CWB October 2002
Do the Work!
"Woodworking" is a compound word. Too many of us are so enamored of the first part, that we forget the second.
By Anthony Noel
It seemed, to Joe, like a reasonable idea at the time. Many years ago somebody, maybe many people, complimented him on a woodworking project he did. So effusive in their praise were they that Joe got to thinking, "Hey, people might actually pay me to do this - and I love woodworking!"
So he did a few jobs for friends in his spare time. With no shop rent or employees or loans to be paid, Joe's little hobby was a tidy source of extra income. Uncle Sam didn't even have to know about it.
As his friends spread the word about their buddy who did really nice woodworking, really cheap, more work began coming in. Soon Joe reasoned that he could do this full-time. Be his own boss! Set his own hours! Not only could he turn his hobby into CASH, like the ads in the back of Popular Woodworking said, but he could be doing what he loved full time! At long last, Joe could LOVE his job!
Fast-forward to 10 years later. The echoes of those first compliments rattle around in Joe's brain as he tries to figure out why he's still struggling to make a decent living. Oh, the compliments still come. Joe makes every customer happy, and they say so. But somehow, Joe can't understand how something he does so well and once loved so much can be so tough to make a living at.
I get e-mails and phone calls from "Joes" all the time. "I'm at the end of my rope," they tell me. "I've been at this long enough that I should be making money by now."
When I ask them to give me some details about their operation, I invariably get short, cryptic replies. When I write or call back asking for very specific information, I get a promise that it will be coming to me shortly, and that is the last I ever hear from the callers.
If this sounds like you, let me give you some very pointed advice: Quit now. Because you will only get more frustrated as time wears on. On top of that, you are stealing money from the real pros, the guys who got over the "wood" part of woodworking a long time ago and hunkered down and got intimate with the "working" part of it.
I have written about 80 of these columns to date. I don't know if it's my tone or the way I put words together or that picture of me with my goofy smile, but based on the contact I have with "Joes" seeking my help, I can only conclude that I am doing something wrong. Because despite my best arguments to the contrary, there are apparently still lots of people out there who think making money in this industry is easy, and that I hold the magic wand that will make the solution obvious. This is in spite of the fact that I have stated on any number of occasions that woodworking is actually one of the toughest industries in which to prosper.
But still the Joes call. When I ask them a few tough questions and they realize that they don't have any clue about what it really costs them to do the work they do, they further realize that it is going to take some work for them to figure that out. What happens next is that they quickly become a lot less interested in my advice.
The real truth, of course, is that they are afraid of hard work.
I shudder to think how many "woodworkers" are still riding the high from those early compliments they received. I wonder how many remain mired in disbelief that their raw talent wasn't more than sufficient to earn them the income they feel their work warrants. And, most sadly, I wonder how many are still clinging to the hope that they needn't change a thing, because things are sure to turn around next year.
What they fail to see is that they sowed the seeds of income mediocrity all those years ago, when they began doing work for their friends. It was when they charged next to nothing for their work because it was just their hobby, and then made an all-too-common, fatal decision upon taking it full-time: the decision to keep prices low "because it will keep me busier than those guys who charge so much."
They don't understand that there is a huge difference between being busy and being profitable. They don't understand it because even now, years into it, they have yet to do the work; to actually run the numbers and confirm mathematically the truth that they are already certain of in their hearts.
You will never make money in this business or any other if you don't do the work. And while I'm talking about the actual production of something to a certain extent, I'm referring in far greater measure to doing the work of figuring out where the money in your business comes from, where it goes and how to keep more of it. That is the real work, because once it is done, the rest is suddenly easy.
Once you have done the work, it is easy to tell a potential customer, "No, I can't do this job for that price" because you know you can't (and still make money).
Once you have done the work, it is easy to tell a supplier, "No, I can't pay that price for that material," because you know they are gouging you.
Once you have done the work, it is easy to tell an employee, "No, I can't pay you more because you are not producing enough work to justify it," because you know that to be the case.
But the only way to know these things, and so many more, is by DOING THE WORK.
If you are not sincerely interested enough in your own business to do that work, please: find a job working for someone else and stop dragging down the value of quality craftsmanship in your community by making just enough to get you to the next job.
But if you are determined to learn where you have taken wrong turns, to learn how to manage customers, to enjoy your job and to make good money doing it, do the work. Learn what every aspect of every job really costs. Get your facts straight, and then get out there and sell like you should have all along: based on your singular realities.
It is not enough to love wood. Until you learn to love the work part, too, you will be just another Joe.
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