Birth of a Salesman
Every so often I like to offer an update from the realm of the self-employed, partly because I find the challenges of running my own business equal parts surprising and interesting, and I hope that by scribing my experiences I can perhaps inform, even entertain, but more specifically because I am painfully self-involved. Ask all the people who refuse to be my friend, and they'll tell you. It's true. But, instead of simply wallowing in my own narcissistic glory, or perhaps as a thinly veiled conceit to mask that narcissistic wallowing, I thought I might offer a glimpse of the misconceptions I entertained and walked into face first as a heads-up for those with their own entrepreneurial predilictions.
While our business finally seems to be finding direction, and more importantly customers, what I've found noteworthy is how very different the reality of my job is from what I expected it to be at the start. This is at least somewhat related to the fact that when Elysia and I incorporated, I had no idea how I would fit in, or what the hell I would be doing. So aching and potent was my desperation to get the hell out of retail that I was entirely willing to do absolutely whatever, even if that included the job requirement of drinking printing ink or learning the customs and manner of the Inuit. I was ready to tackle that challenge!
I remember clearly what it was like before striking off on our own, leaning against that vomit-yellow EB counter, watching my pride give me the finger as it stormed out to find a new host, and imagining my own business while trying to scam ten-year-olds into "protecting" their copy of Ratchet and Clank and assuring them that we used only the finest water-based lubricant while screwing them over on trade-in values. Or, to be more specific, I remember doing all that while telling my employees to scam and screw (always with lubricant!), because the boss-man calls the shots in these here parts, and if you don't want to do it for $8.50 an hour, I'll find some other slack-jawed clownhole who will. And what I imagined was sitting in a chair, propping my feet, decked out in well tailored money shoes, up on a pile of money, while smoking money made of shredded money wrapped in more money. What I never actually got around to imagining is what I was doing to get all that money paraphanalia.
To my great educational fortune, shortly after starting our business, someone clued me in to an entrepreneurial fact I had before considered. It was that someone, say a graphic designer, who leaves their job to start their own graphic design company with the mentality that they are still a graphic designer will most likely fail. At first, this piece of information sounded, in a word, dumb, but then I realized that, seeing as I had no design knowledge or experience and had co-founded just such a business, this could work to my advantage. But, you may ask, isn't the whole point of starting a graphic design company, or any other company for that matter, supposed to be that you keep being a graphic designer, but instead of giving the money for all your hard work to someone else, you keep it yourself? As it turns out, the answer is: no.
Except the keeping the money part. That you're right about.
The point of creating any kind of for-profit company is, by its very nature, to make a profit, and as the owner of a for-profit company your job is to set the stage for making money. There may be other goals, like providing a needed service, achieving a higher quality, a dedication to customer, or engendering a synergistic flow of paradigm shifting intellectual properties for demographically targeted revenue streams. That you, as an entrepreneur, have chosen to do that by providing the services of a designer, gardener, retailer, consultant, or whatever is relatively irrelevant. The moment you start your own business, you are no longer a designer, gardener, gigolo, or canine psychic. You are a business owner, and your job is to grow your business.
And that, my little chickadees, is a full time job all its own.
And, as it turned out, this was a niche in the company both that I could fill, and one that my partner was not interested in pursuing. Elysia was exclusively interested in the design part of the business, and not the business part of the business, which is nice because my technical capacity for graphic design is similar to my technical capacity for moving cats with my mind.
However, it proved something of a surprise that in leaving my former life of salesmanship, I had stumbled into an entirely new life of salesmanship. Being a business owner, as describing one's profession, means a lot of things, but more than anything else it means going out and convincing people that they want to do business with you, which brings me to my second commonly held misconception, which is that generating business is easy.
It is not.
It takes as much work as the actual jobs that you seek to generate in many cases, and worse it's a slow, frustrating, and occasionally futile effort. There is an art, a strategy to generating business, and it is not as simple as handing people your business card and glaring expectantly at them until they hand over some work. In fact, that turns out to be a really horrible way of generating business, though it is a solid way to get someone to file a restraining order.
One must network, and schmooze, and cajole, and rub elbows, and put on a convincing, if artificial, air of absolute confidence at your own superiority above everyone else in your field, and you must do it without seeming condescending or smug. You must be charming while being professional; successful while being approachable; friendly; confident; humble; and you must know in a second exactly what your potential customer wants and how you can convince them that you can deliver.
What I realize now is that the job of owning a small business has more to do with creating relationships with partners, and clients, and vendors, than it does doing whatever job it is that you thought you'd be doing when you started the damn thing, which, again, works well for me since I didn't know how to do that other thing to begin with. I can't really imagine the level of effort that would be required to do both parts, the ownership part and the actual work, and bow before the superior might of those who've tread that path. I'm grateful to have the partner with the technical proficiency and experience in our field so that I can go to my meetings, and meet new clients, and work with vendors, and visit my networking groups, and follow up on referrals and leads, because as it turns out that's a lot of work all its own.
As it happens, the only thing I didn't have a misconception about going into my business was the sense of satisfaction in reaping the rewards of the work. Where there are professionals around the globe that take a sense of satisfaction in completing or landing the "Big Job" that is, at least partly, muted by the fact that they do not reap the rewards of their work, generating that "Big Job" for your own small business is entirely rewarding.
So, I still wear ordinary shoes, which I prop up not upon a pile of money but a gently used filing cabinet that will someday be overstuffed with client files. I go into meeting with people who usually make a lot more money than I do, and I pretend that my humble and tiny business is exactly the business to which they need to give their money, time, and attention. Sometimes they buy it, and sometimes they don't, but when they do, and when the really solid jobs hit, and when my best clients refer me to their best clients, and things start click-clacking down that line, that's when it makes it all worthwhile. That's where that feeling of accomplishment, self-sufficiency, and success that you dreamed of before starting the business sinks in.
All the rest of the time, however, is a constant, nausea inducing, often paralyzing fear. So, ya know, try to enjoy the good parts.