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. 5 years ago, on January 4th 2011, Paul Downs wrote this blog on his 25 years in the business of making furniture.
Twenty-Five Years, and I’m Still Standing
By PAUL DOWNS JANUARY 4, 2011 7:00 AM January 4, 2011 7:00 am
Jan. 1 marked my 25th year in business. I resigned from my job as a carpenter’s helper in November 1985, but it was at the turn of the year that I moved out of my college apartment and set up housekeeping in a new part of town. The plan: become a master furniture maker.
Never mind that I was a kid (age 23) and had no experience in my chosen field — no training or mentors either. I had read a few books on the subject, and it didn’t look all that hard. At the end of January 1986, I rented an empty rowhouse around the corner from my apartment. I had inherited $5,000 from my grandmother and figured that was enough to keep me going for a couple of months.
A cheap table saw was my first tool purchase. Friends and relatives provided me with my first jobs. I did a little networking with former teachers and anyone else I could find. Eventually, I fell in with an architect, recently immigrated from Poland, who was in the process of establishing his own practice in Philadelphia. He brought me my first “stranger” customers: a local lawyer and her stockbroker husband. They have been followed by a couple of thousand others, from all over the world.
I had only the vaguest idea how the business would develop. I knew no one who was operating a concern like mine. The furniture makers I read about in the trade press seemed to be very much like artists. The financial, marketing, and employee aspects of the trade were never mentioned. There were a few books in the library about small business, but my recollection is that they concentrated on small retail and professional organizations, not manufacturing.
I take great pleasure from figuring things out for myself, so starting from a position of complete ignorance didn’t faze me. In retrospect, I could have saved a great deal of time and money if I had worked for someone in the business before starting off on my own. It took me a long time to master some very basic technical and managerial techniques. And I suffer every day from my ignorance of accounting.
My wife and I have modest material desires, so in our 20s we were able to live on peanuts. She was working in social services, a small but steady income. I was covering my expenses and a little bit more. Cheap neighborhood, crumby hand-me-down car, home cooking, and thrift-shop clothes: the bootstrappers arsenal. But after a couple of years, when it became clear that I was capable of avoiding failure, I conceived the desire to build the business into a small factory. And everything that has happened since then has been about fulfilling that desire.
I’ll confess that part of the story has been money from relatives. There have been frantic calls at critical moments. My best estimate is that about $16 million has passed through my hands since the business started. (The numbers are approximate because my records from 1986 to 1997 are buried in a heap of old files somewhere in the shop.) About $1.5 million of the $16 million came from outside investors. Half of that was from The Partner; another $500,000 came from my father and brother, and the rest was my own salary, loaned back to the company when cash was short. Funds from client sales have totaled about $14 million. The business has not been profitable.
Did I happen to choose a good time to start my business? It would have been a heck of a lot easier if I had been 15 years younger and opened the doors after the spread of the Internet. I spent years tracking down knowledge that can now be acquired in seconds. Much of what I learned about design, marketing and manufacturing back then has become obsolete. I don’t think that the mid-1980s were a good time to try to establish a factory in the high-cost Northeast. I have been battling unfavorable trends in rent, labor (cost and availability) and health care.
I have been helped by the explosions of wealth in the legal and financial professions and by the incredible efficiency of Internet marketing. I think that without the revolution in information technology my business would have failed. Hand-crafted sounds sexy until you try to make some money at it. Low-efficiency, high-cost production isn’t a brilliant business model. We have morphed into a medium efficiency, medium cost, high service model that has a reasonable prospect of success — at least until the next economic shock hits. I have weathered foreign competition, global economic collapse and my own incompetence. I hate to think what’s next.
If you read the business press, you might get the impression that the natural arc of business ownership is a year or two of struggle, a couple more of rapid growth, and then the big payoff. That’s nice if you can pull it off. Maybe. Even then, there’s the question of what you do with your hours after cashing out. I think that we are hardwired for a life of repetitive toil. That’s what humans have been doing for the past 10,000 years. Think of the seasonal round of labor that is a farmer’s lot. My own work life has a repetitive rhythm of tasks which have not become boring. If nothing else, having to make payroll every two weeks has kept me on my toes. I still enjoy going to work (almost) every day.
Early in my business life, I visited a nearby shop that did custom furniture finishing and refinishing. The owner was a bit of a hippie, and he went broke a few months after he started. (I don’t think that the chemicals and his hourly bong rips helped develop his business acumen.) But I did get one good piece of advice from him. He had a number of Zen koans written on the side of his spray booth, including this:
“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
I’ve had some triumphant days in my 25 years, when I closed big deals or achieved some hard-fought goal. But I have always had to get up again the next morning and go back to the shop. I’m not rich, but I’m still here. I’ll call that success.
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Paul’s book, Boss Life, is available now at your favorite bookstores and on Amazon.com.