Make sure you’re not in business for all the wrong reasons.

Every now and then it’s a good idea to rehash how we came to do whatever it is we’re doing. This is a good exercise for life in general but in this column, we’re going to keep the focus on the business side of the equation. How did I get here anyway? See if you find yourself in any of the following examples:

  • No room at the top. I’ve been working at this profession for the better part of a dozen years. I can tackle any repair challenge they give me. I spend hours every week training and coaching the green horns in the shop. I have built up a clientele who request me by name when they call. My sales are 25 percent higher than any other tech in the shop. I’m ready to move up.

    But there’s one little problem. The owner of the company is sitting in the only available management position. Moving up means moving the owner out and she’s not going to budge. I’m over-qualified for just about any other shop in town - it would be the same story: No ladder to climb unless I push the boss out of the office.

    Nobody is going to budge, so it’s time to hang out my own shingle. Then, I can be the boss, I can do the things I know that need to be done. So long, boss. It’s been real, it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun.


  • Family heritage. Our family has been in business around here since 1918. My granddad used to regale me with tales of working late at the shop, prefabricating the lead bends and drum traps for the next day’s installation, then putting in a 12-hour day to get the rough-ins completed. Those were the days.

    We’re still in the same dingy old building. Getting to the office means navigating a trail through piles of old faucets and left-over pipe fittings, valves, tools and who knows what all. Did you know Alcoa used to make water heaters? We have two of them in the corner of the men’s room.

    I wanted to be a surgeon but here I am, proprietor over the family business. It’s too late to change directions now; I just have to make the best of it. If I could get Pop out of the office, I could probably change a few things around here and actually earn a profit. It’s a battle of attrition.


  • Laid off again. I’m tired of the roller-coaster ride. I’ve put in nearly 10 years with this company, I don’t know why. Whenever they land a big project, we work like gang busters to complete it on schedule. We get plenty of overtime on these jobs, which is nice, but once the job is completed, if they don’t have another one coming out of the ground, I’m out the door again.

    If life in this trade is going to be such a roller-coaster, I may as well build my own coaster. How much worse could the ride be, anyway?


  • Working for ‘The Man.’ It’s 7:33 in the morning. As I pull into the parking lot, I’m greeted with, “This is the second time this week that you’re late, so don’t be asking for a raise any time soon.” I break my back for this guy but all I hear about is that I’m three minutes late.

    Working for “The Man” (interchangeable with “The Woman”) sucks the joy out of life. Being at the beck and call of The Man makes me feel like less of a person. To break free of this rat race, I’m going to open my own shop. Now, I’m “The Man” and I get to call my own shots and if I want a raise, I just write myself a check. Nobody tells me when to show up and nobody tells me when to clock out. I can come in at 10 a.m. if I want to, and some day I’m going to do it just to show who’s boss.

    But in the mean time, I don’t mind getting here at 6:15 so I can make sure everyone is pointed in the right direction. Sometimes I’ll just get up and leave in the middle of the afternoon, maybe even as early as 5 p.m. I may not even come in on Saturday. Nobody tells me what to do because I no longer work for The Man.

  • Overcoming Challenges

    Whether you’re in business now, or contemplating taking the plunge, the chances are that you can identify with at least one of the above scenarios. None of these situations are ideal reasons for going into business but if that’s where you are, then that’s where you are. Each beginning comes with its own baggage, and a set of challenges which you need to overcome.

    In general, all these business births lack the fundamental training and experience required to actually run a profitable business. Being an expert at the trade offers very little training on how to make the phone ring or how to budget for growth and profits. Count yourself fortunate if you get employee management experience while on the job, but keep in mind that your experience may be the wrong kind of training for today’s business environment.

    There are also some heritage-specific hurdles you need to consider. If your business birth is the result of there being no room at the top, then you don’t really have a feel for what a business with a ladder of success would be like. You may have some ideas - for example, perhaps you want to create a position called “field supervisor” as a rung on your business ladder.

    You deserve kudos for such a broad-minded, forward-thinking objective, but what is this field supervisor going to accomplish? How will the position increase the efficiency and profitability of your company? These questions need to be asked first. The answers to these questions may lead you to decide on a position of trainer, recruiter, service manager or some other slot that you need to fill. Let the need determine the position.

    What if you find yourself in the driver’s seat by birthright? Or is it more like being indentured? The “good old days” of willing labor, wholesale to the trade only and loyal customers are over. The foundation that your heritage was built upon is eroding. You can’t continue to do business the way “we always did it.” To break free, you need to commit to getting educated on business management, marketing and employee management.

    Then, either buy out or get out. It’s tempting to keep riding along on the coattails of a once prosperous business, but if you can’t wrest control of it from the original family members, then move on and don’t look back. It’s important to honor your heritage, but remember that you weren’t born into a caste.

    If you hate working for “The Man,” then you have some serious issues to face up to. Being in business provides a certain amount of freedom but it also comes with responsibilities to the laws of supply, demand, cash flow, profits and, let’s not forget, the IRS. When you’re on your own, every customer becomes “The Man.” Are you ready for that? Will you bend when you need to?

    Regardless of why, or how you started your business - even if you launched without a plan or a clue - where you are now and where you want to be is what matters. You can’t rewrite history, but if you’re going to stay in business, now is the time to commit to doing business right. Take a fresh look at what you’re doing. Forget about how things have always been done, unless they’re working for you. Instead, focus on hiring and motivating employees who create profitable, satisfied customers. Your beginnings don’t have to dictate your future, but they will if you let them.