“I don’t want to give you the impression I worry about money all the time. It’s probably only several hundred times a day.”
So admits Paul Downs, in his new book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business.
This book is gloriously free of those omnipresent self-congratulatory gurus who write most business books—the types who try to wow us readers with their charts and acronyms in an effort to convince us that their proprietary formula can transform our businesses.
Downs takes the opposite tack. He chronicles one year in the life of his business in an unvarnished account that bares his struggles, doubts, setbacks and triumphs—along with detailed financials—for the world to see. The gross numbers aren’t large, and the profits often miniscule. His victories are similarly modest and incremental, but provide huge meaning for him, his 15 or so employees, and their respective families.
The author went straight from college to build his own custom woodworking operation in Pennsylvania, ultimately carving a niche in making high-end conference tables. And almost 30 years later, a couple of client wins can make the difference between keeping the lights on and tossing in the towel. He’s never become rich, yet he’s his own man, and has the immense satisfaction of manufacturing a quality product, despite cheaper foreign competition, and providing long-term jobs in his community.
Doesn’t sound relevant to you as you scale your cloud computing platform to new heights? Well, think again.
I never heard of Downs—turns out he’s also a contributor to You’re the Boss blog at The New York Times—until last weekend when my teenage son picked up a copy for me while exploring an independent bookstore.
It was a random choice on his part—Noah liked the title and cover. I liked what was written in between, and finished reading the more than 300 pages in one day.
If you want to be a boss, or already are, you’ve got to read this book. As a fellow small business owner, his words go straight to the heart of what makes or breaks a company.
In an effort to summarize the book for you too-busy-to-read entrepreneurs (and detract a bit from its bullet-point-free charm), here are some of my main takeaways:
Expect a roller coaster ride. Exponential growth might be in the cards for a select few, but most of us will see our business suffer from fits and starts. You feel Downs’ pain and anxiety: join him on a roller coaster ride that dips with a constant struggle for positive cash flow and barely meeting payroll and then enjoy the thrill of new orders rushing in.
Prepare to be lonely. In the shop early before everyone else, Downs has to keep a brave face for the team. The author exemplifies what it’s like to be surrounded by your workers, while feeling that there’s no one who quite understands your plight. He turns to a local group of business owners to help break the isolation.
Know when to call for outside help. Downs is proud and stubborn like many founders, yet knows what he doesn’t know and intuitively knows when something is wrong. We see him being skeptical about an outside consultant, then institute the consultant’s new sales training that brings tangible improvements.
Tinker with your game plan. Downs shows us his love-hate relationship with Google AdWords. While the PR guy in me wants to pitch him on diversifying his marketing channels, like scoring a flattering profile piece in a magazine respected by the business owners he’s courting, to his credit, the author continually adjusts and measures his ad spending.
Compartmentalizing is part of the job. He’s not just a boss. Throughout the book, Downs shows us what it’s like to be a husband and a father with off-the-clock responsibilities that most of us would find crushing. One of his three boys is severely autistic, and the descriptions of his grown son having tantrums in the supermarket checkout line are heart-wrenching. But the family’s remarkable composure is inspiring. Downs gives the ultimate lesson in how to run a business despite, or in part because of, all the other baggage we carry through life.
See yourself as a decathlete. You wear many hats: recruiting, finance, marketing, customer service, and produce design. Downs doesn’t just own the business, he owns the problems as well. With screwups, even those caused by his employees, he takes full responsibility.
I had just finished his book, when I got a call on the home phone early on Sunday morning about a major snafu with a client caused by the carelessness of a member of my team. Rather than freak out, which I would have done a few years ago, I am making changes to help reduce the chances of repeating the error.
Downs’ honesty in admitting that he’s often exhausted by it all, but still manages to keep calm and carry on, is a true inspiration for all of us fellow bosses.