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I’ve been running a skate shop for a couple of years. I’ve invested all my savings and used a lot of credit cards to buy inventory whenever I needed it. I love teaching kids how to skate but wish I had never started selling gear. Someone mentioned bankruptcy to me, but my family would be mortified. Should I file bankruptcy to get out of debt and just teach?

You’ve asked a very brave question. Sometimes it takes a bold, scary question just like this to lead a company and its owner to a much better place.

As a little background, for several years I interviewed struggling business owners and bankrupt business owners all over the country about their biggest regrets. Their insights were always surprising and incredibly moving.

The top regret of every struggling business owner I spoke to was procrastination. They wished they had “acted earlier” to learn how they could use bankruptcy filings to their advantage. They were surprised that bankruptcy didn’t mean “defeat” or the end to their business careers. As one woman said, “Once I got my ego out of the way, I was able to view bankruptcy as a powerful strategic weapon for solving a lot of problems.”

One of the problems with writing this column is I don’t ever have enough information on hand about a business or financial situation to give letter writers a complete answer to most of their questions. Your situation is complex and deserves more expert attention. But what I can do here is provide some background and some recommendations for your next action steps.

Under the federal bankruptcy code, businesses and partnerships have options regarding how and when to file for bankruptcy protection. In short, Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings allow business owners to reorganize their debts while continuing company operations. This filing usually allows business owners more flexibility and command of bankruptcy outcomes.

With Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings, a bankruptcy trustee is appointed to manage the sale of certain company assets to help retire outstanding debts, often at deep discount.

Here are ways companies can benefit from a bankruptcy filing.

  • Saves time and buys time.

A bankruptcy filing gives business owners an opportunity to deal with all outstanding creditors in an organized way. Rather than negotiate with all debtors and vendors individually, the court can consolidate decision making in a time-saving way for business owners. A bankruptcy filing also prevents debtors from taking any other legal action against a company. This temporary “stay” can give business owners more time for planning the company’s brighter future.

  • Shed debt.

    The obvious benefit to a well-executed bankruptcy filing is the opportunity to renegotiate or shed certain business debts. Bank loans, equipment or vehicle leases, unprofitable store locations and onerous contracts, even employment contracts, can all qualify for review under the nation’s bankruptcy laws. While there is no certainty that all of a business owner’s requests for debt relief will be accepted by the bankruptcy court, reducing the cash cost of interest and principal payments can help businesses return to profitability.
  • Reinvent company operations.

    Sometimes it takes a bankruptcy filing to inspire company owners to set higher standards for their company’s operations. With a judge’s approval at stake, owners say they were more willing to close down unprofitable operations, stop serving deadbeat customers, and fire uninspired employees. One business owner said, “Once I got rid of all the bad stuff, the remaining good stuff was easier to build on.”
  • Appeal to new investors.

Most owners of financially-strapped businesses aggressively pursued investors prior to their bankruptcy filings. What they learned is this: investors don’t like to payoff old business debts, especially bank loans. Investors want their funds allocated to activities that enhance the company’s future value such as product development, intellectual property filings, or joint ventures.

Post bankruptcy, entrepreneurs can appeal to investors with a clean slate for business growth. Sometimes clever business owners can line up investors to purchase a company’s assets and place them in an entirely new business entity, with existing management still at the helm.

  • Restore self-confidence.

    Perhaps the greatest upside for business owners who shepherd their companies through a bankruptcy process is confidence. They faced a new challenge head on and persevered.

    One business owner told me that prior to the bankruptcy filing he became paralyzed by fear. He credits the bankruptcy process, which he found intellectually interesting, as a way to “get fired up to succeed again.” He also added that all his worst fears of customer defection and professional ridicule never happened.

Here’s one last tip. The key to productive bankruptcies is hiring highly experienced attorneys who are not so overloaded with other work that they miss key filing deadlines. It’s your job to hire your professional team and re-imagine how you can succeed once again as an awe-inspiring teacher and business owner.

Search the Service Professional Directory under “business bankruptcy law” to find great legal counsel near you.

Do you have a question for Susan? or connect through Twitter @startonpurpose

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