Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stuff And Junk I Built

A nice customer asked me to build them a game table.

I get asked all the time to build things I don't build. I take it as a compliment. People see things I do make, and like them, but need something else. They figure they'd rather give me their money than someone else. I'm grateful for the offer, but 99 times out of 100 I pass. I took a run at this one because it's a version of something I already make.

Because I make things, it doesn't follow that it doesn't matter what sort of thing I'm making. I can make most anything. I've built everything from birdhouses to football stadiums for money. But I'm not in those businesses right now. It's a bad idea for a business to take on work they're not set up to do properly, and do it simply because they want or need more money. Lots of businesses expand continually until they fail utterly. They cover the loss from the last ill-advised idea with the next ill-advised idea. All the while they're touted as good businessmen because --well, they got bigger, didn't they? Sure, until they got very small indeed. I'm a cottage furniture maker from Maine, working all alone for all intents and purposes. Who would you call a better businessman, me or the honcho of Maine Cottage Furniture, with their dozens of employees and millions in receipts and their factories and showrooms?

It's a trick question. You all answered Maine Cottage Furniture, but they went out of business. They were superior business people to me -- right up until the time the bank padlocked their door. Sippican Cottage Furniture is going on eight years old now.

People picture me as an artisan. They do not picture my business as a business in the true sense of the word, but it is. It's another kind of compliment, calling me an artisan -- they mean I don't strike them as a hack or rapacious -- but being an artisan alone could get me into trouble. I've been avoiding looking for trouble lately. Enough trouble has showed up at my door already without me looking for it. It tried jiggling the knob when I got tired of answering the door, and it climbs in my windows when I'm asleep if I'm not careful.

A business like mine is a kind of bet. It's a very big parley bet, actually. I'm making a lot of sequential bets, and all of them have to turn out perfectly, every time, or I'm dead on the spot. And there's all this stuff that goes into the process that's essentially invisible to the end user that looms like legions of Kongs over me all the time. I have to bet on a design and know how long it takes to make it and what kind of wood it will be made from and where I'll get that wood and how much it will cost and how it needs to be stored and how much waste it will have and how hard it will be on the tools and what kind of finish it will have and what kind of ambient temperature and humidity and ventilation all that will require and what sort of hardware to use and where to get it and what sort of lead time it requires and how to package it when it's done and how to ship it and how to display it online and how to find potential customers and collect their money and... 

I could go on, but you get the picture. I don't cut down the trees. That's about it. Most businessmen pay other people to cover large swathes of the business landscape for them, but I can't. I have to cover every eventuality immediately out of my own exertions and remove food from my family's mouths to cover any loss. It leads to a profound kind of caution that people with lots of resources behind them barely recognize. Businessmen read self-help books and then cobble together a PowerPoint about the hedgehog strategy they think they should try, but they disintegrate into a weepy puddle if there are no bagels in the breakroom one day or their BlackBerry has an outage. It's a clinically obese hedgehog strategy they're talking about. My hedgehog's anorectic.

I had a good friend try to pay me another compliment a while back, telling me I was a bad businessman and should quit and be a writer. They meant it as a compliment about my writing, but I've turned it over in my mind a lot since it was offered. I at least consider what intelligent and pleasant people say to me. Sometimes I even take their advice or make the table they want. But there seems to be only one way the public measures business acumen now. Are you writing this essay from your yacht? No? Then you must suck at it, whatever "it" is. I take a different view. Who could do more, with less? It's a great way to keep score. Context.

No, I'm not a bad businessman. In many ways, I'm a spectacular businessman. I place into evidence Exhibit A: I'm still in business.

(Update: The Sippican Game Table)


Thud said...

Friends quite often tell me I'm lucky having my own business for all the usual reasons, something I frequently refect upon as I mull over my myriad problems at 3 in the morning.I'll stick with it though as surely I'll end up half decent one day, or so I keep telling myself.

Sixty Grit said...

As a self employed woodworker I always wonder if I am a bad boss or a bad employee. Some have suggested I unionize. Then I could go on strike. Or something...

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I can relate.

Al Johnson said...

Agreed: self-employment is thrilling, and terrifying. I'm in year 26, and still going.

But I want to endorse your choice to be a writer on the side while keeping your business. It's the business (and your remarkable family) that informs and inspires your writing.

Another writer on the side was William Carlos Williams, who produced wonderful poetry while working as a small-town doctor, in which capacity he delivered me. The writing made him famous, but the doctoring made him human. Keep doing what you're doing--

julie said...

I love the game table. If ever I need one, I know just the guy to ask. As to the business of business, I'll defer to the first three gentlemen, and simply offer the hope that the new year and many to come will see you still in business, for as long as you wish to be.

dadofhomeschoolers said...

the thing about being self employed is that you only have to work half days.
could be the first 12 hours, or the last 12 hours.
There's one little line in the newspaper story about the Main Cottage furniture, It was started by a couple x number of years ago, who have since divorced.
That's usually the death knell to anything that is started as a couple.

Golden West said...

I agree wholeheartedly - at a certain point, if a business grows too big, there are diminishing returns. A friend asked recently when are we going to hire a helper and the answer was, "NEVER!"

Merry Christmas to you and the Sippican family and all best wishes for much health and happiness in the coming year.

Anonymous said...

I like your writing (purchased, read, and enjoyed your book) but love your furniture: I've purchased three pieces, one of which - a bench - due to its exactly perfect height makes the start of every workday just a little bit nicer (cf. middle age and tying shoelaces). Having just read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," I can declare definitively that your woodworking is redolent with quality. I'm with "Al Johnson" - do both. Why not?