Ever dreamed of owning your own business? Paul Downs has been living that dream for nearly three decades and has the battle scars to prove it. After sharing his experiences on the New York Times “You’re the Boss” blog, he decided to narrow his focus, documenting a year in the life of his small woodworking company in a book. Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business may inspire you, but it will also have you asking hard questions before you hang out a shingle somewhere.
When Downs started woodworking in 1986, he worked alone making furniture. Over the years, he took on employees and developed a specialty in crafting boardroom tables, but he rarely noticed how these changes affected his company. Downs extols the strong, silent temperament common to woodworkers, but it takes ages for him to realize that a shop full of rugged individualists needs cohesive leadership or the end product will suffer. A fancy table ends up being made with mismatched types of wood because every person in the chain of command assumed the previous one had signed off on what turned out to be, in essence, a typo; nobody bothered to ask.
Downs is straightforward and brutally honest about others’ shortcomings as well as his own. His humility about the ways he failed and the nail-biting number crunching that keeps him up at night should be a caution to others. From the outside, a business making more than a million dollars a year seems like a success; in truth, that’s rarely the case. Downs often declined his own salary to ensure that his employees took home a fair wage. One year his income averaged only $3.79 per hour.
Small business owners and those who dream of joining them need to read Boss Life. Anyone who has a boss can learn a lot here, too. It’s not always as rosy on the other side of the counter as we may suspect, and the view from this angle can help an employee become an asset with a little extra effort. There’s every reason to follow a dream you’re passionate about, but do so with your eyes open; Boss Life can help.