Vintage Blog – My Five Stages of Accepting Advice

Here’s a classic post from Paul Downs‘ contributions to the New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog.

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My Five Stages of Accepting Advice

Thanks to the many who congratulated me on my post about keeping my shop going for 25 years. And then there was this comment, from Josh Patrick:

“I wish I could be as positive as your other commenters. Unfortunately, I can’t. You’ve developed what I call a life-style business. It provides an income of sorts for you, but you haven’t developed a real business. My definition of a real business is one where the owner becomes irrelevant in the day-to-day operations of the business. And the business becomes cash-flow positive to the point where the owner can draw a nice salary and the investors get a reasonable return on their investment.”

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this blog has been responding to feedback of this sort. You might not be surprised to hear that I enjoy the compliments on my insight, my honesty, my courage, my stunning good looks (oh, wait — haven’t had that one yet). But when the comments turn the other way, I sometimes find it difficult. While there have been a few that can be simply dismissed, there is another set that serve up hard truths. And for those, I find myself going through a process similar to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Here’s how that played out for me after receiving Mr. Patrick’s comment:

Denial: “Lifestyle business? It’s a real factory! Thirty-five thousand square feet! Six thousand dollars a day to keep the doors open! It supports 12 employees and their families! I do business all over the world! I’ve made payroll every two weeks since 1987! Does he think I belong on Etsy?”

Anger: “Who the heck is this Mr. Josh Patrick, anyway? Has he walked a mile in my shoes? What does he know about running a real business?” (It turns out he knows plenty: here are his credentials.)

Bargaining: “I finished 2010 with more money than I started. Never had that happen before. Since I accomplished that, I must be doing all right. If I just keep doing what I did last year, I’m sure to be fine.”

Depression: “Who am I kidding? All these years, all that money down the rat hole. I must be an idiot. If I weren’t so stupid, my business would be 10 times as large, and I’d be lolling by the pool on my tropical island.”

Acceptance: “This guy might have a point. I’m almost 50, and if I want a payoff to all my hard work, I’d better pay attention to what he’s saying.”

So I humbly accept that my business, considered strictly as a financial proposition, still has a way to go. Now for the hard part: getting there. It’s a lot easier to replace yourself if you have the cash required to hire competent replacements. Until recently, I have been so broke that it wasn’t an option. And, frankly, most of the tasks I’m performing now are things I enjoy doing. I’m not convinced that walking away from a role that keeps me interested and engaged, just for money, is such a good bargain.

To revisit Mr. Patrick’s advice: “… a real business is one where the owner becomes irrelevant..” But what if I don’t want to be irrelevant? Now that my kids are teenagers and busy with their own social lives, I find that weekend hours tend to drag. Do I really want to become one of those guys who play golf every day? Why should I deny myself the pleasure of productive work, doing things I am good at? I like running my factory. Making stuff is cool. I work with great people. My customers are interesting. My family is proud of me. There are plenty of people who have more cash than I do but aren’t richer.

I don’t have to make this decision in the immediate future. In the short term, I do intend to bow out of my sales role. At that point, the company will become much more “real.”  The job of managing it won’t require specific technical knowledge as much as basic leadership and accounting skills. I’ll be a step closer to having the option to sell. And we are currently cash-flow positive, I do pay myself a nice salary, and if we continue on this track then the return on investment will finally appear.

To Josh Patrick: Thanks. That was good advice you gave me.

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