Business Tips from a Furniture Maker

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When you start to make more than one of the same thing by hand you get into a routine. Add to that the loud machinery, dusty shop and the requisite ear plugs, mask and safety glasses and you get a solitary place to think. One thing’s for sure, you must be able to be alone with yourself when you want to be a small-time maker. Talking to yourself is part of it. I sure hope so, anyways.

Lately I’ve been prototyping the B1 bench – inspired by George Nelson and made of solid maple or walnut. As you can (almost) see, there are a lot of boards of the same size and shape. The design leaves me with a lot of time standing at the band saw, table saw, drill press, planer, belt sander, oscillating sander… You get my point. Working with your hands, doing almost monotonous work, forces you to solve problems that can transcend to wider applications – such as running a business.

Working with your hands

What It Isn’t

Unsatisfactory

In a 2012 survey, using your skills and abilities overtook job security as the leading factor that describes overall job satisfaction. There is nothing more relevant to the definition of working with your hands than “using your skills and abilities”. Something like 70% of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs and find themselves bored and disengaged – struggling to find stimulation through the internet and water cooler gossip. Try being disengaged when running the table saw. Oops, there went your fingers. Did I mention the tangible benefits of seeing your hard work in front of you at the end of the day? Try that with a spreadsheet.

Parasitic

When I leave the office (shop) my work stays there for the most part. I do work on the website and do some design work in the evenings, but I can guarantee you that those maple timbers aren’t emailing me at 3am. The sense of detachment and autonomy you can get from doing manual labor is incredible. If I want to work more to fair a curve or sand out that stubborn spot I am rewarded for it personally and monetarily (this is a business after all). You can make decisions about your work as you work, without compromise. Unplugging takes on a new meaning in my world. I unplug my palm sander every day and put it in a drawer.

Without Passion

I get asked frequently if I will like going from a management job to sanding wood in the heat all day. Can that truly be your passion, they think? What I’ve learned is that passion follows hard work. If you love welding but think you couldn’t do it all day or that your welds look like runny goose sh!t, imagine how you’ll feel when you lay down a stack of dimes every time! Rarely do people get to feel passion about their work when they aren’t creating something. I think that chefs must feel this often when they create amazing dishes.

Those Business Tips

Efficiency

When you’re faced with a repetitive task that might take all day efficiency is your mantra. Wasted movements will slow you down and cost you money. Learning this at the expense of your own sweat is a lesson well learned. So what if you spend all day in Excel moving numbers around manually? You have to make the day go by, right? If I did that resawing timbers I wouldn’t finish that day. Oddly enough, the resaw fairies won’t come that night and have it done for me in the morning. Working efficiently by eliminating wasted steps will help you greatly.

Tidiness

Keeping things neat and tidy pays huge dividends. From stacking lumber so it won’t topple onto your foot to sweeping the floor after every day, you learn that an ounce of prevention here yields pounds of payoff later. For one, you’ll be more efficient. Weird. Translate this to your desk, your calendar, your spreadsheets. You will be able to quickly and accurately retrieve the information you need without wasting effort or making mistakes.

Business TipsAccounting

I’m confident that keeping track of stacks of wood is a direct correlation to balancing your books. Raw lumber is your long term investments. Move this pile from here, cut them, then to there. Red to black. Keep a project on hand to work on while the glue is drying on the last one (Cash Flow). The big parts going to your scrap bin are hitting your gross margins hard. You’ll quickly determine better yield figures before you order lumber again. Your volume driven expenses go down with the more boards you cut the same way.

The Devil..

..is in the details. You know this one by heart. The great thing I like about being a small shop is that if something isn’t sanded, fitted, sharp or clean it’s my fault. Taking care to catch and correct the small things will save your business. Running your hands over every board checking for splinters is akin to following up on those emails or using a double entry bookkeeping system. When you are in a spot that you can only depend on you to get stuff done correctly, you pay attention to the details and fix them before they get unmanageable.

Proof that it matters

I’m not saying that better CEOs come from blue collar workers or that MBA grads maker a better business manager. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. For me, things work better and smoother when the boss has had some experience using their hands and doing the grunt work at the company they operate. To take it to an even further level, my hypothesis is that when a blue collar person is placed in a leadership position (either from starting the company in their garage or starting at the bottom) the company was able to obtain a meteoric rise in success. Here’s some supporting evidence:

  • Jim Skinner of McDonald’s started as a trainee flipping burgers;
  • Brian Dunn of Best Buy was a sales associate when there were only 12 stores;
  • Jim Ziemer operated the freight elevator at Harley Davidson before eventually becoming CEO; and
  • Andrew Taylor washed cars for Enterprise at age 16, he’s now CEO.

The list is much longer than these four names. The skills learned from working with your hands are tangible and stick with you as you grow. The proof is in the pudding. I believe that these guys (and others) took those hard earned lessons from working at the bottom and applied them to running their businesses the rest of their lives. Imagine how that hard work turned into great results that led to a burning passion for their business.

One reply on “Business Tips from a Furniture Maker

  • Greg Bright

    I couldn’t agree more. Too many managers and executives have no idea what goes on with the front line employees, and therefore are out of touch with their customers. I also think many of us have a basic need to create with our hands. If that basic need is not met, we will be miserable in mind and body.

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