Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Working for Yourself (Tradecraft)

My assistant manager asked me what brought me happiness and my response was never work for anyone else. It was kind of a smart ass answer, but I thought about it all day and what it meant to me. If you're young, and many game store owners are young, without a lot of experience in the workforce, you may not have much experience working for other people long term.

When you work for other people in a professional setting, as opposed to a limited service job, there's an expectation of progression. They ask dumb questions like "Where do you see yourself in five years?" It's a dumb question because most people see themselves somewhere else. They want to see if you have commitment, even though it's not yet deserved. 

You might start as a junior bottle washer with the expectation that over time, you might become senior bottle washer, head of the bottle washer department, or maybe even director of sanitary glassware. A boy can dream, right? A solid progression encourages you to invest yourself in that business and gives you a gold ring to strive for. It also gives them permission to manage your performance on your way up the glassware sanitation ladder, a process that irritates the hell out of an independent spirit. "You might have cleaned glassware with a brush at your last job, but here at Brushless Bottle Washing Incorporated, you shall use the steam invigorator or nothing at all. Our way or the highway at BBWI, junior bottle washer."

So that independent spirit swears off clean glassware and starts their own business. This is where it gets a bit complicated. Working without a boss requires a level of self motivation and goal setting few people possess. It's not that they're lazy, it's just they've never been educated on how to be an independent person. It's not taught in school, and in fact, if you're good at school, there's a chance you've been culturally assimilated into being a good employee.

Most people not suited for independent work will have their business crater in short order. It will never be about their not being managed or the stress of not knowing what to do, there will be other reasons, like a hostile market, or bad timing, or wanting to spend more time with their family. This is a known problem and not surprising. These people constantly blame others because they lack the flexibility to weave and dodge as they progress through the marketplace. They're standing still like a target.

What surprised me in small business is there's nobody there to fire you, when often that would be best. There's nobody there to lay you off when the company has ran out of money. There is nobody there to send you home because you just told another customer to get stuffed. There's nobody there to tell you you've washed enough bottles, so how about you take the director position. There is such thing in small business as having worked long enough, yet there's no place to go. If you believe in the concept of Return on Investment, it's likely you're just now reaping the reward of your business just as you're the most burnt out you've ever been. Yet you soldier on because it would be economically foolish to go back to washing someone else's bottles, right?

Those who have been married a long time will know that the only thing required to keep a marriage together is two people who don't want it to end. You can fight, you can withstand abuse, you can be terrible partners who enable bad behavior, but unless someone throws in the towel, you're still married. You'll talk to friends getting a divorce and think, wow, we've gone through way worse than that and we're still together. As many times as I've referred to my small business as a mistress, it more resembles a long term marriage with a lot of ups and downs, times when it should have ended and no clear exit strategy. 

Personally, I worked the counter for nine years, never getting a lunch, rarely taking a day off, before I finally said I need out of this relationship. Like anyone desperate in a relationship, fleeing was my first thought, but my manager stepped in and essentially fired me. I was promoted to director of sanitary glassware and was sent to the office to be more businessy. It certainly saved the business and it never occurred to me that was an option. Even after nine years, I needed someone, anyone to step in and tell me what to do. I had the key to my chains in my pocket, but nobody ever told me how to use it.

I want to say my issues with self management ended there, but it's a daily struggle to figure out what I should be doing, what goals to set, and there's always the question of whether I've had enough. I take a lot of time off nowadays and I understand the problems faced by retirees. The goal of a business is to be capable of running without the owner. However, the owner needs a place to go, a purpose after the business. Finding that purpose when you've spent years struggling to survive isn't easy and it would be far easier to start a new business, to put my head down and struggling not to fail, rather than learning to surf or mastering Italian lawn bowling. There are hopefully new opportunities on the horizon. One thing for sure though, I would never work for someone else.

Just a reminder to order my book, if you like what I write. Thanks!

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