My (ex) Girlfriend Stole My Six-Figure Business

by Cole

Why I’m So Thankful She Did & The Mistakes I Made That Lead To It

“I’m stealing all of our clients and starting a new business.”

The words seeped through the phone like the poison they were. I felt the effects. My eyes glazed over. Heart slowed a beat. And the angry emoji started beating around in my head. 

“I can’t believe you haven’t noticed, but I’ve rewritten all contracts with our subcontractors. I mean, really, you should have noticed…” she smirked. 

There were about 10 more words that she fired off, but I stopped hearing. I hung up the phone while she was mid-sentence.

“What the actual fuck.” My thoughts verbalized.

The next 10 hours were a rollercoaster of emotions while I took on an endless series of phone calls to friends, family, and employees. The words were true. My heart was broken. My back was bloodied. My first true betrayal I’ve experienced.

I never spoke to her again. 

I didn’t know it then, but this was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me. Let’s give it some context.

I started my real estate photography business in 2016. I built it from the ground up alone until 2018. It was growing, and I was excited. My girlfriend at the time was super unhappy working with her family, and I had this crazy idea. 

What if we worked together? I could teach her everything I know, and we would grow twice as fast. Welp, that’s what happened. I taught her how to talk to clients, marketing, design, editing, photo, video, and everything in between. 

We continued to grow it until it’s peak with the business making $15,000 a month. I was in charge of moving the business forward, the big vision, while she handled a lot of the detail work. I handled certain employees and she handled others. We found a balance that seemed to work. On the outside looking in. 

On the inside, we had a toxic relationship with each other. She would leverage my passion for the business against me during disagreements and arguments which usually lead to her quite literally running away in the middle of large projects leaving employees hanging and me in the dust. She never felt the pressure of keeping the business up because it was ultimately something I had created. Something I cared about. A piece of my dream. 

Things started to shift when I ended our relationship in 2020. Though we had worked through a lot, the toxicity was too much, and everything I thought she would never do, she did, 3 months later. 

We had agreed to still work together with our current business model, but as the days went by, there was so much anger and resentment coming from her. It’s all I could feel. 

So, without consulting me, she created a new company. Manipulated our highest employee on the totem pole. Lied to our current clients saying I was on board with their “rebrand”. Hid the truth from the lower-level employees. And ultimately, convinced herself that this complete betrayal was “okay”. 

I was left standing alone in the dark. To rebuild in a new city. Again. 

Long story short I rebuilt a business, and I was on my way to 6 figures in the first year when I decided I wanted to continue to chase my dream of living and building in Los Angeles. Since August of 2021, I have lived in LA with someone who builds me up and fits with me in ways I didn’t know someone could. 

After a year and a half of reflection and work, I now am so grateful of not being in the same situation I was. It was a separation that needed to happen. Of course, not the way she made it happen. But it still needed to happen. 

Sometimes we have to let go to grow. And that’s what I did.

If I wouldn’t have let go and moved on, I would have been stuck fighting for something that I had outgrown and for people who didn’t really care about me or the big vision of what I was building. 

They say — with every story, there is each person’s “side”, and then somewhere in the middle is the truth. 

To try to alleviate any falsehoods here and be completely honest with you and myself, let’s talk about the mistakes I made that led to this. 

Not Building The Right Team

At this point, I’m a little scarred by the idea of building a new team. When I started growing initially, it felt like a free-for-all of anyone I knew who needed a job. I wanted to help them. I wanted them to help me. I wanted them to believe in me and the vision of growth. 

Well, for the most part, I was able to pitch the vision, but the problem was the people. I won’t sit here and bash each and every team member for their faults, but the reality is my false need of having a team allowed me to be blinded when hiring. 

I would ignore faults and red flags just to get someone on board. I won’t ever do that again. 

I want people who want to work with me. Who I don’t have to “convince”. They see what I’m doing and want to be a part of it. 

With this mindset, I will most likely have much fewer team members in the future. But the ones that are there will CARE. That matters to me.

No Contract Between Me & Girlfriend

Honestly, I don’t even know how much this would have helped our situation. I am no lawyer nor will I pretend to be one. 

I heavily considered taking her to court for what she did but based on what my wisdom team told me, it didn’t seem like it was a viable option. Or worth it, considering my financial situation. Aka I was broke. 

You want to believe that you’ll always love the ones you love now. That they will never hurt you. But it’s just naive to think nothing bad could ever happen to you. Things change. People change. Relationships change. 

In the future, there has to be a clear contract no matter what. Just to prevent the worst-case scenario and encourage a friendly departure. Like Nike says, just do it.

Not Investing In Relationships Of The Team 

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Man, I really set myself up for failure on this one. The simplest way to put it is that I had my girlfriend do the majority of communication with our head employee over the course of two years or so. Not to say I never chatted with them etc. She just did WAY more. 

When things started to fall apart, their relationship was stronger. He trusted her and believed her twisted narrative of what was happening behind the scenes. To the point, where he blatantly hid things and denied wrongdoing. He was brainwashed, and it was too late for me to do anything. 

She also communicated mostly with our subcontractors, but honestly, they probably would have listened to either of us. They were disconnected, but it really doesn’t matter. What I’m saying here is that I should have been a better leader.

I will be in the future.

My hope is that no one will invest more into my people than me. I want to make the time. I want to have conversations with the ones who care. I want to support them and help more than I’ve ever before. As a business owner, I think this is everything. It’s not just fulfilling, but these relationships lay the foundation of a great company. 

I thought I knew before. Now, I really know.

Choosing The Right Partner

I don’t say this to be salty or hold resentment. I say this because I don’t believe I really chose my partner. I think it just kind of happened. She needed a job, and I had the vision and opportunity. 

It was exciting, and to be honest, it probably became one of the only reasons we were together after a while. It consumed us. It helped us forget that we weren’t a good fit in a romantic relationship until, well, sometimes it reminded us.

In the future, I’ll think much more carefully when deciding to go into business with someone. I’ll look for stability, level-headed emotions, passion, vision, humility, the ability to listen and debate, and so much more that we can go into another day. 

The bottom line is I will choose wisely. 

Growing Too Fast

Since this happened to me going on two years ago, I’ve realized that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for letting my business get to this self-destructive point. 

I was so young when I started, and everything was incredibly new. Moving so fast. It was too fast to think about all the things above, and my emotional intelligence hadn’t developed to where it is now. I didn’t know how to deal with the gut feelings that would birth these mistakes. 

From 2018–2020, it was just a complete whirlwind of growth. I went from literally no money for gas to paying people five thousand or more a month. It was too fast to stop and really think. At least, for me. 

Some people get “lucky” and already have an amazing team. They never have to stop growing or fail to learn how to run the right business.

But I did. And that’s completely okay with me. I’m not 100% sure what my future holds. I have a general idea, but the universe always surprises me. I just know that I am incredibly thankful to have the experiences of pushing through extreme emotional and physical blockages. I’m thankful to not be in the same place or surrounded by the same people. 

I’m thankful for the betrayal. The lessons. The pain. The emotions. 

It has made me the best me yet. Hope this helps. 

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