a prestigious gym in Kaunas. The gym was in a great location close to the university, but he lacked a relatively small amount of money to start his business. He asked me to help him find someone who could provide monetary support in return for naming the gym after the sponsor. After thinking for a few days, I decided it was wasteful to be looking for others when having a training center named after us would be beneficial to us. After a short negotiation, we became a sponsor of that training center and called it the SAL Sports Center.
The building was a modern one-story building on stilts with large windows overlooking the university, the oak forest, as well as the nearby tennis courts. A healthy food restaurant and beauty salon were both located inside the building. High-quality light brown wood flooring was used throughout the building, and the training equipment that had been left from the previous owner was in pristine condition, despite its age.
As a student, I hadn’t dared to look at the membership prices for that gym. I saw the type of cars that were parked near the building. I think the image of a luxurious gym had done a disservice to the gym and ultimately caused it to be unsustainable. Although that aura could still be felt, Mindaugas used the same methods the basketball federation used to find additional sponsors. As a result, a variety of competing advertisements began appearing in the club. Even though I hated all these cheap posters around the area, I liked the idea that a gym I once didn’t dare ask about the price for membership was now named SAL.
After the meeting with Laisvis and Ieva, the two of them became utterly estranged. I imagined business developers being workaholics who knew everything from A-Z about their businesses. Laisvis, however, had set up a company that operative exactly how I could only dream about. He had someone who took care of everything for him. For many, this would have been enough. After all, it was bringing in a steady income, but a business that subsists on just two people will not last forever.
I didn’t know what happened between Laisvis and Ieva after our conversation, but Ieva started crying more often to the accountant until she got up the courage to quit. I didn’t intervene; it was their business. Understandably, most employees leave if they are unhappy with something. But when Laisvis decided to leave his company on the same day as Ieva, after he being unable to immediately find a replacement for her, I was just mad.
“Damn it! Damn it all!” I could not believe that an owner could throw in the towel and leave without so much as a second thought. After seeing that Ieva was the one running the company, not the owner, my anger towards Laisvis grew even more. I was outraged. We were at the point of insulting one another. Our relationship was only getting worse, but leaving the company to fall and transferring his problems to me was not understandable. As if my headaches weren’t already enough, this just added a whole other set of complications.
When I understood that there would be no one working in the company in a couple of weeks, I knew I had to make some quick decisions. His store operated similar to ours, so I knew looking for someone outside of our company was hopeless. There was no way to train someone in time, so the only solution left was to move over someone from inside my company. The CEO position would be a great learning opportunity for Kriste, but I knew she would have to deal with Laisvis, which would mean I was sending her into constant stress and tension. So, I let go of that idea. I began thinking about each employee we had. I tried to imagine them in the position. I was confident that anyone of them would have agreed to take the position, but none of them seemed robust enough to withstand any potential problems. There was only one employee that knew Laisvis.
“Ieva, I know you decided to leave, but since he couldn’t find anyone to replace you, Laisvis also decided to quit,” I quickly explained the situation to Laisvis’ administrator on the phone. “He will still be a shareholder, so you will have to talk to him, but what do you think about becoming the CEO of that business?”
“Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” Ieva replied, shocked. “I don't know... How quickly do you need an answer?”
“There is no deadline, but there will be no one at the company in two weeks, so I would like to know your answer as soon as possible.”
“What would the job look like? I don’t imagine much would change?” She asked hesitantly.
“We can sit down and discuss everything, but no, I don't think anything will change for you. In the beginning, all that will matter is making sure that customers continue to receive their merchandise on time and that nothing is delayed.”
“I don't know how Laisvis will react...” She said as she paused for a moment. “Ok, there's nothing to think about; I love challenges! I’ll do it.” After a bit of reflection and a short phone conversation, Ieva agreed to take over as CEO.
The one who was trying to steal from a company was willing to take over as CEO, and I was delighted. A few days later, my decision terrified me, but I wasn’t eager to change anything. I calmed myself down. I had no other options, even though I knew it was a just quick fix that would let me move past the problem as quickly as possible.
Like my brain had been in some sort of fog over the last few years, I couldn’t remember anything. Nothing interesting had happened, so there was nothing significant to remember. In the previous year, the company hit a new record with a turnover of over eight million euros and a net profit of just under half a million. That allowed us to repay all of the shareholder’s loans and move to a new warehouse that was five times larger than our original, which meant that we no longer had problems making payments on time, and we were even able to build up a reserve for a rainy day. adidas had waived its bans on eBay, and we were buying directly from the manufacturer again. We were becoming influential, and as we grew, we began receiving a variety of gifts from different brands. From rare sneakers to travel fare and tickets for championships. With all of those perks, one particular Sunday stands out in my memory.
Half a year ago, we hired Remis. His job was nothing special: run the warehouse responsibly. Still, he was the employee who, after months of training (which was more important to me), allowed me, for the first time in almost ten years, to stop worrying about who would take care of items ordered over the weekend. Typically, on Sundays, I would go to the warehouse in the evening to prepare orders that needed to be shipped on Monday. On Monday, employees had to send out all of the merchandise that had been ordered over the weekend. So, I wanted them to be able to concentrate on shipping instead of wasting time on preparing the items to be shipped. Helping in this way gave me a better understanding of the “pulse” of the warehouse. I could make sure that everything was comfortable and clean while identifying which items were the most popular. It was a simple job, and after so many years, most CEOs would easily let go of a job like that. To trust one person and leave him alone in a warehouse, I had to break through a lot of my psychological barriers. After so many years, my first free Sunday became more memorable to me than any travel or gifts.
The company was finally “stepping up.” For most, this would have been a dream come true, but I felt like a lobster thrown into a pot of water. I was slowly adjusting to increasing water temperatures, but I knew that sooner or later, the temperature would rise to the point where it would no longer be survivable. Every day was the same. Nothing new ever happened. I no longer wanted new stores or to improve anything. I was tired and bored with everything. I worked out of habit, and I had no passion or drive to pursue my dreams. My employees and I were all in our comfort zones of living relatively quiet lives. Go to work, go home, and go out (to buy better clothes or things), but nothing more than that. I didn’t understand why employees had been in the same positions for years and had never tried to further their careers. In the beginning, I had wanted to help everyone build their careers, so much so that even if they weren’t changing their position, they still had the opportunity to do something new and improve in some way. Since we had no staff turnover and because I struggled to find things to offer, I just stopped caring. Everyone did the same thing day in and day out. We were a team of young people who, I had once believed, had the whole world at our feet, but now we were behaving like our fates had been sealed long ago. Every role was well defined, everyone worked to a set standard, and there was no risk or daring in anything. Everything and everyone was dull and uninteresting.
Money kept everyone in the company. Kriste and I had continued to increase salaries. We analyzed each employee and gave bonuses if they were trying or doing something even the least bit outside of their duties, until we started noticing groups that were making much more than others. Since they were earning more, some of the employees began to look at themselves as superior in the company, while treating others as less important.
I was well aware of the fact that our company had issues, so I decided to try a something new to show all of the employees that they were equally important. I raised everyone’s salary by fifteen percent. For two weeks, everyone was married to their jobs and looking happier than ever, until morale eventually dropped lower than it had been. Why did they need to work hard and strive to push themselves if everyone’s salaries had increased? Those who had worked harder no longer had a reason to do so. That was one of my biggest mistakes. Everyone is different, and you can’t treat them as if they are the same. Everyone needs to be assessed, even if it causes cliques to form.
I threw up my arms completely. I no longer had the motivation, the will, or the stubbornness to change anything. I no longer had the energy to push things forward. How much lower could I go? I felt like I hit rock bottom a few years ago, but even after pushing on and holding hope, it seemed that every single day proved that the bottom just went lower as things became increasingly meaningless.
Before each Christmas, Nike re-releasing the world-renown Jordan XI basketball shoes that were initially released in 1995 when the basketball player Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, after a few years of stepping away from the basketball. When he first time laced up these shoes, I was only ten years old and hadn’t cared much about what kind of shoes he wore, so Jordan XI has no sentiment for me, but US customers were obsessed with them. Every year on the day the shoes were released, shoppers flocked to the stores, and if stores didn’t have sufficient security in place, the entire store could look like the front line of a war. Fights and even armed robberies took place because people wanted a pair of Jordan XI at any cost. Nothing like this happened in Lithuania, but since we also had many customers from US, on release day, the online store couldn’t handle the massive influx of customers. Every year, we increased the number of shoes we ordered, so much so that we ordered two and a half thousand pairs of them and sold out in just a few hours. This was my finish line. All in all, we had achieved enough sales that even growth would not be able to provide satisfaction. This was my apex, my end.
I decided not to increase orders anymore. We would leave everything as it was. We were one of the largest sporting goods retailers in the Baltic States, but I had let go of my dreams of moving to other countries quite some time ago. I was ready to let inertia carry the business. Everyone was already working for many years and knew their duties well. What was the point of doing something more? What was the point of pushing ourselves to grow even more in the next year? What would come of it?
I let the staff know that this was our last big order. Some were glad, and some didn't understand if I was joking or telling the truth, but it became clear to everyone that we were at a standstill. My internal engine had gone its last kilometer. There was no power left.
While still in bed one morning, the doorbell startled me. I hadn’t expected anyone. Usually, if someone rang the doorbell in the morning, I wouldn’t get out of bed to open the door. I would just wait for them to leave. If it were anything important, someone would have called me.
The slightly raised blinds allowed sunshine to come in the window. Sunny mornings weren’t typical in early Spring, but between the sunlight and the insistent ringing of my doorbell, I decided to get up and see who was there. I put on my cream-colored bathrobe and opened the door to a courier. “I was told that I might have to wait a while for you to open the door,” said the twenty-year-old guy as he smiled and handed me a package.
“Mmm… Ok, thanks,” I nodded and closed the door.
I hadn’t ordered anything. I saw that the box was similar in size to the boxes we used for shipping shoes, but it only had my address on it. There was no return address. Without wasting time, I picked up a knife, cut the adhesive tape, and opened the package. A bright orange Nike shoebox labeled “SAL 10” was in the package. Were these specially made shoes from Nike? Immediately, my thoughts began racing as emotions coursed through my veins. With my heart beating so hard I felt as if it might pop out of my chest, I removed the shoebox from the shipping packaging and slowly began to open it. There were no shoes. Instead, there was a framed drawing of basketball shoes and a rolled-up yellow paper. What was this? I was even more perplexed.
As I unrolled the sheet of paper, I saw: “SAL: The Story of Three Letters,” followed by a long text. I sat on the floor, crossed my legs, and began reading:
“You probably felt a little surprised and confused when the courier handed you this package. We want to explain and wish SAL a happy tenth birthday!!! Congratulations from all of us! We are so proud of all that you have accomplished! Let’s start from the beginning... How one guy’s dream changed the lives of many and how three simple letters, SAL, came to be recognized around the world.
In 2007, you got your first order of merchandise from the USA. How much courage did it take for you to take a risk on a path like this? You spent all of your money without having any idea what you were doing. Still, your youthful enthusiasm overcame everything, and because of that, there are thirty people working with you day-in and day-out that want to say: ‘Thank you!’
From customs fees to lost or delayed shipments, so much happened in that first year that you could easily have said, ‘No thanks. This isn’t for me.’ But you didn't give up; you kept looking for new customers and new ways to get the shoes your customers were wanting.
Then, you began to receive orders from customers from all over Lithuania. How many kilometers did you cover on your bike while delivering orders all over Kaunas? You found yourself with enough business that you needed to lease your first office on Kesto Street. You hauled a black leather sofa on the roof of your car, set up racks to hold merchandise, and found it challenging to fill the room with merchandise—all in a space that was smaller than your current office. Thanks to your work and exhaustive effort, everything grew. Now, we say ‘thank you’ for all that you have done, for all the sleepless nights you spent finding ways to attract customers and stand out. It is only because of your efforts that we have had the opportunity to see something truly amazing grow from the ground up, all while learning and working with you.”
My eyes filled with tears, and I could no longer see what I was reading. I remembered everything, all the things I had gone through, and all of the passion I had while doing it. This company was my baby. It was my creation, and if I made mistakes that caused my passion to dissipate, those mistakes should teach me lessons—not push me to give up. I tried to keep reading, but I could not follow the words long enough to finish even one sentence. I set the page aside and pulled out the small picture of basketball shoes that the employees had drawn. Underneath the picture, I found a collage of photos from various adventures we had had at work or after work. As if all of that weren’t enough, I found a USB stick at the bottom of the box. As though the USB stick itself was touching my soul, I held it in my hand for a few minutes.
Within just a few seconds of watching the contents of the USB stick, I was crying like a little boy. My sobs were loud, and I couldn’t even catch my breath. The staff had recreated SAL’s story in a short film. Everyone made a brief appearance in the video, and it pressed on my heartstrings even more. I couldn't stop crying. It was a reminder that we were a team.
At one time, we had been moving forward. They had reminded me of what I had created and that not everything was lost. We could and must push towards the future. I had to remember our story. After all, there had been plenty of even more difficult times, and I hadn’t let go then. So, what was wrong with me now? I hadn’t achieved my dreams, and the company was still growing. What changed? Why had I fallen apart and stopped dreaming? We must grow. We must pursue dreams—whatever they may be!
I felt ashamed that I had surrendered. Recently, I had done nothing but adapt to the rules of the game. I stood up and paced around the room. Occasionally, I stopped and read the letter little by little. It was like taking a hit off of a drug. The ten-year mark was the perfect place for a fresh start. The only way to start anew was to open stores in other countries. It would be a new stage of development. If I wanted to feel passion again, I had to do something that I hadn’t done before, but first, there was Antanas. He couldn’t stay. He just couldn’t be a part of our team; he couldn’t be a shareholder. Antanas had ruined all of my dreams and brought in chaos and mistrust, but it wouldn’t happen again. I had no idea what I would do, but his lies, scheming, cheating, and deceptions weren’t going to continue killing me anymore. It was either him or me.
It had been a long time since I had felt such an influx of energy and excitement for the future.
I thought for a long time about what I would do. Finally, early one morning, while quietly listening to Eminem's album, I found myself sitting in an old brown car. Whenever I am worried, I feel cold, so on this morning, I couldn’t stop myself from continually blowing into my hands in an attempt to warm them. The sun hadn’t risen, but it was gradually becoming lighter. I began to hear the waking birds singing in the tall pines that surrounded the narrow path leading to Antanas’ resort.
It seemed so peaceful. I could just get out of the car, go for a walk, breathe the fresh air, be in nature, and forget all of my worries. What was the point of being so stressed? I should just let it go and move on. Start a new phase. As long as you keep moving, fate will take place all on its own. Don't be a judge and jury. Go home.
I was trying to keep myself together, but I kept holding onto all of the injustices. I would forget, others would forget, and anyone else that encountered Antanas would just forget. In the end, Antanas would continue to thrive by taking advantage of others. He would continue to buy a positive image and pack himself into his increasingly shiny packaging while stomping through others’ lives until he had destroyed everything. I didn’t have to reconcile with it, and I couldn’t let myself forget what had happened. I had to remember, and I had to make sure he got what he deserved.
I looked at the silver Beretta pistol lying on the passenger seat. In this world, you couldn’t achieve anything by trusting others. Lies are everywhere. Deceit is everywhere. Everywhere you turn, someone is buying a reputation. It is impossible to know what is true and what is a lie.
That’s how good guys become bad guys. Often, they become even worse than ordinary bad guys. Everyone who knew them just end up speculating what triggered a good guy to do something atrocious.
I saw car lights through the rear window. “Here we go,” I thought. Another rush of adrenaline rushed through my body.
Although I thought I had every single detail planned out and expected to be nervous, I hadn’t anticipated feeling as worried as I was. I picked up the gun but could barely hold it. It felt ten times heavier than it had before. After staring at the firearm for a few moments, I turned off the safety and placed it into the glove compartment.
I turned up the music a bit and started the engine. In the silence of the morning, the sound of the old car could have easily been heard a few kilometers away. After realizing how loud I was, I began to breathe rapidly, like a student who had made too much noise getting out his cheat sheet during an exam.
I fastened my seat belt and stared into the rearview mirror, waiting to see lights close to me. I was becoming someone I didn’t know, and there was no going back.
“Come on! Faster!” I thought to myself, wanting the headlights to keep coming towards me, but as the driver noticed my car parked in the middle of the road, they started slowing down.
That was the signal. I could no longer wait. I slammed the car into reverse and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The wheels moved as fast as the old car would allow until I was approaching the other vehicle at full speed.
My body tensed, and I braced myself by pushing my body into the seat. After what felt like minutes, the interior of the car was engulfed in a bright light. I could feel the impact of the crash throughout my body and saw shards of glass covering everything.
The impact hadn’t been too hard, so I immediately unfastened the seat belt and, with one hand on the door, grabbed the weapon from the glove compartment. It was no longer as heavy. It felt lighter than ever. The shock of the crash had shaken my body wake, and I was no longer tense. All I could think about was doing what I had come to do.
I quickly made my way towards the black car. Through the cracked windshield, I saw movement inside the car.
With my hands behind my back, I loaded the pistol. The sound of metal was music to my ears. The whole situation was so surreal that I felt like I wasn’t myself but a bystander watching from somewhere nearby. Even the air was pushing me forward to do this thing as a favor to the world.
I moved forward, lifted the weapon in my right hand, and aimed at the person sitting behind the wheel.
I remembered the first time I shot a pistol many years ago when I was a young kid. The trigger had been hard to pull; I had been afraid of the unknown; I had been fearful of the kickback; I had been scared of the sound; I had been frightened of where I would hit. My fears of the gun itself had caused me to hold it as far away from my face as possible. I had been unable to keep it straight, and when I finally gathered enough courage to pull the trigger, I missed the target completely. I had imagined this situation to be similar, but in the moment, my head was as clear as day. I wasn’t contemplating whether or not to carry it out, and I had no thoughts of self-preservation.
It was easy to pull the trigger.
As the three loud shots rang out, I tried not to look at what I had done. I quickly walked over and opened the rear passenger door.
On the back seat, I found a large, dark, shapeless figure. No head, no hands, no legs. Just a horrible pile of manure with flies surrounding it.
Each time I got to this point, my confusion would cause my heart to race, and as I started backing away from the open door, I would wake up sweating.
The dream began to haunt me every couple of nights. Each time, I woke up and was unable to fall back asleep. I would roll from side to side, but I couldn’t make the thoughts go away. I had to find a solution to my problems. Only then would my nightmares end.
I didn’t know if it was even possible to come up with a way to guarantee that I could take the company back. It was hardly probable that Antanas would roll over and willingly abandon the company. Even though he promised to give up his shares, actually doing so seemed unlikely. It would mean he was giving up the controlling portion of the company. I didn’t have a lot of hope that involving lawyers would achieve anything at this point. I should have done that several years ago when I had realized that nothing good would come from Antanas. At least then, I would have had the trump card; we were in debt, and the company had been instable. Things have changed since then. Now, we had paid him back for the loan, and he knew that the company was stable and profitable. I only saw two paths out of this situation⸻ money or bringing my nightmare to life. Neither method seemed acceptable, and although the shooting would probably have solved my problems in the nineties, if I was serious about it, it wouldn’t solve anything and would only add more issues. That left money. There was no way I could offer him the amount the shares were worth. He had already been paid in full plus interest for his loans, and he had repeatedly promised to let me get back the shares after we repaid the loans. If I could come up with the money, I would offer to buy his shares. I could only hope that he would be at least a little honest by taking the money and walking away.
Slava and I had gotten along really well in recent years. I no longer expected him to change or act like he was a shareholder instead of an employee. So, I was able to look at everything more leniently and stop thinking about the entire TonyStreets site he had forgotten. After moving out of Antanas’ apartment above the store, he agreed with Antanas to rent another apartment from him at the lowest possible price. Slava ended up moving to a neglected housing estate in an old three-story house block that made my old, tiny apartment look like a palace. Since the apartment was almost free, Slava decided to stay in Kaunas. We both felt exhausted, so we started trying different activities: go-karting, skiing, shooting, or whatever else we could find to get out of our boring routine for a few hours. We found riding ATVs to be the most enjoyable. We were so passionate about it that we wanted to buy the whole ATVs business.
About an hour's drive from Kaunas, we found a three-story house for sale with more than twenty acres of land, a large fleet of ATVs and snowmobiles, and a riding trail surrounded by forests. When we went to look at it, we immediately knew how we could expand it further and provide a variety of outdoor entertainment that we could enjoy while enticing our customers to pay us a visit. We longed to own it, but as always, desire does not necessarily equal opportunity. The purchase price was three hundred thousand euros, and we only had about a tenth of the sum.
We needed money. In the coming months, I would have to pay the first dividend to shareholders. We had accumulated more than four hundred thousand euros in the company’s bank account, but I had not decided how much to leave in the company. There were a lot of options, from a small payout to handing out everything in the bank account. If I paid very little, I would have almost nothing to offer Antanas. If I handed it all out, Antanas might feel greedy and think the company’s share price would increase even more. But Slava and I also needed money.
I thought about suggesting that Antanas buy the ATV business. The amount he would need to invest would be similar to what he invested in SportClothes, and in return, we could offer him a thirty percent stake in the ATV business, while we ran it. This option would give us the money we needed to buy the business and could offer us a way to get the shares from SportClothes back. It was hard to believe that he would agree, but Antanas was interested and offered that we buy everything through SportClothes. We weren’t okay with this option.
Even after paying out all the money we had in the company, I still wouldn't have an amount that would interest Antanas. If I took a loan from a bank and bought the ATV business myself, maybe I could offer Antanas something worth several times more? I didn’t have a lot of hope that I could make it work, but I couldn’t come up with any better ideas. After visiting banks, I quickly realized that this plan was not going to worth either. No matter how much I tried to convince them that the company would pay dividends and that I would have money, I had no dividend payment history, and they told me that I should return once I have more money in my account.
I didn't want to wait. My only chance left was to pay the dividends and hope that Antanas agreed to take my money in exchange for his shares. I sent last year's sales report and asked to double my salary. Antanas called within just a few minutes:
“Congratulations, Andrius! You have done a great job. These results are incredible. All of this is due to your dedication to the company! A lot of my investments fail, so I have had a lot of fun watching this business grown and thrive. As for the salary, you are certainly worth it and deserve even more.”
“I will also pay out the first two hundred and fifty thousand euros worth of dividends,” I said, continuing the good news.
“That is great news! Super! Just when I am in dire need of money! When do you expect to pay out?” I was not surprised by his question.
Fucking millionaire. He was constantly in need of money. Maybe, just maybe, he really needed the money, and there was a chance that he would take my money and leave the company.
“The accountant will count everything and do the report, but I think I will be able to pay out in just a few days. What’s going on with selling the company? We haven’t talked about that lately. Do you have any news?” I redirected the topic, even though I knew the answers.
“Yes, of course, we will sell. Right now, I am in Spain. I have told several potential buyers about it. We are doing what we can, and now that we have such great results, I am sure we will find a buyer!”
“The numbers have been growing year after year, so this is nothing new. If you are doing all that you can, I think it is not enough. Antanas, you have promised more than once that we would sell the company. ‘Doing all you can’ does not answer the question or fulfill any of your promises. If you can’t keep your promises, I want my shares back and think we should talk about everything,” I said trying to reach the goal of this conversation. “I have expected you to sell the company for more than two years, but that didn’t happen. Yet you want dividends that you have not contributed to in any way.”
“I understand this is hard. Let’s not get angry with one another. I'll visit you in a few days, and we can talk about it all,” he replied harshly, hurrying to finish the conversation without going deeper into the subject.
After hanging up the phone, I tried to make myself breathe deeply to slow down my heart rate. Even though he hadn’t said anything terrible, his voice tone had been like a dagger thrown straight at me. Having the same conversation over and over was annoying me. Even the thought of his voice made me want to scream. He would promise to do something in each conversation we had, but nothing ever came out of those promises. He was getting his dividend. He didn’t care that he hadn’t done anything earn it. I was so fed up with his lies! I could just imagine how he was offering the business to someone in Spain. He was a fucking populist paying lip service to me. I had to calm down. I would transfer the money to him, and one way or another, we would finish our conversations.
“Hey, Mate! Why was Antanas’ lawyer here [tuday] (today)? What's going on?” As I arrived to work, I had been ready for Slava’s troubled questions.
“Nothing...” I smiled. “There will be a shareholders meeting.”
“Why? What did the lawyer want? Did you talk to him? He seemed like the nasty type with a bald head and small evil eyes; he looked like someone out for blood.”
“Yeah, I spoke with him. I just told you that there would be a shareholders' meeting,” I replied dismissively. “Antanas appointed him, and they want a legal-financial audit of the company.”
“And Antanas needs a lawyer to say that?” Asked Slava, surprised.
“You know how things will go. There will be clashes. Kriste is already trying to find me an attorney.”
“Shit, what's really going on? Why is everything so official?” asked a visibly scared Slava.
“It’s really nothing. We will communicate with the shareholders through attorneys.”
“This seems like some sort of nightmare. Why can’t everything be easy and calm?” Slava said disappointed.
“What are you talking about? Everything easy and calm? We work, and he steals from us at every step!” I was annoyed by Slava's frustration. “Not only has he not done anything for the company, but his fucking games have shattered any confidence I had in people and the love I had for my work. What would you rather do? We sit here busting our asses every day while some fucking populist grinds all over us. How would you like to handle this?”
“And you are really [akey] (okay) with dragging in an attorney?”
“I'm obviously not happy, but at least something is moving forward. Maybe something will change,” I lowered my voice and sat down at my desk.
“And you think having an attorney is going to improve things?” Following me with his eyes, Slava continued hoping to hear something comforting.
“I don't think anything, but this will cause something to change,” I replied, not wanting to create any illusions. “I don't know what the changes will be or what they want with those audits. I don’t give a damn about those audits. He can do them tomorrow if he wants, but he has probably identified the most expensive auditors, and I am sure that Antanas will have connections to them. Of course, I am afraid that they will try to accuse me of doing something wrong. I can’t even imagine what the price of something like that would be or how much we will need to pay. It’s possible that they will name some insane number and then share the money between themselves. I don't know what his plan is.”
“But why did he need to send the lawyer? Why couldn’t he tell you that himself? Don't you want to call and talk to him?” Slava continued asking questions one by one.
“Are you kidding? I am not calling him,” I cut back.
“Did something happen between the two of you?” He asked questioningly.
“He was here a few weeks ago ...”
“I knew that, and you said you had some words fight. Is this why?” Slava interrupted.
“Obviously,” I smiled. “The conversation started amicably. I reminded him that he promised to let us get back the shares once his loans were repaid. The loans have been paid, and we are even paying the dividends. Because many of his promises haven’t been achieved, I told him it’s time to return the shares.”
“And what did he have to say about that?” Slava asked.
“Well, he said that I told him in the beginning that I didn’t need those shares, so I replied, ‘Yes, but I also said that we need to work, we need to achieve the goals and do what we had promised each other. I said that instead of giving those shares to me, he can give them to our employees, but they didn’t receive the shares either.’ He told me that I shouldn’t be so caught up with others and that he would take care of the shares and return them when the time was right. I said when is the right time? And he just repeated the same thing about not getting caught up in those shares. When everything started to repeat again and again, I told him that we needed to figure this all out and that I would give him a hundred thousand euros, if he gave my shares back, and we could part ways. He just laughed at me. I tried to offer hundred and fifty thousand euros, but he didn’t even let me finish getting the words out of my mouth before he cut me off and told me the numbers I was giving him were a joke. Shit, I even told him that I was offering all of the money I could get my hands on. He then said that numbers like those weren’t going to get me anything. He was laughing. The fucking thief! Even though I had worked hard to make sure I was calm before our meeting, I lost it and started calling him a liar, a scammer, and a thief. And he just said he’s an investor who invested into this company. And I say what kind of a fucking investor are you? It was all a loans. Your words were “I will help you a lot, I have many connections, huge experience, I will help you to open the stores, and we will go worldwide!” Where the fuck are those fifty stores around the globe?! The only thing you brought here was scheming and fraud! He hung around for a few more minutes smiling before getting up to leave and saying, ‘If you don't like something, take me to court and prove that I did something wrong. I started this business, and if I want it to be so, you will not get a penny. You better be happy that I am still paying you a salary.’”
“He pays you a salary?!?! Damn, Mate. I can't believe he actually went that far…” Slava snarled.
“That's why I’m telling you that I have nothing left to say to him. I don’t know what he has planned or what he will do. After our conversation, he sent me some texts saying that there was no reason for us to be angry with one another and that we could figure something out. But that attorney he sent came in and as it seems from his power of attorney date, as soon as Antanas left, he went to fire up this plan, and after that he acted like everything was fine, and we shouldn’t be angry at each other.”
“He is acting like a [gangster] (gangster) in an attempt to lull you over,” joked Slava.
“I can't imagine what they have planned, but the most realistic thing is that they will try to put me into something dirty. I am just glad that we paid out the dividends, so I can hire a lawyer. I am sure this will be a long-drawn-out process.”
“Whatever happens, know that I'm on your side and will support you any way I can. No matter what's going on, I will always remember how you pulled me out of my shit. You just say the word, and I will do whatever you need. This whole situation is nothing less than a cruel joke,” he said honestly.
“It is what it is. I made a huge mistake five years ago and now, whatever happens, happens. I won’t regret doing any of this. I should have done this a long time ago,” I said emphatically.
“And what if he fires you?”
“I don’t think he will fire me, and if he does, it will all depend on who replaces me. Maybe it will be someone who can do the job, and it would be good for the company. Remember, how after Belarus he was feeling sorry for everything and accepting everything as his fault? Maybe now that I have told him how it is, he will think about it all and do something good for the company for once.”
“Shit. It’s unlikely, but who knows? He is like a small child. Every day, he changes what he wants.”
I smiled and went back to work. I wasn’t stressed or anxious. Even waiting for what would come didn’t seem to bother me. We had never held shareholder meetings. We didn’t discuss results and definitely didn’t talk about financial plans together. We sent reports and received cookie-cutter messages about how well things were going. This would be the first shareholders’ meeting, and it wouldn’t be just any meeting. There would be attorneys who would conduct everything legally and professionally.
After a few days of searching, it became clear that finding an attorney for me was not an easy task. Kriste got in contact with many lawyers and when she started explaining about the shareholders' meeting and how we needed help getting everything done so that we wouldn't fumble around with the other shareholder's attorney, almost everyone accepted. But after explaining the situation more deeply, that the other side will be Antanas’ infamous lawyer, Gintas, who had been on the defendant’s side of a high-profile pedophilia case in Lithuania, Kriste was left with only one lawyer willing to take us on as clients to go up against.
“Hello, I'm Andrius,” welcomed the lawyer with the same name as I. He motioned for us to sit at a big meeting table. Kriste and I sat down next to each other, and he sat down on the opposite side of the table. He was a sporty looking guy that seemed to be about five years older than me with light curly hair that went down the shoulders of his formal blue suit.
“I understand your problems, but I will be upfront and let you know that this is just another case to me. Every day, I face a variety of issues that are often very important to my clients and often require me to do something as quickly as possible. I know there are deadlines, but sometimes, it is better to send something late than to do something in a rush. So, it's essential that we trust each other and that you let me do my job, if I take the case. I should also tell you that I have crossed paths with Antanas several times, but we have no common interests. Gintas and I have had cases where we worked as partners as well as cases where we were the opposition against one another.
I was worried when he said he had crossed paths with Antanas several times. I knew it could mean that they had done more than just cross paths. He also worked with Antanas’ attorney? But he has also had cases that were against him. I was a bit confused and didn't know what to think, but he had been forthcoming and hadn’t tried to hide anything. After all, Antanas and his attorney were well-known people, so many people would have connections to them in some way. I had no choice but to entrust my fate to this stranger. Knowing that he had bought basketball shoes from me when I first started selling, gave me a small sense of closeness to him.
As the lawyer reviewed my contract with Antanas regarding shares, he was amazed to discover that there were no specific shareholder obligations. I, once again, felt ashamed of the day I signed a contract that I believed was a contract ensuring me a teacher and mentor. I did get a teacher, but not the kind I had wanted. I was only now learning that the transfer of shares does not necessarily mean the transfer of control. Shareholders can sign mutual agreements that, even with only a few percent of the shares, would have allowed me to continue making critical decisions for the company. It was a pity that I hadn’t known this guy when I had set up the terms with Egis. It seemed as if, even though I was struggling with money, it would have been better not to buy new stocks of shoes but hire a lawyer. He would have been much more beneficial than a few additional models of sneakers. I had been looking at Antanas as not only a mentor but as someone who could help me wade through all of my legal issues. He was doing it, but he did everything to help himself, not the company, and certainly not me. I had naively believed that well-known people are the same in everyday life as they are presenting themselves in the public eye. Only a proper contract could have prevented everything that had happened during all of these years. At the time, I believed he was the most honest person I had ever met. I am pretty shitty at determining if a person is hiding who they are.
“If you want, we can postpone the meeting; there aren’t any deadlines,” the lawyer suggested.
“I don't think that we need that. I just want to get everything taken care of as soon as possible,” I replied. “I want to see what they come up with and what they will try to do. If you think you can be ready in time, I would prefer that we not delay it. The attorney picked that day because he said that Antanas would need to be in Brussels for his political things later on, so if we postpone the meeting, it could be quite some time before we could find another suitable date.”
“I'll be ready. I only suggested that for you. The argument about Antanas' travel is null and void. There is no need to pay attention to it. I am almost certain that he will not show up. He is a politician, and I’m pretty sure that he will find some unexpected issue will come up.”
“I don’t know,” I paused shortly. “His lawyer has repeatedly emphasized that we cannot have the meeting later. I think he is planning to be present. After all, this whole meeting was his idea.”
“I’m just speculating, but I highly doubt he will show up. Attorneys handle everything to do with the laws, and he will be sure to appoint his attorneys as legal representatives. Why would he need to be there? From what I know about him, he almost always only personally delivers good news and has others handle anything unpleasant. I’m sure this case will be no exception. The meeting will not be a nice sit-down, so why should he get his hands dirty? He has a lawyer for that.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I partially agreed with the lawyer. “But it doesn’t matter if he will or will not be there. I just want to see this happen sooner rather than later. I want to know what their reasoning is for an audit.”
“Shareholders usually initiate an audit for two reasons: they want to sell the company or to fire the CEO,” the lawyer replied without hiding anything.
“We have been trying to sell the company for a long time. Is it possible that they have found a buyer and want to sell their shares?” I asked.
“Either option is possible, but you should be prepared for both.”
“I doubt he would try to fire me. He knows I never wanted to be the CEO. I have repeatedly suggested that the shareholders find someone to replace me. They know that I hate these responsibilities, I am not a good fit for the position, and that I am only doing it so that we can keep the company going. I honestly think that if they had a replacement, they would just call and say, ‘We have found someone to be the CEO.’ He knows that I would be more than happy to give up the position. I am afraid that they are hiring a firm of auditors who might try to accuse me of doing something. The company is not small, and we do everything on the up and up, but if something is wrong, their goal will not be to fix it but rather blame me.
“That may be the case, but we can prepare for that later. We also have the right to specify which audit firm they hire. It does not necessarily have to be their designation. They will have to prove that the company is reputable and provides high-quality services.”
I never imagined that I would feel good after leaving an attorney’s office, but whatever Antanas’ goal was, I was happy to have found an attorney who would help us navigate these waters. Even the worst-case scenario didn’t seem quite as terrible as before. I knew I wouldn’t be stuck in that prison doing the same thing day after day.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” Slava asked as soon as I walked in the door at work.
“Alive,” I answered vigorously. “Like I can finally breathe again. I haven’t felt like this in a long time. Finally, we are moving somewhere. I want to see what will happen. Look, I even put on a cargo pants with a camouflage print, so my mood would be even better,” I laughed. “And you? Is everything okay?”
“This is horrifying to me. I am terrified of what might happen,” Slava replied, lowering his head.
“Don't be afraid. We found a good attorney. We won't even need to talk. It will be like free tickets to a good show. Sooner or later, it had to happen. Don’t worry; everything will be fine,” I said, trying to lift his spirits.
“I am scared for you. You created all of this from nothing, and now you have all of these [prablems] (problems). I mean, I have ten percent of the shares, and it affects me, but still, I can’t understand why Antanas is doing all of this. He did nothing for all of those shares, and we repaid all of his loans with interest. You just gave him a dividend of one hundred thousand euros, yet he is still trying to rip you off in some way. Just remember that no matter what happens, I have your back, and together we will sort out this pile of shit. Without us, he has nothing!”
“Slava, that is why I'm not worried about that. Without us, he has nothing. But right now, we need to choose an auditor, so that I don't have to be afraid of someone bribing the auditors to set me up. The attorney could see a scenario where they end up suing me for some damages, and I would end up having to hand over all of my shares to settle everything. It is a popular practice. Even with a company working transparently, paying all its taxes and everything, they can set up something and unload a huge truck of a lawyers against me year after year, so I can be left destroyed. I am afraid of that. For so many years, we didn't know who Antanas was. I realize I was blind. I trusted his public image, and now I have no idea who he really is. After all, he wanted to buy my shares, so why not try to take them for less or even get them for free?”
“That is too much. I don’t believe that Antanas would go that far!” Slava said with his eyes revealing all of his emotions.
“We don’t know what he is capable of or what he is preparing to do. This is just one possible scenario. Right after our nasty meeting, he sent me a text saying that we would figure it out and come to a compromise, but then he sent in his attorney. Right now, he is doing something similar: he has sent some letters from the attorney about a meeting but also attaches messages saying that ‘we can nicely reach an agreement.’ I don't have a clue what he is planning.”
“Dammit, maybe he's still doesn’t know what to do? Maybe after your meeting, he went straight to the attorney because he was overly emotional and is regretting it now? Do you think that is [pasibl] (possible)?” I could see the hope in Slava's eyes. He wanted everything to smooth over quickly and quietly.
“I don't know, but we shouldn’t get hung up on his empty words again. We know he is always talking out of his ass, and it is time we found out who he is.”
“I would love for him to walk in the doors and say, ‘Sorry guys for dragging you through so much. I am leaving the [kampany] (company), and I will return the shares to you just as I promised. Good luck in the future.’”
“Oh yeah, I can see Antanas doing that!” I laughed. “But in any case, one way or another, it will all change, and I will no longer need to deal with him. I have done my best to keep the company moving. I don't regret my decision to bring in Antanas. I had to try working with a partner. I would never have known what it was like if I hadn't tried. The only things I regret are that I did not have a proper contract with him, and I didn’t request to write down everything he was saying. I just thought that a word from a man is the most import thing he can have. I was so damn naïve! I always thought that I have to protect myself from street thugs who can kill you for a couple of euros not people who are such public success stories. They do not steal, but they help others and by helping others they become successful. I just believed what Antanas was doing was how successful people do business. I didn’t dare oppose him and didn’t wanted to look like an animal frightened by people who were trying to help it. Damn it, man! I thought successful people were perfect with bright smiles, like in the magazines, and they would never step on the heads of others. How the Hell could I be so wrong? If I had a normal contract, surely none of this nonsense would have happened, or maybe we would have already forgotten about him because we could have kicked him out a long time ago for not fulfilling his promises. Anyway, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time.”
“I respect you and everything you have done to bring us this far. Now we need to take back the [kampany] (company)!” Slava committed.
First, our accountant arrived, and she would answer any financial questions. A few minutes before the meeting was set to start, my lawyer arrived followed closely by Antanas’ attorney and his assistant, as well as Egis.
“Where is Antanas?” I asked.
“Antanas’ schedule changed at the last minute. He had to leave for Brussels early this morning,” said Antanas’ attorney as he sat on the couch and got comfortable. “Here is the contract transferring his voting rights to me.”
I took the contract, saw he signed it that morning, and without even trying to read it handed it over to my attorney as I glaringly conceded that he had been right that Antanas not showing up. This made me anxious. Slava’s fantasy that him coming here to apologize and nicely tying everything up was not going to come true. Attorneys would handle everything. I felt somewhat elated knowing that Antanas had sent a lawyer that even his colleagues were afraid of because it would make the meeting more captivating. It is always more interesting to watch high-level teams competing against one another instead of average ones.
The two lawyers sat side by side on the couch. Opposite them sat Gintas’ assistant on one side of the table, while the accountant and Egis sat on the other side of the table; Slava and I sat on chairs on the other side of the room, closest to the door.
Antanas' attorney started the meeting by inviting everyone to introduce themselves. Everyone did so in quiet voices. After that, we unanimously elected Antanas' attorney as chairman of the meeting and appointed his assistant to be the secretary of the meeting.
After both attorneys discussed Antanas’ absence from the meeting at length, Gintas made it clear that he was reluctant to answer any questions and that he would be the only one asking questions today. Without paying attention to my attorney, he turned his attention to me and asked me to tell him how the company worked, where we sold merchandise, what banks we used, what internet addresses we had registered, which partners we worked with, and other similar questions. When I finished answering his questions, he passed the baton on to the accountant who started asking her questions about payments, accounts, and banks. Gintas’ tone and the questions themselves were clearly superficial. It was like he had no idea how the basics of internet commerce worked. It started to worry me because, after half an hour of talk, I couldn't understand the purpose of his questions.
We moved on to the main issue on the agenda, conducting an audit. The two attorneys butted heads again. My attorney would ask questions, but Gintas kept redirecting the conversation and pushed things forward like a bulldozer. Both of them spoke straightly, without raising their tones, but this caused me to feel even tenser. I jumped into the conversation. We couldn’t get any reasons for the audit clear or even tell us what they wanted to check. For one possible reason, Gintas said that Antanas may want to sell the company, and for other possible reasons, they wanted to understand how the company worked and even stated that in our reports (which all of the shareholders confirmed), they found discrepancies. It was quite clear that they did not have a concrete vision of why they needed to audit. It only exacerbated my fear that the audit was just a way to fish for something they could pin on me.
“There are three shareholders and one shareholder representative present, and you are telling us that you have noticed inconsistencies in the company, but you have not listed any of the problems. You only emphasized the need for an audit. Our accountant and the shareholders are here; why don't you ask whatever questions here and now? Is there really a need to spend the company’s money on paying an auditing firm to answer some mystical questions?” I asked Gintas while trying to force myself into keeping a calm tone.
“Will you consent that your job could be checked?” Antanas’ attorney asked, again unwilling to answer the question and pushing the conversation towards his own goals.
“Yes, of course,” I agreed without hesitation.
“Well, there you have it. It is no problem to conduct an audit,” he replied.
“We were talking about issues within the company that you will not name, not whether or not I would agree to check my work,” I tried to argue.
“An audit is the only way to find the answers to your questions,” Gintas replied.
“Maybe we shouldn’t get into that debate. But we do want you to tell us the reason for this meeting,” my attorney interjected, as he turned to Gintas. He had probably understood long ago that there had been no point to any of his questions and was wondering what motive he had for asking them.
“I suggest that we move forward with the agenda and, at the request of the main shareholder, Antanas Guoga, we would like to add another item to the agenda: the replacement of the company's CEO.”
Everyone paused for a moment and looked at me, waiting for some reaction. I wasn’t shocked or surprised. I wasn’t even angry and didn’t have much emotion at all towards what Gintas has just stated. I felt like he had just told us another insignificant detail. I didn’t move my lips and just sat like before. I had not expected him to say that, but I had known there was a chance, and I had been ready for it. My lawyer began to argue that it was illegal. He stated that since it was not on the agenda that it could not just be inserted. Gintas again, without even looking at us, announced in his monotonous voice that he and Egis agreed with replacing me. In his bulldozer like demeanor, without heeding my attorney’s questions, he continued on to the issue of appointing a new CEO.
“I would like to invite the proposed candidate to join us so that you can meet him.”
Gintas picked up his phone and called someone. Everybody was silent again and eagerly waiting to see what would happen. Immediately, I thought about Zygis because he had been the first person Antanas hired to work as the head of marketing and was the one I had moved to the warehouse. I was afraid he might try to come in and assert supremacy over me now since I had insulted him in the past. Since he had gotten to know the company a bit in the past, it was quite realistic for them to suggest that he take over the position, and I couldn’t even imagine anyone else as an option. Or maybe Antanas had actually started to think about the company? Maybe he had agreed with some qualified specialist who, although appointed by Antanas, would work primarily for the good of the company?
“Hello, Mindaugas, could you run over here for a bit to introduce yourself?”
Mindaugas? I ran through all the Mindaugas’ I knew in my mind, but I couldn’t come up with one that would be suitable to hold this position. Watching Mindaugas Balciunas climb out of the car with tinted windows that had sat outside near our warehouse for the last hour astonished me. A man I had respected for many years, now one of Antanas’ cronies, slunk towards the door. I greeted him at the door. I wanted to look him in the eye, and as I did, he lowered his head as he greeted me and slipped between me and the door. He sat down on a chair between Slava and me. I smiled ironically as I sat back down in my seat. I couldn't stop staring at him. I couldn’t bring myself to believe who I was seeing. From head to toe, it was assuredly the same Mindaugas. A former Lithuanian basketball executive had been hiding in a hot car waiting to be invited up to my office. What kind of circus was this? At this point, the lies were just ridiculous. Mindaugas had hid in his car, Antanas had an emergency, and I had answered questions that had nothing to do with anything we were trying to solve. I had hoped for something like the television series Suits where attorneys show a high level of skill and negotiation. Instead, I had front row tickets to this mess. As a child, I was taught that respect, keeping your word, having an opinion, pursuing your dreams, and striving to remain true to yourself, whatever that meant, were the most important qualities for a person to have. Why do adults forget about that? Why is ass-kissing the go-to option when you want to achieve something?
I had respected Mindaugas as a person who stood behind basketball in Lithuania. I had seen all of his work at the gym, and I had wanted to help as much as I could. We had sponsored his gym for two years. We had confided in one another for two years. We had been telling each other many stories over these years, and I had always tried to support him until late last year when, without informing me, he had decided to move into a newly built condominium and build a new one thousand square meter sports club. Maintaining a high-quality gym in such a massive space would be a huge undertaking, especially since I knew that he didn’t have deep enough pockets to buy or pay for things left and right. New gyms open every month, so moving from a beautiful place next to a park to an apartment building that was near a busy street was especially risky, even if the rent was cheaper. Cheaper rent doesn’t mean better profit margins or that survival will become easier. Cheaper can also mean a quicker path to non-existence. I had tried to dissuade him, but he was determined to move since he could only see better opportunities in the new location. However, I did not want the SAL name on a regional gym, so I did not sign a new contract.
After moving to the new premises, he kept the same name, but promised to change it as soon as he could find a new sponsor. I had tried not to push him, but months passed, and no new sponsor came. But after I saw an article in the press, it became clear why he had moved the gym. The buzzing headline, “Vice President of the University of Sports moved out the gym and left debts,” made it clear. I began to push him to change the name of his gym as soon as possible, so our name would not be associated with his debts. He boldly changed his tone. He was no longer associating his gym with our store name, but instead with the University's sports and leisure center, which had been using the same abbreviation SAL but had nothing to do with us and would change its logo in the near future. I hadn’t expected that kind of brazenness from him, but now, as he sat next to me, everything made sense.
The only experience Mindaugas had with e-commerce was the stories I had told him. I no longer had hope that they would be hiring someone that would continue to help the company grow. Antanas had recovered all the money he loaned and had already made a good profit from this business, so he had nothing to lose. As old acquaintances, I did not doubt that they were talking about the SAL shop, and Antanas knew that I had not signed a new contract to support Mindaugas’ gym, which of course, would mean a substantial loss of income from us. Maybe he had tried to find new sponsors, but when he was unable to find any, he went to Antanas, and they found a solution to both of their problems. Mindaugas would become the CEO of the company, giving him the right to make decisions concerning the gym, and Antanas would be able to get me out of his hair.
I had not expected a scenario like this. I had not expected this from Antanas or Mindaugas. My replacement still felt like freedom, no matter how it happened, but the appointment of a puppet as CEO, made it clear that this was a move to take over the company. Neither of them cared about the company, the employees, or what we achieved. All that matter to them was furthering their personal interests.
My emotions boiled inside of me, but I listened to his presentation, which made the fact that he had no idea what he was doing even more apparent. While trying to keep my tone as calm as possible, I started asking questions about him, his gym, and various other topics, but I quickly caught on to what was happening. The decision had already been made, so I stood up and went for a walk. I had read stories about famous entrepreneurs being fired or having their company taken over by someone else, but I had never expected to experience that myself. I tried to reassure myself that I was not the first and certainly would not the last to lose everything. Work, passion, and drive are just nice words that are used when you create something new, but making sure that everything is put onto paper correctly and legally is what really matters. This year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary and paid out our first dividends. The irony is that just when it seemed like everything was set up, I would lose everything. It was a shame but not entirely unexpected. I took the risk. I didn't want to be connected with Antanas. I wanted to get the shares back from him, the odds had been low, but there had been a chance.
Should I regret trying to get back what was mine? Hell no! It was better that all of this was happening now instead of a year from now. That would only have wasted another year of my life. The day I signed a contract with the devil was the day I had lost everything. This was just the final act of the play. I couldn’t be sad about it. I was glad things would finally be changing. The how was just an insignificant detail.
I managed to calm myself and returned to my seat. Only Antanas' representative had confirmed Mindaugas’ candidacy. After Gintas’ announcement, my emotions subsided, and finally, knowing the true purpose of the meeting, we followed the agenda on to the topic of the audit. Although there was a brief debate about the subject, it no longer mattered. The only thing that was left was to have the auditing firm we choose checked by the shareholders, and we closed the meeting.
The meeting had lasted three hours, and, with a calm drive away, we all went to lunch at a nearby restaurant. There was no hostility after today’s battle had drawn to a close; rather, everyone was thinking of tomorrow when everything would start back up again. Their cards were open, and now it was all up to me. I could either agree or not.
At the restaurant, we all sat around a small table and ordered food. While waiting for my meal, I looked at Mindaugas sitting in front of me. He looked like a teenager with his head down and eyes glued to his mobile phone. It was hard to imagine someone like him leading the company I had created. We had once talked to each other like good friends, but now just looking at him made me angry. Fucking snake. Without even considering Antanas’ reasons for appointing Mindaugas to CEO, even as a shareholder, if I disagreed with any of his decisions, I could say, scream, yell, send letters, or do just about anything else . . . but no one would pay any attention. If Antanas gave him the job, it was clear that he would do everything Antanas wanted. I would be a guest in my own company—an unwanted guest at that.
Waking up this morning, I didn’t expect that by the evening I would no longer have my company. Well, theoretically, I hadn’t lost it yet, but in practice, nobody cared what I had to say anymore. Antanas was in control and could make things happen however and whenever he wanted.
“Andrius, how are you feeling?” asked my attorney as we walked outside after finishing our meal.
“I’m okay, thank you for helping me,” I replied.
“It's just a decision. It can be appealed. The court can give you back your position. Going that route should give us few months to re-evaluate everything. Perhaps you could even reconcile with Antanas, and we wouldn’t have to go through any of this.”
“I don't think there is any need to take it to court. He has fifty-one percent of the shares. It was going to happen, sooner or later. I will not reconcile with him or regret anything I have said, and I don’t want to live with some constant burden on my shoulder for the next few months.”
“You should think on it. There is no need to make a decision right away,” the lawyer suggested calmly. “And I suggest that you think through everything. I could even suggest you act like you are ill and get some certificate of incapacity to give you more time, so you can think about things in a better light.”
“I definitely won’t do that,” I smiled. “I have never taken one sick day, and I am not going to start now just because they are replacing me. I’m not that type of person. I don't want to add something like that to my story. I think we did everything we could. By the way, after the meeting, Gintas told me to call Antanas. He said he might be interested in buying or selling my shares.”
“But do you understand that he has reduced the value of the company with all of this and will certainly not offer you a fair price?” the attorney warned.
“I am aware of that. I believe this was all an attempt to take all of my shares. There really isn’t any other way out of it at this point. He made it clear that he was taking over everything. If I carry on as a minority shareholder, I will get nothing back from the company and be nothing more than a barking dog. After all, he will be able to specify, for example, that the company buys his building in which we have a store, at the market price. The company will pay him money for the building, and that building will still remain his property since he is the major shareholder of SportClothes. He doesn't even need a dividend; he can buy assets in the name of SportClothes and cash in as much as he wants. There will be no benefit to anyone else. I can only sit and watch now. He could say that the company has to support a club or a league with the hard-earned money from the company just so that he could continue to parade about as some sort of sports sponsor. It’s his business now, and I have to come to terms with it. The only thing left for me to do it try to get the best possible offer for my shares and hold out a tiny bit of hope that somehow I can get the company back.”
“I fully understand you. Give Antanas a call and let him know how things went.”
I thanked him again and headed back to the office with Slava. It felt like we had already put in a full day of work, but the day was far from over. I had to prepare for the most important conversation of the day—one on which everything depended. Either I got the shares back, or I lost everything permanently.
We sat down in our chairs and just chilled out for a few minutes without doing anything. It was a strange feeling to be laid off by the company I created, but none of that mattered. After a few minutes of silence, we burst out laughing. Every word from the meeting was funny. We remembered every detail of the day, everyone’s movements, and every statement that had been made. Only with Slava was I able to relax like that.
“What will you do now, mate?” Slava asked grimly.
“I have no choice. I have to call Antanas,” I replied.
“But what will you offer him?”
“Three hundred thousand euros for his shares.”
“Wow! Where will you get that much from?” Slava asked, surprised.
“After the dividend, I’ll have a hundred thousand, so I would give it to him now, and if the year keeps going like it is, next year we would pay dividends again, and I should receive two hundred thousand. I will suggest paying the rest in a year.”
“Shit, I doubt he will agree. We had an offer to sell [kampany] (company) for more than two million euros, but we wouldn’t even begin negotiations because the [kampanys] (company’s) assets are worth almost that much. He isn’t stupid. He will know that.”
“I know, Slava. Do you have a better suggestion? I am offering him everything that I have made in over ten years and everything I could possibly make in eleven years. That means I will only start reaping the benefits only after twelve years I had started it. I don't know what else I could offer.”
“Yeah, I see that...” Slava continued. “Maybe he will, but mate, he doesn’t deserve even a penny. He should pay for everything he has done and even apologize to us, yet he will walk away with plenty of [maney] (money), no matter the outcome.”
“There is no need to start counting how much work he hasn’t done to help this company,” I said with a sigh. “I hope he takes the money because we would only spend another year working on repaying him, and then we would be free. We could start planning something again to expand further around the world.”
“That would be amazing! I do not know what I would do if you weren’t here. It’s like Mindaugas is falling in here from outer space. He has no business being in this [kampany] (company). I certainly won't stay, but dammit, those bailiffs are still an issue. I don't know where I would go from here.”
“We can think about it. Damn them.”
“Of course, and they can all go to Hell!” Slava asserted.
I didn’t want to call Antanas. I didn’t know what to say to him or what to expect. I doubted that anything I could say would make a difference. I knew he would have prepared for a conversation like this, and I was terrified that he would not accept my offer and then offer me a ridiculous price for my shares. I didn’t even have the grounds to argue for a better price for my shares, if he declined my offer. I didn’t even want to think about the possibly of being stuck in the company. That would be a more significant loss than handing him my shares for free. As a minority shareholder, I doubted that I would get anything from this company other than a growing sense of frustration. I don’t need that. When I started everything to get my shares back from Antanas, I was not choosing between repurchasing, losing, or keeping the shares as they were. This conversation was to make it clear that we were no longer going to be partners. The decision had been clear long ago. One of us had to go—him or me. There was no third option.
I picked up the phone and dialed Antanas’ number. After a few short rings, I heard his voice.
“Hi Andrius, how are you feeling?” Antanas inquired condescendingly.
“How do you think?” I replied.
“Well, Andrius. You should have been calmer in the meeting, and now it is what it is.”
“We need to sort out everything,” without paying attention to his remark, I immediately directed the subject to my reason for calling. “I want to buy your shares for three hundred thousand euros. I will pay one hundred thousand immediately and the other two hundred thousand in a year.”
“Andrius, I can't accept that amount.”
“Three hundred and fifty thousand euros?” I said, raising the price in an attempt to interest him.
“You don't sound like you want to repurchase them. Maybe you should go to a bank for a loan, and then you could offer something more reasonable.”
I was silent. I thought about what he said, but taking a loan from the bank or trying to raise funds would be madness. I was already offering him eleven years of my earnings. I couldn’t offer more. I can’t be stuck in debt. This would be a never-ending circle.
“Although you have the minority of shares,” Antanas interrupted my silence. “I am prepared to offer you three hundred forty thousand euros plus taxes. I can pay a hundred thousand in a week and the rest in half a year.”
“Antanas, that is just a little more than you offered me for ten percent of my shares. You are reducing the value by almost three times, even though the company has grown significantly since then.”
“I have offered you as much as I can. I cannot offer more. You either accept it or don’t,” he replied harshly.
I fell silent again. I tilted my head and reached out with my hand—what a shitty situation. Three hundred and forty thousand euros for a thirty-five percent stake in a profitable, growing company that just two months ago paid out two hundred and fifty thousand euros in dividends, had assets worth almost two million euros, and profits of nearly half a million euros a year. Even if he shut the business down and sold all of the merchandise at half price, he could easily walk away with much more than what he was offering me. This was fraud, but I had to calm down. I had to accept the offer. I didn’t see any other options. He had won. He had knocked me out of the picture like I had been nothing more than a pesky fly buzzing around. I had to look at the bright side. I hadn’t been happy with things the way they were; I had been stuck in a prison, and now I would be free.
After giving myself a short pep talk, I agreed. I felt like I was living a scene from The Godfather, and I would either be leaving my brain or my signature on the contract. On top of it all, the “Godfather” was being played by a politician who is always acting like a good and helpful guy. The world is fucked up.
A week after I transferred my shares, Slava came to my apartment. I sat on a dark gray wicker armchair on the balcony and put my feet on the balcony’s railing. Slava sat on the other armchair next to me, with his usual posture, leaning forward with his arms crossed. We both opened a can of Pepsi and started chatting quietly. I was finally feeling a little relaxed and just crossed my finish line. I had crossed it as a loser, but I knew I had given the race my all. I didn’t feel defeated. It felt like I was finally leaving a dark past behind me. I finally had the peace and freedom to enjoy the moment. No more constant hurrying. No more stress. I would have to learn what it meant to have a day off. Even after Remis had started working on the weekends, I still never went more than a few hours without being on the computer for something. Now, as if I was trying to get rid of a bad addiction, I was only on my laptop a few times a day and never for more than a couple hours. I felt clean and calm.
“Slava, don't be so upset. There is nothing bad about…” Looking at him leaning forward, I felt his tension and anxiety. “Maybe we will buy an ATV business. We will get to work outside, and it will be fun. Later we can come up with something new to create.”
“Yeah,” Slava nodded. “I can’t imagine it right now. I am having trouble wrapping my mind around all that has happened.”
“We can’t change anything,” I tried to calm him down. “Have you talked to him about selling your shares?”
“Yeah, I went to see him.”
“Well, how did it go?” I said, dragging out every word.
“Mate, things are bad. It wasn't a pleasant [kanversation] (conversation); we talked for less than half an hour. He refused to buy my shares.”
“But he promised to buy them! Why is he refusing now?” I was surprised.
“Mate, I regret all of this. I am not trying to offend you…” Slava continued.
“What happened? What did you agree to?” I turned to him questioningly.
“Shit, you know my [prablems] (problems), well, I've talked to an attorney...”
“Which attorney?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Antanas’ attorney Gintas. They will take care of all of my [prablems] (problems) with the bailiffs, but I have to stay and help Antanas,” Slava explained, without taking his eyes off of the ground.
This is an autobiographical story of an effort to build a dream fulfilling business.
Without becoming a basketball player or having any money, Andrius started his entrepreneurial journey by living in a small office between the boxes of shoes he was trying to sell. He dreamed that his store would eventually become the world's largest sporting goods store and that this business would fulfill his biggest dream of becoming a sponsor of the NBA’s All-Star Game. To achieve his goals, Andrius understands that he cannot make it by himself, so he chooses a business partner and builds a team.
But do partners always have the same aspirations? Will having a partner make his dreams more attainable? This is a book about searching, about mistakes, about inner passions, and the endless desire for freedom.
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