Over the last seven weeks I’ve worked 16-22 hours a day, every day, weekends included, just to keep up with the burst of business that comes our way in the fall. It’s very challenging to keep up with the demand. It’s also challenging to deal with the low points in business as well. Mid-winter and mid-summer are brutal times of year. I’ll pick up the phone 4 or 5 times a day, just to make sure it still works.
Last week I was bidding a project that might have carried us through the late winter/early spring lag. The project is a “prevailing wage” job, which means all contractors working the job have to pay their employees what the State considers a prevailing wage. Usually that wage is based on union labor rates, but other factors are included as well. As I’m going through the prevailing wage chart to figure out what I should be bidding for a labor rate, I noticed that regular employees in similar trades as me put more than twice as much money in the bank. A union millwright makes $35-42 an hour, and only has the expense of getting back and forth to work. Given that after expenses I put less than $15 an hour in the bank on average, the obvious question popped into my head: “Why am I in business when I could be bringing home good money elsewhere?”
The answer is both complicated and simple: “I love what I do.” I love the challenge of finding work, doing work, and getting a check that doesn’t bounce afterward. I love defining my own schedule, managing all aspects of business, and interacting with customers on every level. I love the busy-ness of Fall, and the dead of winter. I love the mental challenges that come from solving problems of others while hopefully solving a few of my own. I love seeing my business grow from its humble beginnings to an entity that puts food on my table and brings benefit to the community. That makes me an entrepreneur.
I know several people that have businesses that cut grass for a living. They’re people that started cutting grass for their neighbors or whatever, and have built that action into an entity that puts food on their table and gives them a sense of pride. I overheard a conversation with one of them once, where they were asked what they do for a living. The answer was, “I cut grass.” Really that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cutting grass is a primary focus, but really the person should have said, “I operate a successful business.” The distinction is important, because almost anybody can cut grass. Only a few talented souls can turn it into a business they can be proud of.
The same goes for my line of work. With a little training and practice, I’ve proven that almost anyone can learn to weld. My 4 year old grandson has been welding for more than a year. Granted, he isn’t able to make a certifiable weld yet, but with time and practice he will. So, while welding is the focus of my business, what I do for living is “operate a successful business.”
So, what is a successful business? A lot of people will tell you a lot of things, but it isn’t necessarily one that makes you rich. It’s closer to being an entity that can stand on its own while bringing an tangible benefit to its owners, employees, and so on. If there’s no benefit, why be in business?
I’ve often heard people assume that since I’m in business I must be rich. I can tell you that very few small business owners I know are rich. If they are, they’ve earned it fair and square. It only takes a few 22 hour days to prove that. If I had $5 for every hour I’ve worked in my life, I’d be rich.
A lot of the hours it takes to run a business don’t come with a paycheck. Those long nights in the dead of winter, figuring out how to balance the limited cash on hand with an overwhelming need for more marketing power, add up in a hurry. Just because business is slow doesn’t mean you can quit moving. An entrepreneur is like a fish: If you quit moving you’re dead.
I have a friend named Mike. He was a customer several years ago and now he’s a good friend. He’s an older guy that’s very observant of how things work in life. A month or so ago he told me he was concerned that my business would grow to the point where my services weren’t available to average people. I asked why, and he said, “because you offer an essential service.” Although I’d always hoped the services we offer were valuable to people, I’d never had anyone say it back to me in that way. So I’m responsible to the people that need our services, and that’s what entrepreneurship is really about.
Mike is a very wise man.