Small is Beautiful

An owner pulls back, doubles his income and leaves the hassles behind.

By Anthony G. Noel


A column which appeared in this space in the February issue of CWB, called "No Easy Answers," touched a lot of nerves.

The story focused on a question every owner of a custom shop asks him or herself sooner or later: "Will it ever get easier to make a living at this?" Since that article ran, I have heard from people around the country and across the sea. Some, buoyed by this country's vibrant economy, were relatively new members of the industry. Others were veterans.

Some expressed their frustration at feeling constantly overwhelmed by the thousand things an owner must cope with. Others felt they were making headway in the battle and were optimistic about the road ahead.

But I was most struck by one discussion in particular.

An experienced woodworker with an upper-class clientele in a great market, this owner told me how he had, over the past five years, built his operation. Sales grew to the point where he had three employees (besides himself). But there were problems.

It wasn't the long days, although they didn't help. It wasn't a loss of interest in the business in general -- the guy was, and still is, excited about woodworking. I could hear it his voice.

No, the problem was more familiar: Employees.

His three were distributed across the spectrum of working ages, one each in the mid-20s, early 40s and late 50s. But almost from the minute he took on help, this owner noticed that work was going out wrong, and he was spending much of his time in client's homes and businesses trying to make things right.

This made him fear, rightly, for his company's reputation. Though he tried to manage his workers toward some semblance of accountability for their work, he was constantly disappointed.

The final straw came when he took a week's vacation overseas, only to find on his return that production during his absence had practically screeched to a halt. Apparently there had been a disagreement early in the week between the two older craftsmen. Suddenly, no one was speaking, and life went on that way, day in and day out, for the rest of the week.

"If this had been someone brand new to the workforce, or even someone in his early 20s, I could see it. But two guys in their 40s and 50s?" he says, "C'mon!"

If you are like many owners, you are probably nodding your head in recognition right about now, having experienced similar displays of immaturity in your own shop. So, what's the answer?

Though I often preach the "bible" of managing for accountability, I believe there is a corollary to that practice, and it was applied by this gentleman. He pulled back.

That is to say, he got rid of his employees and committed himself to working five ten-hour days a week, alone, thank you very much. While he sometimes takes drawings or estimating work home, or must sacrifice the occasional Saturday to work, he swears he is much happier now.

So is his checkbook. He has more than doubled his income, to more than $70,000 a year.

Here is a guy who knew — just knew — that he was unhappy in his current situation. His weeks were long, his reputation was suffering, he was missing his kids' best years. And he decided to do something about it.

None of which is to suggest that he is completely satisfied now. In fact, he is somewhat frustrated at the amount of work he has had to turn away, due to his smaller production capability. But all and all, he would be the first to agree that he is far happier than he was just a short while back.

While this equation sounds somehow incongruous, anybody who has struggled with employees will likely admit that they have considered taking this path. But before you decide to, there are (as ever) some things you would be wise to consider. Because, remember, there are no easy answers!

First, consider your own personality. If you are a "people person" by nature, chances are the solitude of the shop will drive you nutzo in about 20 minutes.

Another factor is commitment. It takes a special kind of discipline to work independently, year in and year out.

Your market and clientele are also big factors. It is easier to go solo in a market teeming with upper-class incomes, with clients who have seen your work and are willing to wait for it, than it would be under different circumstances.

Most importantly, bear in mind that I have shared this story not so much to point toward specific strategies as to make a larger point. The point is this: Will is a huge part of management. Its importance cannot be overstated. If you have an unshakable will to succeed under certain criteria, odds are very good that you will find a way to do so. But defining the criteria is the trick.

That challenge, coupled with our frantically success-driven society's attitude that "bigger is better," makes it easy to see how some of us get distracted from what we really want. Owners are often reluctant to re-think their businesses for fear of being viewed as failures.

Your challenge is to forget this nonsense and give those situations that give you pause the consideration they deserve.

Doing so may lead you to: (1) redouble your management efforts so that employees know, in no uncertain terms, what you expect, and that the door is there for people who fail to produce it, (2) pull back and re-think your business, or (3) realize that things aren't as bad as you might have thought.

The key is constant evaluation.

If you are not regularly asking yourself if you are where you want to be and enacting ways to get there, don't be surprised if you wake up one day in a car speeding down a steep hill, lost, with no map in the glove compartment.


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