December 30, 2005

The romantic entrepreneur...

Burns out:
The psychological gap between working in a cafe because it's fun and romantic and doing the exact same thing because you have to is enormous. Within weeks, Lily and I—previously ensconced in an enviably stress-free marriage—were at each other's throats. I hesitate to say which was worse: working the same shift or alternating. Each option presented its own small tortures. Two highly educated professionals with artistic aspirations have just put themselves—or, as we saw it, each other—on $8-per-hour jobs slinging coffee. After four more months, we grew suspicious of each other's motives, obsessively kept track of each other's contributions to the cause ("You worked three days last week!"), and generally waltzed on the edge of divorce. The marriage appears to have been saved by a well-timed bankruptcy.
Many years ago, in the 1970s, when I was married, R and I seriously considered opening a small bookstore, which we envisioned in romantic terms. Nevertheless, I got a book from the library about starting a small business. It had a chapter "Would You Hire Yourself?" that doggedly pressured you to seriously consider whether you would hire yourself to run this business you've got in mind. My reaction to that chapter was very much like my reaction to the lecture I received, around the same time, from a young woman at the SPCA, where I'd gone to adopt a dog. Suffice it to say, I've never owned a bookstore or a dog. I'm capable of having romantic visions of myself engaged in some activity in the future, but I'm at least as good at picturing myself in the negative variation. I can see the nightmare that cancels the dream.


Rick Lee said...

As a self-employed photographer for 20 years, I've heard from lots of friends over the years who long to quit their hum-drum jobs and start a small business of some sort. The problem with these people is that they usually don't have a clear idea of what they want to start. They just want to be their own boss and have some sort of business. And since they don't have any vision they are really, really un-creative in their ideas about what kind of business to start. The usual ideas are some form of retail store or some form of restaurant. Both of these are very labor intensive requiring the presence of the owner in the establishment for long hours and are unlikely to throw off enough money to make one truly independent. I tell people to imagine being chained down like that for years to come. "Sorry, I can't go to lunch with you today because my employee called in sick and I have to stay here". As a service-provider, I work when I have work to do and if I don't have anything on my schedule, I go to the cafe and have a scone and read my paper.

knoxgirl said...

I have worked for a couple small businesses where the owner has "checked-out," and clearly no longer has the committment rick describes.

Unfortunately, these owners also tend to expect their employees to be 200% dedicated to the business and take it as a personal affront if you call in sick or the like. The business is like a child they're not that interested in, and you're the nanny. If that makes sense.

Say what you will about big corporations, there are drawbacks aplenty to working for "romantic entrepreneurs".

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Ah yes, the bookstore plan. 1975, I believe, preceding my abortive grad school plan. We thought it would be a science fiction bookstore because it would be good to have a specialized niche. We took the train up to Boston one weekend to check out the bookstores there, because we thought that might be a good city to open one in. Turned out they already had enough bookstores. End of plan, thankfully, but it was nice to spend a weekend in Boston. I don't have the slightest business sense; you probably have a bit more than I.

Mike Lief said...

One of the reasons I've resisted the urge to leave the D.A.'s office and hang out my own shingle is my utter mind-numbing, eye-rolling, uncontrollable yawning reaction to thought of the nuts and bolts of running an office: ordering paper clips, hiring a secretary, finding a temp when she quits, and on and on.

As far as the dog goes, I can't believe you let a nutball from an animal rights group talk you out of getting a hound.

Take a look at this face, or this one. I got this fella from the County shelter, and in addition to saving him from the soft-spoken-but-very-Grim Reaper, my wife and I gained a wonderful companion.

Anyhow, enjoy reading you every morning with a hot cuppa Joe. Best wishes for the New Year from Ventura, CA.

Jake said...

One should never go into business with a spouse.

The first reason is that typical business decisions become emotionally charged. "If you loved me, you would buy a new copy machine." Thus logic flies out the window on many decisions.

The second reason is too much togetherness, Not many marriages can withstand spouses being together every waking hour of the day.

The third reason is a new business rarely makes money right away. You need one spouse working to support the family while the new business gets legs.

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: "you probably have a bit more than I." I had enough to take that book out of the library, read it, and realistically look at myself and know that I was no shopkeeper.

Mike: She was not a nutball, just very stern and factual about all the unpretty things about a dog.

Ann Althouse said...

"We took the train up to Boston..." That right there shows how unsuited we were for the enterprise. We knew nothing about that city and couldn't have learned anything relevant in a little trip. It wasn't seeing the number of bookstores there that affected us, it was how unrealistic everything about the idea was, including starting up in a new city that we didn't know.

Kev said...

In college, I worked at a pizza place where the owners were husband-and-wife, and it was a disaster. They fought all the time, and sometimes, after a big argument, they'd both drive off in a huff, leaving us delivery drivers to cook and deliver the pizzas (with no extra compensation for doing so, of course). He also bought her an adorable puppy with the money that he should have used to fix the building's air conditioning in a scorching Texas summer. (How's that for tying the two halves of this post together?)

PatCA said...

A number of my friends started a coffee place/restaurant years ago. They ignored my lawyer friend's advice to get a partnership agreement. 18 months later, the lawsuits were flying, the friendships ended. The new owners, also a romantic couple, lasted about a year. Thankfully, a professional bought them out and the restaurant stands today, pretty much as the original vision. But, oh, the blood and treasure that was sacrificed to get there!

Slight O/T, I'm glad the SPCA woman warned you. My neighborhood of large yards and small people is littered with howling, lonely dogs the owners tired of. We can't sleep or think or sell, unless some deaf people should happen by. This romantic vision destroyed the dogs' lives and ours as well.

Mike Lief said...

Ann, I helped an ex-girlfriend adopt a Pug from a rescue organization, and the representative made the process unbelievably difficult, more so than adopting a human child -- and no, I'm not exaggerating.

As for "just very stern and factual about all the unpretty things about a dog," all I'm sayin' is it ain't rocket science. Food, water, play, pay attention (which is easy), and the boy gives endless laughs.

The hardest part is finding a dog that's tempermentally suited to you; I can't handle high-strung, nervous, yappy dogs. Bogie's got none of those characteristics.

On the other hand, going on Pooh Patrol in the backyard ain't exactly a good time, but you've raised a kid, so it's not unprecedented.

As to the original main point of your post, I've often wondered about people who want to open a little store and deal with the public all day.

There's a local store in town that sells zippers and buttons. Every time I drive by, I think, did the owner wake up one day and say, "I want to spend the rest of my life being the go-to Guy in my little corner of the world for anyone who need a clothing fastener!"

Yikes. I'm glad somebody wants to do it. I guess the bottom line for anyone thinking about opening a small storefront operation is to take the advice of Dirty Harry: "A man's got to know his limitations."

It works better if you squint and say it with quiet menace.

Slac said...
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Slac said...

My business law professor consulted with a lot of partnerships in his heyday. "Something about it..." he said every day of the unit, in his long drowning voice, "I don't know... makes their failure rate higher than the divorce rate."

Does anyone think good prior consultation on the form the business will take (Partnership, LLP, LLC, etc.) can assuage the troubles of romantic entrepreneurship?

They didn't mention what form they took in the article, but it sounded like a partnership. They had trouble supervising each other because there was no clear boss.

Perhaps good legal consultation in general would help. There's no need to be policing each other. Just delineate the duties, having regular meetings to update, and let the law protect your interests, personal and common. That's what it's there for, right?

reader_iam said...

Jake: Don't you think it depends on the business and the people?

I've also observed that many people who are self-employed successfully seem to have other family members who have likewise done so. I know it's true on both my and my husband's side of the family (and both sets of parents are still married, to the same person). Maybe it has something to do with growing up watching your parents relate to each other in different roles and manage the conflicts? It's "just what you know," perhaps.

It takes a certain knack and probably a different perspective on life to work for one's self AND with one's spouse. Definitely not for everyone.

The "Would You Hire Yourself" riff is dead on. And if you're going to work with a spouse, you have to realistically ask the same question about him/her.

As a sort of extension of the theme, both my husband and I work from home; he's now an employee-telecommuter and we both do work through our small prof. svcs. company. (The kid is the one who commutes. HA! What a skewed vision of the world we've given him.) When people who are considering doing the same ask my opinion, I tell them to envision their spouse as an annoying co-worker whom you are obligated to kiss at the end of the day. If they're not up to that, forget it.

Der Hahn said...

I was the spouse during the attempt to open a small business.

Been there. Done that. Have the divorce papers to prove it.

Diane said...

Ann, there is nothing like a dog.

Jake said...


I am speaking from my experience as a CPA. Sure spouses can run a business together but the chances of it working are so small it is not worth the risk.

reader_iam said...

Jake, in reading your response I had a funny thought.

Maybe our CPA hasn't been discouraging because he runs his business with ... his wife! Heh.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

As is clear in a lot of posts here,
what I see is a lot of people who go entrepeneurial in order 'find themselves' or to 'start over', or to 'mix work with their lifestyle'. It's all motivated by wish-fulfillment and identity crises.

Independent businesses are a cauldron that will liberate you from you any fantasies and naivete you have. Except as a form of spiritual purging, I think there is little to recommend it.

Ann Althouse said...

If married couples are so bad at running a business together, why are they good at running a household together?

OddD said...

Who said they're good at running households together?

Elizabeth said...

What an amazing topic, or brace of topics; so many posts here correspond to my own experiences:

knoxgirl, I've worked for those burnt-out romantics, too. They ran a deli, and as I learned 89 days into my employment, after being told to stay overtime to mop, fired each of their employees just shy of three months, when unemployment benefits would have kicked in.

PatCA--my neighborhood is one of small yards, but way too many dogs left to bark night and day, during cold weather and rain, or just from boredom.

I was turned down by a pet rescue agency recently, when I wanted to adopt a terrier, for not owning my home. I've rented in the same place for 13 years, have had the same veterinarian for even longer, but the woman in charge has the unfounded belief that renters don't love their pets.

I regret never being able to run my own kitchen, and I would not hestitate to hire myself to manage it and the employees, to do everything except keep the books. I am not very competent with my own personal finances, so I'd never want to have to account to investors.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

"If married couples are so bad at running a business together, why are they good at running a household together?"

First Thought: Are they so good at it? High divorce rates equates to high bankrupcy rate.

Second Thought: Running a home pays you in love and joy. You spend money on a household with no thought of monetary profit. But no matter how much you love your business, you must have the skills necessary to make at least some cold hard money out of it. That's a whole other set of skills then getting the kids to school on time and enjoying dinner and movies together.

James R Ament said...

I've always thought that owning a small bookstore, hardware store or an old diner would would be enjoyable IF you didn't have to earn a living off the enterprise. I don't know anyone in such a position... which is probably why I spent 37 years working for a corporation. That, and my father used to tell me that if you work for somebody else, you might lose your job; and if you have your own business, you could lose your job, your house, your wife, and all your savings. But then he was a cautious man of the Depression. Nonetheless, I listened.

Carol Minjares said...

I used to dream of owning a nightclub, but now I see someone I know buy a restaurant or bar, I just chuckle.

And a couple! Who on earth pays the health insurance? One of them needs to have a real job for heaven's sake. In my town the only ones who can afford to keep a small boutique or coffee house open are the restless wives of doctors or lawyers. Then they get bored with it and go on to something else.

Robin said...

mike lief said

"On the other hand, going on Pooh Patrol in the backyard ain't exactly a good time, but you've raised a kid, so it's not unprecedented."

Yes, but eventually kids are potty trained. Seven to ten years in with a dog and you're still picking up waste. It's good to think twice about whether you are up for that commitment.

Frank Borger said...

Ann, it's a good thing you didn't start a business installing window shades, blinds & curtains.

Freeman Hunt said...

Good lord, it isn't all that hard. I guess if you go into it "romantically" things probably won't work out well. What can I do or sell that people will pay for and how will I let them know about it? That's it. That's the whole ballgame.

Business is pretty easy if you go about it rationally instead of emotionally. (That's assuming that you are willing to work very very very hard.)

Pogo said...

Question: Do coffee shop and bookstore owners harbor romantic dreams about becoming a faceless employee of a large corporation?

As for "Business is pretty easy if you go about it rationally instead of emotionally ...and you are willing to work very very very hard"
Well, that seems to me the precise opposite of the term "pretty easy", but maybe that's just me.

Word Verification: gndzlah: an aborted sneeze

reader_iam said...

If married couples are so bad at running a business together, why are they good at running a household together?


Are they so good at it? High divorce rates equates to high bankrupcy rate.

Just goes to show, neither jointly running a business nor keeping a household/marriage together is for the faint-hearted (or overly romantic).

Still, a lot (though a minority) of people actually do manage to do those things, and even both.

Meade said...

Freeman Hunt is right. It's like blogging - you make an investment and work hard to succeed... if you're good at it, you get return 'customers,' you make a profit, your blog stays up. It isn't romantic but you might love doing it.

howzerdo said...

My father was self-employed and made a decent living at most of the businesses he owned. Restaurants and retail require a lot of sacrificed weekends and nights, but there are other enterprises that are 9 to 5 (or 7 to 6), such as construction.

However, all four of his kids chose not to go that route (and all of us are or have been public employees). And my parents did not both work for the businesses, at least most of the time. I think entrepreneurism has to do with risk tolerance, and other personality factors.

I work from home 3 days per week and love it - but my brother-in-law hated the irregular schedule and isolation of telecommuting.

Seven to ten years for a dog? How could that ever be enough time? I have had quite a few dogs for as much as 16 years. Most recently, my beloved dog died from cancer at age 10 in September - how I wish I still had to do poop patrol for him! And I'm sure his piercing howl could be heard throughout the neighborhood (but he was an inside dog). He never played loud music, asked to borrow the car or responded to me with a fresh mouth, though (OK, I confess, I am childfree).

I agree that some rescues can be absolutely ridiculous, but most shelters have very good reasons for careful screening.

Felice Luftschein said...

My wife and I have been running a variety of tiny businesses since we first got together 19 years ago. She hired me when I was a flip-flop shod hippie down in Guatemala to help her schlep some clothing she was bringing back to the states to flog at Dead concerts, then we started making jewelry. We lived in a Ford van for 2-1/2 years while we travelled around selling our wares to stores. Since then we have settled down and still flog our jewelry, although I have a side business selling tools on the internet. We are the definition of co-dependence, we've only been apart about 2 months total in the 19 years.
So it is possible. The downside is we are poor, rarely take vacations, have to be stay/work at home parents (which is a good thing, for us), and did I mention we are poor?

We have seen scads of friends open small businesses only to fail. You really have to have no other option to succeed - in our case both of us have liberal arts degrees - and you have to be willing (if not actually) to sacrifice all notions of art, fun, romance, etc in favour of economic reality.

Reading back a bit in my comment, you will notice the 2-1/2 years living in a van. If you can't live in a van with your partner, then you won't be able to run a small business either. Call it the van test.

sonicfrog said...

If you want companionship, you could always get a horse.
And note that this one's named "squirrel".

John(classic) said...

My father's observation made late in life was that "people who had something they really wanted to do --open a business, live somewhere particular, become a cowboy, whatever--and never did it were always unhappy. Those who tried it and had it fail --went bankrupt, found it miserable-- were happy. Poorer maybe, but happy."

Of course he may have been prejudiced--as he also noted he pretty much did everything he wanted to.

Freeman Hunt said...

Well, that seems to me the precise opposite of the term "pretty easy", but maybe that's just me.

What I mean is that it isn't rocket science. It's pretty straight-forward.

Slac said...

What I mean is that it isn't rocket science. It's pretty straight-forward.

Actually, rocket science is pretty straightforward. We do, after all, have it down to a science.

The only trouble is having to go to school and do homework for a while. And finding good parts.

Eli Blake said...

Talk about being able to find a cloud in any silver lining. You can't focus on the nightmare to the point that you let go of the dream. At best, be realistic about it, but keep on dreaming.

I guess I'm an incurable optimist. I really believe that no matter how bad things get, eventually they will get better.

As a Liberal, that helps me get up and smile at the world every day for the next 1,116. Every day that goes by without the Bush agenda moving forward is a small victory for America.

michael a litscher said...

I'm an entrepreneur, and have been for a few decades.

Had trouble finding a permanent job back in the 80's, so I signed up with a contracting agency. Wrote all kinds of neat software for bunches of different businesses.

Of course, being a contractor, when the budget gets tight, you're the first to go. So it was feast or famine. I learned to stick every dollar I could into the bank and keep my spending so far within my means that I looked poor to anyone who wasn't privy to my bank accounts.

The end result? Two years of take-home pay in the bank, AFTER paying cash for a brand new truck in 1995.

At this point, I have the problem of being madly in love with a girl I just can't live with.

A friend, who I'd met consulting along the way, had gotten sick of his job and was out on the road struggling to get his business off the ground after getting sick of his employer. He starts bugging me to go into business with him writing software. I'd write it, he'd sell it. I keep politely telling him I'd think about it.

Well, things finally come to a nasty head with the girl, and I break it off. I'm haunted every night by the same three demons: Woulda, Coulda, and Shoulda.

Well, not getting any sleep gave me plenty of time to prototype out the software my friend was insisting we could go into business selling.

I'd write code all night, email him a copy, go to my day job consulting, and come home to read his emails on the feedback he was getting from potential customers.

On and on it went, until we actually had the skeleton of a real application that people were showing serious interest in buying.

And then one day it happened. A very large international company offered to buy 300 copies at $1000 per copy, if only we'd finish the software.

And so I quit my consulting gig.

Unfortunately, the deal fell through. I should have kept the consulting gig until the check cleared. As someone above pointed out, you do need to maintain an income stream while sales ramp up, and deals fall through, which for us took a few years.

It took a lot of work, a lot of faith, a lot of patience, a lot of compromises, a lot of discipline, and a lot of burned-up savings, but it's been fun. In the last nine years, save for a couple of years, we've had double-digit growth.

We're still small, but we're about to hire our third employee, not including my business partner and I.

I still wouldn't recommend it to the faint of heart, the undisciplined, the non-workaholics, or the risk-averse.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that a lot of the reason that it works better for those who had parents who were self-employed to be so themselves is that it is something that you have to get used to, or, better, raised with.

My girlfriend and my best friend both were raised by parents with their own businesses. Her second marriage was to someone who built one up from scratch to hiring a dozen or two employees. And the two of them are not the least bit romantic about it. On the other hand, both deal well with the insecurities and other demands of this type of existence.

For both of them, there has been boom and bust throughout their lives. Both mostly live as if the bust is right around the corner. Stretching to make mortgage payments is a fact of life for them. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

On the other hand, my parents were raised in extremely secure environments, though my father less so - his father had the itch, and occasionally scratched it, while my grandmother kept her job to tide things over.

So, my mother made my father give up his own law practice when I was imminent. And he didn't go back out on his own until we were all mostly raised, and then only by necessity. And even then, he had a stable set of clients from his long practice in a firm.

But she always was worried about security, and translated that to us. So, when we are forced to work for ourselves, it is most often not happily. I don't like not knowing where my next paycheck is coming from.

Worse, I think is my ex wife. Her father seemed to trade secucrity for income. We did ok when we consulted together, but we had a very rich client (i.e. the federal govt.) When that dried up, she went back to a real job, and I tried to get a law practice going. I think the stresses of that are why we ultimately divorced.

I think that I would need to marry someone who is used to that existence to survive in it, including, probably, in my present law practice. My girlfriend, and an almost girlfriend whom I speak to almost daily, would work. But certainly not someone like my ex-wife (and nothing negative intended against her, she just didn't like the environment at all and for that reason, didn't provide any real support).

Bruce Hayden said...

As I think back, I realize that my upbringing was somewhat unique. Most of my friends to this day are self-employed or run their own companies. And I think that it is because that is what they were brought up with. Almost all of them had fathers similarly situated. And I think that it was because both myy high school and college were heavily populated by this sort.

But the downside is that they don't always work well for others. I have one friend who followed his father into a profession that is now in serious decline. He happily ran his own business for maybe 25 years. But economic forces put him out of business (twice). And now he is again unemployed, having apparently been fired for viewing porn on the Internet at work. All the reasons that he has been fired look stupid from the point of view of those of us who have spent most of our working lives working for others. But not to someone who has had the freedom of working for himself for so long.

I look at my other self-employed friends, and think that they would not fare that much better if they were faced with his situation. They are almost all a bit odd, and mostly have strong views on how to run their businesses - which works when it is your business, but much less well when it is someone else's.

knoxgirl said...

chicken-littling about the "Bush Agenda" on a totally unrelated post is not a symptom of eternal optimism

Meade said...

One might (romantically) think owning one's own pet sitting business would be swell but of course there's more to it than petting, playing, and picking up a fee.

Rob said...
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Rob said...
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Rob said...
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