Exploring the world of economics, work, family and community.

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

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.

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