For many years, Paul wrote a blog for the New York Times about business life. Those postings eventually became the book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business. Paul’s book, Boss Life, is available now at your favorite bookstores and on Amazon.com
Remembering Why I Got Into Business
By PAUL DOWNS | ORIGINAL date published JULY 9, 2013 7:00 AM date updated
The struggles of a business trying to survive.
Here’s some business advice that I have heard many times: “Follow your passion!” I suppose, to some, that I might be considered a poster boy for this line of thought, considering that I started my furniture-making business on a whim 27 years ago, just to try to make a go of something I enjoyed doing, and I’m still here after all those years.
A lot has changed in that time, though. In particular, my daily task list has taken twists and turns as I reacted to the challenges of building my business. But recently I had an opportunity to dial back the clock and spend a couple of weeks at the bench, building a set of chairs and a dining table. Making furniture was my original job, but 21 years have passed since I last made a project for a client with my own hands. That’s a long, long time. So what was it like to go back and revisit my passion?
I should explain why I even considered doing this. Today, as regular readers of this blog know, my company specializes in building custom conference and boardroom tables, but before the Internet pushed us into that market we spent many years making dining furniture. In 2001, a client ordered a nice table-and-chairs set for a shore house in Longport, N.J. Last fall, Hurricane Sandy washed the contents of the ground floor into the bay, and the client called and begged me to replace the set. I agreed to do so, which was a problem, because the tables and chairs we made back then are no longer in regular production.
We stopped promoting our residential line in 2006, because conference tables are much more profitable products. You would be surprised how important it is, in a factory setting, to do something regularly in order to do it well — it’s like physical fitness, in that constant repetition of a particular process makes it go much faster and better. While we have built up our expertise in conference tables, our other skill sets have atrophied. The special chair-making tools we used back then have been mothballed, and none of my current production guys are masters of the sequence of processes required to build these pieces.
As I explained in a recent series of posts, we have been extremely busy since I hired a sales consultant. And that is another reason I wasn’t wild about the idea of shifting a productive worker to a problem project. At the same time, since hiring the sales consultant, I have been able to offload many of my sales duties onto my staff, and I have found myself with a significant amount of free time every day. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to try to get the company to operate without my constant intervention, which required that I spend more time setting up systems for my people and less time putting out fires. This has been going quite well.
Rather than twiddle my thumbs all day, I decided that I would build this job myself. Our shop is enormous, and there was a spare workbench available, so I would not be in anyone’s way. I could take my time to complete the project, and I could prevent an unfamiliar product from distracting any of my workers. Also, I was looking forward to getting my hands dusty after all of those years in the office. Making things is fun. But I did wonder if I would be able to handle the physical aspect of the work and match our current level of craftsmanship and speed.
At the end of April I got started, and I completed the project in June: 14 chairs and a large custom table. I put 130 hours into these pieces over two months. More than half the time we spend on any project involves sanding, and that is a task that keeps the hands busy and leaves the mind free to wander. During all of those hours, I thought about a wide variety of things. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:
- Doing this job reminded me of why I got into the business in the first place. The nature of woodworking is pleasurable. It’s a nice mix of challenging thought and physical labor. The results of each minute of work are clearly visible as you transform raw materials into finished product, step by step. I think this explains why many of my workers have stayed with me for so long. Considering the alternatives, making furniture is a great way to spend your day. If a reasonable wage accompanies the job, there is little incentive to jump ship.
- Surprisingly, considering I was at the bench for six years (1986 to 1992), I had never built a set of 14 chairs. The model I was making is one of 16 different chairs I have designed, but I personally built only the early prototypes. In subsequent years, I had overseen production of thousands of them, even though I was not doing the work myself. I still remembered the sequence of tasks, and the tool set-ups for chairs are not particularly complicated, so I did not have any trouble performing the steps. While I completed the job in a reasonable number of hours, I was significantly slower than our old production times. When we were cranking them out, my best worker could build a chair in four hours. It took me six and a half hours. And since you probably are curious, here is what I charged: a dozen with an arc cutout at the top were priced at $835 each and two with inlaid sapele squares cost $907.
- Working in production mode is very different from working in boss mode. Once the task at hand was started, I was able to work without distractions. This is the opposite of my usual day, in which I do a large number of different tasks for a few minutes at a time — and I am constantly interrupted. Also, the job had strict definitions. I knew what I had to do, how to do it, and what success looked like. Again, this contrasts with my role as boss, much of which involves trying to figure out what a jumble of conflicting data might mean and what we should (or should not) do next.
- I’m happy to report that I am, at age 51, still able to put in a day of physical work. The shop floor is noisy and dusty, but that doesn’t bother me. Most of the days in May, I worked four to six hours on the chairs, after completing my boss tasks. But a couple of days I went for a full eight hours. I was working on my feet all day and doing a lot of lifting and work with my hands and arms. A persistent pain I have had in my shoulder for the last 15 years, exacerbated by hours of using a computer mouse, went away. My hands started to become rougher from holding sandpaper. I went home tired, and I slept well.
- In 1992, when I ceased working at the bench, it was because I could see that someone was going to have to concentrate on design, sales, marketing and administration. And that person would need to be me. I knew it would be much easier to hire someone to do the production end of things, working from my plans, than to find someone who could guide the business while I indulged my passion for my craft. That decision set me on the path I have followed since — to be a business owner as well as a maker. It has been a long, twisting journey since then. In the last 10 years, I’ve spent far more time reacting to changes in the economy than following my original dream. And the arrival of the Internet changed my business into something I never could have imagined when I started it. But following the path of new possibilities has led to more wealth for me and good jobs for 17 people. I’m glad I was flexible.
Would I consider starting up my residential business again? I discussed this with my shop manager and lead salesman at one of our weekly wrap-up meetings, and they asked me why we weren’t putting our extensive catalog of designs to work and building up that business. I don’t think it would be difficult — I have a very good idea of how I would market a residential line. To some extent, the answer is my own bad attitude. I just don’t want to — not for good reasons but because I cannot see myself leading that charge. Been there, done that.
When customers are buying for their own homes, the sales process is very different from when they are buying on behalf of a corporation, and the logistical aspects of shipping furniture to residential addresses are challenging. I would want to be able to sell to clients all over the country, which makes delivery a very important part of our responsibility. We have been able to design our conference tables so that they can be disassembled for shipping, but that is much harder to do with dining tables and chairs that are built using traditional joinery methods.
But I am probably overestimating the difficulties. My every thought regarding those products is tainted with the memory of dealing with the problems I experienced in the early years. I am very comfortable with the way my business is operating now, and I just don’t feel like gambling on a new product line. If I ever do decide to get back into residential, I will need to find someone young and energetic to come in and develop that as a separate business. I don’t want any of my current people to be distracted by a new line. They already have enough to do.
So revisiting my passion was fun. I was able to treat the project as if I were a hobbyist, without concern for profit, and simply enjoy the experience. I’m curious whether others who have been in business for a while have had to step away from their passion to succeed. If that is true in your case, what do you think about that now?
If you haven’t already, please look through our gallery of custom conference tables. You can choose any of these designs as a starting point for your project, or you can submit your own designs. For help designing your custom conference project, contact us today at 610-239-0142 or email@example.com.
Paul’s book, Boss Life, is available now at your favorite bookstores and on Amazon.com.