The agonies and ecstasies of small business

I never knew how stupid my boss could be until I started working for myself.

Everyone who is contemplating starting or already is in business should take these words to heart. Even if you know everything about your industry, starting and running a small business is like walking blindfolded through a cow pasture. You’ll step in it.

So why start your own business?

In my case, after working for my last employer, I swore that if I had to work for a jerk, I’d work for me.

You might have other reasons. Most reasons won’t be as good as you think because of things you don’t know. Complying with federal, state and local laws will take up a lot of your time and money. For every regulation you comply with, there will be a conflicting regulation. You can’t avoid being in default.

Sometimes, the rules are just crazy. According to a February article by James Brovard in the Wall Street Journal, if you perform a criminal background check and refuse to hire a convicted murderer or rapist, the EEOC will sanction you for discrimination against felons. You might avoid sanctions if you perform an “individualized assessment” to determine whether this offense disqualifies the applicant for the job.

Brovard says you can avoid this entanglement by not performing background checks, but if that employee rapes or murders a customer or co-worker, you are legally negligent. Other government mandates mean that at least 20 percent of your employee costs will be taxes and its administration. Most government help won’t apply to you because the government defines small business as $30 million per year. You’re too small.

So you do it all on your own. After 29 years, I’m down to a 55-hour workweek, but at start-up, it was 80-100 hours. Don’t borrow against your house for start-up money. If the bank wants your house for security, you need a better business plan.

You’ll get a business lease, then find you have no protection. By law, if your rent is one day late, the lessor can serve you with a three-day pay-up-or-get-out notice with any amount of fees he determines. You have to pay, or you will be forced out. Then you can sue to have unjust fees refunded. That was fun.

Also look out for triple-net leases. This supposedly offers a lower base rent in return for sharing variable maintenance and tax costs. One landlord refused to document these fees. He also ran the common-area electricity through my meter while charging me for it. Luckily, my current landlord could only be better if he was paying me.

You have to learn to not compete. That always devolves to price, and you can’t make it up on volume. You owe it to your customers to make a reasonable profit so you can stay in business to serve them. Do this by giving value. Know your product. Talk with your customers. Make sure they get what they need. Treat them with dignity and respect. Enjoy your business.

Why start your own business? The ego payoff is huge, but that is not enough for the long term.

You have to enjoy personal growth and learning. I have met some wonderful people that I am proud to call friends. Hardly a day goes by without someone stopping in to just share a cup of coffee and chat. People from all walks of life aided my appreciation of humanity. Nice people are nice.

The biggest payoff for me was not in feeding my tremendous ego. It was in learning to appreciate my marriage. You really can’t do everything alone. My wife was just the partner I needed. She supports me intellectually, emotionally and financially. It was years before I fully appreciated her contributions.

Make sure your spouse is fully supportive and treat her as the partner she is. Every aspect of your personal and business life will benefit.

Originally printed in The Olympian on April 15, 2013