Mark Firmani served as Terry Drayton’s trusted public relations counsel, helping the Seattle entrepreneur and former HomeGrocer.com CEO navigate some rocky times during the bankruptcy of Bellevue-based Count Me In.
That bond carried over to Drayton’s new company Storrage, with Firmani stepping in to provide PR services to the Seattle area personal storage startup when it was created last year.
But things soured between the two, and now Firmani is suing Drayton in King County Superior Court for failing to pay PR bills over the past 12 months. According to the suit filed Nov. 3, Firmani claims he’s owed at least $190,153. The contract says Firmani was to be paid in both cash and equity, according to the suit.
It is unusual to see a PR firm sue a client, in part because public relations professionals are typically hired to help clients avoid messy and embarrassing situations like these.
Firmani, president of Seattle PR firm Firmani & Associates, tells GeekWire that the lawsuit marks the first time that he’s sued a client in 20 years of running his own business. “It is tremendously unfortunate on so many levels,” said Firmani, adding that the lawsuit “stinks on a bunch of levels” since he’s an investor in Storrage.
Drayton, meanwhile, says he disagrees with the allegations and “will vigorously defend the action.”
Things turned especially nasty last month after Firmani turned the matter over to a collections agency, sparking this email from Drayton, referencing the need for the startup to raise financing before payment could be made.
In the suit, Firmani says that the “tone” of the email message troubled him greatly because it spoke to Drayton’s ethos on paying Storrage’s debts. It also brought back memories of Count Me In, a Seattle area startup company founded by Drayton that fell into all sorts of hot water five years ago for bungling payments to hundreds of youth sports organizations across the country.
The missed payments, totaling about $5 million, led to an involuntary bankruptcy and a court-led seizure of the business. The case outraged many, since little league and youth soccer programs suffered when the funds disappeared.
Drayton’s reputation took a big hit, and Firmani was the PR advisor who tried to help the entrepreneur recover.
Drayton was hoping to put those troubles behind him when he launched Storrage, saying he was having fun building a new company. As of earlier this year, Storrage had raised $1.3 million from a prominent group of Seattle area angel investors such as Andy Liu, Rudy Gadre and Serena Glover.
Drayton is perhaps best known for co-founding HomeGrocer.com, the Seattle area online grocery delivery service that imploded during the dot-com bust along with Webvan.
Firmani’s suit surfaces painful issues of the past, with the PR veteran writing that the missed payments and email to the collections agency confirmed that Drayton and Storrage “had returned to its ways of sloppy financial management.”
You can see the full suit — which alleges breach of contract — here: