"The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool."
- Stephen King
We all have people we trust. And they trust us in return. In some cases, that trust has been earned via confidences kept and commitments achieved. In others, it's possible that the mutual trust is there because ... well, just because.
Among my friends are two entrepreneurs who have been harmed by being too trusting, and perhaps too eager to offer others the opportunity to benefit from their businesses.
We all know people we describe as "the nicest people." While this may well be an over-used phrase, in this case it's true. These two folks - who by the way don't know each other - are easily the most kind, gentle, nice and trusting people I've known.
For each of these two people, a positive characteristic - trust - turned into an Achille's Heel.
What happened? In both cases - despite their very dissimilar businesses - there was a common thread: Each of these entrepreneurs sought outside help in advancing the business.
For one, it proved fatal for the business. The offending party offered to provide cash and a building in which to grow the operation. But after making those investments, the villain seized the business, leaving my friend out in the cold and wondering how this could have happened.
For the other, the culprit posed as a potential buyer of the company, only to copy the products and steal the customer list. The scenario is ongoing as this column is being written.
The impact on these people is predictable: Anger. Embarrassment. Financial loss. Uncertainty about the future.
What could these two overly-trusting entrepreneurs have done to prevent such skullduggery? Of course, the short answer is to get a lawyer involved. Hindsight, it is said, is always 20/20.
How does one know when to seek legal help? (A note to my attorney friends: The correct response is not "early and often.") Certainly, there's a time to bring in the lawyers, and having a competent - dare I say "trusted" - attorney at the ready is a must-have for any business owner.
Who wants to go through life thinking there's a business-stealing boogieman around every corner, waiting to pounce?
But there's a brutal reality: the boogieman is real. He sucked the blood from these two wonderful people.
Like it or not, a healthy amount of suspicion and skepticism goes with business ownership.
Each of us has to find a comfort zone. For some, it might mean cynicism and sliding a non-disclosure agreement across the table to every new acquaintance. For others, it may just be a reluctant admission that some folks are scallywags.
So, be nice. Be generous. Be enthusiastic. But temper that enthusiasm with realism. Be careful out there.
“Trust everybody, but cut the cards."
- Writer & humorist Finley Peter Dunne
"Never trust anyone completely but God."
- Lawrence Welk
"Trust, but verify."
- President Ronald Reagan
Bill Collier is the St. Louis area coach for The Great Game of Business. He helps businesses improve their financial results. He is the author of “How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner … and Still Have a Life” Bill can be reached at 314-221-8558, GreatGame.com/stl or firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is http://ggobstl.wordpress.com.