Waxhaw entrepreneur turned struggles into success

Serial entrepreneur David Moakler has seen his share of small-business highs and lows.

He’s run a cleaning business that flourished, and a foreclosure-avoidance agency that flopped. He’s inspired other business owners in lectures, and poured money into a catalog that vanished.

“I’ve had some very good (businesses), and I have taken some straight into the turf,” he said.

Still, Moakler, 50, charted his way to success after launching a company in 2005 that he said makes $250,000 in annual revenue and earns high marks from the Better Business Bureau.

It’s called CareConnect USA, a Waxhaw-based distributor of hotlines that helps employees facing personal challenges including massive debt and gambling addiction.

An app, the company’s latest innovation, is timely, offering phone numbers to users struggling with suicide or abusive partners. Recent news about the suicide of comedian Robin Williams and athletes facing domestic violence charges, he said, motivated him to add features that tap into contemporary issues.

But creating a product that he hopes makes a difference would not have been possible, he said, if he had not learned to embrace his mistakes, and even laugh at them.

“You aren’t what you accomplish and what you don’t,” he said. “You’re not your failures.”

Ups and downs

Moakler’s myriad business ups and downs started when he was a college student in Rhode Island. Uninterested in classes on business theory and more intrigued by practical application, he started a carpet cleaning company that grew into a janitorial service with 22 employees.

He sold it five years later when he became “tired of apologizing for a living” to ungrateful clients, he said.

Seeking more sunshine, he moved to Charlotte in his mid-20s and began selling audio recordings of his own tips for helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses. He turned it into a nationwide lecture series that lasted 18 months and toured 52 cities. After the tour, he published a catalog to sell more tapes but never got any orders.

In the mid-1990s, he founded a housing counseling agency to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. But in 2006, the agency was embroiled in a legal battle with the Illinois attorney general, who accused the company of promising to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, collecting fees and then reneging on the deal. Those accusations, Moakler said, were untrue and besmirched his reputation.

“When you’re accused of things that make it seem like you’re a bad person ... there’s no going back ... no way you change a story once it’s out there in the Google-sphere,” he said.

Two years later, he settled with the attorney general and closed the company.

Idea crystallized

While he wishes he could “pluck out and rewrite” that part of his life, Moakler said what he’s learned about compliance helps him find the right service providers for his now-profitable business, a venture he formed after a 14-hour flight to Argentina.

Next to him sat a social worker, frustrated that she did not have a go-to list of trustworthy helplines to give to clients struggling with money.

“By the time that plane landed in Buenos Aires, the idea had started to crystallize in my head,” Moakler said.

Using card-stock paper and a toll-free telephone switchboard, Moakler started CareConnect, distributing laminated inserts with helpline numbers to social workers. He soon began mass-producing the numbers on 11x17-inch posters that employers could hang in breakrooms.

Each nonprofit is billed based on call volume, Moakler said. He sends each service provider a monthly report that shows them how many calls they received, and the companies send a check for the corresponding call traffic, typically using their own marketing budgets to pay for the service.

“We didn’t find out till later that it really met an unmet need,” Moakler said. “Those calls would go to experts. Employees wouldn’t feel they had to bother their supervisor in an uncomfortable, awkward discussion about financial problems.”

A perfect fit

Moakler started developing the app after questioning his company’s trajectory.

“We ... are living out of smartphones so much, that’s gotta be where this has to go,” he said.

The app, Trusted Helplines, launched this summer, giving users access to experts able to help them with mortgage payments, student loan debt, child support collection, and credit score improvement, among others. Most recently, he added suicide prevention and domestic violence help, additions that he called “a last-minute (decision)” based on recent headlines.

Providing connections on a range of issues, Moakler said, “is a perfect fit.”

“Employees are dealing with stress. Why not give them a single one-touch button to connect them with counselors?”

Quick access might make all the difference for distressed employees considering suicide, said Margaux Austin, executive director of HopeLine, a Raleigh crisis center.

“When someone is in that crisis moment, it could be they just need someone to talk to,” Austin said.

“Any way you can extend a lifeline is a good thing,” said Mike Sexton with the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission, a domestic violence resource center.

The app, a free download on smartphones, is “young,” Moakler said. Still, he hopes it will perform a public service.

“It might make sure the public gets a little more information about what the signs are,” he said. “It’s a terrific way to show you care about your people.”