Friday, January 25, 2008

The forest, and the trees

As I said, this Blog is going to be one thread of three. The others will come later. This one pertains to business, philosophy, life, and why I enjoy building the things that I do.

Today will be a pretty odd entry, and it's just as much a confessional as anything else. It's about details, and the bigger picture.

I love building things because I'm predisposed to see into the details, and to solve the puzzles of how things are supposed to go together. I really enjoy working with wood, because it has its own rules. It's not a static or predictably plastic material. It bends in certain predictable ways, and moves in unpredictable others, and the process of building a good piece of furniture is also a process of helping the piece as a whole to exist as a stable unit, or as a compilation of stable parts. Every board in a drawer is capable of warping, cracking, and moving towards something less useful than it was. The geometry of the drawer is such that each board restrains and stabilizes the others, and enables the unit to move forward... and this is really cool to me. As the seasons pass, the boards will swell and shrink a little bit, but they'll all swell in the same direction, so none of them are acting against the others. And the process of cutting the joinery requires a quiet mind and good concentration skills, or you'll end up paring wood and correcting badly made cuts for hours.

It's very easy for me to get into these details, and to wedge my head firmly into a problem-solving, particular puzzle mentality, sometimes to the point of distraction. But I've discovered in the process of moving forward with the business, and the shop, and trying to design and move forward with individual projects, that there are so many details to keep track of, that it's almost impossible to keep them all in my head. And it's very hard to get a solid grasp on the bigger picture, such as the direction of the business. I get so wrapped up in how I'm going to solve a particular problem on a particular piece that sometimes it's hard to even conceive of how this one little problem will affect productivity, or profitability. I've had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

The most recent example was a picture frame for a friend of mine who makes stained glass pieces for a living. It was a round frame, made of ash, which isn't terribly expensive, and I bid way too low to make it profitable. I was so wound up in how to put it together, how many pieces, how to shape it efficiently, etc, that it wasn't until it was done that I realized my mistake. I based my price on those charged by stained glass supply places online, which was my first mistake. Online supply places can charge a lot less; I only charged him $70 for the frame. And in a way, that seems fairly reasonable, because it was just a frame.

But it also translated into roughly 3 solid days of work. Or, $23 a day. It was money, and it was the first paying job that went through the shop, and the best case scenario is that for 3 days the shop was able to pay for itself, and I had a couple of bucks left over. Not exactly a recipe for success. But the frame was round, and the stained glass piece fit into it perfectly, which is also good. But it was still $23 a day.

I've had to grow up a little bit, and get organized a little, and rework my thinking a lot. I'm not saying this to show that I'm growing up, or that I've figured everything out yet. I'm saying it because it's one of the challenges I'm facing as a businessman.

Well, that, and facing the idea of myself as a businessman.

Maybe this is weird to read. I'm sure relatives will read it and go "duhhh... you're one of the most disorganized people we know. Remember 5th grade when you lost your assignment book every week?" But the point of writing it all down is for other people to read, outside of the family, to hopefully learn from my experiences.

In a way, this Blog will be, in part, about setting up a small business. These are the mistakes and challenges that I face, and they'll be picked apart in here. I get a lot of questions when I tell people that I'm striking out on my own and trying to make a business work. It's hard to encapsulate all of the challenges I face in one simple answer. I get questions about everything from "how hard is it," to "How do you find your clients... how are you going to make this pay," to "Can you help me learn how to sharpen? I can't figure this out." So I'm going to try to write everything here, for posterity, whatever that means, and to get it all out of my head, so I can get back to work. Friends and family, are all very well familiar with watching me amble along in a scattered fashion, trying to figure this out. And a lot of them are familiar with those questions... and with my sharp tool fetishes.

... you can see what I mean with my detail problem. I was going to try to expound on how I was making the transition from "nutty student woodworker," to "organized (HAH!) businessman with some sort of vision." Instead I got caught up in worrying about my audience, and it devolved pretty quickly into a ramble.

These are the challenges I'm currently facing:

I need to be both nearsighted, and farsighted. I need to see the forest, and the trees. I need to understand how to set goals, instead of pile up lists of tasks to be done. It's a new thing for me. Every project has its quirks, and details to be concerned with, in the effort to carry the project to completion. But broader topics haven't been my concern.

My roommate Seth put it best. He explained to me that goals have priority, not tasks. At work, he says he has 10 tasks at any given moment that all have #1 priority, because very few people are going to give you something to do, AND tell you that it's not really important. Goals provide the criteria to make decisions about which task has a higher priority.

I'm working on understanding the process of setting goals, so I can see where to steer the ship that is my business. I'm having to work at it, because I'm so task-oriented sometimes. I'd rather be working with wood, and concentrating on the task at hand. I'm not used to worrying about where it's supposed to take me, or how it's going to impact my ability to pay rent in the future. But I guess that's one of the differences between being a worker, and being a boss. I've already learned that it's very hard to work for myself, because my boss is an organizational train wreck, and he's not always sure from day to day what he wants me to do. But he does need to get his shit together, and figure out where the ship is headed. Once he's figured that out, I'll have a better idea of what I'm doing. And I think that transition is in process.

I'm trying to see both the forest, and the trees, so I can keep from getting lost in the woods, as a woodworker.


I promise: Next time, no stupid metaphors.

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