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The Things You Own

The Things You Own

“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden
I’m self-employed.  I have been that way for almost a decade.  In addition to my reptile enterprise I am a founding owner of a small information technology (IT) company.  Because I have a passion for computer networking and information security I long ago decided to start my own business doing the thing I love.  That is a theme familiar to a lot of self-employed people and if you are not currently self-employed I’ll wager that a good number of you aspire to one day be so.  For those of you not currently at the helm of your own enterprise let me remind you of an expression I’m sure you have heard before:  “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  Owning your own business does nothing to eliminate the stress and frustration you experience in your current job.  Often times it’s quite the opposite.  When you own your business the stresses simply multiply and take on a different form.

It was a little over a decade ago that I found myself increasingly frustrated that other people were making lots of money because I was good at what I did.  With great frequency my bosses would come to me in order to implement some intricate piece of computing voodoo for one of our clients.  When the job was done I got my regular paycheck while the company owners were moving into ever larger houses and driving ever nicer cars.  I have to admit that I spent a good amount of time annoyed and disenfranchised with the arrangement.  Thankfully, I had a moment of clarity, a simple epiphany that changed things.  I came to terms with the fact that my employer had offered me a certain sum of money to do a job and I chose to accept that money.  By accepting that sum I gave up the right to be angry about actually doing the job they had hired me to do.  Despite being no longer happy with the pay I was receiving I had, quite literally, sold my right to whine and complain about it.  As long as I chose to accept the money they were paying me I also chose to accept the other circumstances I did not like.  I alone was responsible for the situation and that was a powerful realization.  I chose to no longer accept the money they were paying me and that meant I could do one of two things:  renegotiate my salary or quit.  I decided that even if they doubled my salary they would still be making too much money off of my off my particular skill set.  So I quit.  I did not, however, quit on the spot.  I developed a plan and spent the next year acting on it.  About ten months after I decided that I would be the one to earn the greatest profit on my skills, I gave my notice.  Two weeks later I hung out a shingle of my own.

My maxim during that time was, “leap …and the net will appear.”  And leap I did.  It was about two paycheck-free years later that the net finally appeared.  Gambling against common business practice my partners and I chose to forgo salaries in exchange for reinvestment and getting the business solidly in the black.  It was a tough time for my family.  Our household income had been cut by more than half  and the impact on our qualify of life was profound.  More than once I thought we weren’t going to make it.

But that was a long time ago.  Today the company I started is a success and it has led directly to the financial betterment of my family.  I am in charge of my own financial fate.  It would seem that I have achieved one of my original objectives.  But I find myself reminded of another famous (and over-used) saying:  “Watch what you wish for because it just might come true.” Despite having a successful business I long ago realized that the reasons I started it were at least partially flawed.  My motivations were not technically wrong, mind you.  The flaw was that I had come to the incorrect conclusion that being passionate about doing a certain thing meant that I should start a business doing that thing; that doing the thing you love and owning the company that does it was a desirable pinnacle of achievement.  The reality is that if you start a business doing something you love you are in grave danger of that ‘love‘ turning into ‘loathe‘.  You may one day wake up and realize that the thing that once brought you joy has become a passionless burden; a thing no longer done for the soul but a thing now done to pay the mortgage.  What a terrible thing to do to your passions.

In the years since I started my IT company I have come to one very sobering conclusion:  I do not own a business.  I own a job.

My business does not make money unless I am there to deliver a product.  The more I work the more the company makes.  If I don’t work the company doesn’t make money.  And that responsibility is exactly what I wished for ten years ago.  Oh crap!  My wish came true!  One problem is that I am a finite resource, limited by many things, the number of hours in a day being one of the most menacing.  But that’s not the worst problem.  I realized long ago that I wasn’t going to get any sleep until I am dead.  The biggest problem is the reason why I started the business has gradually been sucked out of me.  Years ago my fascination with computers was just a hobby.   The hours spent on my hobby eventually landed me a job in the industry.  With my focus still firmly on the technology, I became excellent.  And then I made the same mistake that many others had made before me.  I concluded that a love for technology can be taken to the next level by becoming the owner of a technology company.  A more wrong conclusion could not have been made.  This ‘thing’ that once provided nourishment for my soul has now become necessary.  I have to do it.  And that takes much of the fun out of it.  The responsibilities of being an owner have changed my perspective and my original passion along with it.  What was once a labor of love has been reduced to …work.

But my technology company is only one of my enterprises.  I also own and run an exponentially-expanding reptile business.  And what was the motivation that led to the beginning of East Coast Reptile Breeders?  Same as most of us, I suspect.  I am fascinated by reptiles and have a passion for working with them.  Long ago it was a hobby and because I love reptiles so much I could think of no better way to immerse myself in them than to start a business breeding them.  Uh-oh!  Second verse, same at the first!   Those motivations sound eerily similar to the one’s I had when starting my other venture.  Does this mean I am doomed to watch the joy I derive from reptile husbandry morph into a passionless repetition of daily process?  I hope not.  It goes without saying that is not why I started doing this.  Many years ago I went headlong into reptiles as a business with the same seemingly pure intentions as before: I wanted to make money doing something that I love.  That’s the sales pitch we have all been given (and I bought).  And today I am having a conscious confrontation with the possibility that, if left unchecked, I will one day grow to loathe reptiles.  Does that mean I need to take a preemptive action and distance myself from them (e.g. become a hobbyist again) in order to preserve the joy they bring me?  That question is rhetorical for me because I can’t see myself ever doing that.  Regardless of the long-term outcome, I continue to grow the size and reach of my reptile business.

Some of the warning signs are already here.  For example, it was not too long ago I paid a generous sum of money for yet another exceptionally beautiful snake.  This snake is so exquisite a creature that it is worthy of being stared at by groups of people for hours on end.  But what did I do when I got it?  I verified its sex, created a feeding card, labeled a tub and put it in a rack.  As both a living thing and an investment I take meticulous care of it but I don’t spend nearly enough time appreciating it.  There was a time when I used to.  And that is a symptom of some joy being lost.  Unlike last time, however, I am keenly aware of it.  Perhaps I can act on it before it progresses any further.  But how?

And so here I am, in possession of some of the most beautiful snakes imaginable.  Even so, I seldom take time to appreciate them.  But why?  Well, because I, like so many others, am busy being run by my business.  I can’t sit around and stare at pretty snakes all day.  I’ve got cages to clean, bowls to wash, floors to sweep, orders to pack, photos to take, ads to run, phone calls to take, emails to respond to, supplies to order, and paperwork to fill out.  And when all of that is done I’ve still got multiple hundreds of hungry mouths to feed.  With all the to-do’s that come with business ownership who has time to stop and enjoy the reason they are doing it?  I am, quite truly, owned by my business.

Small start-up businesses can often be exclusively run by the people who started them.  A husband/wife team can do a lot.  But when the business is small you spend all of your time working for it rather than working on it.  That is an incredibly important distinction.  There has to come a point when you let go of the day-to-day processes and take on more of a …leadership …role in your company.  You have to transcend from being a hands-on technician to being a leader and that is not always a natural thing to do.  However, if you don’t the business will consume you and you may (will) begin to lose your passion.  I believe it to be inevitable.

Letting go of the technical details (e.g. cleaning cages, feeding snakes, washing bowls)  is often harder than staying in control.  Nobody can care as much as you.  It’s not possible.  When you delegate control to someone else you do so knowing that they are not able to care about your business the way you do.  And so you have to come to terms with the fact that the efforts of someone else will have to be good enough.  If (and I do mean if) you can find the right people you will have a chance.  Unfortunately, finding the correct people can be incredibly difficult and payroll is the single biggest leech on a company’s economic viability.  Churning your way through a few rounds of bad staff can drain your payroll accounts and leave the work still incomplete.  This is particularly difficult in the reptile business because the work is insanely repetitive.  It’s hard for anybody to stay motivated when every day is pretty much a carbon copy of the one before it.

It is now twice that I have been in this position.  I have been unable to let go of the day-to-day operations of my IT shop and I have paid for it with some of my passion for the business.  I have also struggled to let go of the day-to-day maintenance of my reptile collection.  In fact, I am so busy taking care of my animals that I often neglect to take the time to actually sell them.  And that’s just plain stupid.  No margin, no mission.  Because I am so motivated to avoid trading my enthusiasm for control I am forcing myself to go through the pain of letting go.  I no longer want to own a job.  I want to own a company.  For now I have found good people to help me maintain my collection.  Doing so frees me up to focus on developing the business, expanding my customer base and my presence in the community.  But I didn’t just flip a switch and magically let go.  Because I am a control freak I find that baby steps work best.  For instance, I still feed all of my animals, I still check and spot-clean cages on a daily basis and I still do all of my animal pairings during breeding season.  Letting go of the latter will probably not occur for a very, very long time.  When it’s me vouching for the genetics of the animals I sell I just can’t see myself delegating that particular responsibility.

And so that’s where I am.  I’m a business owner with a history of being owned by his business.  I am increasingly conscious of my self-imposed limitations and how my past actions have produced some undesirable results.  My motivation to avoid letting the past repeat itself is prompting me to make some changes in the way I do business.  I’m kinda’ anxious to see where this goes…

1 Comment

  1. Dave March 27, 2010

    Thanks Colin, another awesome post. Keep them coming.

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