Tackling the challenges
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Results from our annual Small Shop Survey reinforce the picture of small shops struggling to meet some of the most basic challenges of small business. Pricing, dealing with customers, ensuring profits, managing time and schedules all come up repeatedly among the things shop owners list as their biggest challenges. That's no surprise, and many of those same things would likely show up on a list from the typical small business owner in almost any industry.

But one of the key differences that contributes to the business challenges facing owners of small woodworking shops is the vast majority have little or no formal training in either woodworking or business. While more than a third have college degrees, most of those degrees are not in business or woodworking. Two-thirds of those responding to the survey said their business skills were self-taught, and nearly half said that's also the way they learned cabinetmaking. Only one in 10 reported having a business degree, and another 14 percent have taken some college business classes.

Sizable numbers (about a third) report learning business skills in on-the-job training, the same kind of training cited by about 40 percent for their cabinetmaking skills. Now, we'd be the first to admit that the school of hard knocks can provide some of the best education, but all too frequently learning on the job comes with a high tuition cost paid in expensive mistakes.

These days of uncertain economic times don't leave shops with a lot of margin for error. What worked last year in your shop or last decade for the shop you apprenticed in might not work so well today. I recently spoke with a gentleman who is trying to operate a cabinet shop as a division of a larger and older woodworking enterprise. While the profitable cabinet shop becomes ever more important to the entire business, it becomes increasingly frustrating for the cabinet shop manager when he encounters corporate resistance to changes he suggests. Of course, the objections are often based on the time-honored logic of "this is the way we've always done it."

A philosophy of continuous improvement today is more than just a business buzz phrase. It's a mantra for survival and continuing profitability. There is virtually no operation that cannot be improved. But it likely will take more than just learning on the job to be able to identify and enact the kinds of significant improvements required to remain competitive and prosper in today's business climate.

Don't let any lack of previous formal training keep you from seeking the help you need to succeed. Look for solutions that go beyond your shop. That might mean networking with other shop owners or taking some night school business classes. It might mean paying your accountant or even an outside consultant for some extra quality time to better understand your business and how to improve it. That's cheap tuition to move you and your business forward.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.