I think it’s fascinating the reasons people have for starting a business, or for not starting one. I wish I understood the difference better between people who work for themselves and those who prefer to have a job.
To start with, I have noticed that many of the people I know who prefer to have a job don’t think of themselves as working for some one person in particular. The people I know at Amazon know that Bezos is up there, but I don’t get the sense that many of them think of him as their boss- he’s more like a figurehead or a mascot. Kinda like Bill Gates was at Microsoft. Not many worked for Bill, they worked for Microsoft.
My ex’s dad was an employee. Or, as he would say, he had a career. He didn’t like me because I was self employed and, in his eyes, that meant that I was someone who wasn’t reliable enough to create a career. I wasn’t made of the right fabric to be significant in a real place.
That, I believe, is one of the things that keeps some people in the role of employees- they have a path, they have a goal, and they know that these places will pay them to be on that path and will reward them at the end by supplying the necessary benefits to achieve that goal.
Some of us don’t have a path that they can see, much less a goal. That takes time, sometimes.
I started off my working life in the fishing industry in Southeast Alaska. It wasn’t a very normal beginning in any sense of the word; we were living on a small island and we were the only residents. It was about fifteen miles by boat to the nearest town, Elfin Cove. It is sixty miles by air (or around a hundred by boat) to Juneau, the nearest city, and the only real hospital near. My mother fell ill and we hitched a ride on a passing tugboat that was heading to Juneau. I still remember paddling out there in the blue plastic skiff we had, the salt spray and the rope ladder dragging in the water. When we got to Juneau Mom was admitted to the hospital and we (I have a twin brother) somehow wound up staying on the tugboat for a few days. We walked the docks and offered to clean people’s boats to get some spending money, and a couple people bit. We were cleaning a skiff when another fisherman, Harlan, came along and recognized us as the kids from the island.
He asked what we were doing, where our folks were. After hearing that our mother was in the hospital he left to see how she was doing. We went back to cleaning, finished up the job and were sitting on the tug when Harlan returned with a proposition. “I talked to your mom, and she said you can come fishing with me. You guys will be my deckhands. You can keep all the humpies (Pink Salmon), and I keep the rest.” That’s all we needed to hear, and off we went. By the end of the second day Harlan let us know that we were going to have to change the deal a bit as the only thing we were catching were humpies. I think we were a little disappointed, because we’d been keeping track.
Work has always been a place of skills acquisition for me. That first job was fascinating- we learned about charts and perused them when Harlan would let us in, looking at his hand-scribbled notes about catches, weather, and true depths. We learned to change out the bait at different times of day, about keeping track of what was catching, how to spot when we had something on the hook and how big it might be. We learned about cleaning the fish; this was an ice boat, and these would be prized fish sold whole at the markets, so we had to gut them perfectly. Harlan had shown us to keep the roe in a bucket, he kept the hearts and would fry them up with eggs for breakfast. The bloodlines were cleaned with a spoon, only the rounded side so you don’t rough up the lining.
When we returned to the mainland work had become expected. I washed dishes at my father’s bakery, worked at my mom’s short lived landscaping business, prepped and cleaned at my stepfather’s painting and drywall business. When we lived in farm country there was always work at the dairies and bucking hay, or picking filberts. Everything we did had some story, some skill to be learned. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the more you know the fewer ditches you’re being asked to dig.
In Seattle there were computers. My friend Noah had a bulletin board. This was in 1981 and the computers were cobbled together out of what parts we could scavenge or buy. Floppy discs and modems and purloined phone cards to cover the cost of roaming the world. I realized that I didn’t have much interest in computers then, but figuring out how to use them was fairly easy. If I’d been more interested I probably would have been able to make one of those “careers.
Instead I left school and fell back to fishing. Work the summer, travel the winter. I knew enough to know that even though the money was good in winter, the work was tough, cold, and filled with people who didn’t have anything else to do. Or they were making a career. Perhaps if I’d had some better captains I would have made a career out of fishing, but I wound up working for a couple bad apples and didn’t see a path to getting my own boat or even a job on a boat where it would be worth staying.
I am not afraid to try new jobs, new industries. I worked in restaurants- there, too, I didn’t make my choices on finances, but on what was available to learn. Instead of working the front of the house waiting tables or tending bar, I chose the kitchen where I traded learning how to use knives and how to cook during long hours for a fraction of the pay the waitstaff made in their 5 hour shifts.
Poor perception of the markets has been one of my achilles heels. In Portland I helped a friend set up his iMac. This was the first generation, and those introduced millions of people over the age of 50 to the magic of email. If only they could figure out how to set up the machine. From my perspective it was about as easy as computers get- it was all pre-loaded on the machine. All you had to do was follow the prompts. That was too much for people who pretty much wanted to play solitaire and send emails to their kids. Setting up one led to setting up another, and then people were offering me money to do it. Way too much money, in my opinion at the time. $60 to spend 1/2 hour working, and another hour explaining email while being fed coffee and cookies? Kinda like stealing money from babies.
That did lead to a job at Oregon Health Sciences University. One of the iMacs was owned by a secretary to one of the lead cancer research doctors and they were working on their Federal Cancer Research grant, one that they do every 10 years and designates them a Cancer Research Center. They needed someone to install, troubleshoot, and get a program going that would automate the footnotes and links. They had the program. I set it up in a morning, and then sat around making sure it worked for 2 weeks for them. Two weeks only because they wanted to be sure it worked. I got paid too much and was allowed to browse all the research papers and had full, free access to all the medical journals. That was payment enough. Again, a position was offered, but I couldn’t see the value in setting up programs anyone should be able to do- all they have to do is follow the directions and keep track of what it’s doing. It’s not rocket science. Except it turns out that it is rocket science, and has a lot of value for some reason.
All this is to say that I don’t make a great employee. What I see when I have a job is an endless procession of days doing things that are not very difficult but are complicated by politics. I started taking classes to get a Project Management Certification. That was fascinating. The points about project management were good, but basic; managing projects is all about front-loading everything you can, and if you can organize it and have all questions answered before you need them, then it’s a really easy position. In my opinion, the only reason a project manager is needed is if there is a lack of skills and ability in the people under the PM. What really turned me off about the class was that more time was spent teaching people how to discover who the important people were and methods of getting the attention of people otherwise too important to pay attention to you. I’ve got too much ego to have to worry that someone might be too important to talk to me.
Fishing was always a percentage job. You are an “independent contractor” and earn a share of the catch, less expenses (boat, fuel, food). Your value is in production and ability. A restaurant kitchen is much the same- your value is in how much you can do well. You don’t get paid for that skill, so you do it for your own satisfaction, especially as you know that there won’t ever be a bonus or respect given. That’s what I liked about kitchens, and why I didn’t stay in them- at some point you have to create your own kitchen or you become one of the production drones that the people with passion can’t stand; it’s the fear that you’re going to wind up being that one day. The IT jobs were dull, overly profitable for what was being done.
That line; “overly profitable” is my worst dilemma. I haven’t ever worked just for profit, and the idea of being over-paid has always been uncomfortable, as though I am doing something wrong. I know a lot of people who suffer from some variation on this theme- some of it’s not being sure that they are worth anything more than what they get, some of it’s just not being from a place where anyone earns enough to live on. My family was always on the edge, always moving, so some of it is the wages of poverty; not believing that you should have enough to be comfortable.
Which gets us awkwardly back to the question of why would someone start a business?
My first construction business was started because I wanted to become a better carpenter and there was no opportunity for me to learn from any company around me. I should say that I couldn’t see any company doing the work I wanted to do that would allow me to do it. I wanted to build better than the people I had worked for, I wanted to do custom woodworking. I wanted to follow a path that interested me, not the path someone else told me to take.
This was an offshoot of a fortuitous experience a few years earlier. I had been working as a bike messenger in Seattle and was tired of the grind. I needed to get out of Seattle, and decided I would take a bike trip. I went to San Francisco with my friends Al & Jen, with their newborn baby Elliot, and set out after a few days. I winded my way through Santa Rosa, Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe (where I wound up getting a job that took me back to the Grand Canyon to cook for a crew filming a Charmin commercial), and got snowed in in Taos.
In Taos I had the good fortune to meet Jonathan Taintor, a sculptor who had started out his career as a carpenter. John traded room and board for my labor helping him finish his house. He had a fantastic carpenter running the show for him who had retired a few years before and moved to Taos from Southern California. He had entered the trades working for German Cabinetmakers, then went on to be part of the post WWII building boom. He was highly skilled; he had run the renovation of one of the Hearst Mansions. He also gave me a book, “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time” by John Brinkerhoff Jackson, a book that really opened my eyes almost as much as that job in Taos.
I wanted those experiences. I wanted to see what I could do. In Portland I had been working for a mediocre company that did everything, all of it under the table. That allowed me to learn how to do plumbing and electrical work. I shouldn’t have been doing it, but I learned how- I read books, learned how to calculate loads and load drop. That learning curve was enough to keep me there for a couple years, along with buying a house and getting married. As I learned more, though, I learned how much we weren’t doing to be better- we hit code, and did an average job, and that’s really all that the owner cared about. That and him not paying taxes, which meant I paid all my own taxes. I was also getting better at what I did, and as I was left on jobs to do them start to finish, the customers started requesting me. I became a reason why people came to the company, I was creating work. Eventually I had customers who wanted to fire the company, but wanted me to come back to do the work. They preferred my honesty.
I finally realized that the way to do what I wanted to do was to start my own company. I would do it legally, and do all my work legitimately. I could do work that was better than okay, learn how to do more things, and get paid for learning!
That business was really an education. Profit wasn’t my main motivation, education was. I wanted to build skills, and I learned how to find people who know how to do what I didn’t know. I found resources online. I built a stable of other small companies who were also interested in doing better work, and we would team up on projects. We all undercharged. I would make money on one job, lose it on the next. I learned how to do books better, and learned how to estimate.
I built my ideas about what a company should be through all of those experiences. I also learned that there is value in having respect for yourself. For me, starting businesses and working in new jobs has been about growing as a person. Some of it has been about trying to define where I am in this culture, in this society. That seems like a good enough reason to start a company.