Archive for August, 2015

Boss Life: Surviving Your Own Small Business – If You’re Lucky.

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I seldom review books here, but this one really deserves it.

I first stumbled onto Paul Downs when he was writing for the New York Times’s You’re The Boss blog, where he regularly chronicled the day-to-day challenges of running his small custom-design conference table company. (Look at his website to see the amazing pieces he and his team have created for the World Bank, the United Nations, the US Defense Department, Fortune 500 multinationals and on and on. Beautiful craftsmanship.)

I enjoyed his NYT posts immensely, for the clarity of his writing (you felt as if you were on the shop floor with him) but as well, for the honesty he demonstrated in describing how he faced – and sometimes failed to solve – the myriad of problems that cascade down on any small business owner. We have shared emails about profit-sharing and no layoff policies, which I wrote about in SPARK.

Downs has just published an excellent, highly-readable book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Business, which explores how he and his firm made it through one calendar year, 2012. Not his worst year ever, not the best.

Just because your stunningly beautiful conference tables can sell for $50,000 and grace boardrooms of some of the world’s major institutions and private companies – it doesn’t mean there is always another sale just ahead.

In fact, the stories of how Downs and his sales team struggle to drum up contracts from opaque government departments, vague and weird foreign firms, semi-deceptive private companies and the odd dream client make for fascinating reading.

As reader, you hold your breath to see if he is going to make the next payroll – the relentless nightmare that appears every two weeks.

Meanwhile, he’s navigating the minefield of labor relations, pondering how to motivate both new workers and old-timers, be open about looming financial disaster, find time and money to train the sales staff, face the pain of firing someone who has cheated the company …

In other words, business as normal for any small company’s founder and now CEO.

Downs doesn’t shy away from also bringing his family into his work life – who can? One of his sons is navigating the highly precarious high-tech economy in Silicon Valley. Another son, now in his 20s, has autism, with all the attendant personal and financial challenges that places on a loving family.

This is a great story, with real characters, real suspense (would you want your firm’s future in the hands of a company across the world that never answers emails after promising you the moon?) and a demonstrable sense that this CEO really cares about his workers as people.

If you have ever run your own firm, perhaps worked in one or are harbouring dreams of starting one, you’ll love this. Especially the dreamers – because you have no idea what’s ahead of you!

All Paul Downs ever wanted to do when he graduated with an Ivy League education was to work with wood and make beautiful furniture.

29 years later, every once and awhile, he can take a few minutes to walk through his workshop in Philadelphia and chat with the craftsmen he employees about their latest projects – before racing back upstairs to his office to try to fix a website that has crashed, calm an irate customer 500 miles away when a delivery goes awry or worry about how to avoid a layoff.

Everyone in public life throws off the phrase about “small business being the foundation of our economy.”

Read this and you’ll find out what it means to actually run one.

Hats off to Paul Downs.  A survivor.

Nigel Wright’s Testimony is Offensive and Insulting to Canadians

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

I had an obligation to fulfill my end of the arrangement with him (Duffy). I couldn’t think of another way of doing it.”

Is anyone else profoundly insulted and deeply offended by this self-effacing statement from Nigel Wright as to why he forked over $90,000 of his own money, in secret,  to pay Mike Duffy’s debts? (Oh wait a minute, today in court (Thursday,) Wright quoted the Bible as justification for his charity. What’s next? A request for a papal indulgence?)

And for this piousness, we are supposed to somehow shrug off his amazing leading role in this tawdry political scandal, because after all, Nigel did the right thing, as he saw it? Gee, what a nice guy!

I have had it with the endless portrayals of this Bastion of Bay Street as an honest, noble, loyal, faithful, honorable, dedicated  ….. any more hagiographic adjectives you can add, please fill ’em in … servant of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Wright may well be all that … but that doesn’t give him a free pass when he messes up, big time.

The salient point of interest here is that Wright was the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Canada. Read this official description of his job description. The focus is on governance by the Prime Minister for the development, strategizing and administration of those policies which the Prime Minister feels are in the interests of the country.  Nigel Wright’s obligations are to the Prime Minister and through him, to the people of Canada. He was part of a structure of responsibility in our parliamentary system.

We should all be offended that someone in that position decides that, because he happens to belong to the 0.1%, he can reach into his pocket to personally solve problems – in this case, to cover up financial shenanigans (crime, not crime, yadda, yadda) – because it is simply the easiest way to clear his off his crowded desk.

Nigel Wright didn’t have a personal obligation to pay Duffy’s debts, as he self-excusingly proclaimed.

His personal responsibility was to serve Canada and to maintain the integrity of its political institutions.

We should be repelled by any notion that we should admire – and excuse – an incredibly rich individual who goes into public service and then uses his personal resources to make political problems disappear.

He’s responsible, all right. For setting a very bad precedent in public service.